Plague had posed an ongoing danger in England since before the time of Shakespeare’s birth, but a particularly devastating outbreak of the disease swept the country in 1593 and 1594. During especially intense epidemics, the Privy Council would exercise its authority as the queen’s advisors to close all public theaters. The Privy Council viewed the theaters as crowded wellsprings of disease, especially lethal in times of plague, and it moved to shut down operations in the interest of public health. But players faced the threat of being shut down even in times when the plague waned. The Lord Mayor of London, for instance, saw the theater as a base entertainment that drew crowds of vagabonds and outcasts. Aside from the city authorities, the chief enemies of the theaters were Puritan reformers, who believed that theatrical entertainment in itself represented a blight on the moral life of the city. One preacher, Thomas White, went so far as to make a direct link between plays and the plague: “The cause of plague is sinne . . . and the cause of sinne are playes: therefore the cause of plagues are playes.”
Faced with the closure of theaters, many troupes of players would have returned to the life they led before public playhouses had been built. That is, they would have loaded wagons with their props and costumes and set out on the road, stopping in every town and staging plays wherever they received permission to do so. Shakespeare may have toured during this time, though we don’t know for certain. What we do know is that in addition to his work in the theater, he also wrote poetry and sought out an alternative form of income via patronage. Shakespeare’s work appeared in print for the first time in 1593, when fellow Stratford native Richard Field printed an attractive edition of the poem Venus and Adonis. The edition sold well, and Shakespeare would go on to publish another poem, The Rape of Lucrece, the following year. Both poems included a dedication to Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. Though the details of how the two men met remain unknown, Wriothesley was a theater enthusiast and may have made Shakespeare’s acquaintance backstage after a performance. Regardless of how they met, though, Shakespeare’s dedication of these poems indicates that he actively courted Wriothesley’s patronage.