Is Shakespeare a Greater Poet or a Greater Dramatist?

Image of William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare cut-out from Toy-A-Day (click picture for link).

My English teacher at school once told me: ‘Shakespeare is a greater poet than he is a dramatist.’

This isn’t meant to mean that Shakespeare wrote better poems than plays, which is clearly not the case. Rather it means that the poetry in his plays is what drives the drama, and it is in his poetic gifts that his claim to being our greatest writer lies.

This is what I think the great author Vladimir Nabokov meant when he said:

The verbal poetic texture of Shakespeare is the strongest the world has known, and is immensely superior to the structure of his plays as plays. With Shakespeare it is the metaphor that is the thing, not the play.
Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 1973, quoted in After Shakespeare: An Anthology

And also what Boris Pasternak was getting at in the following excerpt from Observations on Translating Shakespeare (1939-1946, translated by Ann Pasternak Slater), quoted in After Shakespeare: An Anthology:

Rhythm is fundamental to Shakespeare’s poetry. Half his thoughts, and the words that verbalised them, were prompted by metre. Rhythm is the basis of Shakespeare’s texts, not a framing last touch. Some of Shakespeare’s stylistic vagaries can be explained in terms of rhythmic bursts, while rhythmic flow governs the order of questions and answers in his dialogues, their speed of exchange, and the length and brevity of periods in his soliloquies.

For more on the essential rhythmic nature of Shakespeare’s drama, see my post on the Musical Structure of a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Is this emphasis on the poetic over the dramatic in Shakespeare because we feel, like Martin Amis, that drama is an inferior form of literature?

I will now take the chance to repeat my contention that the drama is handily inferior to the novel and the poem. Dramatists who have lasted more than a century include Shakespeare and – who else? One is soon reaching for a sepulchral Norwegian. Compare that to English poetry and its great waves of immortality. I agree that it is very funny that Shakespeare was a playwright. I scream with laughter about it all the time. This is one of God’s best jokes.
Martin Amis, Experience, footnote on page 91

Despite all this, I may be having a change of heart after all these years. Because on reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets for this month’s Culture Club, I’ve been struck by how dramatic they are. For me, part of the greatness of these poems lies in their narrative drive, in the substance of the principle characters and their motivations.

So now I’m confused. Is Shakespeare a greater poet or a greater dramatist? Or is he, as seems the obvious answer, both?

4 responses to “Is Shakespeare a Greater Poet or a Greater Dramatist?”

  1. There’s the further complication that Shakespeare was a bad playwright. Technically his plays are very badly put together compared with his contemporaries but his poetic and dramatic skills carry most of them off successfully.

  2. Shakespeare’s poetry is the gist of his masterpieces. Without it, his dramatic purposes wouldn’t have been accomplished successfully.

  3. All genuine artists are in agreement about one thing regarding Shakespeare :
    Whatever and whoever Shakespeare was – he was no artist. Only the critics are capable of mistaking him for such…..

  4. I love your website, I have been studying acting since 2007, and Shakespeare, I love the arts, and read all the time.

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