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Genre

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Shakespeare wrote in four genres—plays, sonnets, narrative poetry, and even songs. The plays were further categorized in the First Folio into the genres of comedies, histories and tragedies. And future scholars further divided them with two additional genres—romances and problem plays. While Shakespeare himself, in the voice of Polonius, seemed to satirize this obsession with classification, he did master, innovate and excel in all his genres. But one genre alone assured his enduring fame.

His plays and one of his poems, Venus and Adonis, made him much of his money during his lifetime. The profits from Venus and Adonis, published in 1592 during the plague years when the theatres were closed, and reprinted during his life more than any other work, may have been a source of income that he invested as a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain's Men. This was the theatre company for whom he was both the primary playwright and one of the actors. As a playwright, the plays he wrote belonged to the company, but as a shareholder, Shakespeare earned a percentage of the profits each time his company performed any play, including his own. With the money he made as a shareholder he was able to invest in other endeavours. For example, he purchased a home near the Blackfriars Theatre in London, which his company owned in addition to the Globe. Shakespeare also purchased the second largest home in Stratford-Upon-Avon, to which he eventually retired.

In addition to enriching him, Venus and Adonis also elevated his reputation as a literary figure. At the time, poetry was a more respected genre than playwriting, which was still regarded by some as a popular but crude form of entertainment. Just two years before Shakespeare wrote Venus and Adonis, Cambridge-educated Edmund Spenser wrote the first three books of his epic allegorical poem, The Faerie Queen. This work immediately elevated Spenser's status as a literary figure and it earned him a life pension of £50 a year from Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare would have been aware of Spenser's success in poetry. So the closing of the theatres due to the plague gave Shakespeare an opportunity to turn his hand to poetry with the writing of two long narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, as well as some of his sonnets. When the theatres reopened, Shakespeare returned to writing plays.

In addition to being aware of Spencer's success in poetry, Shakespeare would have been aware of Christopher Marlowe's success in playwriting. Marlowe's plays were earning increasing respect for the genre due to the quality of such works as Tamburlaine the Great, The Jew of Malta and Doctor Faustus. Both Spenser and Marlowe, while emulating the classical literature they studied at university, were breaking new ground in each of their respective genres. It is safe to assume that a talented young writer like William Shakespeare would have been motivated, perhaps even competitively motivated, to excel in both these genres, make a name for himself, and some money too.

But Shakespeare's enduring fame and popularity for the next 400 years is due to his choice of playwriting as his primary genre. Had he chosen poetry, he would probably be remembered today as a great English poet like Spenser, John Donne, John Milton, William Wordsworth and many others. But plays, unlike poetry, can be endlessly produced and reinterpreted on stage and in film. So theatre and film companies continue to dedicate significant resources to producing his works. There seems to be no waning of enthusiasm in that regard, in large part because, through Shakespeare's choice of genre, he not only made a lot of money for himself, he gave future generations of actors, directors and producers an incentive, and many opportunities, to make a lot of money for themselves as well.


  • Plays
    The play’s the thing
    Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King
  • Sonnets
    Assist me, some extemporal god of rhyme,
    for I am
     sure I shall turn sonnet
  • Poems
    For these fellows of infinite tongue, that can rhyme themselves
    into ladies’ favors, they
     do always reason themselves out again
  • Songs
    One who the music of his own vain tongue
    Doth ravish like enchanting harmony