From the beginning of his theatrical career, Shakespeare seems to have been associated with several acting companies: The Queen's Men, Pembroke's Men and Lord Strange's Men. He must have in some sense been a freelance dramatist and acted with several companies in a fluid (to say the least) work environment. However his work in the theater had proceeded through 1592, it all changed when in January 1593 the theaters in London were closed on account of the plague. From December 1592 until December 1593 Stow (the Elizabethan archivist) reports 10,675 plague deaths--in a city of approximately 200,000. The theaters were allowed to open again briefly during the winter of 1594, but were closed again in February and remained closed until spring 1594.
This period of theater closures played havoc with the professional acting companies, which were forced into the hand to mouth existence of touring with much reduced companies. Shakespeare seems to have sought preferment in the mean time with the social connections he had made. In 1593 he dedicated the long narrative poem Venus and Adonis to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton and Baron of Titchfield (1573-1624), who was 19 years old at the time.
The dedication is courteous, self-deprecatory, but rather formal:
I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your Lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden; only, if your Honor seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honored you with some graver labor. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather...
The "first heir" of his invention refers to Shakespeare's first serious poetry--writing plays was not considered a serious literary endeavor and probably also to the first appearance of his work in print. Venus and Adonis was wildly popular (it was reprinted more than any other of Shakespeare's works up to 1640--indeed, in Shakespeare's life time he was probably best known for this poem and his play Titus Andronicus--another runaway hit--more than for any other works).
The "graver labor" followed the next year with the publication of The Rape of Lucrece, whose dedication, to Wriothesley again, is much warmer:
The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end... The warrant I have of your honorable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours.
Obviously, Shakespeare had found himself in his Lord's favor and vice versa. Many scholars identify Southampton as the young man of the sonnets, which were also probably largely composed during this period, perhaps initially at the instigation of Southampton's mother in an effort to get her son to marry. (This is but one of many widely differing theories). Whatever their origin, Shakespeare obviously developed a deep relationship with the young man which is, perhaps, mirrored in the warmer dedication of Lucrece.
If Shakespeare was spending his efforts writing lyric poetry and sonnets, he probably was not writing for the stage during 1593-early 1594, but this does not mean he did not write plays with a view to the theaters reopening or for the private entertainment of his aristocratic friends. In fact, it is often speculated that Love's Labour's Lost belongs to this period and the puzzling allusions to the "school of the night" and notable Elizabethans are inside jokes shared among the Southampton circle. I think perhaps Two Gentlemen of Verona may also belong to an earlier phase of this same period and may have been written as a private entertainment with an eye to eventual modification for the stage.
Shakespeare's sonnets were part of a fashion for sonneteering which peaked in the mid-90s, provoked by the 1591 publication of Sir Phillip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella.
Francis Meres's in his commonplace book Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury, first published in 1598 says:
"As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras : so the sweet wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honytongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private frinds, &c."
The sonnets were not published until 1609, and probably then not by Shakespeare, but nonetheless, they were likely composed during the Southampton years 1592-95. Once again, this is not a certainty and there are many theories concerning the dating and circumstances of the Sonnets. Regardless of the time of the time and circumstance of their composition, several of the sonnets are without doubt among the most perfect poems ever written.
There is a story, first reported in Rowe (1709) and based on a story told by Sir William D'Avenant (a poet known for his exaggerations, one of which was that he, D'Avenant, was the bastard son of Shakespeare) that Southampton rewarded Shakespeare for his poetic labors with 1,000 pounds:
There is one Instance so singular in the Magnificence of this Patron of Shakespear's, that if I had not been assur'd that the Story was handed down by Sir William D'Avenant, who was probably very well acquainted with his Affairs, I should not have ventur'd to have inserted, that my Lord Southampton, at one time, gave him a thousand Pounds, to enable him to go through with a Purchase which he heard he had a mind to. A Bounty very great, and very rare at any time, and almost equal to that profuse Generosity the present Age has shewn to French Dancers and italian Eunuchs. [Rowe sec. 3]
A. L. Rowse, an important modern biographer (Shakespeare the Man, 1973), believes the story, but few other scholars do. It is often pointed out that we seem to have a rather full knowledge of Shakespeare's investments throughout his life, and they do not total over £1,000, and furthermore that Southampton was having financial difficulties during these years. Nevertheless, if anything near so munificent a gift was given we need look no further for the source of the capital Shakespeare used to establish himself.
And establish himself he did, once for all, with the reassembling of the playing companies after the reopening of the theaters in 1594. We find Shakespeare, in December 1594, listed by the Treasurer of the Queen's Chamber along with Will Kemp and Richard Burbage, the great clown and tragedian of the company, as receiving payment for two performances at Greenwich. These three, and four others--John Hemming, eventual co-editor of the First Folio among them--were the charter members of the a new theater company organized under the patronage of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth. They were known as the Lord Chamberlain's men. When they preformed publicly, it was at the Theatre, built by James Burbage (rather of Richard) in 1576 north of the city. Shakespeare became a sharer, or householder, in the company--meaning that he was part owner/manager and as such shared in the profits. This provided him the stability necessary for his most fruitful years, when he, as the company's principal playwright, produced an average of 2 plays per year until about 1611-1612, when he seems to have retired to Stratford. If Southampton rewarded Shakespeare financially, it would explain how Shakespeare could have afforded to become a sharer in the Chamberlain's men--an investment which formed the foundation of his lifelong financial success.
©1995-1998 Terry A. Gray
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