Shakespeare garnered a significant critical reputation among his peers that would long outlast the man himself. To this day, the name Shakespeare is widely recognized as not only the most famous but also the greatest writer the English language has ever known. As early as 1598 the intellectual and church rector Francis Meres declared Shakespeare to be the nation’s greatest poet, and another writer, John Weever, celebrated “honey-tongued Shakespeare.” Perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary rival was fellow dramatist and literary critic Ben Jonson. Jonson acknowledged that no one could equal Shakespeare’s comedies, but he took issue with several aspects of Shakespeare’s tragedies. His chief complaint related to Shakespeare’s failure to observe the three unities of Classical drama—that is, the unities of time, place, and action. In particular, Jonson felt that Shakespeare’s epic histories, which spanned long time periods and various geographies, compromised the tragic effect. Jonson also felt that Shakespeare’s characteristic mixture of the highbrow and the low, the courtly and the vulgar, marred his writing. Even so, Jonson clearly respected Shakespeare, as evidenced by an admiring elegy he wrote titled “To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Mr. William Shakespeare,” which appeared in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
For two centuries after his death, Shakespeare’s critical reputation suffered somewhat. In the seventeenth century, the poet and playwright John Dryden echoed many of the complaints that Ben Jonson had articulated. In particular, Dryden objected to certain improbabilities of plot and characterization, especially in Shakespeare’s later romances. Dryden also condemned Shakespeare’s lack of refinement and decorum, which he attributed to the fact that he had written his plays for audiences of mixed educational and class backgrounds. Dryden’s complaints about implausibility and impropriety were frequently echoed in the eighteenth century, though the influential Samuel Johnson, who edited Shakespeare’s works in 1765, also praised the playwright for the universality of his plays. Johnson’s praise marked a turning point in the critical history of Shakespeare’s reception, and by the time of the Romantic poets in the nineteenth century, he was once again lauded for his extraordinary creativity and evident genius. By the twentieth century, Shakespeare’s critical reputation was secure, and his plays became the subject of increasingly sophisticated historical and literary scholarship. In the twenty-first century, Shakespeare’s reputation remains as strong as ever, and his plays continue to be produced for both stage and screen.