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.
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.
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.
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).
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.