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Shakespeare — The First Appeal to the Reading Public

by Sidney Lee


Publication of ‘Venus and Adonis.’

During the busy years (1591-4) that witnessed his first pronounced successes as a dramatist, Shakespeare came before the public in yet another literary capacity.  On April 18, 1593, Richard Field, the printer, who was his fellow-townsman, obtained a license for the publication of ‘Venus and Adonis,’ a metrical version of a classical tale of love.  It was published a month or two later, without an author’s name on the title-page, but Shakespeare appended his full name to the dedication, which he addressed in conventional style to Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton.  The Earl, who was in his twentieth year, was reckoned the handsomest man at Court, with a pronounced disposition to gallantry.  He had vast possessions, was well educated, loved literature, and through life extended to men of letters a generous patronage. ‘I know not how I shall offend,’ Shakespeare now wrote to him, ‘in dedicating my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden. . . .  But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather.’  ‘The first heir of my invention’ implies that the poem was written, or at least designed, before Shakespeare’s dramatic work.  It is affluent in beautiful imagery and metrical sweetness, but imbued with a tone of license which may be held either to justify the theory that it was a precocious product of the author’s youth, or to show that Shakespeare was not unready in mature years to write with a view to gratifying a patron’s somewhat lascivious tastes.  The title-page bears a beautiful Latin motto from Ovid’s ‘Amores:’ 

Vilia miretur vulgus; mihi flavus Apollo
Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua.

The influence of Ovid, who told the story in his ‘Metamorphoses,’ is apparent in many of the details.  But the theme was doubtless first suggested to Shakespeare by a contemporary effort.  Lodge’s ‘Scillaes Metamorphosis,’ which appeared in 1589, is not only written in the same metre (six-line stanzas rhyming a b a b c c), but narrates in the exordium the same incidents in the same spirit.  There is little doubt that Shakespeare drew from Lodge some of his inspiration.


A year after the issue of ‘Venus and Adonis,’ in 1594, Shakespeare published another poem in like vein, but far more mature in temper and execution.  The digression (ll. 939-59) on the destroying power of Time, especially, is in an exalted key of meditation which is not sounded in the earlier poem.  The metre, too, is changed; seven-line stanzas (Chaucer’s rhyme royal, a b a b b c c) take the place of six-line stanzas.  The second poem was entered in the ‘Stationers’ Registers’ on May 9, 1594, under the title of ‘A Booke intitled the Ravyshement of Lucrece,’ and was published in the same year under the title ‘Lucrece.’  Richard Field printed it, and John Harrison published and sold it at the sign of the White Greyhound in St. Paul’s Churchyard.  The classical story of Lucretia’s ravishment and suicide is briefly recorded in Ovid’s ‘Fasti,’ but Chaucer had retold it in his ‘Legend of Good Women,’ and Shakespeare must have read it there.  Again, in topic and metre, the poem reflected a contemporary poet’s work.  Samuel Daniel’s ‘Complaint of Rosamond,’ with its seven-line stanza (1592), stood to ‘Lucrece’ in even closer relation than Lodge’s ‘Scilla,’ with its six-line stanza, to ‘Venus and Adonis.’  The pathetic accents of Shakespeare’s heroine are those of Daniel’s heroine purified and glorified. The passage on Time is elaborated from one in Watson’s ‘Passionate Centurie of Love’ (No. lxxvii.) Shakespeare dedicated his second volume of poetry to the Earl of Southampton, the patron of his first.  He addressed him in terms of devoted friendship, which were not uncommon at the time in communications between patrons and poets, but suggest that Shakespeare’s relations with the brilliant young nobleman had grown closer since he dedicated ‘Venus and Adonis’ to him in colder language a year before.  ‘The love I dedicate to your lordship,’ Shakespeare wrote in the opening pages of ‘Lucrece,’ ‘is without end, whereof this pamphlet without beginning is but a superfluous moiety. . .  What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours.’

Enthusiastic reception of the poems.

In these poems Shakespeare made his earliest appeal to the world of readers, and the reading public welcomed his addresses with unqualified enthusiasm.  The London playgoer already knew Shakespeare’s name as that of a promising actor and playwright, but his dramatic efforts had hitherto been consigned in manuscript, as soon as the theatrical representation ceased, to the coffers of their owner, the playhouse manager.  His early plays brought him at the outset little reputation as a man of letters.  It was not as the myriad-minded dramatist, but in the restricted role of adapter for English readers of familiar Ovidian fables, that he first impressed a wide circle of his contemporaries with the fact of his mighty genius.  The perfect sweetness of the verse, and the poetical imagery in ‘Venus and Adonis’ and ‘Lucrece’ practically silenced censure of the licentious treatment of the themes on the part of the seriously minded.  Critics vied with each other in the exuberance of the eulogies in which they proclaimed that the fortunate author had gained a place in permanence on the summit of Parnassus.  ‘Lucrece,’ wrote Michael Drayton in his ‘Legend of Matilda’ (1594), was ‘revived to live another age.’  In 1595 William Clerke in his ‘Polimanteia’ gave ‘all praise’ to ‘sweet Shakespeare’ for his ‘Lucrecia.’  John Weever, in a sonnet addressed to ‘honey-tongued Shakespeare’ in his ‘Epigramms’ (1595), eulogised the two poems as an unmatchable achievement, although he mentioned the plays ‘Romeo’ and ‘Richard’ and ‘more whose names I know not.’  Richard Carew at the same time classed him with Marlowe as deserving the praises of an English Catullus.  Printers and publishers of the poems strained their resources to satisfy the demands of eager purchasers.  No fewer than seven editions of ‘Venus’ appeared between 1594 and 1602; an eighth followed in 1617.  ‘Lucrece’ achieved a fifth edition in the year of Shakespeare’s death.

Shakespeare and Spenser.

There is a likelihood, too, that Spenser, the greatest of Shakespeare’s poetic contemporaries, was first drawn by the poems into the ranks of Shakespeare’s admirers.  It is hardly doubtful that Spenser described Shakespeare in ‘Colin Clouts come home againe’ (completed in 1594), under the name of ‘Aetion’—a familiar Greek proper name derived from ?et??, an eagle:

And there, though last not least is Aetion;
  A gentler Shepheard may no where be found,
Whose muse, full of high thought’s invention,
  Doth, like himselfe, heroically sound.

The last line seems to allude to Shakespeare’s surname.  We may assume that the admiration was mutual.  At any rate Shakespeare acknowledged acquaintance with Spenser’s work in a plain reference to his ‘Teares of the Muses’ (1591) in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (v. i. 52-3).

The thrice three Muses, mourning for the death
Of learning, late deceased in beggary,

is stated to be the theme of one of the dramatic entertainments wherewith it is proposed to celebrate Theseus’s marriage.  In Spenser’s ‘Teares of the Muses’ each of the Nine laments in turn her declining influence on the literary and dramatic effort of the age.  Theseus dismisses the suggestion with the not inappropriate comment:

That is some satire keen and critical,
Not sorting with a nuptial ceremony.

But there is no ground for assuming that Spenser in the same poem referred figuratively to Shakespeare when he made Thalia deplore the recent death of ‘our pleasant Willy.’  The name Willy was frequently used in contemporary literature as a term of familiarity without relation to the baptismal name of the person referred to.  Sir Philip Sidney was addressed as ‘Willy’ by some of his elegists.  A comic actor, ‘dead of late’ in a literal sense, was clearly intended by Spenser, and there is no reason to dispute the view of an early seventeenth-century commentator that Spenser was paying a tribute to the loss English comedy had lately sustained by the death of the comedian, Richard Tarleton.  Similarly the ‘gentle spirit’ who is described by Spenser in a later stanza as sitting ‘in idle cell’ rather than turn his pen to base uses cannot be reasonably identified with Shakespeare. 

Patrons at court.

Meanwhile Shakespeare was gaining personal esteem outside the circles of actors and men of letters.  His genius and ‘civil demeanour’ of which Chettle wrote arrested the notice not only of Southampton but of other noble patrons of literature and the drama.  His summons to act at Court with the most famous actors of the day at the Christmas of 1594 was possibly due in part to personal interest in himself.  Elizabeth quickly showed him special favour.  Until the end of her reign his plays were repeatedly acted in her presence.  The revised version of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ was given at Whitehall at Christmas 1597, and tradition credits the Queen with unconcealed enthusiasm for Falstaff, who came into being a little later.  Under Elizabeth’s successor he greatly strengthened his hold on royal favour, but Ben Jonson claimed that the Queen’s appreciation equalled that of James I.  When Jonson wrote in his elegy on Shakespeare of

Those flights upon the banks of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James,

he was mindful of many representations of Shakespeare’s plays by the poet and his fellow-actors at the palaces of Whitehall, Richmond, or Greenwich during the last decade of Elizabeth’s reign.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things