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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

The End of Shakespeare's Innocence in June 1592

Between February and June 1592, Shakespeare was performing with Lord Strange’s Men at the Rose Theatre.

Rose Theatre

We don’t have any hard evidence about his early days as an actor and playwright, but he had been in London since perhaps 1587. 

It would seem that he was very successful almost immediately, with his Henry VI plays. I happen to think that The Comedy of Errors is his first play.

It is unclear who Shakespeare’s artistic patron was in these early days. It is possible that he was with Lord Strange’s Men in the beginning.

Lord Strange’s Men was the playing company to Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange.

Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, 5th Earl of Derby

When his father died in 1593, he took his father’s title and the company became the Earl of Derby’s Men.

But the Lord Strange’s Men were closely associated with the Admiral’s Men, so it is unclear if Shakespeare was with one or the other company, or both at different times.

In any event, it is clear that from Shakespeare’s earliest days, he was associated with Ferdinando Stanley, Earl of Derby who had a very good claim to the throne of England.

Derby may also have been an artistic patron to Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he would want to support them since they were the two most popular playwrights at the time.

Christopher Marlowe

But associating with Marlowe would not have come without its dangers. Marlowe was, in Harold Bloom’s wonderful words “a veteran street fighter, a counterintelligence agent, and generally bad news.”

There is no firm evidence that Shakespeare and Marlowe knew each other. However, if we look at Ferdinando Stanley as Marlowe’s patron and Shakespeare’s patron, during the same period, then it is hard to argue that they were strangers.

If Marlowe was such bad news, it makes me wonder what Derby was really like. If Shakespeare knew both Derby and Marlowe, it makes me wonder what Shakespeare was really like. It certainly makes him appear more politically motivated than we may have thought.

Marlowe would be dead by the next year, in 1593. He was killed under suspicious circumstances, and perhaps murdered by the state.

In the last decade of the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth was especially sensitive about the question of who would succeed her after she died. In fact, it was a crime to talk about it.

Derby's mother had been arrested for talking about when Queen Elizabeth would die.

If Queen Elizabeth had died in 1592, then Derby's mother would have inherited the throne, and Derby would have been the next in line.

Queen Elizabeth in 1595

This would never come to pass. In 1594, Derby was dead. It was suspected that he was poisoned.

Shakespeare did not know it at the time, but from February to June 1592, it was the end of his innocence.

Before June 1592, Shakespeare was enjoying success and recognition for his work. 

He would have been making some money. More importantly he was making good on the promise he must have made to his wife and children when he left Stratford. 

He now had proof that he belonged in London, on the stages in London and performing at court for the Queen.

But in June 1592, a plague would fall on London. It would last until December then come again quickly after, and close the theatres for all of 1593.

In 1593, Marlowe would die. In 1594, Derby would die.

By the time Derby died, London would have become a very different place for Shakespeare.

It was more dangerous politically. In the days before, from 1587 to 1592, Shakespeare's life had been relatively simple and uncomplicated.

The Rose Theatre on Bankside

I can imagine him on stage at the Rose, playing with his fellow actors, and reveling in the opportunity to just perform and entertain an audience.

Every day after that would become increasingly more challenging for Shakespeare.

But instead of running back to Stratford, Shakespeare stayed. He rose to each and every challenge, and quickly became the greatest of all playwrights.

He would have to learn that in order to survive and thrive in those days, he would have to do more than just entertain his audience. He would have to balance the demands of the audience, his patrons and the Queen herself without ever seeming to succumb to the power of the Queen's court.

And by 1594, a new and even more powerful aristocratic patron emerged, and took Shakespeare under his protection.

That was Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who would lead Shakespeare to almost complete ruin in 1601, but whose life and death would inspire Hamlet.


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