Mr Who He?

Stephen Orgel

In his own time, Shakespeare was much better known to the reading public as a poet than as a playwright. Venus and Adonis went through ten editions before his death in 1616, and another six before 1640. His other long narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece, was less popular, but it, too, circulated far more widely than any of the plays, appearing in six editions during his life, and in two more by 1640. The most popular of the plays were Richard III and Richard II, each of which went through five editions before 1616. Romeo and Juliet went through four; Hamlet appeared in three.

For readers since the 18th century, the narrative poems have been at best marginal to the Shakespeare canon. The sonnets, on the other hand, which were the least known of his non-dramatic poems until the end of the 18th century, had by the 20th century become essential to the construction of the canonical Shakespeare. This transformation, to be sure, involved a good deal of revision, emendation, and especially elucidation, for which the 18th-century editor Edmond Malone, who did more to define what we mean by ‘Shakespeare’ than anyone since the editors of the First Folio, is chiefly responsible. Malone’s versions of the most problematic of these poems vary significantly from the original texts, but they have essentially replaced them.

Since the publication of the First Folio in 1623, the canonical Shakespeare has been Shakespeare the playwright; which makes one wonder how Shakespeare would appear to us had his poems been included in the Folio – had the Folio been a volume of Complete Works, rather than Complete Plays. We are always told that the model for the First Folio was the first folio of Ben Jonson’s Works, published in 1616. But this is, in a crucial way, incorrect: Jonson’s folio comprised not only plays but poems, masques, entertainments and a good deal of prose commentary. Indeed, it was his epigrams that Jonson designated ‘the ripest of my studies’, and he endured a certain amount of scorn for presuming to include the plays at all, for claiming the status of Works for scripts from the popular theatre. The Shakespeare Folio is evidence enough that by 1623 Jonson had made his point, and in that sense Jonson’s Works were indeed an enabling precedent. Still, Jonson is for literary history as much a poet as a playwright, and his involvement in the world of aristocratic patronage and connoisseurship, amply revealed in his poems and masques, is an essential element in our sense of his career. Had Shakespeare’s poems been, from the outset, part of the canon, we might at the very least take seriously his involvement in that same social world of patronage, erudite readers and aristocratic admirers. The dedications to his two long narrative poems, and the care with which they were prepared for and seen through the press, make clear that his ambitions extended beyond the stage.

Why weren’t they included in the First Folio? Probably for practical reasons. The volume was put together by the King’s Men, the acting company of which Shakespeare had been a principal shareholder, playwright and performer, as a memorial to their most admired colleague. What they owned the rights to – and what chiefly concerned them – was the plays. Since the narrative poems were still selling well in 1623, to have acquired the rights to reprint them would have been difficult, if not impossible. As for the sonnets, who knows? The quarto volume published in 1609 was the only edition in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it seems to have generated little interest: so little that a second edition, published in 1640, was able to imply that the poems had never been printed before. Perhaps the sonnets were simply not considered worth including.

The editorial history of Shakespeare’s poems is an index to how complex and conflicted our sense of Shakespeare the poet has been. The first quartos of Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) were well printed, elegant little books. They addressed an audience of readers who knew the classics, both Latin and English; they recalled, in both their physical presentation and versification, recent editions of Ovid, Spenser and Sidney. Both poems include fulsome dedications to the Earl of Southampton, a glamorous young aristocrat (he was 19 when Venus and Adonis appeared) who was also the ward of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. This is the way ambitious Elizabethan poets got on in the world: they found a generous aristocratic patron, whose taste, praised in a lavish dedication, in turn constituted a marketable endorsement. That this worked for Shakespeare, at least initially, is indicated by the fact that the Lucrece dedication is significantly warmer than the dedication for Venus and Adonis; conversely, the fact that there are no further dedications to Southampton implies that it ultimately failed to pay off. Southampton was liberally endowed with taste and charm, but when at the age of 21 he came into his inheritance, it turned out to consist of debts: artistic patronage does not live by taste alone.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in