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Today we remember Shakespeare as the greatest playwright of all time; however, in his own lifetime, he was equally revered as a poet. His first two books of poetry, Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece, were reprinted many times. In fact, they were more popular in print than any of Shakespeare’s plays. Many of the earliest literary critics and anthologists of English-language verse cite these two narrative poems because of their exemplary lines. Like his plays, his poems were probably sold unbound or in flimsy, paper bindings, making their survival unlikely unless an early owner bound them up with other booklets in sturdy bindings. 

Shakespeare’s earliest publication, and by far the best-selling work in his lifetime, was the nearly 1200-line poem Venus and Adonis (1593), published in 10 editions between 1594 and 1602. In Shakespeare’s re-telling of the classical tale, Venus, the goddess of love, tries to seduce Adonis, a young hunter, but is rebuffed. Adonis is then killed on a hunting expedition by a wild boar. Readers were titillated by the erotic nature of the poem, and lines from it were frequently excerpted in print and manuscript. 

Because of its popularity, other printed poems soon followed. Rape of Lucrece was published in 1594 to great acclaim. His name appeared on the title page of The Passionate Pilgrim (1599) despite the fact that only a handful of the poems were by him. “The Phoenix and the Turtle” appeared in Love’s Martyr in 1601, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets in 1609.

All Documents

1594
The first known printed reference to Shakespeare appears in a commendatory poem introducing the poetry collection Willobie his Avisa, printed in 1594. The poem, entitled “In praise of Willobie his Avisa, Hexameton to the Author,” appears before the main text.
1594
Richard Barnfield’s description of “earth-delving conies” in The Affectionate Shepheard is most likely an early allusion to the “earth-delving conies” in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593),
1595
In 1595 William Covell, a church of England clergyman and a fellow of Queen’s College in Cambridge, wrote Polimanteia, which was produced by John Legate, the Cambridge University printer.
1595
This is the only known surviving copy of the third edition of Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s first printed work. It is a heavily-repaired fragment, with the first section now lost. 
1595
SHAKESPEARE DOCUMENTED IS STILL GROWING! Descriptive content and transcriptions will continue to be added, updated and expanded. Check back for regular updates!
1595
Like Shakespeare’s Sonnets, first printed in 1609, Richard Barnfield’s sonnet sequence Cynthia (1595) was accompanied by a narrative complaint.
June 25, 1596
On June 25, 1596, the London printer and publisher John Harrison the Elder transferred his rights to print Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis to his colleague, William Leake, who printed the fifth edition in 1599.
ca. 1596
Henry Colling, who attended Cambridge but left without a degree in the early 1580s, transcribed two stanzas of Venus and Adonis into this small folio of historical tracts (ll. 229–40 in modern
1596
The fourth edition of Shakespeare's popular narrative poem Venus and Adonis was published in 1596, three years after the first edition. This fourth edition was the last to be printed by Richard Field and sold by John Harrison.
ca. 1598
SHAKESPEARE DOCUMENTED IS STILL GROWING! Descriptive content and transcriptions will continue to be added, updated and expanded. Check back for regular updates!

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