Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, today, will bring an outpouring of written appreciations for his works. Many, though, will likely omit or only fleetingly mention one fact: Shakespeare’s first acts of creation were not poems or plays, but the characters he gave life to as a struggling actor.
This is no small omission. The stage is where Shakespeare taught others to lose sight of him, where he taught himself to lose sight of Shakespeare. The first lesson served him as a player, the second as a playwright. Omit the stage, and you omit the origin of William Shakespeare.
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The widespread disregard of Shakespeare’s acting career stems, in part, from the low esteem in which actors were held long before, and long after, Shakespeare strode the stage. When he joined the profession sometime in the mid-1580s, actors were already marked as undesirables by England’s vagrancy laws, which mandated that traveling troupes had to find aristocratic patronage. Rogue players ran the risk of being flogged, branded, and finally hanged. The harsh law was rarely enforced in full, but it reflected published mores and polite opinion, both of which held actors as a hybrid of panhandler and whore. Even playwrights scorned them. “Yes, trust them not,” counseled one:
for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his “Tiger’s heart wrapt in a player’s hide” supposes he is as well able to bombast out blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.
The warning is from Robert Greene, a Cambridge-educated wit who attempted to take down one player-playwright, the “upstart crow” William “Shake-scene,” to underscore the common opinion of actors as unlearned, unrefined, and generally untrustworthy. That snobbishness is a cousin to the kind Shakespeare typically faced for not receiving an elite education—for having, as his friend Ben Jonson jibed, “small Latin and less Greek.” Even today such condescension helps fuel the “authorship controversy” that has variously reassigned the writing of Shakespeare’s plays to Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, and several other aristocrats, including the current favorite, the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, who shared with the others the trappings of good taste: the occasion for refinement, the income for a library, and the impression, if not always the imprimatur, of a university degree.