TRADITION says that this greatest of English-speaking playwrights made his first contact with the theater as a sort of handy man of all work. One of his tasks, according to legend, was, with the assistance of several boy helpers, to hold the horses of the wealthy patrons who attended the theater.
Is is supposed that he left his family about four years after his marriage to Anne Hathaway at the age of eighteen, and came up to London to seek to better the family fortunes. London had grown prosperous under the reign of Elizabeth and at this time the group of writers frequently spoken of as the "University Wits" were in possession of the stage so far as the writing of plays was concerned. But somewhere, somehow, during those early years in London, Shakespeare gained a foothold, first probably as an actor and then perhaps as an adaptor and hack writer.
By the early 1590's Shakespeare was firmly established in the theater. In 1599 the family was granted a coat of arms and thereafter the playwright was entitled to sign himself, "William Shakespeare, Gent." At the same time his financial status was improving. He bought a large house in Stratford and frequently after that acquired other property both in Stratford and London.
It has been customary among Shakespearean Commentators to divide his dramatic work into four periods: (1) the experimental period ending about 1593 and including among other plays, Love's Labour's Lost, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and A Comedy of Errors; (2) the period in which he became definitely established ending about 1601, and marked especially by the production of some of his best-known romantic comedies, notably The Merchant of Venice and, according to some commentators, A Midsummer Night's Dream. (William Winter, the noted Shakespearean expert, however, claims that this latter play was first exhibited at the Globe Theater in 1592 which would link it definitely to the first period.) (3) the period covered by the first ten years of the 17th century and given over largely to somber tragedies such as King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth; (4) the period from 1610 to the playwright's death, notable for a ripening and enrichment of the poet's powers that flowered in the grave, serene romances of A Winter's Tale and The Tempest.
Not a single original Shakespearean manuscript has survived, due partly perhaps to the fact that they were written, many of them hastily, strictly for stage performance. Practically all of Shakespeare's plots were borrowed. So original was his treatment, however, and so remarkable his command of language, that in the process of adaptation the borrowed plots became as truly his own as though they had been original products of his imagination. They have rightfully brought him a place second to none in the records of posterity.
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