Shakespeare’s narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, were dedicated to an aristocrat, and full of the conceits and set-piece sequences and strict stanzas that appealed to the refined tastes of his age. Venus and Adonis was a bestseller as a printed book, that is, it very much appealed to the literate people of his day, as opposed to the unlettered London “groundlings” who crowded the floor of Elizabethan theaters. Rereading them, I feel I can imagine the writer Shakespeare might have become, if he hadn’t had the stage. That writer is a courtly and quite intricately artful one. The traditional Shakespeare-“nature” association is given the lie by these narrative poems (and, I believe, plenty of the Sonnets): Everything we associate with “artfulness” is in abundance here. Consider the clever rhymes: When Tarquin ponders Lucrece’s sleeping body, the stanza proliferates feminine endings. I don’t know whether Shakespeare knew that an erection is, anatomically, a venous engorgement of the penis, but the stanza about Tarquin’s “veins” (at one point called vassals, phonetically related to blood vessels—is the doctor in me imagining this?) is quite girl-crazy, technically speaking:
…His eye, which late this mutiny restrains,
Unto a greater uproar tempts his veins.
And they, like straggling slaves for pillage fighting,
Obdurate vessels fell exploits effecting,
In bloody death and ravishment delighting,
Nor children’s tears nor mothers’ groans respecting,
Swell in their pride, the onset still expecting.
Anon his beating heart, alarum striking,
Gives the hot charge and bids them do their liking.
Clever clever! No wonder that, early in Shakespeare’s career, people compared him to Ovid, who had a reputation for precisely this kind of cleverness and mythological subject-matter, as in the mazy variarum-viarum line that describes Dedalus’s Cretan labyrinth,
Daedalus ingenio fabrae celeberrimus artis
ponit opus turbatque notas et lumina flexum
ducit in errorem variarum ambage viarum.
The purely divine character from classical mythology (as opposed to classical history) is rare on Shakespeare’s stage; Venus and Adonis contains the only starring role Shakespeare wrote for a Greek goddess, at least that I can think of. Strict stanzaic structure precluded the admixture of prose and verse that is the hallmark and hybrid vigor of the Shakespeare play; convention and aristocratic taste likewise precluded the mixture of “high” and “low” language and characters.
The great Shakespearean dramatic innovation was mingling tragedy and comedy (we call it an innovation, but it was life’s idea originally). Shakespeare had already written six plays by the time he penned these two dramatic poems; their failure to capture our imaginations today is not explained by his being a neophyte. He was very successfully catering to the taste of his patron: The Earl of Southampton, to whom the poems are dedicated, was a great patron of poetry, but wasn’t the patron of Shakespeare’s greatest poetry—which is contained by universal consensus in the dramatic poems, not the narrative ones.
Who was the patron of those gloriously messy plays? I nominate the anonymous groundling. It is in large part to that unlettered Londoner’s tastes in stage-stuff that we owe our Shakespeare. The groundlings didn’t want to see Greek goddesses on stage (not to mention the Puritans: those killjoys really would have hated that). If the character’s supernatural, it had better be a fairy, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or a ghost, as in Hamlet, or witches, as in Macbeth. Those explosive Bardic mixtures—prose and verse, tragedy and comedy, king and clown—appealed to the groundling’s coarse palate most of all; you find none of those characteristics in the court masque, not even when Ben Jonson’s writing the script. The stage and its audience prompted Shakespeare to be more, well, dramatic: Lucrece contains a rape scene and a suicide scene, but it’s quite prettified, with little of that stirring, stagey, Shakespearean superflux that would pull down the pillars of the cosmos.
Shakespeare, above all, was pluripotential: He could have been any kind of writer he wished. Even if we imagine (shudder!) Shakespeare having cultivated this other Shakespeare—a Shakespeare who more fully reincarnated the “sweet, witty soule of Ovid”—we can expect an artist like him to have pushed the limits. Reading Shakespeare’s plays in order, you can see the evolution of his verse line, which began in Christopher Marlowe’s verse line and ended (some might say dead-ended) in the convoluted language of Coriolanus. As Shakespeare progresses, endstops get rarer, run roughshod over by his driving enjambement. Major scenes take the form of wild prose. Shakespeare, at times, seems to represent an intermediate form between verse as it had been practiced for centuries and the strengthening form of prose, to which the future would (alas) belong. The same breaking and remaking of the poetic line—the same undermining of the self-contained rhythm of the Spenserian, endstopped, hardrhymed poetic line, which is also the poetic line of Chaucer; of Marlowe in Hero and Leander; and of Shakespeare himself Venus and Adonis—would be carried out in narrative poetry by John Milton. Shakespeare’s dramatic verse-line and Milton’s epic verse-line, both more highly enjambed than any verse that went before it, presage the coming domination of what Northrop Frye calls the “continuous rhythm,” that is, prose.
These two technical shifts in verse would be rolled back by Dryden and Otway in the drama, Pope and eventually the Romantics in narrative poetry: Scott, Shelley, Southey, and Byron show little influence of Milton in their narrative verse; only Keats, who is not primarily a narrative poet, goes fully Miltonic in the Hyperion fragment. (Blake may seem Miltonic, but he isn’t Miltonic at the level of the line.) This is because there were other successful models of narrative verse already, including Spenser and Chaucer. In drama, Shakespeare’s dominance was complete. Notice how when Keats, Byron, and Shelley do blank verse plays, Otho the Great, Sardanapalus, and The Cenci respectively, they pattern themselves after the enjambed, later Shakespearean line very closely, replicating everything except the magic. I can imagine Shakespeare, if he’d stuck to narrative verse, effecting that Miltonic integration of the line into the passage (“the sense drawn out variously from line to line”), but I have a harder time imagining him incorporating of prose or comedy or “low” characters—precisely because of his keen instinct for his audience. The booklength narrative poem had a specific (read: literate) audience in Shakespeare’s time. Change his audience, give him a room full of refined University Wits, and he might well have remedied his “little Latin and less Greek.” Make him the pet poet of the Earl of Southampton (instead of the most popular playwright in London, entertaining both high society and the groundlings), and he may well have turned out more and more brilliant conceits and mythological set-pieces. He would have ended up great, in a different way. But he wouldn’t have been the Shakespeare we know.
Genius is always the result of many factors coming together serendipitously: When it comes to Shakespeare, the narrative poems propose the greatest what-if in English literary history. What if, in some alternate universe, Shakespeare had grown comfortable as the pet poet of a wealthy aristocratic patron? In our universe, luckily, a mixed audience guided the mixed form and mixed content of the plays. And that mixture has proven to possess the virtue of nature’s hardiest species: hybrid vigor.