Measure forMeasure From a transcript, by Ralph Crane, of very imperfect foul papers.
The Taming ofthe Shrew From foul papers.
The Tempest From an edited transcript, by Ralph Crane, of the author's papers.
Timon of Athens From foul papers, probably unfinished.
Twelfth Night From a promptbook, or a transcript of it.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona From a transcript, by Ralph Crane, of a promptbook, probably of a shortened version.
The Winter'sTale From a transcript, by Ralph Crane, probably from the author's fair copy.
The texts of Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) are remarkably free from errors. Shakespeare presumably furnished a fair copy of each for the printer. He also seems to have read the proofs. The sonnets were published in 1609, but there is no evidence that Shakespeare oversaw their publication.
POETIC AND DRAMATIC POWERS
The early poems.
Shakespeare dedicated the poem Venus and Adonis to his patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd earl of Southampton, whom he further promised to honour with "some graver labour"--perhaps The Rape of Lucrece, which appeared a year later and was also dedicated to Southampton. As these two poems were something on which Shakespeare was intending to base his reputation with the public and to establish himself with his patron, they were displays of his virtuosity--diploma pieces. They were certainly the most popular of his writings with the reading public and impressed them with his poetic genius. Seven editions of Venus and Adonis had appeared by 1602 and 16 by 1640; Lucrece, a more serious poem, went through eight editions by 1640; and there are numerous allusions to them in the literature of the time. But after that, until the 19th century, they were little regarded. Even then the critics did not know what to make of them: on the one hand, Venus and Adonis is licentiously erotic (though its sensuality is often rather comic); while Lucrece may seem to be tragic enough, the treatment of the poem is yet somewhat cold and distant. In both cases the poet seems to be displaying dexterity rather than being "sincere." But Shakespeare's detachment from his subjects has come to be admired in more recent assessments.
Above all, the poems give evidence for the growth of Shakespeare's imagination. Venus and Adonis is full of vivid imagery of the countryside; birds, beasts, the hunt, the sky, and the weather, the overflowing Avon--these give freshness to the poem and contrast strangely with the sensuous love scenes. Lucrece is more rhetorical and elaborate than Venus and Adonis and also aims higher. Its disquisitions (upon night, time, opportunity, and lust, for example) anticipate brilliant speeches on general themes in the plays--on mercy in The Merchant of Venice, suicide in Hamlet, and "degree" in Troilus and Cressida.
There are a few other poems attributed to Shakespeare. When the Sonnets were printed in 1609, a 329-line poem, "A Lovers complaint," was added at the end of the volume, plainly ascribed by the publisher to Shakespeare. There has been a good deal of discussion about the authorship of this poem. Only the evidence of style, however, could call into question the publisher's ascription, and this is conflicting. Parts of the poem and some lines are brilliant, but other parts seem poor in a way that is not like Shakespeare's careless writing. Its narrative structure is remarkable, however, and the poem deserves more attention than it usually receives. It is now generally thought to be from Shakespeare's pen, possibly an early poem revised by him at a more mature stage of his poetical style. Whether the poem in its extant form is later or earlier than Venus and Adonis and Lucrece cannot be decided. No one could doubt the authenticity of "The Phoenix and the Turtle," a 67-line poem that appeared with other "poetical essays" (by John Marston, George Chapman, and Ben Jonson) appended to Robert Chester's poem Loves Martyr in 1601. The poem is attractive and memorable, but very obscure, partly because of its style and partly because it contains allusions to real persons and situations whose identity can now only be guessed at.
In 1609 appeared SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. Never before Imprinted. At this date Shakespeare was already a successful author, a country gentleman, and an affluent member of the most important theatrical enterprise in London. How long before 1609 the sonnets were written is unknown. The phrase "never before imprinted" may imply that they had existed for some time but were now at last printed. Two of them (nos. 138 and 144) had in fact already appeared (in a slightly different form) in an anthology, The Passionate Pilgrime (1599). Shakespeare had certainly written some sonnets by 1598, for in that year Francis Meres, in a "survey" of literature, made reference to "his sugared sonnets among his private friends," but whether these "sugared sonnets" were those eventually published in 1609 cannot be ascertained--Shakespeare may have written other sets of sonnets, now lost. Nevertheless, the sonnets included in The Passionate Pilgrime are among his most striking and mature, so it is likely that most of the 154 sonnets that appeared in the 1609 printing belong to Shakespeare's early 30s rather than to his 40s--to the time when he was writing Richard II and Romeo and Juliet rather than when he was writing King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. But, of course, some of them may belong to any year of Shakespeare's life as a poet before 1609.
The early plays.
Although the record of Shakespeare's early theatrical success is obscure, clearly the newcomer soon made himself felt. His brilliant two-part play on the Wars of the Roses, The Whole Contention between the two Famous Houses, Lancaster and Yorke, was among his earliest achievements. He showed, in The Comedy of Errors, how hilariously comic situations could be shot through with wonder and sentiment. In Titus Andronicushe scored a popular success with tragedy in the high Roman fashion. The Two Gentlemen of Veronawas a new kind of romantic comedy. The world has never ceased to enjoy The Taming of the Shrew. Love's Labour's Lostis an experiment in witty and satirical observation of society. Romeo and Julietcombines and interconnects a tragic situation with comedy and gaiety. All this represents the probable achievement of Shakespeare's first half-dozen years as a writer for the London stage, perhaps by the time he had reached 30. It shows astonishing versatility and originality.
For his plays on subjects from English history, Shakespeare primarily drew upon Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, which appeared in 1587, and on Edward Hall's earlier account of The union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre and York (1548). From these and numerous secondary sources he inherited traditional themes: the divine right of royal succession, the need for unity and order in the realm, the evil of dissension and treason, the cruelty and hardship of war, the power of money to corrupt, the strength of family ties, the need for human understanding and careful calculation, and the power of God's providence, which protected his followers, punished evil, and led England toward the stability of Tudor rule.
The Roman plays.
After the last group of English history plays, Shakespeare chose to write about Julius Caesar, who held particular fascination for the Elizabethans. Then, for six or seven years Shakespeare did not return to a Roman theme, but, after completing Macbeth and King Lear, he again used Thomas North's translation of Plutarch as a source for two more Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, both tragedies that seem as much concerned to depict the broad context of history as to present tragic heroes.
The "great," or "middle," comedies.
The comedies written between 1596 and 1602 have much in common and are as well considered together as individually. With the exception of The Merry Wives of Windsor, all are set in some "imaginary" country. Whether called Illyria, Messina, Venice and Belmont, Athens, or the Forest of Arden, the sun shines as the dramatist wills. A lioness, snakes, magic caskets, fairy spells, identical twins, disguise of sex, the sudden conversion of a tyrannous duke or the defeat offstage of a treacherous brother can all change the course of the plot and bring the characters to a conclusion in which almost all are happy and just deserts are found. Lovers are young and witty and almost always rich. The action concerns wooing; and its conclusion is marriage, beyond which the audience is scarcely concerned. Whether Shakespeare's source was an Italian novel (The Merchant of Veniceand Much Ado About Nothing), an English pastoral tale ( As You Like It), an Italian comedy (the Malvolio story in Twelfth Night), or something of his own invention (probably A Midsummer Night's Dream, and parts of each), always in his hands story and sentiments are instinct with idealism and capable of magic transformations.