The Rival Poet is one of several 'characters,' either fictional or real persons, featured in William Shakespeare's sonnets. The sonnets most commonly identified as the Rival Poet group exist within the Fair Youth group in sonnets 78–86. Several theories about these characters, the Rival Poet included, have been expounded, and scholarly debate continues to put forward both conflicting and compelling arguments. In the context of these theories, the speaker of the poem sees the Rival Poet as a competitor for fame, wealth and patronage.
Chapman was a prominent poet and translator of Homer. Scholars speculate that Shakespeare was familiar with his work, having read part of his translation of the Iliad for his own Troilus and Cressida, a dramatic reworking of Chaucer's epic poem. Chapman wrote Ovid's Banquet Of Sense, a metaphysical poem seen as a response to the erotic Venus and Adonis, which incidentally features Shakespeare's most quoted poet, Ovid. In Shakespeare and the Rival Poet, Acheson conjectures that Chapman's erotic poems were written with a view to gaining Southampton's patronage. The moral tone of Ovid's Banquet of Sense eschews the amatory tone of Shakespeare's, and seeks to instill spiritual seriousness in a work that takes the five senses as its Conceits. Chapman's patrons also moved in the same circles as Shakespeare's; thus Shakespeare may have felt insecure about the stability of his own income versus a talented rival. Chapman was both then and now regarded as being particularly erudite, whereas, as Ben Jonson writes, Shakespeare had "small Latine and lesse Greeke.". The latest advocate for Chapman as the rival poet is Evert Sprinchorn (2008).
Marlowe was more highly regarded as a dramatist than a poet, his chief poetical work, Hero and Leander, remaining incomplete at the time of his death (it was subsequently completed by Chapman). Due to Marlowe's relatively small dramatic output as compared with Shakespeare, it's unlikely that he would have been the subject of Shakespeare's sonnets, i.e. considered a serious rival. By the time Shakespeare began his works Marlowe was a well-established playwright but the two had a very important artistic relationship. In his book The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate notes “the two-way traffic between Marlowe and Shakespeare until the latter’s death”. Shakespeare strove to outdo Marlowe and through their artistic competition they would push one another to higher achievements in dramatic literature. This competition could have also motivated the Rival Poet sonnets.
It has also been suggested that the Rival Poet is an amalgam of several of Shakespeare’s contemporaries instead of a single person. This is indicated by the fluctuation between singular and plural addresses of the rival(s) in the sonnet sequence. In Sonnet 78 the Speaker refers to other poets who have gained inspiration from the Fair Youth but in 79 the Speaker is only concerned with one “he,” a potentially “worthier pen.” Sonnet 80 continues the singular reference but by 82 the Speaker reverts to the plural “writers”. In 83 he refers to “both your poets” indicating that the Speaker is one poet and the Rival is the other. According to MacD. P. Jackson, Sonnet 86 is “the most powerful of the group [and] the most detailed in its characterization of one specific Rival Poet”. While arguably the most powerful of this sonnet grouping, one cannot neglect the oscillation between singular and plural seen throughout the group as a whole. This discrepancy makes it difficult to isolate one specific poet to claim the title of Rival.
The Speaker’s attitude towards the Rival is also difficult to pinpoint. Some critics, such as R. Gittings, believe that much of the Poet’s comments on his rival should be read as ironic or satiric. Jackson maintains that the Poet's feelings toward the Rival shift between varying degrees of admiration and criticism. This also indicates a multitude of rivals. As the Poet’s confidence ebbs and flows along with his impression of his rival(s), the identity of the rival(s) also fluctuates.
A final defense for the Multiple Rivals Theory relies on a dating of the Rival Poet sonnets between 1598-1600. While this frame of reference has support, so do other possible dates and there will always be controversy regarding dating of individual sonnets. However, if it is assumed that this grouping was published between 1598 and 1600, a publication by Francis Meres comes into play. In 1598, Meres published Palladis Tamia; Wits Treasury with a chapter titled “A Comparative Discourse of our English Poets with the Greek, Latin, and Italian Poets” in which he documents the critical esteem of the poets of the day. Shakespeare received high praise for his dramatic work but Marlowe and Chapman were deemed England’s “two excellent poets”. This, according to Jackson “must surely have helped provoke the Rival Poet series”.
- Halliday, pp. 52, 127, 141-2, 303, 463.
- Leo Daugherty, William Shakespeare, Richard Barnfield, and the Sixth Earl of Derby, Cambria Press, 2010
- Acheson 1903, pp. 14–15, 27.
- Baldwin, W. T. William Shakspere's Smalle Latine and Lesse Greeke. 1944
- Bate, Jonathan. The Genius of Shakespeare. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 107
- Bate, Jonathan. The Genius of Shakespeare. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 130.
- Jackson, MacD. P. “Francis Meres and the Cultural Contexts of Shakespeare’s Rival Poet Sonnets.” Review of English Studies. 56.224 (2005): 224-246. 16 Nov 2007: 225
- Jackson, 225
- Jackson, 226
- Robertson 180
- Jackson, 226
- Jackson 233
- qtd. in Jackson 234
- Jackson 234
- Acheson, Arthur (1903). Shakespeare and the Rival Poet. London: The Bodley Head. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
- Bach, Alice. A Companion to Shakespeare's Sonnets. London, Blackwell, 2006.
- Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.
- Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare's Sonnets. 1979; reprinted London, Routledge, 2005.
- Sprinchorn, Evert. The Rose of Shakespeare's Sonnets. An exercise in literary detection. Poughkeepsie, The Printer Press, 2008.
- Wilson, John Dover. Shakespeare's Sonnets: An Introduction for Scholars and Others. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1963.