He was not of an age, but for all time
Ben Jonson on William Shakespeare
We know very little about Shakespeare’s first years in London. Between 1585 and 1592 his name disappears altogether from the public records, the most likely reason being that for at least some of this time he was a ‘hireling’ in one of the city’s acting companies; as a junior member he would not have been listed among the troupe’s principal players.
In the late 1580s theatrical activity in London was largely concentrated in Shoreditch, the district of the Theatre and Curtain playhouses, and Southwark, the district of their great rival the Rose. Shakespeare could have lived anywhere, and in his early career he may have moved from troupe to troupe in order to survive. Whatever the case, working conditions must have been similar. Sundays, Lent and disasters aside, a company would perform a different play each afternoon of the week, though some plays would be repeated in the weeks ahead. An actor usually had to keep at least 30 parts in his memory and a leading actor such as Edward Alleyn or Richard Burbage must have kept in mind as many as 5,000 lines in a week.
In 1594 Shakespeare’s name appears in the records of the Chamberlain’s Men and as the author of plays performed at the Theatre, the Curtain and the Rose. He remained a ‘sharer’ in the Chamberlain’s (later the King’s) Men for the rest of his working life. This attachment offered him some security amidst the notorious vagaries of a theatrical career: the threats of a puritanical Guildhall, fierce competition and plague. The first domestic trace of Shakespeare in London suggests that life was respectable enough: in October 1596 he was lodging at St Helen’s parish, Bishopsgate, a well-to-do area about half way between the two theatre districts.
By at least 1599, he had taken up residence in Southwark – very convenient for the newly-built Globe Theatre, in which he had become a shareholder in late 1598. He clearly lived there for some time, but the Bankside area was notorious for its shady atmosphere and Shakespeare may have tired of it after five years. In 1604 he was lodging in a double-tenement in a middle-class neighbourhood between St Paul’s and Cripplegate, half an hour’s walk from the Globe. Four years later, Shakespeare’s troupe, now named the King’s Men, took on the lease of the indoor Blackfriars playhouse, a disused monastery hall. It served as their winter house and Shakespeare’s working life would have settled into a regular rhythm of alternate performance seasons at the Globe and the Blackfriars punctuated by (increasingly frequent) appearances at court.
We can only guess when he wrote his plays. He may have had his own writing ‘season’, perhaps in the quieter winter months, but he never stopped acting, probably taking two or three minor parts instead of a major one. He seems to have chosen for himself the more static and elegiac roles in his plays, such as old Adam in As You Like It and the Ghost in Hamlet.
In the spring of 1613, he purchased his first property in London, the Blackfriars gatehouse. He was renting it out by 1616, but may originally have entertained other intentions for the property. The destruction of the first Globe in 1613 probably prompted Shakespeare to sell his share in the theatre, and alter his plans for the gatehouse. He may not have given up acting, but his writing career was over by the end of that year. In 1614 he returned to Stratford-upon-Avon, dying in 1616, seven years before the publication of many of his plays in the First Folio of 1623.