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date: 20 February 2020

(p. v) Preface

(p. v) Preface

The general motive for The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry is simple. After more than 400 years, Shakespeare’s poetry remains one of the chief glories of the English language. Although the quaint image of every schoolboy carrying a copy of the bard’s writings in his satchel no longer holds, Shakespeare’s verse remains a vital part of Western thinking, both a cornerstone of the academic curriculum, one of the few remaining in the humanities, and a rich source of inspiration and pleasure to a great variety of people, whether his words are spoken on the stage, used to solemnize a marriage, or pored over—or ‘burned through’ if you’re John Keats—in the privacy of one’s own room, by reader, writer, critic, or poet. How right, in retrospect, that the authorial subject of this Handbook should have penned the lines: ‘Not marble nor the gilded monuments | Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme’ (Sonnet 55). So far-sighted, and so true.

The scholarly cue is more specific. For the last three decades, the study of Shakespeare has been largely dominated by a number of theoretical perspectives ranging from new historicism and cultural materialism to performance studies, including gender studies, perspectives that have nearly displaced a knowledgeable understanding of, and interest in, what an earlier generation of critics would have assumed to be the central working conditions of Shakespeare’s muse: that his writings, first and foremost, belonged to the broader field of verbal art or poesis.

There are clear signs of a re-emphasis and correction already taking place, both editorially and critically. The former is most evident in Colin Burrow’s exemplary Oxford edition of The Complete Sonnets and Poems (2002), exemplary, in part, because ‘complete.’ The first edition since the late nineteenth century to include all the poems, it serves as a judiciously annotated counterweight to the many editions of Shakespeare’s plays, beginning with the 1623 Folio (FIGURE P.1), in which the poems have appeared, if at all, in an obscure or marginal relationship to the drama, a positioning often manifested in critical assumptions as well: that the narrative poems were written while—or because—the theatres were closed and for a limited elite audience (FIGURES P.2 and P.3); that the Sonnets appeared largely as a belated afterthought to the 1590s rage or as imperfect renderings of passions more suited to the theatre (FIGURE P.4); or that ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle,’ as it came to be called, was Shakespeare’s attempt around 1601 to sound like John Donne. If Shakespeare were ever to be accused of writing with the left hand, it would not be for his prose, almost all of which appears in the drama, but for his poems.

(p. vi) Burrow has hardly been alone in this venture, either as editor or critic, and at the moment there exist in print an exceptional number of fine editions of Shakespeare’s poems available to students and scholars alike. (A comparison of different editions of the Sonnets forms the subject of Chapter 24.)1 There have also been, especially of late (although with valuable recent antecedents), important critical monographs and essay collections that seek to make the poetry an essential part of our understanding of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, including the idea that Shakespeare came to regard (or present) himself as a poet and not merely a writer of scripts to be performed by an acting company in which he was a shareholder. Central to this ongoing debate, sounded as recently as Katherine Duncan-Jones’ Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan, 1592–1623 (Arden, 2011), has been David Schalkwyk’s Speech and performance in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays (Cambridge, 2002), Lukas Erne’s Shakespeare as Literary Artist (Cambridge, 2003), Patrick Cheney’s Shakespeare, National Poet-Playwright (Cambridge, 2004), followed by his edition of critical essays for The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry (2007), and the longer but more selectively focused Blackwell Companion to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ed. Michael Schoenfeldt (2007).

The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry contributes to this critical reassessment of the place of the poems in Shakespeare’s career, but it casts a deliberately wider net than can be found in these earlier collections. It understands poetry to be not just a formal category designating a particular literary genre (narrative poem, sonnet, complaint, lyric, song, or epitaph) but to be inclusive of the dramatic verse as well, and of Shakespeare’s influence as a poet on later generations of writers in English and beyond. To that end, the volume focuses on a broad set of interpretive concerns: general matters of style, earlier and later; questions of influence from classical, continental, and native sources; the importance of words, line, and rhyme to meaning; the significance of song and ballads in the drama; the place of gender in the verse, including the relationship of Shakespeare’s poetry to the visual arts; the different values attached to speaking ‘Shakespeare’ in the theater; and the adaptation of Shakespearean verse (as distinct from performance) into other periods and languages. If the collection’s circumference is deliberately wide, the volume nonetheless includes a traditional center in the section—indeed the largest section in the volume—devoted to the poems themselves, including ‘A Lover’s Complaint.’ Whatever controversy surrounds the authorship of this poem, it has become (like Donne’s ‘Sappho to Philaenis’) an important site of criticism in the early modern period.

In spite of its breadth, it is important to insist that coverage was never simply the goal of the volume—coverage, in any event, being an exceptionally illusory goal in the case of Shakespeare. The essays pursue individual arguments, make distinct claims; they follow out, as essays should, the lines of their own reasoning. Sometimes in dialogue with one another, but more often with readers and writers across the centuries, their major point (p. vii) in common is to keep Shakespeare’s poetry (sometimes minutely perceived, other times broadly construed) in the foreground of their thinking. Although the division of the volume into seven categories reflects the general disposition of topics, these boundaries are also quite elastic, as a glance at the Table of Contents will reveal. It should also be said that if the volume as a whole urges renewed involvement in the complex matter of Shakespeare’s poetry, it does so, as the individual essays testify, by way of responding to critical trends and discoveries made during the last three decades.

All the essays were written specifically for this volume. For the willing efforts and great talent of the contributors, I am especially grateful. A few deserve special mention for early help in thinking through the lines of inquiry such a volume might take: Albert Braunmuller, Colin Burrow, Paul Edmondson, Linda Gregerson, John Kerrigan, Russ McDonald, Melissa Sanchez, Bruce Smith, and Gordon Teskey. Thanks to the generosity of the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and the good work of Karen Burgess and Brett Landenberger, a number of the essays enjoyed an early airing at a conference held at UCLA in May, 2011, ‘Where has all the Verse Gone? Shakespeare’s Poetry on the Page & Stage’.

The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry is part of a series of Oxford Handbooks on Shakespeare under the general direction of Arthur Kinney. I want to thank him for inviting me to take on this project. At Oxford University Press, Andrew McNeillie offered early words of encouragement. I am especially grateful to Jacqueline Baker for commissioning the volume and seeing it through to publication, and to Rachel Platt for her timely response to many queries. The gratification in putting together a large collection like this one, enabled in part by an excellent research assistant, Claire Byun, with further help from Heather Sontong, is not simply seeing a book finally emerge but also the friendships made or renewed along the way. Among the most important to acknowledge here is the always calmly resourceful Jeanette Gilkison, in the Department of English at UCLA, and Susan Green of the Huntington Library. I also want to acknowledge, with thanks, the Academic Senate and the Council on Research at UCLA for continuing to support my scholarship over the years, including generous help with the publication of this book, and the UCLA Center for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies and Amy Gordainer for her excellent work preparing the index. For the past twenty summers, it has been my pleasure to teach, with my colleague Albert Braunmuller, many students who have learned to walk the pentameter line (and much else) while participating in the UCLA Shakespeare Program in London and Stratford. I like to think they will be eager and wise readers of the essays in this volume. Neither the program nor this book would exist, however, without the help of my companion in this and all else, Susan Gallick.


Figure P.1. The catalogue of the thirty-five plays included in the 1623 Folio, excluding the poems. By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Figure P.2. Highly crafted quarto title page of the 1594 edition of Venus and Adonis. First published in 1593, the poem went through sixteen editions by 1640. The Latin epigraph from Ovid’s Amores reads: ‘Let the common herd be amazed by worthless things; but for me let gold Apollo provide cups full of the water of the Muses.’ By permission of The Huntington Library.


Figure P.3. A slightly more severe quarto title page of the 1594 edition of Lucrece by the same printer, Richard Field, with identical ornamentation. Shakespeare’s ‘graver labour’ went through eight editions by 1640. By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Figure P.4. Marked-up copy of the 1609 quarto title page of the Sonnets, bearing Shakespeare’s name. Although John Benson published an eccentrically miscellaneous version of the Sonnets in 1640, it was not until a hundred years later, in 1709, that Bernard Lintot reprinted the quarto in the order of 1609, thus beginning the slow process of rescuing the poems. The process was significantly furthered by the owner of this copy, ‘George Steevens.’ Although scandalized by the Sonnets’ subject matter, Steevens, in conjunction with Samuel Johnson and Edmund Malone in the latter eighteenth century, established the modern canon of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. By permission of The Huntington Library.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Shakespeare are from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (eds), (2nd edn Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). (p. viii) (p. ix) (p. x) (p. xi) (p. xii)


(1) To those editions in print, cited in Chapter 24, should be added Kenneth J. Larsen’s online Essays on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, with introduction, text, and commentary, at 〈〉 (accessed on 1 July 2012.)