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William Shakespeare
(Part 33)


Early Dramatic Efforts of Shakespeare

But, while pursuing these collateral aids to his higher work, there is abundant evidence that Shakespeare also devoted himself to that work itself. As early as 1592 he is publicly recognized, not only as an actor of distinction, but as a dramatist whose work had excited the envy and indignation of his contemporaries, and especially of one so accomplished and so eminent, so good a scholar and master of the playwright's craft, as Robert Greene.

Greene had, it is true, a good deal of the irritability and excitable temper often found in the subordinate ranks of poetical genius, and he often talks of himself, his doings, and associates in a highly-coloured and extravagant way. But his reference to Shakespeare is especially deliberate, being in the form of a solemn and last appeal to his friends amongst the scholarly dramatists to relinquish their connexion with the presumptuous and ungrateful stage. In his Groatsworth of Wit, published by his friend Chettle a few weeks after his death, Greene urges three of his friends, apparently Marlowe, Lodge, and Peele, to give up writing for the players. "Base-minded men, all three of you, if by my misery ye be not warned; for unto none of you like me sought those burs to cleave; those puppets, I mean, who speak from our mouths, those anticks garnisht in our colours. Is it not strange that I, to whom they have all been beholding; is it not like that you, to whom they have all been beholding, shall (were ye in that case that I am now) be both of them at once forsaken? Yes, trust them not; for there is an upstart Crow, beautified in our feathers, that, with his tiger's heart wrapt in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you, and, being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is, in his own conceit, the only Shakescene in a country. Oh that I might intreat your rare wits to be employed in more profitable courses, and let these apes imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions."

This curious passage tells us indirectly a good deal about Shakespeare. It bears decisive testimony to his assured position and rapid advance in his profession. The very term of reproach applied to him, "Johannes Factotum," is a tribute to Shakespeare's industry and practical ability. From the beginning of his career he must have been in the widest and best sense a utility man, ready to do any work connected with the theatre and stage, and eminently successful in anything he undertook.

In the first instance he had evidently made his mark as an actor, as it is in that character he is referred to by Greene, and denounced for going beyond his province and usurping the functions of the dramatist. Greene's words imply that Shakespeare not only held a foremost place as an actor, but that he was already distinguished by his dramatic success in revising and rewriting existing plays.

This is confirmed by the parodied line from the Third Part of Henry VI, recently revised if not originally written by Shakespeare. This must have been produced before Greene's death, which took place in September 1592. Indeed, all the three parts of Henry VI in the revised form appear to have been acted during the spring and summer of that year. It is not improbable that two or three of Shakespeare's early comedies may also have been produced before Greene's death. And if so, his resentment, as an academic scholar, against the country actor who had not only become a dramatist but had excelled Greene himself in his chosen field of romantic comedy becomes intelligible enough.

Even in his wrath, however, Greene bears eloquent witness to Shakespeare's diligence, ability, and marked success, both as actor and playwright. All this is fully confirmed by the more deliberate and detailed language of Chettle's apology, already quoted.

Of Shakespeare's amazing industry and conspicuous success the next few years supply ample evidence. Within six or seven years he not only produced the brilliant reflective and descriptive poems of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, but at least fifteen of his dramas, including tragedies, comedies, and historical plays.

Having found his true vocation, Shakespeare works during these years as a master, having full command over the materials and resources of his art. The dramas produced have a fulness of life and a richness of imagery, a sense of joyousness and power, that speak of the writer's exultant absorption and conscious triumph in his chosen work. The sparkling comedies and great historical plays belonging to this period evince the ease and delight of an exuberant mind realizing its matured creations.

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