When Shakespeare arrived in London in the late 1580s, he found himself in the midst of an exploding theater scene dominated by a group of highly educated writers and poets known as the “university wits.” The main figures in this group included Robert Greene, John Lyly, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Nashe, all of whom were educated at either Cambridge or Oxford. These men shared a strong interest in tragic heroism, and their plays featured some of the most famous tragic heroes to grace the English stage. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine represent two of the most important tragedies of the period. Thomas Kyd, who was also associated with the university wits despite his lack of education, wrote a similarly influential play, The Spanish Tragedy. An important feature of each of these plays was their portrayal of complex tragic characters. In contrast to the rather flat characters of earlier drama, and especially of Christian morality plays, the tragic dramas of the university wits brought a new sophistication to the stage. This sophistication inspired Shakespeare, and Shakespeare in turn pushed it to even greater heights over the course of his career.
Aside from the university wits, Shakespeare’s most important contemporary was Ben Jonson, a bricklayer’s son and self-taught writer whose best plays were as popular as Shakespeare’s. Jonson’s most successful comedies, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair, had English settings that were more familiar to audiences than the mostly foreign settings of Shakespeare’s comedies. The two playwrights certainly knew each other, and according to contemporary accounts they may have engaged in conversation at London’s Mermaid Tavern. We also know that Shakespeare acted in at least two of Jonson’s plays. Though the men were friends, they were also rivals. Another contemporary, William Drummond, wrote of a conversation with Jonson in which the playwright ridiculed certain incongruities in Shakespeare’s plays and concluded that Shakespeare lacked skill. Drummond’s report aligns with an account that Jonson himself wrote. In a brief recollection, Jonson recalls hearing that Shakespeare “never blotted out a line,” to which he responded, “Would he had blotted a thousand.” Yet Jonson also expressed admiration for Shakespeare, describing him as “honest and of an open and free nature.” After Shakespeare died, Jonson contributed a moving elegy to the First Folio edition of his departed friend’s plays.