<i>Hero and Leander</i> and Shakespeare’s Rival Poet Sonnets


  • Adrian Blamires Henley College


In sonnet 86 Shakespeare claims to have been dumbstruck when his muse was appropriated by a rival poet: ‘But when your countenance filled up his line,/ Then lacked I matter. That enfeebled mine.’ Had his own ardent response to the beautiful youth of the sonnets been eclipsed? Was he no longer the worthiest recipient of his friend and patron’s favour? Biographically minded interpreters often cite sonnet 86 in attempts to name Shakespeare’s formidable rival, but no-one has convincingly identified the lines of verse to which he refers in its closing couplet. In this essay I argue that Shakespeare has specific passages in mind, hymns to male beauty from George Chapman’s continuation of Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander. Building on advances in dating and contextualising the sonnets, I show how the Chapman passages may be linked to Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton – Henry Petowe’s all-but-ignored alternative continuation of Hero and Leander is of consequence here – and suggest why they might have shaken Shakespeare so badly. As well as being of biographical consequence, my analysis sheds new light on politics and patronage in the 1590s, the cultural significance of the Elizabethan minor epic, and the wellsprings of poetic inspiration and insecurity.