The first reference to him there is uncomplimentary. On September 3, 1592, Robert Greene issued from his deathbed a warning to his friends that they were being displaced in the London theater by “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde [parody of a line from 3 Henry VI] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a countrey.”4 This morsel was prepared for the press as part of Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit by Henry Chettle, who in a later epistle offered an apology to one of the two persons (probably Marlowe and Shakespeare) who had been attacked by Greene:
With neither of them that take offence was I acquainted, and with one of them I care not if I never be. [As to] the other … I am sorry … because myself have seen his demeanour no less civil than he was excellent in the quality [calling] he professes. Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious [agreeable] grace in writing, that approves his art.5
There seems no doubt that Greene’s attack and Chettle’s apology referred to Shakespeare. By 1592, then, the former poacher of Stratford had become an actor and playwright in the capital. Dowdall (1693) and Rowe (1709) related that he “was received into the playhouse as a servitor” in “a very mean rank,”6 which is probable. But he fretted with ambition, “desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,” with “not a thought but turned on dignity.”7 Soon he was acting minor parts, making himself “a motley to the view”;8then he played the kindly Adam in As You Like It and the Ghost in Hamlet. Probably he rose to higher roles, for his name headed the list of actors in Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour (1598), and in Jonson’s Sejanus (1604) he and Richard Burbage were specified as the “principal tragedians.”9 By the end of 1594 he was a shareholder in the Chamberlain’s company of players. It was not as a dramatist, but as an actor and shareholder in a theatrical company, that Shakespeare made his fortune.
However, by 1591 he was writing plays. He seems to have begun as a play doctor, editing, touching up, and adapting manuscripts for his company. From such work he passed to collaboration; the three parts of Henry VI (1592) appear to have been such a composite production. Thereafter he wrote plays at the rate of almost two per year—thirty-six or thirty-eight in all. Several early ones, A Comedy of Errors (1592), Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594), and Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594) are lighthearted trifles, frothy with now tiresome badinage; it is instructive to see that Shakespeare had to grow into greatness by hard work. But the growth was rapid. Taking a hint from Marlowe’s Edward Il, he found in English history many a dramatic theme. Richard II (1595) equaled the earlier play; Richard III (1592) had already surpassed it. In some measure he fell into the fault of making a whole man out of one quality—the hunchback King out of treacherous and murderous ambition; but he lifted the play now and then out of Marlowe’s reach by depth of analysis, intensity of feeling, and flashes of brilliant phrase; soon “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” was a London cliché.
Then, in Titus Andronicus (1593), genius flagged; imitation took the lead and presented a repulsive dance of death. Titus kills his son, and others kill his son-in-law, on the stage; a bride, raped behind the scenes, comes on the boards with her hands cut off, her tongue cut out, her mouth bubbling blood; a traitor chops off Titus’ hand before the groundlings’ avid eyes; the severed heads of two of Titus’ sons are displayed; a nurse is killed on stage. Reverent critics have labored to burden collaborators with part or all of the responsibility for this slaughter, on the mistaken theory that Shakespeare could not write nonsense. He wrote reams of it.
It was at about this point in his development that he composed his narrative poems and his sonnets. Perhaps the plague that caused the closing of all London theaters between 1592 and 1594 left him with penurious leisure, and he thought it advisable to cast a hopeful line to some patron of poetry. In 1593 he dedicated Venus and Adonis to Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton. Lodge had adapted the tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Shakespeare adapted it from Lodge. The Earl was young, handsome, and addicted to venery; perhaps the poem was spiced to his taste. Much of it seems jejune to jaded years; but in this proliferated seduction there are passages of sensuous beauty (e.g., lines 679–708) such as England had rarely read before. Encouraged by public applause and a gift from Southampton, Shakespeare issued in 1594 The Ravyshement of Lucrece, where the seduction was accomplished with a greater economy of verse. This was the last of his voluntary publications.
About 1593 he began to write, but kept from the press, the sonnets that first established his pre-eminence among the poets of his time. Technically the most nearly perfect of Shakespeare’s works, they borrow heavily from the Petrarchan treasury of sonnet themes—the transitory beauty of the beloved, her cruel hesitations and inconstancy, the dreary crawl of unused time, the jealousies and the panting thirst of the lover, and the poet’s boast that in his rhymes the lady’s loveliness and fame would shine forever. Even some phrases and epithets are appropriated from Constable, Daniel, Watson, and other sonneteers, who themselves were links in a chain of pilferings. No one has succeeded in arranging the sonnets in any consistent narrative order; they were the casual labor of scattered days. We must not take too seriously their hazy plot—the love of the poet for a young man, his passion for a “dark lady” of the court, her rejection of him and acceptance of his friend, the winning of that friend by a rival poet, and Shakespeare’s despairing dalliance with thoughts of death. It is possible that Shakespeare, acting before the court, cast looks of distant longing at the Queen’s ladies in waiting, so intoxicatingly perfumed and gowned; it is unlikely that he ever spoke to them or followed the scent to the prey. One such lady, Mary Fitton, became the mistress of the Earl of Pembroke. She appears to have been blond, but this may have been merely a passing dye. However, she was unmarried, whereas Shakespeare’s lady broke her “bed-vow” in loving the poet and his “boy.”10
In 1609 Thomas Thorpe published the sonnets, apparently without Shakespeare’s consent. As the author supplied no dedication, Thorpe provided one, to the puzzlement of centuries: “To the onlie begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr. W. H. all happinesse and that eternitie promised by our ever-living poet, wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth.” The signature, “T. T.,” presumably meant Thomas Thorpe, but who was “W. H”? The initials might mean William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, who had seduced Mary Fitton and was destined, with his brother Philip, to receive the dedication of the posthumous First Folio as “the greatest Maecenas, to learned men, of any peer of his time or since.” Herbert was only thirteen when the sonnets began (1593), but their composition extended to 1598, by which time Pembroke was ripe for love and patronage. The poet speaks ardently of his “love” for the “boy”; “love” was then often used for friendship; but Sonnet 20 calls the lad “the master-mistress of my passion” and ends with an erotic play on words; and Sonnet 128 (apparently addressed to the “lovely boy” of 126) talks of amorous ecstasy. Some Elizabethan poets were literary pederasts, capable of winding themselves up to rapturous love for any man of means.
The important point about the sonnets is not their story but their beauty. Many of them (e.g., 29, 30, 33, 55, 64, 66, 71, 97, 106, 117) are rich in lines whose depth of thought, warmth of feeling, glow of imagery, or grace of phrase has made them ring for centuries through the English-speaking world.