Young Shakespeare: apprentice playwright

Nothing concrete is known about what Shakespeare was doing in the years between the conceptions of his twins 1584 and the first time his name appeared in print with the publication of Venus and Adonis in 1593. Yet it was in this time that Shakespeare made the long journey, not only from Stratford to London, but from aspiring poet to great playwright. Those ‘Lost Years’ have always provided a wonderful blank canvas upon which biographers could embroider their own story from flimsy threads unpicked from the plays.

Many romances have been woven for him during those years – from lawyer’s clerk, to tutor to the aristocracy, to soldier in the Netherlands. But I would contend that the true picture is a much more mundane one – he was simply learning his craft. As any writer will tell you, the art of writing superb five act plays in blank verse does not come naturally. It is a skill that must be learnt. It was not one that Shakespeare could have learnt in Stratford, no matter how good his grammar school was. It was an art that could only be learnt in the crucible of the theatre itself. And it is this apprenticeship that I attempt to portray in my novel, Not Wisely but Too Well.

As I described in an earlier edition of Behind the Stories (see An Investigation into Shakespeare’s Lost Years) it is my contention that Shakespeare went directly from Stratford-upon-Avon to London where he joined the Burbages at the Theatre at the very centre of the London theatre scene. All the great playing companies played at the Theatre and James Burbage himself had personal connections with many of them, including the largest and most prestigious, the Queen’s Men. Shakespeare knew their plays so well that, as I demonstrate in William Shakespeare and The Queen’s Men, it is very likely that he had a stint with them.

An apprenticeship usually begins by observing the masters at work and then working with them to learn the tricks of the trade before embarking on working alone. Shakespeare may have learnt his stagecraft in the same way. It is a controversial claim, but several of Shakespeare’s early works may be just such collaborations.

One of the Shakespearean authorship contenders is William Stanley, sixth Earl of Derby, and the strongest evidence for his claim is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, Love’s Labour’s Lost, which reflects Stanley’s early life. It is also a play which cries out for a sequel. I tackle both these mysteries in Who Wrote ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’? (or Whatever Happened to ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’?)

The academic mainstream – Oxford University Press, no less – has finally acceded to the claims that Marlovians have been making for the last century, that Christopher Marlowe had a hand in writing the Three Parts of Henry VI. However, these three plays are just part of a tetralogy building up to one of Shakespeare’s most iconic plays, The Tragedy of Richard III, which portrays Shakespeare’s most Marlovian character. Nonetheless, not even the most devout Marlovian has asked the question I tackle in Did Christopher Marlowe write Richard III?

Meanwhile, devout Bardolators picture the young Shakespeare arriving in London with the completed manuscripts of his narrative poems under his arm and ready to go straight to print. But could Shakespeare have left his one-room grammar school with the knowledge and skills to write these poems, or did they require the skills of a university graduate such as Christopher Marlowe, as I contend in Who wrote ‘Venus and Adonis’ and ‘The Rape of Lucrece’?

If you have friends who are interested in the Shakespearean Authorship debate, please pass this post onto them.

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