When it came to writing, the prevailing opinion of Shakespeare’s day was that England had little to offer. Sir Philip Sidney lamented as much when he inquired, in his Apologie for Poesy, why England should be so a harsh step-mother to poets. There were vernacular poets, but when compared to the exuberant literary efforts on the continent, or to the Latin examples taught in England’s grammar schools and universities, England seemed in need of improvement. But Francis Meres’ sustained efforts, in 1598, to justify the worth of England’s native poets found some relief in a growing number of examples—Shakespeare’s poems and plays among them.
His book, Palladis Tamia: Wits Treasury, offers a powerful early testament to the cultural authority Shakespeare had begun to take on. The sonnets, Love’s Labours Lost, Richard III, Richard II, Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, all receive explicit mention in Meres’ pages, placed beside the likes of Ovid, Seneca, and Plautus as a testament to their literary value.
But if Palladis Tamia provides us with Shakespeare’s first printed tribute, it is worth remembering that he was just one of many English authors to receive such praise. Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, William Warner, Edmund Spenser, and Philip Sidney all receive recognition, and if it were not for the sheer number of English poets writing by the time he picked up his pen, Meres may never have thought to give Shakespeare his due.