1592 - 1594: William Shakespeare's Life In London, part 1

Evidence of spreading fame

In London, Shakespeare began to make a name for himself as a playwright:

  • Another writer, Robert Greene, made a jealous sneer at Shakespeare in a piece published in 1592:
      There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that … supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shakes-scene in a countrey.     
  • The word ‘Shake-scene’ is clearly a pun on the name of Shakespeare and his work for the ‘scene’ — the theatre.

The diaries of a theatrical producer, Philip Henslowe, show that in March 1592 one of Shakespeare’s plays about Henry V was performed five times, in rotation with other plays including The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, a revenge play which must have influenced Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

William Shakespeare's early plays

It is very difficult to be certain about the dates when each of Shakespeare’s plays was written (and many were not published until several years after his death), but it is possible that by the end of 1592 he had already written. Many were not published until several years after his death, even though they were certainly performed during his lifetime. A better indication of when the plays were written is the earliest performance dates of each play.

  • The Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona and the three parts of Henry V.

William Shakespeare and acting

Shakespeare seems to have been associated at various times with different companies of actors (‘players’ as they are called in Hamlet), who were attached to different theatres. However in January 1593 the theatres were closed because of an outbreak of plague in London. They did not re-open permanently again until the spring of 1594.

William Shakespeare's poetic output

In 1593-4, with the theatres closed, Shakespeare wrote lengthy poems: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, who was nineteen in 1593.

More on Shakespeare’s poetry: It is probably around this time that Shakespeare began writing his sequence of a hundred and fifty-four Sonnets, which depict the complex relationship of the writer’s love for a young man and for a woman whom the young man also loves.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men

When the theatres re-opened in 1594, Shakespeare is recorded as being part of a new company, organised by James Burbage and under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Chamberlain (and hence known as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men). They performed at a playhouse called The Theatre, in which Shakespeare had a financial share.

It is not surprising that in Hamlet Shakespeare shows such knowledge of acting and of companies of players.

More on actors’ knowledge: Three of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men — William Kemp, Thomas Pope, and George Bryan — are known from account books still kept in Denmark, to have acted at Elsinore Castle. Shakespeare could well have learnt from them some of the background detail which he uses in Hamlet.
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