Following Shakespeare’s lost years, the first record of his life appears in 1592, when the playwright Robert Greene published a sarcastic remark about a “Shake-scene” that erupted within the theater community, centered on an upstart poet who wrote for the theater but didn’t possess a formal university education like the so-called “university wits” who dominated the business at the time. By the time Shakespeare had arrived in London, most likely in the late 1580s, the production of plays in theaters built solely for that purpose had only recently taken off in London. In fact, around the time of his arrival, the demand for theater was on the rise, and performances drew crowds of the working class and the privileged alike. Along with the growing popularity of the theater came greater competition, and indeed the theater world into which Shakespeare entered was increasingly unpredictable, cutthroat, and precarious. To keep people coming, companies needed to perform a constantly rotating repertoire of up to six different plays each week. Not only did this place extraordinary demands on actors, but it also required playwrights to write quickly and prolifically, often in collaboration with actors and with each other.
Shakespeare proved a gifted and prolific writer who could write an average of two complete plays every year, even while working as an actor himself. Many of his earliest works were history plays, such as the Henry VI trilogy, possibly written in collaboration with Thomas Nashe in 1591 and 1592. It is possible that Shakespeare wrote these and other history plays in response to a play known as Tamburlaine by his famous contemporary Christopher Marlowe. Whereas Marlowe’s play centered on the life of an Asian emperor, Shakespeare brought to the stage for the first time epic dramas from England’s past, and crowds flocked to see them. In addition to the early history plays, Shakespeare also produced his most gruesome revenge tragedy,
as well as several buoyant comedies, including
The Taming of the Shrew,
The Comedy of Errors,
Love’s Labour’s Lost.
These plays had an immediate, enthusiastic audience that crossed the spectrum of class. By the 1590s the theater was flourishing, and Shakespeare’s early success depended on London’s increasingly literate audiences.