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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

1598
The second edition of Lucrece, like the first, was published by John Harrison, but was printed by Peter Short.
1598
Francis Meres provided one of the earliest printed assessments of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry in his 1598 publication, Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury in a chapter entitled “A comparatiue discourse of our English Poets, with the Greeke, Latine, and Italian Poets.
1598
In “A Remembrance of some English Poets,” the poet Richard Barnfield praises Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, and Shakespeare.
ca. 1598
The scholar and writer Gabriel Harvey was known and mocked in his lifetime for making copious notes in the margins of printed books. An inventor of words, friend of Edmund Spenser, and rival of Thomas Nashe, he constantly sought to improve himself through note-taking and repetitive reading.
1599
John Weever’s Epigrammes in the oldest cut, and newest fashion was published in 1599. Weever began his career as an aspiring poet and literary observer at Cambridge, where he was the student of William Covell at Queen’s College.
1599
This 1599 printing is the only surviving copy of the sixth edition of Venus and Adonis, first published in 1593.
ca. 1599
William Scott’s The Modell of Poesye, a treatise on poetics, includes the earliest literary criticism of Shakespeare. Although Shakespeare is not mentioned by name in the manuscript, two of his works are.
1599
This is a fragment of the only surviving copy of the first edition of The Passionate Pilgrim (1599). An early owner bound it with other poetic works, including a 1600 edition of Shakespeare's Lucrece and the only surviving copy of the sixth editi
1599
The fifth edition of Shakespeare’s perennially popular poem Venus and Adonis appeared in 1599.
1599
William Jaggard published The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599 in two separate octavo editions. While the first edition exists only as a fragment without a title page, the second edition, shown here, carries the attribution “By W.

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