Life of an icon: Shakespeare as playwright and poet

Fifty of the most important manuscripts and printed works related to Shakespeare’s life and career are on display in the Folger exhibition Shakespeare, Life of an Icon, curated by Heather Wolfe. Some of these documents mark important milestones for Shakespeare as a playwright and a poet. Others offer insight into how his work was received by others during his lifetime.

The first contemporary mention of Shakespeare as a playwright appeared in 1592 in an anonymously written pamphlet called Greenes, groats-worth of witte: “for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”

Two years later saw Shakespeare’s first published play, Titus Andronicus. (The Folger holds the only remaining copy of the first edition in the world.) And in 1598, Shakespeare’s name appeared for the first time on the title page of a play—seen here, the quarto of Love’s Labor’s Lost.

William Shakespeare. "A pleasant conceited comedie called, Loues labors lost." London: William White for Cutbert Burby, 1598. Folger Shakespeare Library.
William Shakespeare. “A pleasant conceited comedie called, Loues labors lost.” London: William White for Cutbert Burby, 1598. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Official recognition from the throne came in 1603 when, shortly after his arrival to London as the new king, James I issued a warrant ordering Shakespeare’s company of actors, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to become the King’s Men, placing them under royal patronage.

But to the public of his time, Shakespeare was as much poet as playwright.

Shakespeare’s first published work was Venus and Adonis in 1593. Here we show the only surviving copy of the sixth quarto, from 1599. In the nearly 1,200-line poem, Shakespeare takes a familiar myth and turns it on its head by having Adonis reject the goddess of love—an ironic and comic notion for early readers. Lucrece, another minor epic with erotic subject matter, was published in 1594.

Venus and Adonis Sixth edition
William Shakespeare. Venus and Adonis. London: Richard Bradock for William Leake, 1599. Folger Shakespeare Library.

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, both of these poems were printed in more editions than his plays. In fact, Venus and Adonis went through 15 editions before 1640. Richard Barnfield mentions both works in connection with Shakespeare in a 1598 poem of praise, “A Remembrance of Some English Poets.”

And Shakespeare thou, whose honey-flowing Vein,

(Pleasing the World) thy Praises doth contain.

Whose Venus, and whose Lucrece (sweet, and chaste)

Thy Name in fame’s immortal Book have placed.

Live ever you, at least in Fame live ever:

Well may the Body die, but Fame die never.

Want to see more of the documents featured in the Shakespeare, Life of an Icon exhibition? Visit Shakespeare Documented.