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John Norden

Shakespeare's Career

Read about William Shakespeare's early career as he built his reputation in London.

Thou art the ruins of the noblest man / That ever lived in the tide of times.

— Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1

Shakespeare’s reputation was established in London by 1592. It was during this time that Shakespeare wrote his earliest plays, including Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Titus Andronicus, though it is often debated which of these plays was actually the first.

Shakespeare’s first printed works were two long poems, 'Venus and Adonis' (1593) and 'The Rape of Lucrece' (1594). These two of Shakespeare's poems were both dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, who had become his patron.  

After the plague epidemic subsided, Shakespeare and other actors who had previously belonged to different companies combined to form the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. This new theatre company was under the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain, and Richard Burbage starred as its leading actor. As a member of the troupe, Shakespeare also became a sharer in the company's overall income. For almost twenty years William Shakespeare was its regular dramatist, producing on average two plays a year. Shakespeare stayed with the Chamberlain’s Men, which would later evolve into the King’s Men under the patronage of King James I, for the rest of his career. He also became a member of the syndicates which owned the Globe and the Blackfriars Theatre.

Shakespeare’s success in the London theatres made him considerably wealthy, and by 1597 he was able to purchase New Place, the largest house in the borough of Stratford-upon-Avon. Although his professional career was spent in London, he maintained close links with his native town. On his father's death in 1601, he inherited the old family home in Henley Street part of which was then leased to tenants. Further property investments in Stratford followed, including the purchase of 107 acres of land in 1602.

During his lifetime, Shakespeare provoked the envy and admiration of fellow writers, as we know from their surviving comments in print. The First Folio, an unprecedented collection of a playwright's work, is the best illustration of the pre-eminence awarded to him. Ben Jonson's tribute to him, printed in this volume, famously praised him as:

".....Soule of the Age!
The applause! Delight! The wonder of our Stage...
He was not of an age, but for all time!"

The memorial statue erected by his family in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon also demonstrates his status as a prosperous man of property as well as a famous poet.

Shakespeare's Patrons

As a member of the acting company called the Chamberlain's Men, which from 1603 were known as the King's Men, Shakespeare enjoyed the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain George Carey 2nd Lord Hunsdon and then of James I. Early in his career as a writer Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. The First Folio was dedicated after Shakespeare’s death to William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke and his brother Philip who supported Shakespeare and his plays in his lifetime.

Elizabeth I was an active and generous patron of the theatre. She had her own acting company called the 'Queen's Men', and stood against the puritans who wished to close down the theatres. Without her support the Elizabethan theatres would not have survived. In the 1590s court performances by acting companies became popular and Shakespeare's company was selected more than any other. Shakespeare does not refer to Elizabeth very often. He makes only one direct reference to her: "a fair vestal throned by the west" (A Midsummer Night's Dream). There is a reference to her baptism at the end of Henry VIII, but that section of the play is believed to have been written by John Fletcher. It is believed that she liked the character of Falstaff so much, in Henry IV, Part One, that she asked Shakespeare to write a play that showed the character in love - this supposedly inspired The Merry Wives of Windsor. When Elizabeth died Shakespeare wrote no elegy for her, unlike most of the poets of the day. As you can see it is not easy to determine Shakespeare's relationship to Elizabeth I. It appears that he worked for her as she demanded but there is no indication that their relationship was closer than that.


Listen to Stanley Wells discuss Shakespeare's relationship with his patron the Earl of Southampton and the resulting portrait in this video, Shakespeare Found:

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