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The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's Poetry

The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's Poetry

by Patrick Cheney

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This Companion provides a full introduction to the poetry of William Shakespeare through discussion of his freestanding narrative poems, the Sonnets, and his plays. Fourteen leading international scholars provide accessible and authoritative chapters on all relevant topics: from Shakespeare's seminal role in the development of English poetry, the wide-ranging practice


This Companion provides a full introduction to the poetry of William Shakespeare through discussion of his freestanding narrative poems, the Sonnets, and his plays. Fourteen leading international scholars provide accessible and authoritative chapters on all relevant topics: from Shakespeare's seminal role in the development of English poetry, the wide-ranging practice of his poetic form, and his enigmatic place in print and manuscript culture, to his immersion in English Renaissance politics, religion, classicism, and gender dynamics. With individual chapters on Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Passionate Pilgrim, 'The Phoenix and the Turtle', the Sonnets, and A Lover's Complaint, the Companion also includes chapters on the presence of poetry in the dramatic works, on the relation between poetry and performance, and on the reception and influence of the poems. The volume includes a chronology of Shakespeare's life, a note on reference works, and a reading list for each chapter.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
'The volume is rounded out with useful reference material , including an introductory chronology and a list of reference works...This volume will appeal to the advanced student who needs greater insight into the poems, but also the mature student will find it refreshing in its willingness to acknowledge the integrity of the poetic works as they fit into Shakespeare's entire oeuvre."
-A. Robin Bowers, Plymouth State University, Renaissance Quarterly

'...should provide an important supplementary source for beginning and advanced students."
-Catherine Gimelli Martin, University of Memphis, Studies in English Literature

"...this excellent, trustworthy volume recognizes Shakespeare as a pioneer in the development of English poetry...Recommended."
-J.S. Carducci, Winona State University, Choice

" comprehensive as possible in the coverage of the crucial topics...thorough and brief, but highly informative and critically stimulating essays, by some of the most inspiring scholars in the field."
South Atlantic Review, Goran Stanivukovic, St. Mary's University

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The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry

Cambridge University Press
9780521846271 - The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry - Edited by Patrick Cheney

Introduction: Shakespeare’s poetry in the twenty-first century

… we already know what poetry is. No problem there. It’s poesisa making,
a made thing. If we accept Aristotle’s definition, it’s specifically a thing made out of
speech and rhythm. We might press the matter further and agree with the Russian
formalists that it’s a thing made out of speech and rhythm that calls attention to its
making and its made-ness

Bruce R. Smith, ‘Introduction’, PMLA, ‘Special Topic: On Poetry’1

Shakespeare … wrote the best poetry … in English, or perhaps in any
Western language

Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human2

Poetry in the Shakespeare canon

The ‘poetry’ of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) constitutes one of the supreme achievements of world art. Readers may know this poetry most intimately from his drama, where it is on display across a dramatic canon of nearly forty plays,in the genres of comedy, history, tragedy, and romance, from early in his professional career (around 1590) to late (around 1614). Indeed, poetry makes up the large percentage of Shakespeare’s theatrical writing (75 per cent), most of it in the blank verse (66 per cent) that he and his contemporary Christopher Marlowe helped turn into the gold standard of English verse.3 But the plays also include a good deal of rhymed verse (about 9 per cent), such as the sonnet prologue to Romeo and Juliet, as well as a large body of in-set lyrics (both songs and poems) in a wide range of metres and forms (over 130 pieces, with over 100 original compositions).4 Among the lyrics in the plays, we find some stunning poetry, from the concluding songs of ‘Spring’ and ‘Winter’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost (Riverside, 5.2.891) through the songs of Ariel in The Tempest: ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’ (1.2.399). These lyrics include professional singer Amiens’ ‘Under the greenwood tree’ in As You Like It (2.5.1), the clown Feste’s ‘When that I was and a little tine boy’ (5.1.389) concluding Twelfth Night, and the lost princes of Britain’s ‘Fear no more the heat o’th’ sun’ in Cymbeline (4.2.258). Not simply does William Shakespeare make his plays fundamentally out of poetry, but he manages to use poetry to give birth to ‘the most important body of imaginative literature of the last thousand years’.5 We might say that Shakespeare’s absolute mastery of poetry’s idiom and form during the English Renaissance allowed this mysterious genius to create the most enduring body of dramatic works not simply in English but ‘in any Western language’. For the next 400 years, his dramatic poetry would set the benchmark for achievement in artistic expression.

In addition to writing much of his drama in poetry, Shakespeare wrote five freestanding poems of major significance to the development of English verse. Early in his professional career, in 1593, he published Venus and Adonis, a 1,194-line poem of sixain stanzas (rhyming ababcc) in the popular erotic genre of the Ovidian epyllion or minor epic. Prefaced with a dedicatory epistle to Henry Wriothesley, the young earl of Southampton, and signed ‘William Shakespeare’, this ‘first heir of [his] … invention’ promises a work of ‘graver labour’. Then, in 1594, Shakespeare fulfils this promise by publishing The Rape of Lucrece, a 1,855-line poem in rhyme-royal stanzas (ababbcc), in the genre of tragic minor epic, again prefaced by a dedication to Southampton, and once more signed ‘William Shakespeare’. While Venus became his most popular work during his lifetime, going through nine editions by 1616, Lucrece was popular as well, going through five editions. Together, the two epyllia make Shakespeare one of the most well-known print-poets during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. So much so that in 1599 the printer William Jaggard published a volume of verse titled The Passionate Pilgrim, which included versions of the poems we now know as Sonnets 138 and 144, along with three of the inset-lyrics from the love-sick courtiers in Love’s Labour’s Lost and fifteen other poems, by such poets as Marlowe, Richard Barnfield, and Bartholomew Griffin. This volume, too, was popular, going through three editions, the last in 1612. In 1601, Robert Chester published a curious volume titled Love’s Martyr, which included the great 67-line philosophical lyric known today as ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’, which employs thirteen stanzas of four lines each in the unusual metre of a seven-syllable line with four accents (rhyming abba), and five stanzas of three lines each in trochaic metre (rhyming aaa). In 1611, this volume was re-issued with a different name, Britain’s Annals.

If during the early stage of his career Shakespeare published his own poetry, and during the middle stage others published his poetry for him, late in his career we encounter a mysterious publication that blurs this distinction of authorial agency: the 1609 quarto titled Shake-speares Sonnets, which includes the 154 sonnets themselves and A Lover’s Complaint, a 329-line poem in the rhyme-royal stanza of Lucrece, written in the popular Elizabethan genre of pastoral complaint. For complex reasons, we do not know whether Shakespeare authorized this publication or not.6 Nonetheless, while scholars believe that Shakespeare worked on his sonnet sequence throughout his career, they think that he penned A Lover’s Complaint between 1602 and 1605.

As such, Shakespeare wrote freestanding poems from early in his career till late, and succeeded in integrating their composition into his work in the theatre. Equally to the point, the many subsequent editions of his poems during his lifetime joined the burgeoning publication of his plays in quarto editions, keeping this ‘Shakespeare’ before the public eye (see Table 1). As we

Table 1    Shakespeare’s poems and plays in print 1593–1623

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shall see, just as commentators since the seventeenth century emphasize the ‘poetic’ character of Shakespeare’s plays, recent critics emphasize the ‘dramatic’ character of his poems. Perhaps only by recalling this historic integration of theatrical poems with poetical plays can we accurately measure Shakespeare’s achievement as an English author.

A cultural context

To view Shakespeare’s achievement in the art of poetry, both in his plays and in his poems, we may wish to recall the cultural environment in which he produced his metrical art. While the first three chapters chart important contours of this environment, we might here draw attention to a particular frame for viewing the historic conjunction of two institutions supporting the sixteenth-century invention of modern English poetry: the printing press and the theatre.

While the printing press had been invented in the fifteenth century, only toward the end of the sixteenth did it become a major institution for secular literature in England.7 Usually, literary historians credit Edmund Spenser with being the first canonical English poet to use the printing press to present himself as a national poet. In 1579, Spenser published his Virgilian pastoral poem, The Shepheardes Calender, and in 1590 he followed with his Virgilian epic, The Faerie Queene (Books 1–3), with a second instalment appearing in 1596 (Books 4–6). Spenser’s achievement was to invent the modern notion of the print-poet, the author who uses the publication of poetic books to present his cultural authority to the nation. In our English literary histories, Ben Jonson succeeds Spenser as national or ‘laureate’ poet, and does so monumentally the year of Shakespeare’s death (1616) by publishing a folio edition of Works that includes not just poems but also court masques and commercial plays.8

In 1567, John Brayne built the Red Lion playhouse, the first commercial theatre in England.9 Then, in 1576, just a few years before Spenser published his pastoral poem, Brayne’s brother-in-law, James Burbage (father of Richard Burbage, lead actor in Shakespeare’s playing company) built a playhouse called the Theatre. During the next twenty-five years, England witnessed the building of several other commercial theatres, including the Curtain (1577), the Rose (1587), the Swan (1594), and, in 1599, the Globe. From the start, the playwrights who wrote plays for the new London theatre used poetry as their principal medium of dramatic speech.10 Early on, they selected blank verse as most fit for dramatic performance, beginning with Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton in Gorboduc, Thomas Kyd in The Spanish Tragedy, Marlowe in Tamburlaine, and Shakespeare in the Henry VI plays. While Spenser, along with Sir Philip Sidney, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, and George Chapman, perfected the medium of non-dramatic verse – with all of them EXCERPT Sidney relying on the printing press to do so – Kyd, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and after them Jonson perfected the medium of dramatic verse in the new theatre.

Until very recently, scholars of the English Renaissance tended to see the printing house and the playhouse as independent institutions. Yet, as the cases of Marlowe and then Chapman especially make clear, authors during the 1590s began to produce work important to both institutions. Shakespeare’s accomplishment lies in following Marlowe down this professional path, rather than Spenser, who eschewed the commercial theatre. Yet in the end Shakespeare’s dual relation with the printing house and the playhouse emerges as historically unique; for instance, he alone absorbed himself in the life of the theatre and produced a Petrarchan sonnet sequence.11

As recently as 2000, Julie Stone Peters’ revisionary monograph, The Theatre of the Book, 1480–1880: Print, Text, and Performance in Europe, argued for a symbiosis between the theatre and the printing house:

The printing press had an essential role to play in the birth of the modern theatre at the turn of the fifteenth century. As institutions they grew up together… [N]early a century before Shakespeare was born, there began, in fact, to develop a relationship that would help create the theatre for which he wrote. Printing, far from being marginal to the Renaissance theatre, was crucial at the outset… Drama was understood to play itself out in two arenas – on the stage and on the page.12

Thus, Peters situates the drama of Shakespeare in her revisionary model: ‘In the English-speaking world, Shakespeare’s career has helped to produce one of those enduring lies so convenient to the history of progress: that Renaissance dramatists were unconcerned with the circulation of their work on the page; that the press kept aloof from the stage and the early stage kept aloof from the press’ (pp. 4–5). Following up on Peters in 2003, Lukas Erne argued that Shakespeare wrote his plays for both the page and the stage: ‘printed playbooks became respectable reading matter earlier than we have hitherto supposed, early enough for Shakespeare to have lived through and to have been affected by this process of legitimation … [T]he assumption of Shakespeare’s indifference to the publication of his plays is a myth.’13

 Although neither Erne nor Peters is concerned principally with the dramatic medium of poetry or with Shakespeare’s poems, they revolutionize our understanding of the historical context for viewing one of the field’s most pressing conundrums: that a man of the theatre writing a nonpareil drama could produce some of the most important freestanding poems in English, and even publish some of them under the signature of his own name.

A professional context

To a remarkable extent, the history of Shakespeare criticism depends on how individual commentators come to understand this author’s ‘poetry’.14 Importantly, the earliest commentators showed a critical sensibility that gets lost during the ensuing centuries; they see William Shakespeare as a poetic author who writes both poems and plays. Thus, during the period, the term ‘poet’ meant both author of poems and author of plays. Today, in a culture that privileges Shakespeare’s plays over his poems, and an academy whose critical theory has spent the past thirty years neglecting the ‘literary’ and the ‘poetic’ in favour of the ‘historical’ and the ‘political’, we might be surprised to discover that during Shakespeare’s own lifetime only a few commentators mention a ‘writer … for the stage’.15 Rather, the majority of Shakespeare’s contemporaries mention a writer for the page, singling out his poems, as Richard Barnfield does in 1598 when he sees Venus and Lucrece as ‘immortall Book[s]’ that keep company with Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Daniel’s ‘sweet-chast Verse’, and Drayton’s ‘Tragedies’ (Shakspere Allusion-Book, 1: 51).

Yet a significant number of contemporaries measure Shakespeare’s poetic achievement in terms of both his poems and his plays. The most famous emerges in the 1598 Palladis Thamia when Francis Meres writes,

As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagorus: so the sweete wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & hony-tongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private friends, &c.

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines: so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Loves labors lost, his Loves labours wonne, his Midsummers night dreame & his Merchant of Venice: for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.

(Riverside, p. 1, 970)

Meres identifies Shakespeare by the measure of his verse: he is an Ovidian author of poems and plays writing in a ‘mellifluous & hony-tongued’ style that expresses the contents of a ‘sweete wittie soule’.

Yet the 1623 First Folio, the primary edition to print Shakespeare’s plays for posterity, did not print any of his poems.16 The effect of this editorial decision on the history of Shakespeare scholarship cannot be overestimated. In 1640, the printer John Benson tried to mend the lapse, and published a slender, octavo edition titled Poems: Written By Wil. Shake-speare. Gent. Modelled on the scheme of the First Folio, Benson aimed to give the poems ‘the due accommodation of proportionable glory, with the rest of his everliving Works’.17 Yet Benson’s noble enterprise largely failed: he did not include Venus or Lucrece; he reorganized the Sonnets; and he included poems by other poets. As a result, the ensuing centuries carried forward a ‘dramatic’ Shakespeare.

Indeed, between the late seventeenth century and the early part of the twentieth, commentators largely forgot the poems and fixed instead on what John Dryden called in 1668 the playwright’s ‘Dramatick Poesy’.18 That is, they turned Shakespeare’s theatre into poems, and admired the dramatic author as a poet. In L’Allegro, John Milton set the pace for the ensuing conversation when he spoke of ‘sweetest Shakespeare, fancy’s child’, ‘Warbl[ing] … his native Wood-notes wild’.19 During the Augustan, Romantic, and Victorian eras, a fancifully poetic Shakespeare of dramatic plays became the classificatory norm.20

During the later part of the twentieth century, two major developments occurred. First, most dominantly, scholars recovered the theatrical and performative dynamics of Shakespeare’s plays from a literary or poetic dynamic. In the 1986 words of Harry Levin, ‘Our century … has restored our perception of him to his genre, the drama, enhanced by increasing historical knowledge alongside the live tradition of the performing arts’.21 For many in the field today, the centrepiece has become the 1986 Oxford Shakespeare, which presents Shakespeare as ‘supremely, a man of the theatre’, and edits his texts as they might have been originally performed: ‘It is in performance that the plays lived and had their being. Performance is the end to which they were created’.22 In 1997, the Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition institutionalized this theatrical ‘Shakespeare’ for the American academy: he is a ‘working dramatist’.23

Second, during the closing years of the twentieth century and the opening years of the twenty-first, scholars began a backlash movement that aims to recover Shakespeare’s considerable achievement in the art of poetry. During the past few years, Shakespeare studies has indeed entered a new phase of criticism, producing a large number of monographs, editions, collections of essays, and even international conferences devoted to the poems. The centrepiece here has become Colin Burrow’s Complete Sonnets and Poems from Oxford World’s Classics (2002) – surprisingly, the first edition since the late nineteenth century to print the full corpus of Shakespeare’s poems in a single volume: ‘Shakespeare’s career as a poet is likely to have jolted along in fits and starts during periods of enforced idleness …; but the periods of idleness enabled the emergence of something which looks like an oeuvre, with a distinctive set of preoccupations’ (p. 5).24

Among this body of work are too many essays to mention here (see the Reading list at the end of this Introduction for a selection, and the note on reference works on pages 281–6), but one essay deserves special mention: Burrow’s 1998 Chatterton Lecture on Poetry, ‘Life and Work in Shakespeare’s Poems’. Burrow’s essay supports his edition by solidifying a new ‘non-dramatic’ phase of Shakespeare criticism, which aims to ‘give strong grounds for putting the poems at the front of our thinking about Shakespeare, and perhaps even at the front of collected editions of his works … [We] also should … ask why we do not think of Shakespeare as primarily a non-dramatic poet’ (p. 17). The corpus of five major Shakespeare poems may be limited in number by comparison with the plays, but the recent surge of scholarship and criticism on this compelling corpus urges students of Shakespeare to see this author’s poetic achievement as monumental in its own right, and then to set the poems alongside the plays. Indeed, only by conjoining Shakespeare’s poems with his plays can we accurately gauge his full achievement. While other companions emphasize the plays, this companion foregrounds the poems in conjunction with the plays, even as it allows the historical accomplishment of the poems to emerge.

Hence, during the past few years scholars have drawn attention to the excellence and widespread importance of the non-dramatic part of Shakespeare’s corpus. G. Blakemore Evans reminds us that the Sonnets have become Shakespeare’s all-time best-seller (Sonnets, p. 1), and not surprisingly more books have been written on the Sonnets than on any of the plays, EXCERPT perhaps Hamlet. Northrop Frye helps us understand why: ‘Shakespeare’s sonnets are the definitive summing up of the Western tradition of love poetry from Plato and Ovid, to Dante and Petrarch, to Chaucer and Spenser.’25 Similarly, Jonathan Crewe calls Lucrece ‘one of the most exhaustively discussed poems in the English language’,26 while those familiar with the voluminous criticism on Venus might speculate that the first heir of Shakespeare’s invention couldn’t be too far behind. Early in the last century, John Middleton Murray voiced a longstanding sentiment on ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’, shared by commentators from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Barbara Everett: this philosophical lyric is ‘the most perfect short poem in any language’.27 I. A. Richards was more circumspect: ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ is ‘the most mysterious poem in English’.28 The recent work of John Kerrigan and Katherine Duncan-Jones on A Lover’s Complaint confirms an anonymous yet shrewd nineteenth-century judgement: it is ‘one of the most successful pastorals in the English language’.29 Kerrigan calls A Lover’s Complaint simply Shakespeare’s ‘most intricate long poem’ (Kerrigan, p. 65), while Duncan-Jones adds that ‘this short poem offers dizzyingly complex layers of reported speech’.30 Finally, recent work on copyright and intellectual property has brought the ‘pirating’ problem of Jaggard’s The Passionate Pilgrim back into the critical conversation.31 Thus, Margreta de Grazia supplies a rationale for taking seriously Jaggard’s enterprise in The Passionate Pilgrim: ‘With the 1623 First Folio and the 1599 and 1612 editions of The Passionate Pilgrim, William Jaggard had printed the first collections of both Shakespeare’s plays and his poems’.32

In addition to writing authentic dramatic verse for his plays and composing freestanding poems, Shakespeare probably produced a small body of occasional verse. Recently, scholars have attributed some new poems to the Shakespeare corpus. These include ‘Shall I die’, a ninety-line manuscript song argued by Gary Taylor to be an authentic Shakespeare composition, yet not fully accredited by the Shakespeare community; and A Funeral Elegy, a 578-line poem published in 1612 as a funeral celebration of William Peter, but no longer believed to be by Shakespeare. For these reasons, the present companion will not include discussion of either poem.33

We cannot even be certain that all of the other occasional poems sometimes assigned to Shakespeare are authentic. These short poems range in length from two lines to eight and appear in various poetic metres, some of them in the form of the funeral elegy: ‘Upon a pair of gloves that master sent to his mistress’; two ‘Verses upon the Stanley Tomb at Tong’; ‘On Ben Jonson’; ‘An Epitaph on Elias James’, a London brewer whom Shakespeare knew; two epitaphs on the wealthy Stratford bachelor and usurer John Combe; and ‘Upon the King’ (James I).34

Yet Shakespeare likely did pen an ‘Epitaph on Himself’ (Complete Sonnets and Poems, p. 147), inscribed on his gravestone at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. This primitive-sounding apotropaic warning compels visitors even today to view ‘William Shakespeare’ through a wry ‘everliving’ lens, the poetic form of the epitaph itself:

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

(rpt Complete Sonnets and Poems, p. 728)


1Smith, ‘Introduction: Some Presuppositions’, PMLA 120 (2005), 9’15: p. 9. Cf. George T. Wright, Shakespeare’s Metrical Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988): ‘Poetry is language composed in verse, that is, language of which an essential feature is its appearance in measured units, either as written text or in oral performance’ (p. ix). All quotations from Shakespeare’s poems and plays come from Cambridge editions, unless otherwise noted, when they will come from either the Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. (Boston: Houghton, 1997), cited as Riverside, or The Complete Sonnets and Poems, ed. Colin Burrow, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford University Press, 2002).
2Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead-Penguin Putnam, 1998), p. xviii. Bloom also singles out Shakespeare’s prose as a historic invention.
3These statistics come from Russ McDonald, The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents, 2nd edn (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2001), pp. 77–8.
4Conveniently collected in Shakespeare’s Songs and Poems, ed. Edward Hubler (New York: McGraw Hill, 1959).
5Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (New York: Norton, 2004), p. 12.
6Katherine Duncan-Jones, ‘Was the 1609 Shake-speares Sonnets Really Unauthorized?’, Review of English Studies 34 (1983), 151–71. See also Chapters 7 and 8 in this volume.
7On print culture, see Chapter 3 in this volume; Arthur F. Marotti, Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995); and Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).
8On Spenser as England’s ‘first laureate poet’, see Richard Helgerson, Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson, Milton, and the Literary System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), esp. p. 100.

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

Patrick Cheney is Professor in the Department of English at Pennsylvania State University.

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