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Shakespeare was a born story-teller, and his career as an artist began with storytelling for its own sake. His first attempt at tragedy – Titus Andronicus – remains a melodrama, a horror story, and so successful is it that at a recent production of the play at Stratford-on-Avon, it was necessary to have a nurse in attendance to minister to the women who fainted as the play’s horrors were revealed. His first comedy, The Comedy of Errors, is pure farce. Farce and melodrama are the same thing with different subject matter; the one entertains through laughable action, the other through horrible or pathetic action, but the primary purpose of each is entertainment. The Comedy of Errors is adapted from the Latin play Menaechmi (254-184 BC) – a story of a pair of identical twins who are invariably mistaken for each other. Shakespeare complicated the action by having two pairs of identical twins, and he brought the whole thing off in fine style. The play is not an imitation of Plautus; it is a naturalization of him into the English Comic tradition with a degree of gentleness and romance quite alien to the original. But apart from the play’s display of narrative skill, (1) there is no suggestion whatever of the excellences characteristic of Shakespeare’s later work; (2) there is nothing which invites reflection; (3) there are no lines which singe or sear their way into memory on first hearing; (4) there are no brief passages which suddenly reveal character and illuminate whole areas of experience; (5) there is no laying bare of the heart of man. All these and more were soon to be brought to Shakespeare’s work, and the increasing frequency with which they appear is an index of his growth as an artist. Although they are absent from his earlier plays, they emerge in the long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece and find their first striking expression in the Sonnets, because, we may imagine, the young writer could more readily express his deepening understanding in lyric than objectify it in the created characters of narrative and drama, and because the lyric is an invitation to song.

In the early poems we may observe the young Shakespeare finding himself both as craftsman and thinker, which are reciprocal processes. The effort to express experiences involves a doubling back upon it so that it may be fully understood, and the fuller understanding calls for techniques of expression of which the writer formerly had no need. As a craftsman, Shakespeare is not so much the inventor as the adaptor of forms. It was his way to use received forms, and then having mastered them, wrest them to his purposes, often transforming them into things hardly comparable with their originals. And this, too, is a kind of invention. In writing the tragedy of the caliber of Richard II he had models to learn from, but he took the journey from Richard II to King Lear alone, finding the means by which the tragic vision was to be expressed as, except in the Athens of Aeschylus and Sophocles, it had never been expressed before. He was free to take usable stories and verse forms wherever he found them, but after a certain point, there was nothing available to him to suggest what he would do with them. There were no comedies, tragedies or poems to stand with his best.

When Shakespeare came to London from Stratford-on-Avon, the new poetry, which was to crown the last decades of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, was already established. Its arrival had been announced in 1579 by the publication of Spenser’s The Shepherd’s Calendar. The book is now little read except by persons connected with English studies, but it was then recognized for what it was, the manifesto of a new movement in poetry. To the modern reader it seems pedantic in its assiduous revival of archaic English words and verse forms, its importation of continental forms, and its invention of new ones. Since much of what it offers was never assimilated into English poetry, it has now the appearance of technique for technique’s sake; but what it offered was offered for use. Although Spenser himself did not achieve maturity as a poet until, a decade later, he invented yet another form, the Spenserian stanza, The Shepherd’s Calendar was a timely demonstration of the possibilities of English poetry. There had been no English poets of the first order since Chaucer’s death in 1400. He was succeeded by imitators, now more remote than The Shepherd’s Calendar, but in general in England the 15th was the century of the Latinists and the final flourishing of the medieval romance in Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. It was also the century of ruinous Civil Wars which ended only in 1485 when Henry VII won the crown of Bosworth Field and became the first of the Tudor monarchs. Under the last of them – Elizabeth I – England was to gain peace and prosperity, and, with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, emerge as a dominant European power. In the meantime, there had been the invention of the printing press with its consequent spread of information and misinformation, the Protestant Reformation on the continent, the break with the Church of Rome in England, the discovery of America, and the whole hodge-podge of things which, taken together, is known as the Renaissance.

History is a continuum and much of the medieval survived under Elizabeth. It is easy to overemphasize both the medieval survivals and the newness of the age, as differing historians demonstrate; but for the reader of Shakespeare the inescapable fact is that he appears in his works as a man of the new era. His English history plays depict the death throes of the Middle Ages, which are already idealized in his sonnets. The cult of medievalism is not a romantic invention; the Middle Ages are invested with an aura of romance in Shakespeare’s works. The brunette beauty of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets is contrasted with the true beauty of the old age when “black was not counted fair” (Sonnet 127) and the beauty of the young man of the Sonnets is such as existed in the past. His cheek is, “the map of days outworn” – when beauty lived and died as flowers do now (Sonnet 68), and he is himself the embodiment of medieval chivalry (Sonnet 106). Shakespeare and his fellow writers were men of the age, and they were aware of it. One of the functions of the new poetry was the celebration of the New Age. Spenser dedicated the Faerie Queene to Queen Elizabeth “to live with the eternity of her fame.”

The new poetry had been a long time in the making. Verse forms closely associated with it had been introduced into England early in the century. The Italian, or Petrarchan Sonnet, with its five rhymes and division into octave and sestet, had been imported by Sir Thoams Wyatt (1503-1542). He varied the rhymes of the sestet, as Italians had done before him, but he differed from them in preferring to end the sestet in a couplet. He maintained the rhyme-scheme of the octave – abba, abba. His contemporary, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547), invented blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentametre) for his translation of two books of the Aeneid, and he varied Wyatt’s sonnets by creating a form which placed the main pause after the twelfth line and employed seven rhymes – abab cdcd efef gg. Because of Shakespeare’s magnificent use of this form, it has come to be known as the Shakespearean Sonnet. Although the indebtedness of English poetry to Wyatt and Surrey is both obvious and great, none of their surviving poems approaches the style of the first great poets writing towards the close of the century. The question here is not one of worth but of manner. The styles of Wyatt and Surrey approximate to common speech; those of Spenser and Marlowe do not, and it was in a created language anticipated in The Shepherd’s Calendar that Elizabethan poetry was to attain its first full flowering.

The creation of this language was a major and joint concern of the critics and poets of the Renaissance, and the creation of it in England repeated in essence what had taken place earlier in Italy and France. The first step was to win for the vernacular tongues an esteem comparable to that in which Latin was held. Although The Divina Coemdia of Dante (1265-1321) and the Sonnets of Petrarch (1304-1374) had been written in Italian, it was still held that Latin was a fitter medium for poetry. Petrarch himself regarded his Italian poems as minor accomplishments and assumed that his fame with posterity would rest upon his epic, Africa, and his other Latin works. But by the time of Ariosto (1474-1533), it was recognized that imitations of the Romans had been done as well as may be and that something other than recreations of Virgilian epic and Ciceronian dialogue was in order. Ariosto wrote his Orlando Furioso in Italian, and the defence of the vernacular was formulated by Sperone Speroni in 1543 in his Dialogue on Languages. He argued that languages are created by people and can be made to express conceptions of their creators, and that no language is in itself inferior to another language. In France this point of view was adopted by the poets who went by the corporate name of La Pleiade, of whom the chief were Ronsard (1524-1585) and du Bellay (1522-1560). The poets of the Pleaiade, engaged in creating a new poetry for a new age, opposed themselves not so much to the Latinists as to the medievalism of their immediate predecessors. They set about to revivify French poetry by, among other things, the introduction of new words and verse forms. They re-established the Alexandrine, a new six-foot line which in time became to French drama what blank verse became to the English. The sonnet was the rallying flag of their crusade. In his Defence and Illustration of the French Language, du Bellay repeated the arguments of Speroni and added the argument for nationalism – the nation needed a literature capable of rivaling that of other times and nations. In all the arts of the Renaissance there is something born of a boundless vigour which is not so much arrogance as a democratic assumption of equality with the best, of the felt right to look antiquity or any modern nation in the eye. In one place or another and in one way or another, the assumption was justified; in the late 16th century in England it was justified in music and poetry.

The English poets and theoreticians of the 16th century did not find it necessary to oppose the medieval as the French had to. Chaucer had been long dead, and the secret of his versification had been lost through the evolution of the language from what is now known as Middle English to Modern. The greatness of Chaucer’s poetry was recognized, but to the 16th century it had the remote beauty of the technique which constituted no threat to modernity. Spenser was free to use his medieval predecessors as he could. As E.K. Chambers puts it in his introduction to The Shepherd’s Calendar, Spenser “labored to restore, as to their rightful heritage, such good and natural English words as have been long time out of use, and almost clean disinherited.” It was this impoverishment of the language from its relative disuse in poetry, which was the cause that “our mother tongue, which truly of itself is both full enough for prose, and stately enough for verse, hath long time been counted most bare and barren of both.” E.K. Chambers regrets that Spenser’s immediate predecessors did not “garnish and beautify it.” He is a partisan witness. There is more to be said for Spenser’s predecessors than he suggests; but it remains a truth of literary history that no 16th century poet before Spenser garnished and beautified the language as he did, and such bits of his early work as survive indicate a precocious concern with the achievement of what was to be the style of the Fairie Queene. He had no doubt been nurtured on a concern for the English language. In England du Bellay’s arguments for the use and augmentation of the mother tongue are found in many places, among them the writings of Richard Mulcaster (1530-1611), who was the headmaster of the Merchant Taylor’s School when Spenser was a scholar there. The schoolboy of the 16th century studied Latin, but Mulcaster argues in The First Part of the Elementary that the scholar should also be instructed in the reading, writing, and grammar of his mother tongue. He asserts that no language is superior to another except by the industry of the speaker who endeavours to “garnish it with eloquence, and enrich it with writing.” “I love Rome,” he wrote, “but London better, I favour Italy, but England more, I honour the Latin, but I worship the English.” The Elementary was not published until 1582, long after Spenser had ceased to be Mulcaster’s pupil, but who can doubt that his students were inculcated with his principles. The Elementary sets forth his considered opinions and mature convictions, and good schoolmasters do not rush into print with their latest notions. The introduction to “October” in The Shepherd’s Calendar tells us that Spenser held that poetry was “a divine gift and heavenly instinct, not to be gotten by labour and learning, but adorned with both.” For in the Renaissance the great poet was necessarily a learned man, and, in fact, the best poets have always been bookmen. “No man was ever yet a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher.” “For poetry is the blossom and fragrance of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions and language.” Spenser’s gift of poetry did not fully assimilate his learning and his labours in craftsmanship until the writing of the Faerie Queene, the first three books of which were published in 1590.

In the meantime, the new poetry had found its way into the theatre, most notably through the agency of Marlowe who gave to blank verse an elevation it had not known before. He is one of a group of dramatists known as the university wits because, profiting from their studies at the universities, they were aware of other literatures and the need for a literate theatre. Marlowe’s first play, Tamburlaine, is a conscious introduction of the new poetry in to drama. It opens with an explicit renunciation of the native English metres which had dominated dramatic writing:

From jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits,

And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay,

We’ll lead you to the stately tent of war,

Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine

Threatening the world with high astounding terms…            (“Prologue” 1-5)

He keeps his promise. The poetry is characterized by its elevation, its full tones, its removal from familiar speech. It is orotund without pomposity, even when it is most highly patterned, as in,

To ride in triumph through Persepolis!

Is it not passing brave to be a king,

Usumcasane and Theridamas

Is it not passing brave to be a king

And ride in triumph through Persepolis?

This is artfully constructed as music. The 5th line repeats the first, the 4th the second, and the two groupings are separated by a line of mouth-filling names. Yet for all its artifice, it is dramatic dialogue. It is, to borrow Cocteau’s phrase, “not poetry in theatre, but poetry of the theatre.” The poetry is not prose statement versified, not decoration, as in the Victorian’s imitation of Shakespeare. The expression is appropriate and seemingly natural to the content. And it is a far cry from the verse of Thomas Preston’s Cambyses a play of the late mid-century:

I feel myself a-dying now; of life bereft am I;

And death hath caught me with his dart; for want of blood I spy.

Thus gasping, here on ground I lie; for nothing I do care.

A just reward for my misdeeds my death doth plain declare.

These verses were known as fourteeners and were one of the “jigging veins” Marlowe renounced.

In nondramatic poetry the triumph of the new poetry over the old may be seen in Spenser’s version of the Venus and Adonis story. Like Shakespeare’s telling of it, it is based, in part, on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a book translated into English by Arthur Golding in 1565-67. Golding’s verses have no virtue whatever except a certain narrative pace, and it is this, perhaps, which won the book its many readers. In it the story of the wooing of a reluctant male by an ardent woman is in part as follows:

When at last the Nymph desired most instantly but this,

As to his sister brotherly to give her there a kiss

And therewithal was clasping him about his ivory neck:

Leave off (quoth he) or I’m gone, and leave thee at a beck

With all thy tricks. Then Salmacis began to be afraid,

And to your pleasure leave I free this place my friend she said

With that she turns her back as though she would have gone her way:

But evermore she looketh back, and (closely as she may)

She hides her in a bushy queach, where kneeling on her knee

She always has her eye on him. He as a child and free,

And thinking not that any wight watched what he did,

Roams up and down the pleasant mead, and by and by amid

The flattering waves he dips his feet, and no more but first the sole

And to the ankle afterwards both feet he plungeth whole.

And for to make the matter short, he took such great delight

In coolness of the pleasant spring, that straight he stripped quite

His garments from his tender skin. When Salmacis beheld

His naked beauty, such strong pangs so ardently her held

That utterly she was astrought.                                               (Book IV 411-429)

And so on. In Spenser this becomes:

Then with what Sleights and sweet allurements she

Enticed the Boy, as well that art she knew,

And wooed him her paramour to be,

Now making garlands of each flower that grew

Now leading him into a secret shade

From his Beauperes, and from bright heaven’s view

Where him to sleep she gently would persuade,

Or bathe him in a fountain by some covert glade:

And whilst he slept she over him would spread

Her mantle, coloured like the starry skies,

And her soft arm lay underneath his head,

And with ambrosial kisses bathe his eyes;

And whilst he bathed with her too crafty spies

She secretly would search each dainty limb,

And throw into the well sweet Rosemaries

And fragrant violets, and Paunces trim;

And even with sweet nectar did she sprinkle him.

This is the new poetry of the late 16th century. It represents a forsaking of much that was popular in the poetry of the time and an enrichment of what was excellent. The enrichment involved some loss, for poetry of this sort necessarily departs from the colloquial excellence of Wyatt, Surrey and many poets of the midcentury. No one could mistake the new poetry for speech. It is characterized by its (i) purged vocabulary, (ii) its word patterns and word play and (iii) its richness and melody. It is the school of poetry in which Shakespeare learnt to write, and it is represented at its best in, for example, sonnets 5, 29, 33 and 73. In Shakespeare we may also find demonstrations of weakness inherent in the new style. When he wrote badly as a young man it was chiefly because he indulged his interest in the sound of words, as in the over-heavy alliteration of: “And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste” (Sonnet 30); or because his love for word play was greater than his judgment, as in “For as you were when first eye I eyed” (Sonnet 104); or because his interest in word patterns was such that it sometimes obscured or obliterated the sense, as in “She clepes him king of graves, and grave for kings” (Venus and Adonis 995).

In contrast to this, the bad writing of his later works in general results from his making a phrase carry more meaning than it will bear, as in Edgar’s “He childed as I fathered,” which means “Lear was as a child to his daughters, and my father was as a child to me.” But since he was a poet, he was interested in the sound and arrangement of words. He doubtless read Spenser, although it is not recorded that he did; nor is it recorded that he read Marlowe, but this second is a matter for which documentation is not necessary. His early dramatic verse, the beginning, for instance of Richard III, sounds like Marlowe as the early Beethoven sounds like Haydn, and for the same reasons. The work of all artists – writers, composers, workers in the plastic arts – resembles that of the artists whose work aroused their interest in art. It could not be otherwise, for why should a young man want to become an artist at all if he did not come across some art congenial to his latent talent which he wishes to imitate and excel? “Influence,” says Andre Gide, “creates nothing, it awakens something.” Shakespeare as artist was awakened by the new poetry and by Marlowe in particular.

A single style was, however, inadequate to the expression of Shakespeare’s genius, and even as he was mastering the new style he was reaching out for others. In time he learnt to write with both simplicity and power, using ordinary words in their prose order, as in Antony’s “…the long day’s task is done / And we must sleep” (Antony and Cleopatra V. xiv 35-16). This was emergent in his early poetry. In Sonnet 8 in the midst of a patterned passage, we come across the line, “If the true concord of well-tuned sounds… .” This and “Times thievish progress to eternity” (Sonnet 77) and “Give not a windy night a rainy morrow” (Sonnet 90) are promises of things to come. He learnt to write with a bareness of diction commonly called “neutral style,” as in Desdemona’s speech beginning “My mother had a maid called Barbarie…” (Othello IV. iii 26); and this, too, the young Shakespeare was working towards, as the couplet to Sonnet 74 demonstrates:

The worth of that is that which it contains,

And that is this, and this with thee remains.”

He learnt to make poetry out of ugliness, as in Hamlet’s

Nay, but to live

In the rank and sweat of enseamed bed,

Stew’d in corruption…”                     (Hamlet III. iv 90-92)

where the culinary image of the last phrase is in itself, surely, as repulsive as anything one could imagine; yet it is poetry, for poetry is a transmutation of subject matter, and there is no such thing as either poetic language or poetic subject. Any vocabulary or any subject is appropriate to poetry. There is nothing, nothing whatever, to limit the range of a poet except the scope of his talent. The poetic transmutation of ugliness is also emergent in the early Shakespeare, as in the passage on the worms in Sonnet 146. Although in his progress as a poet Shakespeare mastered new styles, he did not discard his earlier achievements. See, for instance, his uses of the new poetry in his passages on the lark in Venus and Adonis 853-858 and Cymbeline II. iii 21-30. Also see Sonnet 29 10-12:

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate.

And by the close of his career he could confer upon the apparent effortlessness of the neutral style as great a degree of lyricism as, earlier, he had achieved by elaborate means:

What you do

Still betters what is done. When you speak sweet,

I’d have you do it ever, when you sing,

I’d have you buy and sell so, so give alms

Pray so; and for the ordering of your affairs,

To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you

A wave o’the sea, that you might ever do

Nothing but that; move, still, still so,

And own no other function. Each your doing,

So singular in each particular,

Crowns what you are doing the present deeds,

That all your acts are queens.              (A Winter’s Tale IV. iv. 136-146)

By 1950, when Spenser published the first three books of the Faerie Queene, the new poetry had come fully into its own in both dramatic and non-dramatic verse. At that time Spenser was approximately thirty-eight years old and was to repeat but not surpass his achievement as a poet; Marlowe and Shakespeare, exact contemporaries, were twenty-six; Ben Jonson and John Donne were eighteen. Within a decade Jonson was to become the master of the “neutral style” and Donne the “metaphysical.” Spenser, Jonson and Donne are all poets’ poets, each having fathered races of poets writing in styles approximating to their originals; but Shakespeare is not to be associated with any one style. He contains them all.

In the summer of 1592 Robert Greene, one of the University Wits, wrote in his Groatsworth of Wit of a dramatist whom he regarded as an interloper presuming to compete with his betters. He called the new dramatist “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers…that supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shakescene in the country.” The reference is to Shakespeare, although he is not specifically named. Greene died before the end of the year, and after his death his friend and editor, Henry Chettle, published an apology in which he speaks of “the only shake-scene” as “as excellent in the quality he professes,” and records that “divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing that approves his art.” All this indicates that Shakespeare was beginning to be known as a theatrical writer, but such recognition did not carry with it recognition as a man of letters, for although the theatre was popular, it was not held in high esteem. The bad reputation of the theatre was in part an inheritance from the early Christian stage. The church fathers were clear in their denunciation of the stage. It bred frivolity, concupiscence, obscenity, cruelty, idolatry, impiety, and scandal. Although it was greatly modified, this attitude had not disappeared by Shakespeare’s time, and in his London the residuum of it was augmented by the Puritans who disapproved of the theatre on religious grounds and by the association of the theatre with gaming and prostitution. The law classified actors with “rogues and vagabonds.” The reputation of the theatre was shortly to improve, largely through the distinction bestowed on it by Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists, but in 1593 the artistic achievement of the theatre was not yet impressive enough, nor of sufficiently long standing, to redeem its bad name. So it happened that Shakespeare’s life as actor and dramatist was not an altogether satisfying one to a young man of sensitivity who had been brought up in a reputable middle-class society. He recorded his mixed feelings towards his impression in his sonnets, notably sonnets 29, 110 and 111. To gain status and win a reputation as a writer it was necessary for him to turn to means other than the theatre. Early in 1593, Shakespeare took the first step towards establishing himself as a poet.