by Joe Sobran

(Reprinted from SOBRAN'S, January 2005, pages 5-6)

{{ Material dropped from this feature in the print 
edition or changed solely for reasons of space appears in 
double curly brackets. Emphasis is indicated by the 
presence of asterisks around the emphasized words. }}

Shakespeare's "Early" Poems
(pages 5-6)

      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,
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

      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

      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

      {{ 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).

      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
            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.

      In 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
            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

      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

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


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