This tiny but important book, Palladis Tamia or Wits Treasury (1598), was written by the clergyman and literary critic Francis Meres (1565/66–1647). It makes a series of comparisons between the natural and spiritual worlds, and between classical and early modern writers. It is remarkable because it gives us an idea of how Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and other Elizabethan authors were seen by critics in their own era.
Elizabethan writers who enrich the English tongue
In the section digitised here (pp. 279r–87r), Meres compares ‘English Poets, with the Greeke, Latine, and Italian poets’, drawing many parallels between writers of his day and famous classical authors. He could hardly speak more highly of Shakespeare, showing that the poet’s star was already rising, even early in his career. Helpfully, Meres lists a number of Shakespeare’s plays, telling us which had already been written in 1598, and helping scholars to date them.
Alongside Shakespeare, Meres praises many other Elizabethan authors who ‘mightily’ enrich the English language (p. 280r). This includes rival playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, poets Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, and writers such as Michael Drayton who are now less well known.
Shakespeare’s ‘sugred Sonnets’ (pp. 281v–82r)
Meres claims that the ‘sweete wittie soul’ of Ovid lives on in the ‘hony tongued Shakespeare’. He also reveals that a collection of ‘sugred Sonnets’ by Shakespeare circulated ‘among his private friends’, before the whole sonnet sequence was first published in 1609.
Shakespeare: the ‘most excellent’ for comedy and tragedy (p. 282r)
Meres feels that Shakespeare excels at both the main stage genres – ‘Comedy and Tragedy’ – like the Roman tragedian Seneca and the comic dramatist Plautus. As examples of Shakespeare’s comedies, he lists ‘his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love’s labor’s lost … his Midsummers night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice’.
Importantly, he also mentions ‘his Love labours wonne’ – probably a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost. This is known to have been printed in a small quarto edition (and listed in a bookseller’s catalogue of 1603), but tantalisingly no copy of the play has ever been discovered.
In terms of tragedy, Meres notes Shakespeare’s ‘Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus, and his Romeo and Juliet’.
Later, he also describes Shakespeare as one of the ‘most passionate’ writers to ‘bemoane the perplexities of Love’ (p. 284r).
Marlowe’s ‘tragicall death’ (pp. 286v–87r)
Francis Meres reveals that even in 1598 rumours were already circulating about Marlowe’s ‘tragicall death’ in 1593. Meres suggests that Marlowe died ‘for his Epicurism and Atheism’, as a kind of martyr to sexual passion, pleasure and religious rebellion. He claims that ‘Marlow was stabd to death by a bawdy servingman, a rival in his lewde love’. By contrast, the inquest states that Marlowe was stabbed by Ingram Frizer at Mrs Bull’s house in Deptford, not out of jealousy, but in a row over the bar bill.
Early Shakespeare sources: a guide for academic researchers. Part 1: manuscript and early print sources for Shakespeare's works
- Article by:
- Adrian S Edwards
Adrian S Edwards surveys the 16th- and 17th-century sources for Shakespeare’s works – the few surviving pages of Shakespearean manuscript, the quarto editions of his plays and poems, and the large folio editions of his collected works – and gives an overview of the British Library’s holdings.
- Article by:
- Penny Gay
- Language, word play and text, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Tragedies, Poetry
Over the course of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet goes from being a sheltered child to a young woman passionately in love. Penny Gay considers how this transformation, and its tragic consequences, are accompanied by Juliet's development as a poet.
- Article by:
- John Mullan
John Mullan considers the key characteristics of Shakespeare's varied comedies, but he also considers the ways the playwright mixes genres by bringing comedy into his tragedies and tragedy into his comedies.
Related collection items
Shakespeare’s Sonnets are often breath-taking, sometimes disturbing and sometimes puzzling and elusive in ...
In Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3, Shakespeare traces the 15th-century dispute between the houses of York and Lancaster ...
A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with Theseus, Duke of Athens, eagerly anticipating his marriage to Hippolyta, ...
Doctor Faustus: plot and character overview Would you sell your soul? And, if you would, for what? Doctor Faustus ...