King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

Michael Drayton on Shakespeare

Opening showing Drayton’s elegy for Henry Reynolds, with a reference to ShakespeareOpening showing Drayton’s elegy for Henry Reynolds, with a reference to ShakespeareOver a 40-year career, Michael Drayton (1563-1631) was a prolific poet and occasional playwright working in London literary circles, where he would almost certainly have known Shakespeare. There exists a tradition that they were friends and, indeed, that Drayton was present with Shakespeare and Ben Jonson on that fateful night in April 1616 when, according to the diary of John Ward of Stratford, the three authors ‘had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted’.

Drayton’s poetic achievement rests largely with the Poly-Olbion (1612-22), a sprawling yet unfinished topographical poem describing the landscape and history of England and Wales; however, his output also includes historical poems, elegies, odes, pastorals and satires, often published together as miscellanies.

Such is the volume of Drayton’s poetry on display here, published in 1627. The primary work is The Battaile of Agincourt, an epic depiction of the battle that had featured so memorably in Shakespeare’s Henry V. As well as sharing sources (the chronicles of Holinshed, Hall and Speed), several lines of Drayton’s work may have been influenced by the earlier play – for example, the prayer of Henry before the battle, illustrating the sometimes extensive chain of borrowing and adaptation prevalent in literary composition of the time.

The image shown here, however, is from Drayton’s elegy for his friend, the poet and critic Henry Reynolds, which consists of an epistle ‘on poets and poesie’. This includes a catalogue enumerating the praises of English writers from Chaucer onwards; Drayton’s encomium to Shakespeare (some might call it faint praise) is at the bottom of page 206, after those to Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe:

and be it said of thee,
Shakespeare thou hadst as smooth a comicke vaine,
Fitting the socke, and in thy natural braine,
As strong conception, and as cleere a rage,
As any one that trafiqu’d with the stage.

The volume was printed in Fleet Street, at the sign of ‘the Turkes Head’, a site about 200 yards from the Maughan Library.

In this exhibition

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