Shakespeare as a Poet
Shakespeare had great technical skills as a dramatist, but his work as a poet is where we learn of his ability to capture the speech of common men and the language of philosophers. An extremely talented poet, he was able to distill words to create some of the finest poetry in the English language.
In his plays, Shakespeare used the unrhymed iambic pentameter called blank verse. Shakespeare wasn't the first to develop it into dramatic verse form — that was done by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, translator of The Aeneid and the coauthor of Gorboduc (England's first “regular tragedy,” 1565). But Shakespeare perfected it. Although there were other great poets who used or would use this verse line, Shakespeare helped make iambic pentameter the greatest meter in English.
Are any of Shakespeare's poems well known?
One poem, Sonnet 18, is no doubt the best known of the 154 sonnets, mostly for the number of times its lines have been quoted. Sonnet 18 begins, “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate: / Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, / And Summer's lease hath all too short a date.”
One might ask: If Shakespeare — who had become an established playwright by 1592 — was so successful, why did he decide to put his playwrighting aside and begin creating poems? The answer lies in the outbreak of the bubonic plague that year. All the theaters were closed by the London authorities because of the risk of infection spreading throughout the audiences.
Poetry, considered far superior to mere public entertainment, allowed Shakespeare to win a patron. Moreover, poetry was considered the highest form of literature. Shakespeare knew that the profession of poet was not as well paid as a playwright, yet it would provide a modicum of income. Not only was nondramatic poetry considered a higher form of art, it also attracted social prestige. But to do this he needed sufficient sums of money and that required the patronage of a nobleman.
In an attempt to put a few coins in his pocket after his sudden loss of income, Shakespeare published Venus and Adonis in 1593. It had a strange, somewhat deferential dedication to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, the Baron of Titchfield (1573–1624). The earl was nineteen years old at the time, but already a wealthy and influential patron of the arts. The poem described itself as “the first heir of my invention,” while promising “some graver labour” to come.