Lost London 234 by Vic Keegan: Michael Drayton, Shakespeare’s lost rival

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He was as prolific as the Bard and had much in common with him, but he is little remembered today.

It is the story of a tanner’s son who traveled to London and wrote famous poetry and plays and returned regularly to his native Warwickshire. He also acquired a share in a playhouse and is memorialized at Westminster Abbey. Do not meet William Shakespeare, whose biography is so similar, but his contemporary Michael Drayton.

Drayton is little known today, but in his day he was a rival of Shakespeare and almost as famous. He lived in Fleet Street between St Dunstan’s Church and the turnoff to Fetter Lane (pictured above), not far from where Izaac Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, lived. His house was also close to the theater he invested in, which was part of the Whitefriars Monastery building between Fleet Street and the River Thames, part of which can still be seen.

At the National Portrait Gallery there are usually paintings by Shakespeare, Jonson and Drayton on display nearby. Drayton is the one with laurels around his headan acknowledgment that he was once a candidate for the then unofficial role of Poet Laureate.

William Drummond, a friend of Jonson’s, said that Drayton would “in all likelihood live as long as…the men spoke English”. One of my favorite lines is: “Since there is no help, come on, let’s kiss and part” – a one-sentence mini-story.

Drayton was nothing if not prolific. As well as voluminous poems, he co-wrote around 20 plays but, unlike Shakespeare’s canon, most of these are lost. The only surviving piece he contributed to talks about the medieval soldier and leader of the Lollards, Sir John Oldcastle. Once erroneously published under Shakespeare’s name, it was written as a response to an unflattering portrayal of Oldcastle in Shakespeare’s play. Henry IV Part 1 (It also offended one of Oldcastle’s influential descendants, which forced Shakespeare to change the name of Oldcastle to John Falstaff). Meghan C. Andrews, writing in the Shakespeare Quarterly, suggests that five or six of the plays in which Drayton was involved were “direct responses or influenced by the work of Shakespeare”.

Drayton’s masterful work, Poly Olbion, is one of the most extraordinary poems in the English language. This is partly because of its length (15,000 lines in iambic pentameter), partly because of the time it took to write (30 years), and partly because of the subject matter. It is a topographical epic on the history of England and Wales, described by EM Forster as “the incomparable poem”. Drayton began this Herculean task around 1598, when Shakespeare was in full swing. The poem may be about to be reevaluated. The University of Exeter participated in a major study of Poly-Olbion, to be published in about a year.

On 23 December 1631 Drayton died in his house in Fleet Street almost penniless, his form of pastoral poetry having fallen out of fashion. Yet he was so highly regarded by his contemporaries that, according to the antiquary William Fulman: “The gentlemen of the four Innes of the court and other notables of the city accompanied his body to Westminster”. He was buried in Westminster Abbey alongside a plaque of Ben Jonson (whose actual body is buried upright elsewhere in the building).

As far as Drayton is remembered today, it is because of a drinking session with Shakespeare and Jonson in a Stratford-upon-Avon tavern in 1616, as a result of which Shakespeare is said to have died. Few took this story seriously, as it is based on remarks made by the local parish priest more than 40 years after Shakespeare’s death, although some of his contemporaries were still alive.

Perhaps then these were unreliable memories. But I have reached the age where although I have trouble remembering what happened 10 minutes ago, I remember much more clearly events 40 or 50 years in the past. I put down my file.

All previous episodes of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here and a book containing many of them can be purchased here. Follow Vic on Twitter.

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