Today, Shakespeare is known as a playwright (who performed every other occupation in the theatrical world,) and while it is true that some of his sonnets are quite well-known and anthologized, few read (or even know of) his narrative poems. That was not always the case, and there was a time when it seemed probable that Shakespeare would become as well know for “The Rape of Lucrece” as for any of his plays. There’s a reason for his poetic work that we can very much relate to today, and that’s that when the Plague was in town, the theaters were closed down. Of course, there is no ironclad distinction between these two career tracks – poet and playwright. All of Shakespeare’s plays contain verse, and a couple of the histories are written entirely in verse (i.e. King John and Richard II.) Of course, muddying the waters are doubts about what works attributed to Shakespeare were actually composed by him.
In this “A Very Short Introduction,” Post offers the reader insight into the historical and cultural context in which these poems exist, offering elaborations that will help the reader to better understand these poems. The book also helps one see the poems in the larger context of Shakespeare’s work and of literature, itself. Chapter one provides an overview of Shakespeare’s career as a poet and contrasts it to his work as a playwright.
Chapter two is about the narrative poem entitled “Venus and Adonis.” This poem shows us the lovelorn goddess, Venus, continually trying to woo Adonis who is, as they say, just not that into her. Post explores the linkage between Shakespeare’s poem and the source material (e.g. Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,”) comparing and contrasting earlier versions of this Greek myth with the Bard’s telling. He also dives into the psychology a bit, asking us to consider who is the more sympathetic character. As in other chapters, Post highlights stanzas that he believes provide particular insight into the story.
Chapter three is about Shakespeare’s most well-known narrative poem, “The Rape of Lucrece.” This poem is about the defilement of a Roman noblewoman and the sad ending to which her tragedy plays out. Besides relating the poem to source material and to Shakespeare’s broader work, the author also shows how the story was portrayed in paintings, as well as discussing how pertinent parts of the poem relate to the story in Homer’s “Iliad” (the story of the war and besiegement of Troy by a coalition of Greek states.)
Chapters four and five both explore the sonnets. The first (Ch. 4) provides insight into the form of sonnet employed by Shakespeare and relates it to sonnets, generally. A section is devoted to breaking down one particular sonnet (116,) to deconstruct a typical example. Other sonnets are included in the text to emphasize particular points — as opposed to offering a generic overview. Chapter five considers themes and points of emphasis that cut across the collection of 154 sonnets. Here we get an explanation of how the “young man” and “dark lady” poems are distinct, but can be seen as part of an interrelated whole. Still other sonnets are printed in full or in part to elucidate the author’s points.
The final chapter (Ch. 6) investigates two works that are widely (but not universally) attributed to Shakespeare that might be considered the Black Sheep of his poetic family. [There is, of course, a connection between these works being atypical of form and / or content and their authorship being challenged.] The first work is “A Lover’s Complaint,” which like “The Rape of Lucrece” tells the tale of a woman used and abandoned, but – in this case – not an aristocratic woman. Its authorship is less in doubt because it was published together with the sonnets while Shakespeare was still alive, and while the content is a bit different the poem is not wildly outside Shakespeare’s body of work. “The Phoenix and Turtle” is a short, highly lyrical, love story that uses lines with three and a half feet (catalectic trochaic tetrameter.) [A metering which appears in Shakespeare’s other work, but not nearly to the extent as pentameter.]
This book contains graphics that mostly consist of artistic takes on the events of the narrative poems along with a couple title page photos. Like the other books in this series, there is both a “references” section and a “recommended reading” section. This edition also has a brief timeline that puts Shakespeare’s career into broader context of Elizabethan literature, and also shows when the poems came out relative to Shakespeare’s plays.
I found this book to be compelling and educational. I had no idea that — in Shakespeare’s time — it seemed as likely that he would become well-known for his poetry as that he would for his plays. (Apparently, the plays weren’t collectively published until well after the Bard’s death.) It’s easy to lose informational value from Shakespeare’s work when one lacks a background in history and how language has morphed. Among these “A Very Short Introduction” guides from Oxford University Press, I have found volumes that greatly rounded out my readings of Shakespeare’s works. I’d highly recommend this book if you are planning to read Shakespeare’s poems.