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About this book

An Introduction to Shakespeare's Poems provides a lively and informed examination of Shakespeare's non-dramatic poetry: the narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece; the Sonnets; and various minor poems, including some only recently attributed to Shakespeare. Peter Hyland locates Shakespeare as a sceptical voice within the turbulent social context in which Elizabethan professional poets had to work, and relates his poems to the tastes, values and political pressures of his time. Hyland also explores how Shakespeare's poetry can be of interest to twenty-first century readers.

Table of Contents


William Shakespeare is generally known as the most significant poet to have written in English, though most people think of his poetry mainly from his plays. As these plays are written predominantly in verse, it might at first sight seem unnecessary to make a distinction between ‘the poetry’ and ‘the poetry of the plays’. We can choose bits of poems and bits of plays and show that they seem really to be the same sort of thing. Take, for example, these two passages: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date. These are the opening lines of Sonnet 18, probably the most familiar of the sonnets. In them one person praises another through hyperbolic comparison with an aspect of nature; with no other evidence to go on we might suppose the speaker to be a man addressing the woman he loves.
Peter Hyland

1. Shakespeare Becomes a Poet

How did William Shakespeare begin the career that made him one of Elizabethan and Jacobean London’s theatrical and literary successes? We know that in February of 1585 he was still living in Stratford-upon-Avon, the town of his birth. He was not quite 21 years old (born, perhaps, on 23 April 1564, baptized, certainly, on 26 April), the father of new-born twins Hamnet and Judith, who were christened on 2 February of that year, as well as of Susannah who had been born two years earlier. William’s father was John Shakespeare, a glover and leather-dresser, who had been prosperous and had held various prominent political offices in the town, but who got into debt around 1576, after which he appears to have been unable to pull his life together again. William’s mother, Mary Arden, came from a wealthy Catholic family; the Ardens were landowners who were members of the minor gentry. William had married Anne Hathaway in November 1582. Anne was seven or eight years older than William and was pregnant at the time of their marriage. We know that in 1592 Shakespeare was living in London, for the first reference to him as a writer, in a pamphlet by Robert Greene, appeared in that year. It is clear from Greene’s remarks that Shakespeare had been working in the theatre for some years, though we cannot tell from them how long. Also in 1592 Shakespeare began writing Venus and Adonis, the first of his two narrative poems. We know nothing of substance about his life between 1585 and 1592.
Peter Hyland

2. Shakespeare and the Literary Marketplace

We can try to imagine Shakespeare’s position in that dreadful June of 1592 when he was deprived of the source of his livelihood. How else could he make a living with his pen? Apart from the theatre, which was one of the most lucrative outlets for writers, there were other more or less disreputable forms of writing from which a little money could be made. Various kinds of poetry were fashionable. There was also a vogue of prose romances that developed in court circles and spread beyond them. Prose romances have a place in the early development of the English novel, though they were distinguished by self-consciously elegant style and an interest in abstract debate rather than by developed plot and characters. At a less literary level there was pamphleteering, a forerunner of journalism. Pamphlets were short tracts, usually on controversial political or religious matters, or relating sensational stories about the criminal underworld. Many writers, as Robert Greene did, tried their hand at more than one of these. But if we think of a profession as a calling, a more or less honorable means of earning a living, then writing as a profession barely existed at all. In some ways the last years of the reign of Elizabeth can be understood as a time when a few writers began the lengthy struggle to establish their work as a respectable activity; these were all, in effect, upstart crows, from Spenser through to Jonson. Some of them never even thought of themselves primarily as writers; writing was a means to an end, an enterprise that they hoped would get them into service in the court through the patronage system. Almost all writers depended in some way upon patronage.
Peter Hyland

3. The Art of Poetry

What I have so far had to say about Elizabethan poetry has emphasized its material value, its value as cultural or political currency. This is not to say that poetry was not ‘art’ or not recognized as such, for indeed there was a conscious effort in the latter half of the sixteenth century to establish and justify an ‘art of English poetry’. Tudor poetry, indeed, had its foundations in educational tradition, for it was one of the products of the philosophical movement that is now known as humanism. Humanist studies had their roots in the Middle Ages, in a programme of education based on the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music) that had essentially formed the education system in ancient Rome. This system, with its heavy emphasis on the proper use of language, was the foundation of the Renaissance ‘rebirth’ of interest in the Latin and Greek classics and the moral and intellectual ideas to be found in them. A major initiator of this interest was Petrarch, who sought to unearth and disseminate Greek and Latin texts, and to implant their ideals through his own Latin writings and his imitations of classical literature. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the humanist endeavour continued to rediscover classical texts and, increasingly, to propagate their ideas. The humanist project effectively reached England at the end of the fifteenth century through the teachings of Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas More.
Peter Hyland

4. Shakespeare and Ovidian Poetry

If we set aside the small body of verse that Shakespeare produced in lyric and elegiac forms, his main contributions to non-dramatic poetry are to two poetic sub-genres that were fashionable in the early 1590s and that are at almost opposite extremes of the poetic spectrum (though both allowed for a display of literary virtuosity): the sonnet sequence, and the extended narrative poem. The sonnetform is effectively fixed by its fourteen lines and set rhyme-schemes, and therefore demands great rigour in control and concentration. The extended narrative poem, as it developed in Shakespeare’s time, might seem to have encouraged the opposite of concentration. It had no prescribed verse- or stanza-form, no real limit to its length, and it therefore allowed the writer considerable freedom not only for amplification, ornamentation and digression, but also for the inclusion of generic elements of other forms. It does not even have a handy designation, although the term ‘epyllion’, meaning ‘minor epic’ is sometimes applied to it. Even this term is a little misleading, however, because the sources and models for most of these narrative poems are not the Homeric or Virgilian epics, but the erotic writings of Ovid.
Peter Hyland

5. Venus and Adonis

Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s retelling of the well-known myth of the doomed desire of the goddess of love for a young mortal, is an exuberant erotic narrative and a playful display of linguistic virtuosity in which Shakespeare contrives to tell a tragic story with a vitality of manner that often propels his material towards the comic. Like much Elizabethan poetry it is a product of the Renaissance fascination with classical myths, a concern that to a modern reader might seem to be distant and obscure. However, in early modern Europe, classical thought was widely held to contain the sources of intellectual and aesthetic truth, while the myths themselves could be reinterpreted for contemporary needs. The story of Venus and Adonis thus provided Shakespeare with a situation of intense dramatic conflict that he was able to exploit to illuminate questions that were germane to the real, everyday experience of his readers, and that retain equal, though perhaps different, interest for modern readers. Venus and Adonis concerns human relationships at their most elemental and frustrating level. It raises questions about the meaning of desire, about the relationship between self and other, about the troubled connections between comedy and tragedy, and about the connections between beauty, love and death. Underlying all of these concerns is the question of the relationship between language and power.
Peter Hyland

6. The Rape of Lucrece

In 1594 Shakespeare published The Rape of Lucrece, also dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, and, presumably, the ‘graver labour’ mentioned in the dedication of Venus and Adonis. Like that earlier poem, The Rape of Lucrece is concerned with erotic desire as it manifests itself in a struggle to exert power over its object. However, whereas Venus and Adonis finds comedy in a tragic situation as it gleefully reverses and parodies conventional sex-roles, this ‘graver’ poem contemplates the effects of masculine violence and of institutionalized attitudes to feminine chastity and the ‘shame’ of its loss. Furthermore, it connects these subjects to larger political issues of tyranny, for the violation of Lucrece is an image of the violation of the state and a motivating factor in the expulsion of the Roman monarchy and the foundation of the Roman Republic.
Peter Hyland

7. Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Sonnet

When Shakespeare wrote his first sonnets, probably in the early 1590s, he was making a contribution to a genre that had existed in English for not much more than 50 years. In that time, however, the sonnet had become extraordinarily fashionable. First imported by the courtier and diplomat Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–42), and refined and modified by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517–47), the form found a wider readership as a result of the publication in 1557 by the bookseller Richard Tottel of an anthology entitled Songs and Sonnets written by the Right Honorable Lord Henry Howard late Earl of Surrey and other. Better known as Tottel‘s Miscellany, this volume contained 271 poems by Wyatt, Surrey, the translator Nicholas Grimald, and a number of other unnamed writers, in a variety of forms imported from Europe and adapted to the vernacular language (it also included the earliest examples of blank verse). It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of Tottel‘s Miscellany to the early development of English lyric poetry; its publication was followed by many similar anthologies, and it initiated a process of dissemination to a broader audience of poems originally limited through manuscript circulation to an aristocratic elite.
Peter Hyland

8. Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: 1

Shakespeare’s sequence of sonnets has attracted a far greater volume of commentary than both of the narrative poems together. As John Kerrigan notes in the introduction to his edition, however, ‘much of the literature tends to lunacy and is dispensable’.1 This lunacy comes about not just because of the desire of many readers to find Shakespeare himself in his sonnets and thus to fashion a biography from them, but also because the poems offer so many mysteries that there has been great temptation to find bizarre solutions. And yet after all this commentary, the mysteries (if in fact it was Shakespeare who wrote the sonnets; when and for whom he wrote them; what they might have to do with his own life; if the ‘characters’ can be identified; if he oversaw their publication and intended them to follow the order in which they appear; if that order embodies a coherent narrative) remain virtually unresolved. Recent scholars and editors have attempted to free the sonnets from some of the lunacy in a variety of ways. Some, like Stephen Booth and Helen Vendler, have offered readings based almost entirely on the formal properties of the poems.2 Others, such as Peter Stallybrass and Heather Dubrow, have considered some ways in which the history of editing and scholarship itself may have distorted understanding of the poems.3 Still others, like John Kerrigan and Katherine Duncan-Jones in introducing their editions of the poems, have striven to bring about a more reliable knowledge of the facts that can be ascertained about the original writing and reading of the sonnets. I shall not attempt a broad survey of this history, but address what is relevant to my present concerns.
Peter Hyland

9. Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: 2

the speaker’s relationship with a woman who has become known as the ‘dark lady’, though this phrase occurs nowhere in Shakespeare’s poems. In fact, the phrase obscures what Shakespeare actually does say about the woman: that her beauty is ‘black’. Sonnet 127 explores this idea at witty length, and it is repeated in sonnet 130 where the woman’s hair is described as ‘black wires’, in sonnet 131 where her black is ‘fairest in my judgment’s place’, and in sonnet 132 where the speaker is willing to ‘swear beauty herself is black’. The woman’s colour is mentioned only once again in the sequence, in sonnet 147, when she is pronounced ‘as black as hell’. Shakespeare has made a clear effort to establish her ‘blackness’ early in the sequence, so it must be of some importance. What might the speaker intend by using the word ‘black’?
Peter Hyland

10. Various Poems

Although the composition of Shakespeare’s two narrative poems can be located, as we have seen, in a specific span of two years early in his career, the sonnets were composed and revised over a much longer time-span. It would be surprising if during that period Shakespeare had written no other non-dramatic poetry, but in fact he appears to have been able to dedicate himself more or less completely to writing plays. The number of other poems that have been attributed to him is small, and even of these not all can be said with certainty to be his. They are mainly occasional poems, and, with one exception, they are minor contributions to the canon. They are worth considering here, though, for the questions they raise about the ways in which the canon has been generated, and for what they suggest about the literary marketplace for which Shakespeare wrote.
Peter Hyland
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