Michael Drayton was one of the leading Elizabethan/Jacobean poets. Like so many of the writers of his time who could not make a good living by writing poems he was attracted by the fees that theatre entrepreneurs were paying for play texts as Londoners flocked to see the latest plays. He was a sweet tempered man and made friends easily and, with his exceptional linguistic and poetic skills, he caught the attention of dramatists like Ben Jonson and other leading playwrights. He became a close friend of Jonson, and as tradition has it, of Shakespeare too.

Michael Drayton portrait

Michael Drayton portrait

Writing plays was not something that he was really interested in but nevertheless, because of his significant poetic talent, he was contacted by theatre entrepreneur Philip Henslowe and invited to collaborate with his stable of regular playwrights. And so he worked with some of the top theatre writers, like Thomas Dekker, Anthony Munday, Ben Jonson and Henry Chettle. Henslowe’s diary links Drayton to 23 plays. If Drayton wrote a play on his own it hasn’t survived.

Drayton was born at Hartshill in Warwickshire. Little is known about his early life but he is thought to have studied at Oxford University. He was first and foremost a poet. In 1591 he produced his first book, The Harmony of the Church, a volume of spiritual poems, dedicated to Lady Devereux. The Archbishop of Canterbury took exception to one of the poems, The Song of Solomon, and confiscated the copies of the book. A few survived and are very valuable today. Drayton went on to publish a huge number of poems during the following years, some of them among the most famous in English literary history, series like Idea: The Shepherd’s Garland and a cycle of sixty-four sonnets. He wrote long poems on historical subjects as well as autobiographical verse. His total body of poems is enormous and his directness of expression makes him one of the leading Metaphysical poets.

In spite of Drayton’s involvement in writing for the theatre and his friendships with some of the leaders in that field he did not make his mark as a dramatist. According to Henslowe’s Diary he did start work on one solo play, William Longsword, but did not complete it.

His friendship with Shakespeare is celebrated in that a in statement by one John Ward, who had been a Stratford vicar during Shakespeare’s time, a week before Shakespeare’s death, Ward reported, ‘Shakespear, Drayton and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and it seems, drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted.’

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