Shakespeare's poems

Shakespeare's output of poetry was not huge. A list of his known works can be easily recorded on one small sheet of paper.

1. Venus and Adonis: a long narrative poem of 1194 lines, first published in 1593

2. The Rape of Lucrece: a long narrative poem of 1855 lines, first published in 1594

3. The Phoenix and the Turtle: 68 lines, first publshed 1601

4. The Sonnets: 154 poems of 14 lines each, first published in 1609

5. Various short poems and songs included in the plays

Venus and Adonis

Annibale Carracci

The quality of Shakespeare's verse was recognised very quickly. His first long poem, Venus and Adonis was an immediate success, and reprinted six times before his death in 1616. Dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, the young man to whom most of the sonnets were addressed, the poem is a semi-humorous re-telling of a story the bare bones of which are outlined in Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses, concerning Venus' failed courting of Adonis. In Shakespeare's version, Adonis is shown as more interested in the hunt than in Venus' feminine charms, though this is not the aspect of the story most emphasised by Ovid. The change is probably related to Shakespeare's desire to fit the story more closely to the case of the young Southampton, who demonstrated both a love of the hunt and an apparent reluctance to indulge in sexual dalliance with women.

The Rape of Lucrece

Titian

With the Rape of Lucrece Shakespeare passes on to more serious matter, and the dedication clearly demonstrates an intimacy with his young patron (Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton) which was not evident in the Venus and Adonis dedication:

The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety. The warrant I have of your honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours. Were my worth greater, my duty would shew greater; mean time, as it is, it is bound to your lordship, to whom I wish long life, still lengthened with happiness. (The Rape of Lucrece, Dedication, 9 May 1594)

The story of the Rape of Lucrece can be found in both Ovid (The Fasti Book II) and Livy (History of Rome). It concerns the rape of the chaste Lucrece by the young tyrant Tarquin and her subsequent suicide.

This mysterious, evocative and complex poem was first published in a collection of poetry called Love's Martyr, whose main content was a long poem ostensibly translated from Italian by one Robert Chester. This was supplemented by shorter poems by Shakespeare, Jonson, Marston and Chapman on the subject of the Phoenix and the Turtle, 'Turtle' meaning turtle-dove.

The long poem by Robert Chester is consistently bad, and this has led commentators to speculate as to why Shakespeare and the others would have agreed to their work being appended. The obvious answer is that they were paid.

Shakespeare's poem has a metaphysical charm which eludes analysis, though many have tried, either dismissing it as errant nonsense or hailing it as a work of supreme genius. Judge for yourself.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton

Henry Wriothesley (probably pronounced 'Roseley') became the 3rd Earl of Southampton on the death of his father in 1581 when he was eight years old. He also became a ward of William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1521-1598), Lord High Treasurer to Elizabeth I . This meant that Burghley exercised considerable control over the young aristocrat, though Harry did not readily suffer being guided by this master manipulator, refusing, for example, to marry the bride his guardian proposed for him in 1589, and continued to propose for several years thereafter, only ceding when the Earl paid a huge fine of £5000 to get out of the arrangement. It was probably Burghley who encouraged first John Clapham (1566-1619) and then Shakespeare to write poetry to the young man urging him to get married. So we get Shakespeare's Sonnet I:

'From fairest creatures we desire increase,

That thereby beauties Rose might never die...'

Nothing like getting straight to the point! Note the 'rose' in the second line (initial letter capitalised and whole word italicised) denoting Rosely (Wriothesley). These exhortations continue for seventeen sonnets, which all attempt to persuade the young man of the necessity of producing offspring. As the sequence progresses, however, the relationship between the poet and the young aristocrat intensifies, other characters are added, and the whole forms a compelling narrative in which the individual sonnet is used to brilliantly illuminate individual moments in the course of these turbulent relationships.

Poetry and songs occur at various points in the plays of Shakespeare. The following are reproduced here:

Fear No More from Cymbeline, Act IV Scene II

Over Hill, Over Dale from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II Scene I

When Icicles Hang from Love's Labours Lost, Act V Scene II

Blow, Blow thou Winter Wind from As You Like It, Act II Scene VII

Ariel's Song from The Tempest, Act I Scene II


Notes on language

Many things have changed in the English language in the four hundred plus years since Shakespeare's time and our own. A good guide to the meanings of words at that time can be found in Shakespeare's Words by David and Ben Crystal, which also includes synopses of all the plays and other useful information.

We list here just some of the conventions that otherwise might cause constant confusion in reading the sonnets.

Both 'then' and 'than' are used interchangeably to mean either then or than, depending on the context.