|The English Renaissance Audience (Part 6)|
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  7 Sep 2007
William Shakespeare the Poet
A brief consideration of Shakespeare the poet might also find a home here. In this consideration, I do not mean to focus on the poetry of Shakespeare’s plays; rather, I wish to focus on the poetry Shakespeare wrote as a poet and for the poetic audience. But in Shakespeare’s case, his poetry seems less determined by the distinct poetic audience than by the notion of poetry as the elite form on which one’s reputation as a writer rested -- in contrast to theatre, considered by many a step above prostitution. What I mean to say is that Shakespeare did not greatly modify the style he learned from the playhouse: yes, he does seem, at times in his poetry, more flowery and more archaic -- but, if we seek to find the hidden politically opinionated Shakespeare, his poems do not reveal. Shakespeare keeps many of the strategies he employs in his drama for his poetry, particularly what he had learned about appealing to his audience. But his very writing of poetry says much about the elite nature of the poetic audience.
Like Donne, Shakespeare’s works were published posthumously -- in Shakespeare’s case, in the 1623 First Folio -- though bootlegged copies of many plays, often drawn from actors’ faulty recollections, preceded the edition. By contrast, Shakespeare does seem to have supervised the publication of both Venus and Adonis in 1593 and 1594’s The Rape of Lucrece; Shakespeare’s sonnets were published in 1609, over a decade after being written but long before the First Folio. If Shakespeare saw his plays as serious literary productions, he does not seem to have shown it. But he knew that he had a talent, and so he seems to have written his poetry as a bid for literary respectability. (The fact that the theatres were closed during the likely time of composition does not seem to have hurt matters.) In this, he is not unlike a movie or comic book writer today who feels the need to write a novel, even an elitist one. Shakespeare’s poetry goes as far as to attempt to erase or occlude his plays, a typically humble Shakespearean move: in the preface to Venus and Adonis, addressed to the Earl of Southampton in attempt to secure patronage, Shakespeare calls the poem “the fist heir of my invention” (8) -- as if the whole of his dramatic oeuvre did not so much as exist. Shakespeare seems to have secured patronage, and the later Rape of Lucrece also addresses itself to the Earl.
Nonetheless, even if they were a bid for elite respectability, Shakespeare knew from the stage to please his audience. Ovidian verse was in vogue, and Shakespeare knew he could write mix sex with a poetic bravado display, full of digressions and smart similes. Lucrece, too, is Ovidian -- though it is more heroic and less sexy, fulfilling both the author’s and his audience’s prejudices that, while erotic poetry is to be enjoyed, other matters are more noble, more elevated, and more the stuff of literary reputations. So too does Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence capitalize on the fad for sonnet sequences in the 1590s.
Yet Shakespeare continued his inoffensiveness. Nowhere in Venus and Adonis nor Lucrece, nor in the smaller works (the philosophical “The Phoenix and Turtle” and the conventional “A Lover’s Complaint”), nor in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence, do we find the kind of naked opinionating that we see in Jonson. Even in the rare occurrence of a dispute with a rival poet -- such as in sonnet 86, in which the rival has a “proud full sail of his great verse” --, the poems carry none of the vitriol we expect from Jonson. The addressees of the sonnets remain a mystery, but they reflect the coterie nature of sonnet writing.
It is worth remarking that Shakespeare was not alone in his evaluation of his poetry as elite literary productions over his trifles produced for the popular stage. Indeed, the extent to which Shakespeare’s reputation, in his lifetime, relied not upon his plays but his poetry is rather remarkable. In the aforementioned The Return from Parnassus, Part 2 (in which Jonson is condemned), Shakespeare is praised not for his plays but for his poetry -- despite that the authors undoubtedly know of Shakespeare’s plays, given his references earlier in the Parnassus trilogy. In the play, Shakespeare’s name spurs this response: “Who loves not Adons love, or Lucrece rape? / His sweeter verse contaynes hart robbing lines.” But the writer goes on, criticizing Shakespeare’s poetry along grounds similar to those by which I have criticized his plays: “Could but a graver subject him content, / without loves foolish lazy languishment.” The focus on love says more of the poetry of Shakespeare in question than Shakespeare in general, but the description of Shakespeare as a touching but shallow writer demonstrates how the bard applied his dramatic style to his verse.
In the case of both English Renaissance poetry and plays, the writer’s desire to accommodate an audience and its expectations plays a heavy role. It is most visible in Shakespeare, who either deliberately censored himself to appeal to the stage’s diverse audience or must have been a bland individual indeed; moreover, he seems to have altered his plays even structurally in order to keep his audience comfortable, even in their prejudices. Jonson would have been more comfortable on the Restoration stage, if not a classical one: he resented the capitulations to the audience necessary to succeed in the theatre market, and I take his 1611 Cataline as a case in point. The elite market for poetry, circulated in manuscript, still tied to patronage, and increasingly moving into print yet still uncomfortable with it, yielded very different results. Poems were often occasional, and their success could often be judged in a market of one: many poems seem to have a single intended reader. Donne sought success with a manuscript-circulating coterie, not publishing his works and even condemning them later in life -- when, ironically, he had finally secured patronage. Jonson sought poetic fame and published his works, but his poetry is equally occasional and shows signs of being produced for a coterie audience. Shakespeare’s poetry was more universal, most of it more consciously crafted for publication, but even there one finds his accommodation to his audience and its elite evaluation of poetry over plays. Whether we are examining poetry or plays, the audience exerts profound effect -- though that effect differs medium to medium, and a writer’s response to it depends on nothing more than his personality.
Anonymous. The Return from Parnassus, Part 2. See The Norton Shakespeare, page 1055.
Dryden, John. Essay on Dramatic Poesy. Quoted by Bevington.
__________. Essay on the Daramatic Poetry of the Last Age. Quoted by Bevington.
Greene, Robert. Greene’s Groats-worth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentence. See The Norton Shakespeare, pages 1049-1050.
Jonson, Ben. The Alchemist and Other Plays. Oxford University Press, 1995. Also includes Volpone, Epicene, and Bartholomew Fair.
__________. The Complete Poems. Ed. George Parfitt. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1996. Third edition. The first edition was published in 1975.
Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. Longman, 1997. Fourth edition.
__________. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Sidney, Sir Philip. The Defence of Poetry.
Bevington, David. “General Introduction.” In The Complete Works of Shakespeare.
Gurr, Andrew. “The Shakespearean Stage.” In The Norton Shakespeare, pages 1027-1047.
Honigmann, E. A. J. The Stability of Shakespeare’s Text. London, England: E. Arnold, 1965.
Marotti, Arthur. “John Donne and the Rewards of Patronage.” Patronage in the Renaissance. Ed. Guy Fitch Lytle and Stephen Orgel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.
__________. John Donne, Coterie Poet. University of Wisconsin Press, 1986. Cited as “Marotti II.”
__________. “Manuscript, print, and the social history of the lyric.” The Cambridge Companion to English Poetry: Donne to Marvel. Ed. Thomas N. Corns. Cambridge University Press, 1993. Cited as “Marotti III.”
McCanles, Michael. Jonsonian Discriminations: The Humanist Poet and the Praise of True Nobility. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
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