At the turn of the 1580s, it is claimed, he served as tutor in the household of Alexander Houghton, a prominent Lancashire Catholic and friend of the Stratford schoolmaster John Cottom. While others in this network went on to suffer and die for their beliefs, Shakespeare must somehow have extricated himself, for there is little evidence to suggest any subsequent involvement in their circles. In 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a farmer. He is supposed to have left Stratford after he was caught poaching in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy, a local justice of the peace. Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway produced a daughter, Susanna, in 1583 and twins-a boy and a girl-in 1585. The boy died 11 years later.
Shakespeare apparently arrived in London in about 1588, and by 1592 had attained success as an actor and a playwright. Shortly thereafter, he secured the patronage of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. The publication of Shakespeare’s two fashionably erotic narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and of his Sonnets (published 1609, but circulated previously in manuscript) established his reputation as a gifted and popular Renaissance poet. The Sonnets describe the devotion of a character, often identified as the poet himself, to a young man whose beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless dark lady with whom the poet is infatuated. The ensuing triangular situation, resulting from the attraction of the poet’s friend to the dark lady, is treated with passionate intensity and psychological insight. They are prized for their exploration of love in all its aspects, and a poem such as “Sonnet 18” is one of the most famous love poems of all time:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
While the poem may be familiar, it is less well known that this is an exquisite celebration of a young man’s beauty. The fact that 126 of the 154 sonnets are apparently addressed by a male poet to another man has caused some critical discomfort over the years. However, Shakespeare’s modern reputation is based mainly on the 38 plays that he apparently wrote, modified, or collaborated on. Although generally popular in his day, these plays were frequently little esteemed by his educated contemporaries, who considered English plays of their own day to be only vulgar entertainment.
Shakespeare’s professional life in London was marked by a number of financially advantageous arrangements that permitted him to share in the profits of his acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, later called the King’s Men, and its two theatres, the Globe Theatre and the Blackfriars. His plays were given special presentation at the courts of Elizabeth I and James I more frequently than those of any other contemporary dramatists. It is known that he risked losing royal favour only once, in 1599, when his company performed “the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II” at the request of a group of conspirators against Elizabeth. They were led by Elizabeth’s unsuccessful court favourite, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and by the Earl of Southampton. In the subsequent inquiry, Shakespeare’s company was absolved of complicity in the conspiracy.
After about 1608, Shakespeare’s dramatic production lessened and it seems that he spent more time in Stratford. There he had established his family in an imposing house called New Place, and had become a leading local citizen. He died on April 23, 1616, and was buried in the Stratford church.
Although the precise date of many of Shakespeare’s plays is in doubt, his dramatic career is generally divided into four periods: the first period, involving experimentation, although still clearly influenced by or imitating Classical models; the second period, in which Shakespeare appears to achieve a truly individual style and approach; a third, darker period, in which he wrote not only his major tragedies but also the more difficult comedies, known as the “problem plays” because their resolutions leave troubling and unanswered questions; and his final period, when his style blossomed in the romantic tragicomedies-exotic, symbolic pieces which while happily resolved involve a greater complexity of vision.
These divisions are necessarily arbitrary ways of viewing Shakespeare’s creative development, since his plays are notoriously hard to date accurately, either in terms of when they were written or when they were first performed. Commentators differ and the dates in this article should be seen as plausible approximations. In all periods, the plots of his plays were frequently drawn from chronicles, histories, or earlier fiction, as were the plays of other contemporary dramatists.
Shakespeare’s first period was one of experimentation. His early plays, unlike his more mature work, are characterized to a degree by formal and rather obvious construction and often stylized verse.
Four plays dramatizing the English civil strife of the 15th century are possibly Shakespeare’s earliest dramatic works. Chronicle history plays were a popular genre of the time. These plays, Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III (c. 1590-1592) and Richard III (c. 1593), deal with the evil results of weak leadership and of national disunity fostered for selfish ends. The cycle closes with the death of Richard III and the ascent to the throne of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, to which Elizabeth belonged. In style and structure, these plays are related partly to medieval drama and partly to the works of earlier Elizabethan dramatists, especially Christopher Marlowe. Either indirectly through such dramatists or directly, the influence of the Classical Roman dramatist Seneca is also reflected in the organization of these four plays, in the bloodiness of many of their scenes, and in their highly coloured, bombastic language. Senecan influence, exerted by way of the earlier English dramatist Thomas Kyd, is particularly obvious in Titus Andronicus (c. 1590), a tragedy of righteous revenge for heinous and bloody acts, which are staged in sensational detail. While previous generations have found its violent excesses absurd or disgusting, some directors and critics since the 1960s have recognized in its horror the articulation of more contemporary preoccupations with the meanings of violence.
Shakespeare’s comedies of the first period represent a wide range. The Comedy of Errors (c. 1592), an uproarious farce in imitation of Classical Roman comedy, depends for its appeal on the mistakes in identity of two sets of twins involved in romance and war. Farce is not so strongly emphasized in The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1592), a comedy of character. The Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1592-1593) depends on the appeal of romantic love. In contrast, Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1595) satirizes the loves of its main male characters as well as the fashionable devotion to studious pursuits by which these noblemen had first sought to avoid romantic and worldly ensnarement. The dialogue in which many of the characters voice their pretensions ridicules the artificially ornate, courtly style typified by the works of the English novelist and dramatist John Lyly, the court conventions of the time, and perhaps the scientific discussions of Sir Walter Raleigh and his cohorts.
Shakespeare’s second period includes his most important plays concerned with English history, his so-called joyous comedies, and two major tragedies.