William Shakespeare

Early work

After Shakespeare’s marriage there is no record of his life until 1592, when the playwright Robert Greene published a sarcastic remark about an “upstart Crow,” a “Shake-scene” who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.” By then Shakespeare was in London, writing his first plays. Greene thought he was an “upstart” because unlike Greene and most of the other playwrights of his day, Shakespeare did not have a university education. Shakespeare did have friends among the “University Wits,” as these educated playwrights were known. One of his very first plays, Henry VI, Part I , was probably written in collaboration with Thomas Nashe, a political satirist who in 1597 co-wrote a play so controversial that its actors were arrested. Shakespeare may also have collaborated with Christopher Marlowe, a brilliant playwright and possible spy who was murdered when a fight broke out in a tavern. The fight was over the bill, which was called the “reckoning” in Elizabethan English. In As You Like It (1599), Shakespeare paid tribute to Marlowe’s legacy as a writer: “When a man’s verses cannot be understood[…]it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.”

Theatre was a disreputable industry when Shakespeare was starting out, and actors and writers were part of the London underworld. Henry IV, Parts I and II (1597-8) capture the fun and the grit of London’s taverns and brothels. With his wife at home in Stratford, Shakespeare may have felt free to indulge in what the city had to offer. Young men’s pursuit of women is a major theme of his early plays. Between 1593 and 1595 Shakespeare wrote three comedies about young men going to enormous and sometimes troubling lengths to secure their chosen partners: The Taming of the Shrew , Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love’s Labour’s Lost . During this period he also wrote Romeo and Juliet , which begins with Romeo’s headlong pursuit of an enemy’s daughter, and has become the most famous story of young love ever written. Shakespeare may also have pursued young men. There is some evidence in the sonnets, and in the intense male friendships of plays like The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night , that Shakespeare was what we would now call bisexual.