From Geoffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblems.

Between 1598 and 1601, three satirical plays* were written for the students at Saint John's College, Cambridge. In the second of these plays, one Gullio, lovesick and rather simple-minded, offers ironic praise of Shakespeare's erotic narrative poem Venus and Adonis:

The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, The Return from Parnassus (Part 1), and The Return from Parnassus (Part 2). Parnassus was the seat of the Muses.

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Let this duncified world esteem of Spenser and Chaucer, I'll worship sweet Mr Shakespeare, and to honour him will lay his Venus and Adonis under my pillow.

"That writer Metamorphosis"

In the third play two characters represent actors who were members of Shakespeare's company. One of these is Kempe, the actor who played the part of the clown in Shakespeare's early comedies; the character Kempe is made to criticize (in an obviously ignorant way) university-educated playwrights and to praise Shakespeare:

Few of the university men pen plays well, they smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphosis*, and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter. Why here's our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, aye, and Ben Jonson too.

Ovid's great narrative poem reworking ancient myths, the Metamorphoses, was in fact one of Shakespeare's favourite sources; he probably read it in Latin, but was certainly familiar with Golding's translation (1567).

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There seems ample evidence that the strictures of Sidney were being echoed throughout Shakespeare's life by writers with classical training: the popular plays (no matter who they were written by) were ignorant, indecorous, and untidy.

Click here for a less satirical response*.

Some two years before the Parnassus plays, a university scholar, Francis Meres, had much more flattering things to say about Shakespeare's plays and poems; click for an example.

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Footnotes

  1. University satires

    The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, The Return from Parnassus (Part 1), and The Return from Parnassus (Part 2). Parnassus was the seat of the Muses.

  2. Ovid and the Metamorphoses

    Ovid's great narrative poem reworking ancient myths, the Metamorphoses, was in fact one of Shakespeare's favourite sources; he probably read it in Latin, but was certainly familiar with Golding's translation (1567).

  3. Meres on Shakespeare

    Some two years before the Parnassus plays, a university scholar, Francis Meres, had much more flattering things to say about Shakespeare's plays and poems; click for an example.