“On Shakespeare” develops the primary theme of immortality through artistic creation. A commonplace idea in Renaissance and seventeenth century poetry, it is pervasive in Shakespeare’s sonnets, which celebrate a poet’s power to endow the subject with immortality. The theme also commonly appears in the poems prefatory to various folio editions of Shakespeare’s poetic works. Its widespread use, however, does not mean that it lacked special meaning for Milton. From his student days at Cambridge University, Milton made fame through art a motif in his lyric poetry, and he later introduced the theme into his prose works as well. As one who sought fame through poetic achievement, he found it congenial to proclaim that Shakespeare had already attained it. However, Milton surpasses the conventional treatment of the theme by adding another minor but pervasive motif in Renaissance poetry, that of metamorphosis or transformation. Evidence of Shakespeare’s genius is to be found in the bard’s ability to transform readers, to take them out of themselves with wonder and admiration and, metaphorically, render them marble. Milton realized that the power of transformation traditionally represented a divine attribute and a source of inspiration.
A further significant theme emerges from Milton’s characterization of Shakespeare’s creative imagination. Though his references to Shakespeare are limited, Milton became an early proponent of the view that Shakespeare was a naturally gifted genius, more a product of nature than of art. At its extreme, it depicted the bard as a pure and unlearned genius surpassing all the dicta of art. As applied to Shakespeare, the point of view can be traced to the writings of Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson, though Jonson, the consummate artist, suggests in Timber: Or Discoveries Made upon Men and Matter (1641) that Shakespeare’s ignorance of the classics and canons of art is a flaw. With Milton, however, there is no hint of disapproval. Milton celebrates Shakespeare’s “easy numbers” and, in “L’Allegro,” refers to Shakespeare as “Fancy’s child” who warbles “his native woodnotes wild.” In the epitaph, Milton draws a sharp contrast between art and nature: “For whilst to th’ shame of slow-endeavoring art/ Thy easy numbers flow” (lines 9-10). Shakespeare thus achieves the effects of ease while ignoring the canons of art.