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Autor: anton 24 November 2010
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We do not know when Shakespeare joined the theatre after his marriage, or how he was employed in the mean time. In 1587 an actor of the Queen's Men - the most successful company of the 1580s - died as a result of manslaughter shortly before the company visited Stratford. That Shakespeare may have taken his place is an intriguing speculation. Nor do we know when he began to write. It seems likely (though not certain) that he became an actor before starting to write plays; at any rate, none of his extant writings certainly dates from his youth or early manhood. One of his less impressive sonnets - No. 145 - apparently plays on the name Ð’â€˜Hathaway' (Ð’â€˜"I hate" from hate away she threw'), and may be an early love poem; but this is his only surviving non-dramatic work that seems at all likely to have been written before he became a playwright. Possibly his earliest efforts in verse or drama are lost; just possibly some of them survive anonymously. It would have been very much in keeping with contemporary practice if he had worked in collaboration with other writers at this stage in his career. 1 Henry VI is the only early play that we feel confident enough to identify as collaborative, but other writers' hands have also been plausibly suspected in The First Part of the Contention (2 Henry VI), Richard, Duke of York (3 Henry VI), and the opening scenes, in particular, of Titus Andronicus.
The first printed allusion to Shakespeare dates from 1592, in the pamphlet Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, published as the work of Robert Greene, writer of plays and prose romances, shortly after he died. Mention of an Ð’â€˜upstart crow' who Ð’â€˜supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you' and who Ð’â€˜is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country' suggests rivalry; though parody of a line from Richard, Duke of York (3 Henry VI) shows that Shakespeare was already known on the London literary scene, the word Ð’â€˜upstart' does not suggest a long-established author.
It seems likely that Shakespeare's earliest surviving plays date from the late 1580s and the early 1590s: they include comedies (The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew), history plays based on English chronicles (The First Part of the Contention, Richard, Duke of York), and a pseudo-classical tragedy (Titus Andronicus). We cannot say with any confidence which company (or companies) of players these were written for; Titus Andronicus , at least, seems to have gone from one company to another, since according to the title-page of the 1594 edition it had been acted by the Earl of Derby's, the Earl of Pembroke's, and the Earl of Sussex's Men. Early in his career, Shakespeare may have worked for more than one company. A watershed in his career was the devastating outbreak of plague which closed London's theatres almost entirely from June 1592 to May 1594. This seems to have turned Shakespeare's thoughts to the possibility of a literary career away from the theatre: in spring 1593 appeared his witty narrative poem Venus and Adonis, to be followed in 1594 by its tragic counterpart, The Rape of Lucrece. Both carry dedications over Shakespeare's name to Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, who, though aged only twenty in 1593, was already making a name for himself as a patron of poets. Patrons could be important to Elizabethan writers; how Southampton rewarded Shakespeare for his dedications we do not know, but the affection with which Shakespeare speaks of him in the dedication to Lucrece suggests a strong personal connection and has encouraged the belief that Southampton may be the young man addressed so lovingly in Shakespeare's Sonnets.
Whether Shakespeare began to write the Sonnets at this time is a vexed question. Certainly it is the period at which his plays make most use of the formal characteristics of the sonnet: Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet, for example, both incorporate sonnets into their structure; but Henry V, probably dating from 1599, has a sonnet as an Epilogue, and in All's Well That Ends Well (c.1604) a letter is cast in this form. Allusions within the Sonnets suggest that they were written over a period of at least three years. At some later point they seem to have been rearranged into the order in which they were printed. Behind them - if indeed they are autobiographical at all - lies a tantalizingly elusive story of Shakespeare's personal life. Many attempts have been made to identify the poet's friend, the rival poet, and the dark woman who is both the poet's mistress and the seducer of his friend; none has achieved any degree of certainty.
After the epidemic of plague dwindled, a number of actors who had previously belonged to different companies amalgamated to form the Lord Chamberlain's Men. In the first official account that survives, Shakespeare is named, along with the famous comic actor Will Kemp and the tragedian Richard Burbage, as payee for performances at court during the previous Christmas season. The Chamberlain's Men rapidly became the leading dramatic company, though rivalled at first by the Admiral's Men, who had Edward Alleyn as their leading tragedian. Shakespeare stayed with the Chamberlain's (later King's) Men for the rest of his career as actor, playwright, and administrator. He is the only prominent playwright of his time to have had so stable a relationship with a single company.
With the founding of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's career was placed upon a firm footing. It is not the purpose of this Introduction to describe his development as a dramatist, or to attempt a thorough discussion of the chronology of his writings. The Introductions to individual works state briefly what is known about when they were composed, and also name the principal literary sources on which Shakespeare drew in composing them. The works themselves are arranged in a conjectured order of composition. There are many uncertainties about this, especially in relation to the early plays. The most important single piece of evidence is a passage in a book called Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury, by a minor writer, Francis Meres, published in 1598. Meres wrote:
As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy among the Latins, so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love Labour's Lost, his Love Labour's Won, his Midsummer's Night Dream, and his Merchant of Venice; for tragedy, his Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, King John, Titus Andronicus, and his Romeo and Juliet.
Some of the plays that Meres names had already been published or alluded to by 1598; but for others, he supplies a date by which they must have been written. Meres also alludes to Shakespeare's Ð’â€˜sugared sonnets among his private friends', which suggests that some, if not all, of the poems printed in 1609 as Shakespeare's Sonnets were circulating in manuscript by this date. Works not mentioned by Meres that are believed to have been written by 1598 are the three plays concerned with the reign of Henry VI, The Taming of the Shrew, and the narrative poems.
Shakespeare seems to have had less success as an actor than as a playwright. We cannot name for certain any of the parts that he played, though seventeenth-century traditions have it that he played Adam in As You Like It, and Hamlet's Ghost - and more generally that he had a penchant for Ð’â€˜kingly parts'. Ben Jonson listed him first among the Ð’â€˜principal comedians' in Every Man in his Humour, acted in 1598, when he reprinted it in the 1616 Folio, and Shakespeare is also listed among the performers of Jonson's tragedy Sejanus in 1603. He was certainly one of the leading administrators of the Chamberlain's Men. Until 1597, when their lease expired, they played mainly in the Theatre, London's first important playhouse, situated north of the River Thames in Shoreditch, outside the jurisdiction of the City fathers, who exercised a repressive influence on the drama. It had been built in 1576 by James Burbage, a joiner, the tragedian's father. Then they seem to have played mainly at the Curtain until some time in 1599. Shakespeare was a member of the syndicate responsible for building the first Globe theatre, in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames, out of the dismantled timbers of the Theatre in 1599. Initially he had a ten-per-cent financial interest in the enterprise, fluctuating as other shareholders joined or withdrew. It was a valuable share, for the Chamberlain's Men won great acclaim and made substantial profits. After Queen Elizabeth died, in 1603, they came under the patronage of the new king, James I; the royal patent of 19 May 1603 names Shakespeare along with other leaders of the company. London was in the grip of another severe epidemic of plague which caused a ban on playing till the following spring. The King's processional entry into London had to be delayed; when at last it took place, on 15 March 1604, each of the company's leaders was granted four and a half yards of scarlet cloth for his livery as one of the King's retainers; but the players seem not to have processed. Their association with the King was far from nominal; during the next thirteen years - up to the time of Shakespeare's death - they played at court more often than all the other theatre companies combined. Records are patchy, but we know, for instance, that they gave eleven plays at court between 1 November 1604 and 31 October 1605, and that seven of them were by Shakespeare: they included older plays - The Comedy of Errors, Love's Labour's Lost - and more recent ones - Othello and Measure for Measure. The Merchant of Venice was played twice.
Some measure of Shakespeare's personal success during this period may be gained from the ascription to him of works not now believed to be his; Locrine and Thomas Lord Cromwell were published in 1595 and 1602 respectively as by Ð’â€˜W.S.'; in 1599 a collection of poems, The Passionate Pilgrim, containing some poems certainly by other writers, appeared under his name; so, in 1606 and 1608, did The London Prodigal and A Yorkshire Tragedy. Since Shakespeare's time, too, many plays of the period, some published, some surviving only in manuscript, have been attributed to him. In modern times, the most plausible case has been made for parts, or all, of Edward III, which was entered in the registers of the Stationers' Company (a normal, but not invariable, way of setting in motion the publication process) in 1595 and published in 1596. It was first ascribed to Shakespeare in 1656. Certainly it displays links with some of his writings, but authorship problems are particularly acute during the part of his career when this play seems to have been written, and we cannot feel confident of the attribution.
In August 1608 the King's Men took up the lease of the smaller, Ð’â€˜private' indoor theatre, the Blackfriars; again, Shakespeare was one of the syndicate of owners. The company took possession in 1609; the Blackfriars served as a winter home; in better weather, performances continued to be given at the Globe. By now, Shakespeare was at a late stage in his career. Perhaps he realized it; he seems to have been willing to share his responsibilities as the company's resident dramatist with younger writers. Timon of Athens, tentatively dated around 1604-5, seems on internal evidence to be partly the work of Thomas Middleton (c.1570-1627). Another collaborative play, very successful in its time, was Pericles (c.1608), in which Shakespeare probably worked with George Wilkins, an unscrupulous character who gave up his brief career as a writer in favour of a longer one as a tavern (or brothel) keeper. But Shakespeare's most fruitful collaboration was with John Fletcher, his junior by fifteen years. Fletcher was collaborating with Francis Beaumont on plays for the King's Men by about 1608. Beaumont stopped writing plays when he married, in about 1613, and it is at this time that Fletcher seems to have collaborated with Shakespeare. A lost play, Cardenio, acted by the King's Men some time before 20 May 1613, was plausibly ascribed to Shakespeare and Fletcher in a document of 1653; All is True (Henry VIII), first acted about June 1613, is generally agreed on stylistic evidence to be another fruit of the same partnership; and The Two Noble Kinsmen, also dated 1613, which seems to be the last play in which Shakespeare had a hand, was ascribed to the pair on its publication in 1634. One of Shakespeare's last professional tasks seems to have been the minor one of devising an impresa for the Earl of Rutland to bear at a tournament held on 24 March 1613 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the King's accession. An impresa was a paper or pasteboard shield painted with an emblematic device and motto which would be carried and interpreted for a knight by his squire; such a ceremony is portrayed in Pericles (Sc. 6). Shakespeare received forty-four shillings for his share in the work; Richard Burbage was paid the same sum Ð’â€˜for painting and making it'.
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