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Shakespeare's Reputation in Elizabethan England

An Account by Sir Sidney Lee

Shakespeare’s popularity and influence.

... For several years his genius as dramatist and poet had been acknowledged by critics and playgoers alike, and his social and professional position had become considerable. Inside the theatre his influence was supreme. When, in 1598, the manager of the company rejected Ben Jonson’s first comedy—his ‘Every Man in his Humour’—Shakespeare intervened, according to a credible tradition (reported by Rowe but denounced by Gifford), and procured a reversal of the decision in the interest of the unknown dramatist who was his junior by nine years. He took a part when the piece was performed. Jonson was of a difficult and jealous temper, and subsequently he gave vent to an occasional expression of scorn at Shakespeare’s expense, but, despite passing manifestations of his unconquerable surliness, there can be no doubt that Jonson cherished genuine esteem and affection for Shakespeare till death. Within a very few years of Shakespeare’s death Sir Nicholas L’Estrange, an industrious collector of anecdotes, put into writing an anecdote for which he made Dr. Donne responsible, attesting the amicable relations that habitually subsisted between Shakespeare and Jonson. ‘Shakespeare,’ ran the story, ‘was godfather to one of Ben Jonson’s children, and after the christening, being in a deep study, Jonson came to cheer him up and asked him why he was so melancholy. “No, faith, Ben,” says he, “not I, but I have been considering a great while what should be the fittest gift for me to bestow upon my godchild, and I have resolv’d at last.” “I pr’ythee, what?” sayes he. “I’ faith, Ben, I’ll e’en give him a dozen good Lattin spoons, and thou shalt translate them.”’ 1

The Mermaid meetings.

The creator of Falstaff could have been no stranger to tavern life, and he doubtless took part with zest in the convivialities of men of letters. Tradition reports that Shakespeare joined, at the Mermaid Tavern in Bread Street, those meetings of Jonson and his associates which Beaumont described in his poetical ‘Letter’ to Jonson:

‘What things have we seen
Done at the Mermaid? heard words that have been
So nimble, and so full of subtle flame,
As if that every one from whence they came
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And had resolved to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life.’

‘Many were the wit-combats,’ wrote Fuller of Shakespeare in his ‘Worthies’ (1662), ‘betwixt him and Ben Jonson, which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man of war; Master Jonson (like the former) was built far higher in learning, solid but slow in his performances. Shakespeare, with the Englishman of war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds by the quickness of his wit and invention.’



Mere’s eulogy, 1598.

Of the many testimonies paid to Shakespeare’s literary reputation at this period of his career, the most striking was that of Francis Meres. Meres was a learned graduate of Cambridge University, a divine and schoolmaster, who brought out in 1598 a collection of apophthegms on morals, religion, and literature which he entitled ‘Palladis Tamia.’ In the book he interpolated ‘A comparative discourse of our English poets with the Greek, Latin, and Italian poets,’ and there exhaustively surveyed contemporary literary effort in England.

Shakespeare figured in Meres’s pages as the greatest man of letters of the day. ‘The Muses would speak Shakespeare’s fine filed phrase,’ Meres asserted, ‘if they could speak English.’ ‘Among the English,’ he declared, ‘he was the most excellent in both kinds for the stage’ (i.e. tragedy and comedy). The titles of six comedies (‘Two Gentlemen of Verona, ‘Errors,’ ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost,’ ‘Love’s Labour’s Won,’ ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ and ‘Merchant of Venice’) and of six tragedies (‘Richard II,’ ‘Richard III,’ ‘Henry IV,’ ‘King John,’ ‘Titus,’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’) were set forth, and mention followed of his ‘Venus and Adonis,’ his ‘Lucrece,’ and his ‘sugred 2 sonnets among his private friends.’ These were cited as proof ‘that the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare.’ In the same year a rival poet, Richard Barnfield, in ‘Poems in divers Humors,’ predicted immortality for Shakespeare with no less confidence.

And Shakespeare, thou whose honey-flowing vein
(Pleasing the world) thy Praises doth obtain,
Whose Venus and whose Lucrece (sweet and chaste)
Thy name in Fame’s immortal Book have placed,
Live ever you, at least in fame live ever:
Well may the Body die, but Fame dies never.

Value of his name to publishers.

Shakespeare’s name was thenceforth of value to unprincipled publishers, and they sought to palm off on their customers as his work the productions of inferior pens. As early as 1595, Thomas Creede, the surreptitious printer of ‘Henry V’ and the ‘Merry Wives,’ had issued the crude ‘Tragedie of Locrine, as ‘newly set foorth, overseene and corrected. By W. S.’ It appropriated many passages from an older piece called ‘Selimus,’ which was possibly by Greene and certainly came into being long before Shakespeare had written a line of blank verse. The same initials — ‘W.S.’ 3 - figured on the title-page of ‘The True Chronicle Historie of Thomas, Lord Cromwell,’ which was licensed on August 11, 1602, was printed for William Jones in that year, and was reprinted verbatim by Thomas Snodham in 1613. On the title-page of the comedy entitled ‘The Puritaine, or the Widdow of Watling Streete,’ which George Eld printed in 1607, ‘W.S.’ was again stated to be the author. Shakespeare’s full name appeared on the title-pages of ‘The Life of Old-castle’ in 1600 (printed for T[homas] P[avier]), of ‘The London Prodigall’ in 1605 (printed by T. C. for Nathaniel Butter), and of ‘The Yorkshire Tragedy’ in 1608 (by R. B. for Thomas Pavier). None of these six plays have any internal claim to Shakespeare’s authorship; nevertheless all were uncritically included in the third folio of his collected works,(1664). Schlegel and a few other critics of repute have, on no grounds that merit acceptance, detected signs of Shakespeare’s genuine work in one of the six, ‘The Yorkshire Tragedy;’ it is ‘a coarse, crude, and vigorous impromptu,’ which is clearly by a far less experienced hand.

The fraudulent practice of crediting Shakespeare with valueless plays from the pens of comparatively dull-witted contemporaries was in vogue among enterprising traders in literature both early and late in the seventeenth century. The worthless old play on the subject of King John was attributed to Shakespeare in the reissues of 1611 and 1622. Humphrey Moseley, a reckless publisher of a later period, fraudulently entered on the ‘Stationers’ Register’ on September 9, 1653, two pieces which he represented to be in whole or in part by Shakespeare, viz. ‘The Merry Devill of Edmonton’ and the ‘History of Cardenio,’ a share in which was assigned to Fletcher. ‘The Merry Devill of Edmonton,’ which was produced on the stage before the close of the sixteenth century, was entered on the ‘Stationers’ Register,’ October 22, 1607, and was first published anonymously in 1608; it is a delightful comedy, abounding in both humour and romantic sentiment; at times it recalls scenes of the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ but no sign of Shakespeare’s workmanship is apparent. The ‘History of Cardenio’ is not extant. Francis Kirkman, another active London publisher, who first printed William Rowley’s ‘Birth of Merlin’ in 1662, described it on the title-page as ‘written by William Shakespeare and William Rowley;’ it was reprinted at Halle in a so-called ‘Collection of pseudo-Shakespearean plays’ in 1887.

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Footnotes

Note 1 ] Latten is a mixed metal resembling brass. Pistol in 'Merry Wives of Windsor' (I. i. 165) likens Slender to a ‘latten bilbo,’ that is, a sword made of the mixed metal. Cf. Anecdotes and Traditions, edited from L’Estrange’s MSS. by W. J. Thoms for the Camden Society, p. 2.

Note 2 ] This, or some synonym, is the conventional epithet applied at the date to Shakespeare and his work. Weever credited such characters of Shakespeare as Tarquin, Romeo, and Richard III with ‘sugred tongues’ in his Epigrams of 1595. In the Return from Parnassus (1601?) Shakespeare is apostrophised as ‘sweet Master Shakespeare.’ Milton did homage to the tradition by writing of ‘sweetest Shakespeare’ in L’Allegro.

Note 3 ] A hack-writer, Wentworth Smith, took a hand in producing thirteen plays, none of which are extant, for the theatrical manager, Philip Henslowe, between 1601 and 1603. The Hector of Germanie, an extant play ‘made by W. Smith’ and published ‘with new additions’ in 1615, was doubtless by Wentworth Smith, and is the only dramatic work by him that has survived. Neither internal nor external evidence confirms the theory that the above-mentioned six plays, which have been wrongly claimed for Shakespeare, were really by Wentworth Smith. The use of the initials ‘W.S.’ was not due to the publishers’ belief that Wentworth Smith was the author, but to their endeavour to delude their customers into a belief that the plays were by Shakespeare.

How to cite this article:

Lee, Sir Sidney. A Life of William Shakespeare. London: Smith, Elder, and Co, 1899. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/shakespearefame.html >.

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