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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VIII. Shakespeare: Life and Plays

§ 7. Value of the Meres list

The invaluableness of the Meres statement is that it provides us with a trustworthy and far reaching criterion between Shakespeare’s earlier and his later work. It is, of course, possible that Meres may not have known of some early pieces or may have omitted them by accident; but in a list already so considerable as his and, as in the case of the Sonnets, showing knowledge of a more than merely outside character, it is very improbable that he omitted much that was completed, publicly performed and notoriously Shakespeare’s. On the other hand, we have this early body of work “coted” and named as early. If we can discover any characteristics of the kind least likely to deceive—the characteristics of construction, style, prosody—which differ remarkably as wholes from those of the plays not named, or most of them, this will give us light of the most important and illuminative kind. If we can perceive that, in these same respects, the plays of the early list differ from each other singly or in groups—that there is evidence of the same progress and achievement inside the group as there is between it and plays like Hamlet, As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello—we may almost know that we are in the right path. And we may branch from it, though with caution and almost with fear and trembling, into comparison of the same kind with immediately preceding or contemporary writers, to obtain additional illustration and illumination.