In the summer of 1592, an episodic outbreak of the plague swept through London. Theatres were among the public gathering places to be shut down. William Shakespeare decided to stay in London rather than follow a theatrical company on tour.
Shakespeare needed a way to earn a wage until the theatres reopened. He also desired to be taken seriously as a writer. Playwrights of the era were considered little more than populist hacks, writing largely disposable entertainment. Shakespeare instead found a way to earn both money and acclaim through the patronage of the third Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley.
Poetry was the art of nobles and gentlemen, and Shakespeare-a rustic interloper without the usual college-educated wit-lucratively introduced himself between1593 and 1594. Venus and Adonis would become Shakespeare’s most widely printed work during his lifetime. The following year, Shakespeare published The Rape of Lucrece. Both were poems calculated to bolster Shakespeare’s reputation and wallet.
On the opposite end of that spectrum is the body of poetry that comprises Shakespeare’s more mysterious and controversial work. If Venus and Adonisand. Rape of Lucrece represent Shakespeare’s quest for immortality, his sonnets of the early 1590s represent the passion and introspection behind it.
While Shakespeare was regarded as the foremost dramatist of his time, evidence indicates that both he and his world looked to poetry, not playwriting, for enduring fame. Shakespeare’s sonnets were composed between 1593 and 1601, though not published until 1609. That edition, The Sonnets of Shakespeare, consists of 154 sonnets, all written in the form of three quatrains and a couplet that is now recognized as Shakespearean.
Style of William Shakespeare’s Poetry
The sonnets fall into two groups: sonnets 1-126, addressed to a beloved friend, a handsome and noble young man, and sonnets 127-152, to a malignant but fascinating “Dark Lady,” whom the poet loves in spite of himself. Nearly all of Shakespeare’s sonnets examine the inevitable decay of time, and the immortalization of beauty and love in poetry.
In his poems and plays, Shakespeare invented thousands of words, often combining or contorting Latin, French and native roots. His impressive expansion of the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, includes such words as: arch-villain, birthplace, bloodsucking, courtship, dewdrop, downstairs, fanged, heart sore, hunchbacked, leapfrog, misquote, pageantry, radiance, schoolboy, stillborn, watchdog, and zany.