The writer William Shakespeare is known for a vast body of work including three major narrative poems, one hundred and fifty-four sonnets, and thirty-six plays. The name is first connected to one of these works in 1593, in the dedication to Venus and Adonis. This sophisticated and erotic retelling of the myth became a popular
work which sold well and was reprinted several times. The following year (1594) The Rape of Lucrece was published to similar acclaim. The third narrative poem published by William Shakespeare, The Phoenix and the Turtle, did not appear until seven years later, in 1601.
Throughout the nineties and early sixteen hundreds, Shakespeare’s plays were performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men) and widely imitated and pirated, as the author came to dominate the theatrical world. Between 1593 and 1604 numerous Quarto editions of individual plays were published, some anonymously, some with the name ‘William Shakespeare’ on the title page, and some with the name hyphenated thus: ‘Shake-speare’. In the case of the sonnets, the name occurs in the title itself: SHAKE-SPEARE’S SONNETS; with nothing in the space where the authors name would appear. These editions were frequently advertised as edited and updated by the author. This culminates in 1604 with the release of the literary version of Hamlet, more than twice the length of the original theatrical version, after which publication of both new plays and authorised new versions of plays ceases, until the posthumous ‘First Folio’ collection, which contained eighteen published and eighteen unpublished plays.
Conventional scholarship dates the writing of twelve further plays under the reign of James I, ceasing in 1612 when Shakespeare is thought to have retired from literary life. At this point he had written thirty-six plays in a period of eighteen years (1593-1611). The achievement of this writer, whoever he was, is staggering. His vocabulary is estimated at twenty to thirty thousand words, many of them neologisms based on Italian or Greek roots. The poetry (and prose) of the plays is sublime, and the characters show extraordinary psychological realism, which is one of the reasons his work is of such interest to the modern mind. The plays features some of the deepest and most complex parts for women ever written (although women were not allowed to perform on the stage at that time). Many of them are set in continental Europe, especially Northern Italy, a region of which the author demonstrably had intimate, first-hand knowledge. The plays reveal deep knowledge of history, philosophy, law, music, medicine, falconry and many other subjects.
Stylistic analysis has revealed that many of the plays, particularly the later ones, are collaborations with other writers. While Shakespeare appears always to be the main author, five other writers have been identified as contributing some passages to his plays.
It should also be noted that a number of inferior or mediocre plays, (the texts survive) were published under the name William Shakespeare (or the initials W.S.) during and before the 1590s. These plays are not ascribed to the ‘real’ Shakespeare by experts.
One curious aspect of the dating of Shakespeare’s plays is the existence of a popular play called Hamlet a full ten years before Shakespeare is reckoned to have written his play. The text does not survive, but references to it are made by diarists and letter writers from 1589 and throughout the nineties. This hypothetical play is known as ‘the UR-Hamlet’ by academics. It is thought that Shakespeare must have been alerted to the old story of Hamlet by this play and either rewritten this other author’s play or created his own version based on a common source.
In 1609, 154 sonnets were published under the title SHAKE-SPEARE’S SONNETS. The dedication by the printer calls him ‘our ever-living poet’. The sonnets use the first person pronoun and are autobiographical in tone, carefully sequenced as a cryptic narrative featuring four characters: the author himself (or his persona), and the ‘Rival Poet’, as well as the ‘Fair Youth’, and the ‘Dark Lady’, both of whom are objects of the poet’s adoration. The publication was immediately suppressed by the authorities and most copies were rounded up and destroyed. Fewer than two dozen copies survived.
In 1623 the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays, the enormous First Folio, was published. The collection, assembled by the actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, features 36 plays, 18 of them previously unpublished. Dedications by the playwright Ben Johnson and others make the link to the river Avon and the town of Stratford. The Folio features the well-known portrait of Shakespeare by the engraver Droeshout. Ben Johnson, in his verse, however, criticises the engraving as an attempt to ‘out-do Nature’, and directs the reader, if he wants to know the author, to look not on his face but at his book.
The Folio is not just one of the most important books ever to have been published, but without equal the most expensive, according to the auction house of Sotheby’s in London.