Shakespeare's Poetry

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In the summer of 1592, an episodic outbreak of the plague swept through London. Theatres were among the public gathering places to be shut down. William Shakespeare decided to stay in London rather than follow a theatrical company on tour.

Shakespeare needed a way to earn a wage until the theatres reopened. He also desired to be taken seriously as a writer. Playwrights of the era were considered little more than populist hacks, writing largely disposable entertainment. Shakespeare instead found a way to earn both money and acclaim through the patronage of the third Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley.

Poetry was the art of nobles and gentlemen, and Shakespeare—a rustic interloper without the usual college-educated wit—lucratively introduced himself between1593 and 1594. Venus and Adonis would become Shakespeare's most widely printed work during his lifetime. The following year, Shakespeare published The Rape of Lucrece. Both were poems calculated to bolster Shakespeare's reputation and wallet.

On the opposite end of that spectrum is the body of poetry that comprises Shakespeare's more mysterious and controversial work. If Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece represent Shakespeare's quest for immortality, his sonnets of the early 1590s represent the passion and introspection behind it.

The Sonnets

At some point in the early 1590s, Shakespeare began writing a compilation of sonnets. The first edition of these appeared in print in 1609. However, Frances Meres mentions Shakespeare sharing at least some of them among friends as early as 1598, and two (138 and 144) appear as early versions in the 1599 folio The Passionate Pilgrim. Shakespeare's seeming ambivalence toward having the sonnets published stands in remarkable contrast to the poetic mastery they demonstrate.

Why sonnets? The sonnet was arguably the most popular bound verse form in England when Shakespeare began writing. Imported from Italy (as the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet), the form took on a distinctive English style of three distinctively rhymed quatrains capped by a rhymed couplet comprising 14 total lines of verse. This allowed the author to build a rising pattern of complication in a three-act movement, followed by the terse denouement of the final two lines. Conventional subject matter of the Elizabethan sonnet concerned love, beauty, and faith.

Shakespeare as a poet could hardly have ignored the sonnet as a verse form. He appears to have written a sequence of them, dedicated to a "Master W.H.," and the sequence as a whole appears to follow a loose narrative structure. Of the 154 sonnets, there are three broad divisions:

The sonnets are poignant musings upon love, beauty, mortality, and the effects of time. They also defy many expected conventions of the traditional sonnet by addressing praises of beauty and worth to the fair youth, or by using the third quatrain as part of the resolution of the poem.

The first edition of 1609 could very well have been an unauthorized printing. The dedication is enigmatic, and the sonnet by that time had waned in popularity. Whether or not Thorpe published the 1609 quarto with Shakespeare's blessing, the sonnets as they are printed comprise the foundation for all later versions. Points of debate have ensued ever since as to:

Venus and Adonis

Shakespeare dedicates Venus and Adonis as "the first heir of my invention." In doing so, Shakespeare acknowledges that even he considered his plays as literary works inferior to poetry. The poem, a brief epic, evokes comparisons to Marlowe's Hero and Leander, to which Venus and Adonis owes at least some debt.  Equal parts comic and erotic, the poem is Shakespeare's take on a story told by Ovid in which Venus falls for the handsome youth Adonis.

Shakespeare, however, makes one crucial twist to Ovid's Metamorphoses. Ovid's Venus is an irresistible, tragic goddess whose love Adonis returns. Venus and Adonis portrays the goddess as a comically frustrated seductress who can't seem to distract Adonis from his love of hunting. Shakespeare also includes elements from Metamorphoses from the tales of Narcissus and Hermaphroditus.

Venus and Adonis is a microcosm of Shakespeare's writing: taking a classical source and infusing it with both heightened formality and a playful humanity. Of course, the poem's comic overtones and animal sensuality caused it to lapse into critical disfavor.

The Rape of Lucrece

The Rape of Lucrece was published the year after Venus and Adonis. Because of their proximity and Shakespeare's dedication of both works to Southampton, the two poems are often thought of as companion pieces. In fact, it's believed that Lucrece is the "graver labour" to which Shakespeare refers in the dedication of Venus and Adonis. Written in rhyme royale stanzas, The Rape of Lucrece also borrows from Ovid.

While Shakespeare sticks fairly closely to the narrative of Ovid, in The Rape of Lucrece, he expands significantly on the action through the characterization of both Tarquin and Lucrece. Shakespeare creates as a result a tense drama with both moral and political overtones. The verses are thick with rhetorical flourishes and wordplay. Like its predecessor, The Rape of Lucrece sparked much critical debate over the years, mostly regarding how Lucrece's language often works against her emotion.


The 1599 volume The Passionate Pilgrim was a collection of twenty poems that the publisher attributed entirely to Shakespeare. Only five works can be traced to Shakespeare: versions of sonnets 138 and 144, and three poems presumably taken from a quarto edition of Love's Labour's Lost. Thomas Heywood actually complained about a later reprinting of the work in which his poetry was published but still credited to Shakespeare. Heywood also noted that Shakespeare was unhappy with the publisher, William Jaggard, who "presumed to make so bold with his name." It seems apparent that Jaggard's printing was an unauthorized enterprise.

A Lover's Complaint was printed with Thorpe's 1609 edition of Shakespeare's sonnets. Like The Rape of Lucrece, A Lover's Complaint is written in rhyme royale stanzas but is much shorter, at just over 300 lines. The poem tells the story of a woman seduced by a womanizing young man. In 1601, an untitled poem by Shakespeare appeared in a collection entitled Love's Martyr. Scholars have given it the title The Phoenix and the Turtle based on the thematic subject of the collection.

Based on computer-aided analysis, a 1612 poem published by Thomas Thorpe as A Funeral Elegy and signed "W.S." was thought to be attributable to Shakespeare. Further study has pointed toward Jacobean dramatist John Ford, rather than Shakespeare, as the poem's author.

Poetry Links

Cliffs Notes: Shakespeare's Sonnets
A study guide of Shakespeare's sonnets from Cliffs Notes.
Folger Shakespeare Library—Shakespeare's Works
A great overview for learning about the Bard's sonnets as well as poems The Phoenix and Turtle, The Rape of Lucrece, and Venus and Adonis.
Open-Source Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets
A database of Shakespeare's sonnets maintained by George Mason University.
The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare's Poetry
This is the online publication of one of the newest surveys of Shakespeare's verses. Please note that full access to the text requires a purchase or subscription.
Shakespeare's Poetry (
From the online publication of The Cambridge History of English and American Literature.
Shakespeare's Sonnets
An overview of Shakespeare's sonnets by Dr. Michael Delahoyde of Washington State University.
Shakespeare's Sonnets
The amazing Web site of Shakespeare's sonnets.
Shakespeare's Sonnets
An appreciation of Shakespeare's great sonnet cycle.
Shakespeare's Sonnets: Crash Course Literature 304
PBS Studios' John Green takes a look at what makes a sonnet, a little bit about their history, and even a little bit about how reading poetry helps us understand how to be human beings.
The Sonnets (Internet Shakespeare Editions)
Fascimile page-by-page reproduction of the original 1609 quarto edition.
SparkNotes: Shakespeare's Sonnets
A study guide of Shakespeare's sonnets from SparkNotes.
Threading Shakespeare's Sonnets
A full-text PDF by Kenneth C. Bennett of Lake Forest College.
William Shakespeare's Poems and Sonnets
An overview of the Bard's poetry presented by the British Library.