Shakespeare’s fame

Not much is known about Shakespeare’s life, but that means that it’s always possible to find out something more (at least for a non specialist like me).

Career trajectory

Shakespeare was in London part of most years between 1592 and 1612. These 20 years are the period to look for activities that concerned him, and knowledge of what was thought of him (his fame).


Events important to him

1570s Bankruptcy of father John (Shakespeare aged about 10-25)

1593 Publication of Christopher Marlow’s poem Hero and Leander (aged 29)

1593 Securing the patronage of Henry Wriothesley Earl of Southampton

1593 Publication of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis

1593 Christopher Marlowe’s probable murder in May

1594 A sharer in Lord Chamberlain’s acting company (aged 30)

1596 A successful claim for a coat of arms in October (aged 32)

1601 Rebellion (really disrespect to the Queen) and execution in February of Robert Devereux Earl of Essex (aged 37)

1601 Death of father John in September

1603 Death of Queen Elizabeth/Accession of King James (aged 39)

1607 Death of brother Edmund in December (aged 43)

1612 Possible retirement to Stratford (aged 48 to death in 1616, aged 52)

Some of these events deserve more comment.

Father’s bankruptcy

Not a legal judgement, this is just an inference. John faced crippling fines by illegally trading in wool, and practising usury. Throughout the mid 1570s for about 12-15 years he appeared to be a fugitive avoiding payment of debts. However he continued to live in Stratford until his death, and so did his family. Instead of moving to the workhouse and living on the parish they all went on as usual. Sons William and Gilbert both went to London and started businesses, which required some capital. Perhaps John loaned some of his cash assets to a needy aristocrat to act as banker?


Death of Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe was that stereotype, a “Renaissance man”. He was a gifted classical scholar, translator of Ovid’s Amores, author of the long poem Hero and Leander, wildly popular author of six plays, and probably a spy for Elizabeth’s secret service, who were paranoid about Catholic subversive activities. It looks as though Shakespeare tried to be Christopher Marlowe, writing a long narrative poem based on Ovid, and becoming involved in the writing of plays. Marlowe’s murder must have been incredibly shocking, as was the murder of John Lennon to a later generation.

Southampton’s patronage

How likely is it that a tradesman’s son from Stratford would be taken up by a wealthy Earl? Southampton was 20 when he arrived at court, land rich but cash poor, his funds controlled by guardians. He patronised a group of writers, including Shakespeare and Thomas Nashe, but soon fell into disfavour with Elizabeth, showing the same disrespect to her Essex did. He was sentenced to death for his part in Essex’s ‘rebellion’, was pardoned and gained favour on the accession of James. As the 90s progressed his name became worthless as a patron. Shakespeare, who was a fervent admirer at first, retained his dedicatory epistles to Southampton for each new edition of his poems in his lifetime, a credit the Earl probably needed, and suggesting a constant gratitude.


Shakespeare’s poems

It’s hard for us to realise that Shakespeare was known chiefly for his poems in his lifetime, not his plays. In the 20 years 1592-1612 Venus and Adonis was published in new editions 1593, 1594, 1595, 1596, 1599, 1602, 1607, 1608, 1610, and there were many later editions. Lucrece was published 1594, 1598, 1600, and 1607. On occasion there were two editions published within the year. These were best sellers of the day, and copies circulated among readers more so than books do today. These are the only two works Shakespeare ever laid claim to as author. Everything else, plays, sonnets and poetry collections, were attributed to him by others, in some cases incorrectly. Shakespeare bought class to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men acting company when he joined it, and they in turn bought him cash.

The acting company

Joining an acting company in the 1590s in Elizabethan London was like going to Hollywood to act in 1930: right place, right time. Elizabeth loved plays, court nobles took acting companies under their patronage, and the craze became a popular one, with at least five theatres turning away crowds, early stars such as Thomas Kyd, whose Spanish Tragedy started a fashion, and great actors such as Edward Alleyn who played Marlowe’s heroes and Richard Burbage who played Shakespeare’s ones.


The Lord Chamberlain’s Men company was formed in 1594 by entrepreneur James Burbage, associated with the birth of commercial theatre in London from the late 1570s. He  led a group of experienced actors who included the era’s most famous clown William Kempe, Burbage’s sons Cuthbert (a non-actor) and Richard, George Bryan, Thomas Pope, Augustine Phillips, and newcomers Henry Condell, John Heminges and William Shakespeare. Shakespeare paid about £30 for his share (current worth $40,000). Funds from his book sales would not have started to flow in at this stage. Did John Shakespeare provide the £30 instead of paying his creditors? It proved a very sound investment indeed. By 1599 Shakespeare was able to put up £100 for a share in the newly constructed Globe Theatre, so we know he was a good money manager.

Shakespeare’s  contribution was as a writer for the company, but his achievement so far was in narrative poetry, not dramatic writing. The sheer brilliance of Venus and Adonis, and its success (and the patronage he enjoyed from Earl Southampton) drew audiences to the new company. But the drama associated with Shakespeare’s name in 1594 is poor: the three Henry VI plays, Richard III, and Titus Andronicus. They may have been written by another dramatist, been co-authored by several, or Shakespeare may have revised older material. Or he may just have been not very good at this stage. It didn’t matter. The plays were popular and made a sizeable profit. As to why a best selling poet joined an acting company, perhaps Shakespeare intended at first to be a silent partner in what seemed a going concern. Later, as Southampton’s patronage became worthless, he may have discovered an unsuspected facility in writing for the theatre.


The coat of arms

John Shakespeare felt his worldly success and wealth, and his marriage into the Arden family, could best be commemorated by joining the gentry, then a social class between yeoman and noble. But he ran out of funds before his application could be considered, and it wasn’t until 1596 he was successful. John and his sons became gentlemen. Had they the wealth they could have attended the Queen’s court. Whether John, at 65, still considered it important, we don’t know. But William seems to have valued the distinction. The description of gentleman is added to his name on the title page of some of his plays. As title pages were added by printers or booksellers, the addition of gentleman to William’s name seems an affirmation by him that the work was really his (the bookseller wouldn’t have cared one way or another).

The plays

Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? You don’t have to be an alternative author advocate to admit we only have the word of some contemporaries of Shakespeare that he was the author, and we have no idea if they knew what they were talking about. Shakespeare himself only acknowledged his early narrative poems.


But surely Condell and Heminges, his fellow actors, would have known what was his work when they published the First Folio of his plays in 1623, seven years after his death?

Consider the progress a play script goes through:

1. one author’s manuscript/old play to be revised

2. the messier MS of several coauthors

3. the revised MS

4. the rehearsal copy, with actors’ ‘business’ and timing, stage directions, addition/deletion of characters, added scenes etc

5. the censored version of the rehearsal copy from the Master of Revels

6. the clean copy, or prompt copy

7. the printed copy of the prompt, with any necessary changes, or added printers’ errors

8. a pirated version of the prompt copy from an actor’s memory.

We have no idea where Condell and Heminges took their copy from. Is the author’s copy more authentic than say the prompt copy, or vice versa? What if they only knew that the plays they gathered had been performed by the Chamberlain’s Men/King’s Men, and assumed that as writer for the company Shakespeare must have had at least a hand in it? What were their editorial policies? We don’t know. They say, “Published according to the true originall copies” – but which ones?

The comment they make of seldom receiving a blotted copy from him might only suggest that Shakespeare produced the prompt copy for each first performance.


The actual writing would always have had input from others. From original authors if the play was a revised one, from actors certainly, saying something like “I will not say these lines. You may be the poet, but I know how to lead an audience!”. The Master of the Revels we know to have made suggestions as well as indicated cuts to the texts.

Something of this obscurity of sources can be seen in the seven year gap between Shakespeare’s death and actual publication of the book. The dedicatory poems sound as if written back in 1616. But assembling the texts must have posed a problem to Condell and Heminges. Shakespeare himself seemed not to have kept copies, a sign he considered the work belonged to the company. The company didn’t always keep copies, because the plays went out of fashion quickly. Research and assembly must have been a mammoth task.

Many plays were lost, many had variant titles, there were many similar titles, different versions of the same play, plays were copied by other companies, not always accurately. The prompt copies were a jealously guarded asset of the company when they were current, but seven years after an author’s death not many people cared. Heminges and Condell had a daunting task of assemblage, and it would have been good to know how they did it.

We know that Shakespeare may have written some or most of the plays’ texts, but not exactly what. Hence the scholars’ industry since Samuel Johnson’s day. We can never say categorically that he didn’t write the plays.


Shakespeare’s fame

Some references to poems and plays as written by Shakespeare. The plays were usually anonymous, or “as performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men”.

1592 one ’shake-scene’, “his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you” said Greene (or Nashe or Peele) in A Groatsworth of Wit. An apt literary criticism of the early dramatic work (and acting) of Shakespeare.

1598 “the sweete wittie soule of Ouid liues in mellifluous & hony-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his priuate friends, &tc.” Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia also mentions eight early plays: but the poems and sonnets are what impressed Meres most.

1598 “The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeare’s Venus, & Adonis: but his Lucrece, & his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, have it in them, to please the wiser sort.” So noted Gabriel Harvey.

1599 John Weever’s Epigrams refer to Honey tongued Shakespeare, his Venus, his Adonis, his Lucrece as well as his Romeo and Juliet.

1602 John Manningham notes the story of Shakespeare preceding Richard Burbage into the bed of a woman fan. The story is apparently similar to others concerning famous people, but shows the two players are by this time stars.

His contemporaries saw Shakespeare as first and foremost a poet, author of a beautiful and sexy poem about Venus and Adonis, and a more moral one about Lucrece. Gradually they became aware he was involved in some way with the Lord Chamberlain’s men, and associated him with some of the plays they had enjoyed performed by that group. Details and transcripts are at

Signs of the times

Shakespeare would have shared the fears of his time and place: visitations of the plague, Catholic insurrection, the Spanish invasion of the Armada and the fear Elizabeth would marry a Spanish prince.


Unique to him and only a few others was his wide learning. Scholars have identified over 100 books that Shakespeare seemed to be familiar with, making him almost as learned as Dr Dee, and making up for his interrupted schooling. From this reading flowed a love of language, of words and their sounds, amplified by hearing them enunciated by the greatest actors of the day.

Shakespeare was fascinated by the divide between reality and appearance, natural to an actor.

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage” (Macbeth)

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (Henry IV2)

“That one may smile and smile and be a villain” (Hamlet)

He seems to have been affected by the sudden poverty of his youth. With the drive, energy and financial acumen of his father John, Shakespeare watched every penny, and invested those pennies wisely. He became, and died, a rich man. And a gentleman. And perhaps that was what his career meant to him. To regain the eminence and status of his youth, so rudely snatched away.

One question never asked is why Shakespeare didn’t  take credit for his plays. His name on a title page was advertising to sell copies, added by booksellers. When added by himself, what he took credit for was the rank of gentleman. “William Shakespeare, gentleman’ was his real achievement.

Was his contribution to the plays too intertwined with that of others to work out? Was writing plays not a literary endeavour to be proud of? The plays contain poetry at least the equal of anything in Venus and Adonis or Lucrece, and the insight into human nature sometimes expressed there considerably deeper.

Yet if, for Shakespeare, regaining status was important, his acceptance into the gentry class being one instance, his popularity as a poet being another, writing plays was not going to achieve this. Not until 1765, 150 years after his death, when Samuel Johnson began Shakespeare’s posthumous career.

©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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