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Shakespeare’s “Early” Poems

(Expanded from SOBRANS, January 2005 pages 5–6)
Text dropped from the print edition or modified solely for reasons of space appears in blue.

Who was Shakespeare? The answer to this old question depends on when his works were written. And I think there is vivid evidence, right under the noses of the academic scholars, that William Shakspere of Stratford was too young to have written them.

The first two published works of “William Shakespeare” weren’t plays but two long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594. Both were immediately recognized as great poems; both were also very popular, going through more editions than almost any of the individual plays.

Contemporary praise of Shakespeare always began by citing these two poems, not the plays. In 1598, for example, Francis Meres wrote that “the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare; witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets among his private friends, &c.” After naming a dozen of the plays, Meres added that “the Muses would speak with Shakespeare’s fine-filed phrase, if they would speak English.” Other early tributes to Shakespeare likewise rated the two long poems above the plays, if they mentioned the plays at all.

This is surprising, because modern taste has ignored and, I would say, underrated them, the only works to bear dedications by Shakespeare (to the young Earl of Southampton). Because the poet calls Venus “the first heir of my invention,” scholars and biographers have assumed that both poems are among the Bard’s “early” works, written near the beginning of his career as a dramatist.

Oddly, these poems are the only two Shakespeare works that can be dated with any precision — thanks to those dedications. Dating the plays is another matter, involving deduction, guesswork, and circular reasoning — chiefly the assumption that William of Stratford wrote them, and must have written them sometime during his adult life, between about 1588 and 1616. If we accept this question-begging method of dating, these works written around 1593–94 must fall near the outset of his career in the theater.

But the scholars have gotten it all wrong. Venus and Lucrece are in fact fully mature works, written after most of the plays. Moreover, they all but prove that Will of Stratford couldn’t have been the author we know as Shakespeare.

The orthodox belief in Will’s authorship depends wholly, as I say, upon dating his works plausibly within his adult life span — taking into account the first known dates of performance and publication (which prove next to nothing about when they were actually written), as well as clear stylistic developments. And the scholars have, on the whole, done a plausible job, given their premises. But there are serious difficulties, which they have done their best to explain away. And as we’ll see, the two long poems present a problem that just can’t be explained away if we posit Will’s authorship. Put simply, was Will old enough to have written the works attributed to him?

First there is the problem of Hamlet, first published in a mutilated version in 1603 and in a far better one in 1604. The scholars date it around 1600, when, they reckon, Will had reached the peak of his genius. But this leaves them with the problem of explaining three references to a Hamlet play many years earlier — the first in 1589, when Will may not even have arrived in London yet. The style of Hamlet, with its superbly flexible blank verse and discursive prose, is far too sophisticated to permit the inference that it’s an “early” work.

Solution? The scholars posit an older Hamlet play by somebody else. That would account for those vexing references. The trouble with this solution is that no trace of such a play has ever turned up. What the scholars do agree on is that Will of Stratford didn’t write that supposed play. (I contend it never existed.)

Again, in 1591 Edmund Spenser published a poem saluting “our pleasant Willy,” a brilliant writer of comedy who had “of late” retired from the theater. This was long assumed to be Shakespeare, as the context suggests. But again, as the scholars eventually realized, in 1591 Will would have been far too young to have made much of a reputation as a playwright — let alone to have retired.

Solution? The scholars have decided that Spenser’s “Willy” couldn’t have been Shakespeare, but must have been some other Willy. But who? Nobody else fits Spenser’s description. What the scholars do agree on is that Spenser couldn’t have been talking about Will of Stratford. So a purely hypothetical “Willy” joins a purely hypothetical Hamlet.

Which brings us back to Venus and Lucrece. According to the scholars, these poems were written around the same time as the earliest and least distinguished Shakespeare plays, such as the Henry VI cycle and the more farcical comedies (The Comedy of Errors, for example).

Actually, they're among his maturest works.But here another dating problem arises, unnoticed by the scholars. Though we don’t know the exact dates of the plays, we can approximately tell their relative dates by their style. The relatively early plays are marked by their very regular blank verse — very good, but palpably inferior to the richer and far more irregular verse of the great tragedies. We know those tragedies were written later because they show the poet in much greater technical command of his poetic and rhetorical resources. This isn’t an aesthetic judgment or a question of personal taste, but a matter of his skill in his craft, as when a composer advances from simple melody to the more difficult form of the fugue.

Some brief comparisons may illustrate the point. Here are a few lines from the first scene of The Comedy of Errors, usually dated around 1592:
Merchant of Syracusa, plead no more;
I am not partial to infringe our laws.
The enmity and discord which of late
Sprung from the rancorous outrage of your duke
To merchants our well-dealing countrymen,
Who, wanting guilders to redeem their lives,
Have seal’d his rigorous statutes with their blood,
Excludes all pity from our threat’ning looks.
And a speech from the first scene of King John, a history play usually dated around 1594 or even later:
Philip of France, in right and true behalf
Of thy deceased brother Geoffrey’s son,
Arthur Plantagenet, lays most lawful claim
To this fair island and the territories,
To Ireland, Poictiers, Anjou, Touraine, Maine,
Desiring thee to lay aside the sword
Which sways usurpingly these several titles
And put the same into young Arthur’s hand,
Thy nephew and right royal sovereign.
Here are the opening lines of Venus:
Even as the sun with purple-color’d face
Had ta’en his last leave of the weeping morn,
Rose-cheek’d Adonis hied him to the chase.
Hunting he lov’d, but love he laugh’d to scorn.
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him,
And like a bold-fac’d suitor ’gins to woo him.
And the first two stanzas of Lucrece:
From the besieged Ardea all in post,
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host,
And to Collatium bears the lightless fire,
Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire,
And girdle with embracing flames the waist
Of Collatine’s fair love, Lucrece the chaste.

Haply that name of chaste unhapp’ly set
This bateless edge on his keen appetite,
When Collatine unwisely did not let
To praise the clear unmatched red and white,
Which triumph’d in that sky of his delight,
Where mortal stars, as bright as heaven’s beauties,
With pure aspects did him peculiar duties.
There is nothing very wrong with the first two selections; but they are no more than businesslike, colorless, legalistic, rather mechanical verse, displaying no particular wit, imagery, virtuosity, or any other quality we’d be tempted to call Shakespearean. As poetry, they are simply flat.

By contrast, the latter two passages, written in difficult stanza forms and under the constraints of complex rhyme schemes, show the poet in full command of his medium, combining epigrammatic wit, rich alliteration, vivid colors, splendid images, a riot of vowels, an easy freedom of meter, a wealthy vocabulary, paradox, contrast, antithesis — all this visible in just 20 lines! Here is the same poet, but at a far riper stage of his development. The amazingly concentrated power of expression these two poems exhibit is fully equal to that we find in Hamlet and Othello.

A clue to his real identityIn short, by 1593 “Shakespeare” had already discovered what the English language was capable of. This means, for one thing, that the standard dating of the plays is seriously amiss. The real dates of the plays are several years — maybe a decade or so, in most cases — earlier than the scholars believe. When the poet wrote Venus and Lucrece, he was nearer the end than the beginning of his literary career.

The initial reception of these poems tends to confirm this. The poet spoke of his “unpolished” and “untutored” lines, but this false modesty fooled nobody. Nobody thought these were the work of a novice. Their mastery was obvious in every line: “Bewitching like the wanton mermaid’s song.” “A lily prison’d in a gaol of snow.” “Till he take truce with her contending tears.” “The pith of precedent and livelihood ... Earth’s sovereign salve to do a goddess good.” Unpolished?
Pure shame and aw’d resistance made him fret,
Which bred more beauty in his angry eyes,
Rain added to a river that is rank
Perforce will force it overflow the bank.

Still she entreats, and prettily entreats,
For to a pretty ear she tunes her tale,
Still is he sullen, still he lours and frets,
’Twixt crimson shame, and anger ashy pale,
Being red, she loves him best; and being white,
Her best is better’d with a more delight.
To read these poems is to see, in glorious abundance, what Meres meant about “Shakespeare’s fine-filed phrase.” It’s a marvel that generations of scholars have been able to believe that these are among the poet’s juvenile efforts; that he could have written them at the same time he was writing plays in blank verse so immeasurably far below the level he would finally achieve.

Those plays, we must conclude, were written many years before the two long poems. Which means that Will couldn’t have written them, unless he wrote them during his boyhood in Stratford. Which means that someone else, someone much older than Will, must have written them — someone who, by the way, was close to the Earl of Southampton.

That would perhaps be Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, a noted poet and playwright. In 1593 Southampton nearly married his daughter.

Joseph Sobran

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