Life in Theater
It is unlikely, but commonly believed, that Shakespeare's first job in the theater was holding horses at the stage door. He may have been some sort of stage manager. As he began journeyman play editing and copying, and collaborating with other playwrights and actor managers, he learned his craft. He also performed as an actor.
We don't know exactly what roles Shakespeare played, but authorities on Shakespeare think he probably played “cameo” roles, such as the Ghost in Hamlet, and Chorus in King Henry V. He seemed to play older men. He was also in the cast list of a Ben Jonson play, Everyman in his Humour.
Producer Philip Henslowe, the leading impresario of the Rose Theatre, who was noted for keeping complete records of the theater, recorded what plays were preformed and what actors were paid. Strangely, he failed to list any payment to Shakespeare for his plays. London's premiere acting company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, did record warrants for payment and Shakespeare was a full-fledged professional in the company, where he served as both actor and playwright.
The acting troupe did well, no doubt partly as a result of their in-house writer, possibly performing for Queen Elizabeth I herself. They also put on productions for law school professors and students at the Inns of Court.
Shakespeare wasn't above taking someone's idea if he liked it and rewriting it for himself and his company. The playwright's version, of course, would have been uniquely his. For example, the King Lear story did not originally contain Cordelia or the Fool, two characters we find most interesting. In those days, plagiarism wasn't a crime. A lot of his work, for example the stories of Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet, can be traced back to stories by Holinshed, to the anonymous author of a play called King Leir, and to a lost tragedy written by Thomas Kyd. He borrowed other plots from Chaucer, Plutarch, familiar folktales, and many Italian novellas.
By 1592, no more than seven years after his arrival, he was well established as an actor/playwright in London. A bitter rival, Robert Greene, who was a university-trained writer, resented the “uneducated” lowlifes like Shakespeare becoming more successful than he. Reacting to this, he accused Shakespeare of stealing techniques from other playwrights to further his own career, and added, “there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers [that is, he stole our stuff], that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde [a possible reference to a line from King Henry VI, Part III, an early play, but also referring to Shakespeare as an untalented person pretending to be a playwright and actor], supposes he is as well able to bombast out blanke verse as the best of you [that is, he thinks he is a very good writer]; and being an absolute Johannes fac totum [that is, Jack-of-all-trades (and the rest of the insult implies a master of none)], is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country [in other words, he really thinks he is England's best playwright].”
In 1592 the plague broke out again and the authorities in London closed all the theaters because of the risk of spreading infection in the audiences. While other players went on tour, Shakespeare gained a noble patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. The playwright turned to writing poetry, considered a higher art than writing plays. Shakespeare published two major lyric works, Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594, both dedicated to Southampton. Shakespeare may also have written his long sonnet sequence during this period, dedicating it to an “H. W.”
When the theaters reopened in 1594, the thirty-year-old actor/playwright joined an acting company, led by actor Richard Burbage, called the Lord Chamberlain's Men. This company first performed in a space simply called “The Theatre.” In 1599 they would open the Globe, built from the Theatre's timbers. It held about 3,000 people — a huge place for its day — charging a penny for the standing room only groundlings, another penny to enter the covered galleries, and another penny for a cushion. More than half of Shakespeare's plays were performed for the first time in the Globe Theatre.