By Peter Hyland

An advent to Shakespeare's Poems presents a full of life and trained exam of Shakespeare's non-dramatic poetry: the narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece; the Sonnets; and diverse minor poems, together with a few only in the near past attributed to Shakespeare. Peter Hyland locates Shakespeare as a sceptical voice in the turbulent social context during which Elizabethan specialist poets needed to paintings, and relates his poems to the tastes, values and political pressures of his time. Hyland additionally explores how Shakespeare's poetry should be of curiosity to twenty-first century readers.

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I find this hard to credit, however. By 1592, he was developing a reputation as a playwright (though the absence of any reference to him prior to Greene’s makes it reasonable to assume that it was not yet great). Even if a few of his sonnets were in circulation, as far as is known he had no reputation at all as a poet. There is no reason to believe that Southampton was the only patron that Shakespeare approached. Nor is there any evidence that the poet did not suffer the frustration and humiliation described by Spenser as the common experience of poets, the suing and waiting, the fawning and running.

Sidney pointed out that the ancient Romans called a poet vates, ‘which is as much as a diviner, fore-seer, or prophet’ (Apology, p. 219). Authors like Ben Jonson had a lofty view Shakespeare and the Literary Marketplace 29 of the calling of the poet; Jonson was not afraid to tell King James I himself that ‘Poets are of rarer birth than Kings’. For such a writer, the pursuit of patronage was as constantly frustrating as it was necessary. The reality of patronage was that the client needed the patron more than the patron needed the client, and as far as writing was concerned there were always more poets than there were individuals anxious to support them.

At a simple level patronage can be understood as a means whereby those in power sustained their power by buying allegiance. In most periods there has to be some form of support for artists to allow them to make a living, and in the Renaissance artistic patronage was inextricably connected to political patronage (though this connection is almost always a component of patronage at some level). As we have already seen, for writers in Shakespeare’s time there was no great commercial demand for what they sold, but the reign of Elizabeth I, and to a lesser degree that of her successor James I, saw the greatest flourishing of patronage to writers and other artists in English history.

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