RISE IN FAME AND IN SOCIAL DIGNITY
SHAKESPEARE had been working hard for his fellows, producing on the average three plays a year, besides revamping old manuscripts. As a result of his efforts he had enabled the Chamberlain's Company to rise above its rival, the Admiral's Company, and stand undisputed as the leading troupe in London. He had rendered Burbage immortal in the titular rôles of Richard III, Romeo, and the like, and had increased the fame of Kempe as the leading comedian of the age. The names of these two actors were now household words throughout England. In a play written at Cambridge University, we read: "Who of more report than Dick Burbage and Will Kempe? He is not counted a gentleman that knows not Dick Burbage and Will Kempe. There's not a country wench . . . but can talk of Dick Burbage and Will Kempe."1 Finally, he had made his fellow-sharers in the company rich through the throngs that daily flocked to see his plays. Yet only four years had elapsed since he gave up his career in pure letters and threw in his lot with the theatre.
What had he earned for himself? First of all let it be observed that, in spite of the general notion of plays as mercenary and ephemeral products, he had won frank recognition as England's chief man of letters. John Weever, who set himself up as a critic, writes in his Epigrames ( 1599):
Romeo, Richard, more whose names I know not. Their sugred tongues and power-attractive beauty Say they are Saints, although that Saints they shew not, For thousands vowe to them subjective duty.