Poet or Pimp? Shakespeare’s Career Starts With a Bang

Shakespeare’s writing career started with an affair and a trashy love poem. Or at least that’s what one story tells us. All “facts” about the life of the Bard are a bit apocryphal, though no less entertaining for being potentially untrue.

Long before he was a writer, Shakespeare is believed to have had several menial jobs in his teens, including working as a “runner, prompt boy and horse holder.” Yet, according to In Search of Shakespeare, a PBS documentary that aired in 2004, the most revered playwright in history first picked up the pen because of an affair.

When he was 18 years old, Shakespeare nearly destroyed his future by knocking up a farmer’s daughter. So William took the only road available to him and married the woman.

“Our hero is now an 18-year-old father with no prospects; but his marriage also gives us his first known work, a love poem to his pregnant wife on their wedding day,” according to the documentary. “Together, his wife, and his talent for verse, will save him – and make him rich beyond his wildest dreams.”

The first poem, written in 1582, has gone down in history as Sonnet 145, and is generally considered one of his weakest, and for good reason. It is a simple and pitiful love poem, through and through. But it’s a poem written by one of the greatest wordsmiths of all time. And more importantly, it’s deeply personal, composed long before he was concerned about public performances and money. It begins with the less-than-immortal lines, “Those lips that Love’s own hand did make/Breath’d forth the sound that said I hate…” The sonnet is a convoluted attempt at depicting a lover’s quarrel: the woman is angry and begins to confess her hatred, until she sees the agony she is causing in her lover’s face, and so reigns in her anger. Here is the rest of the poem.

Other historians claim that Shakespeare’s first work was Venus and Adonis, an epic poem written ten years after Sonnet 145, based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Not only was this poem popular in his lifetime, but it’s a much more formidable first attempt that fits in better with the myth of Shakespeare as a born genius. But would Shakespeare’s career be any less awe inspiring if it started with a bad poem? Perhaps it would be even more powerful knowing that he struggled for some time to realize his true potential.

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