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Shakespeare the Classicist

The traditional view of Shakespeare is that he was a natural genius who had no need of art or reading. That tradition grew from origins which should make us suspect it. Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson famously declared that Shakespeare had ‘small Latin and less Greek’. (Although what he actually wrote, ‘Though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek’, could be interpreted as a counterfactual statement—‘even if it were the case that you had’—rather than a simple statement of truth.) John Milton called Shakespeare ‘fancy’s child’, who would ‘warble his native woodnotes wild’. Both of these writers wanted to be thought of as classically learned, and both of them were effectively inventing Shakespeare as their own opposite. Neither gives simply reliable testimony about the historical Shakespeare.

Shakespeare read widely in the vernacular. Almost all of the big, fashionable books which were printed during his working career—John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays, Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch, and Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles—are major sources for his plays. But he was also extremely well read by present-day standards in classical literature. We can be pretty sure he attended Stratford grammar school, where Latin literature was the main subject of study. At school and after he read a great deal of Ovid—who informs both the gruesomeness of Titus Andronicus (1593-4), the playfulness of Venus and Adonis (1593), and the seriousness of the later plays Cymbeline (1609-10) and The Tempest (1611-12). There is good evidence that he read and learned from Latin handbooks of rhetorical theory. His works also display knowledge of several tragedies by Seneca, and at least the first half of Virgil’s Aeneid. If you compared his knowledge of Latin literature with that of a recent classics graduate today, the chances are that Shakespeare would win the contest.

Why then was Shakespeare not regarded as a learned writer by his contemporaries? There are two main reasons. The first is that he did not have a university degree. Other writers from the Elizabethan period who did have degrees—or who, like Jonson, wanted to appear as though they did—often made a great show of their learning: they might quote in Latin, or make their readers know that they were using recent editions of classical texts. They also had a significant cultural investment in representing provincial grammar school boys as unlearned. So Shakespeare has been traditionally regarded as unlearned for one simple reason: cultural snobbery.

"The Plays of William Shakespeare" by Sir John Gilbert (1817-1897). Photo by Sofi,  CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.
“The Plays of William Shakespeare” by Sir John Gilbert (1817-1897). Photo by Sofi,
CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

The second main reason why the extent of Shakespeare’s classical reading was not fully appreciated until the twentieth century is that he chose to display the learning that he had in very distinctive ways. Before around 1600 he could sometimes allude to classical texts onstage in a deliberately clumsy or archaic style. So in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the play of Pyramus and Thisbe is a retelling of a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But instead of artfully displaying his knowledge of that classical text Shakespeare has a group of rustics enact it in a deliberately topsy-turvy low style. In Hamlet the player recites a speech about the death of Priam and the grief of Hecuba, which is based on Book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid. This is composed in an almost excessively ‘high’ style, with antiquated diction and heavy alliteration. In those two works Shakespeare seems to be exaggerating the distance between his own dramas and the classical past, and to be underplaying his intimacy with the classics.

But Shakespeare’s classical learning also went unappreciated for so long for a further reason. He tended to learn from what he read rather than simply echoing it. This means that the traditional method of identifying ‘sources’ and ‘borrowings’ by looking for precise verbal parallels is a very unreliable means of determining which texts mattered to Shakespeare. Classical comedy, for instance, clearly influenced how Shakespeare constructed plots and how he thought about the human imagination, even if there are not many direct allusions to specific lines by Plautus and Terence in his plays. The early work The Comedy of Errors (1592-3) does draw very directly on a play about twins and confusion called the Menaechmi by Plautus. It doubles up Plautus’s sets of twins in order to multiply the comic confusions, but it also complicates Plautus in other ways. The Menaechmi was principally concerned with material losses and confusions, but Shakespeare made from it a play in which people become confused about who they are and what they know. A few years later in Twelfth Night (1599-1600) questions about the psychology of love and identity become such pronounced elements in the play that the material confusions of Plautus seem to have been left far behind—although at least one of Shakespeare’s early audience, John Manningham of the Inner Temple, did record in his diary that the play was ‘much like the comedy of errors, or Menaechmi in Plautus’.

In his later tragedies and comedies of love Shakespeare continued to address a series of questions which had been provoked by his reading of Plautus: ‘who am I?’, ‘what do I know?’, ‘am I part of an illusion?’. Those questions are explored in Troilus and Cressida (1601-2), and take on a tragic dimension with the delusions of Othello (1604-5). They are central to his depiction, throughout his career, of human beings as subject to illusion, imagination, and desire. And those questions Shakespeare was first prompted to ask by his reading in classical comedy.

There is, though, a curious irony here. It was Shakespeare’s ability to see beneath his source material, extract principles from it, and transform those principles, that made him a great writer. But his ability to conceal and transform his reading had a secondary consequence: it made generations of readers fail to appreciate quite how learned Shakespeare actually was.

Recent Comments

  1. Richard M. Waugaman, M.D.

    I could not agree more. I hope everyone will read Collin Burrow’s excellent book, Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity (as well as his learned edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems). Why is Burrow’s explication of Shakespeare’s classical learning not more widely accepted? It seems to me that there is an implicit but unsavory effort to “dumb down” Shake-speare in order to fit the square peg of his learning into the round hole of the alleged grammar school education of Shakspere, the successful Stratford businessman. This does Shake-speare a great injustice.

    It’s high time that we re-Vere Shake-speare!

  2. Sicinius

    You’re not going to start all that Oxfordian nonsense again, are you? Here?

    In which case it’s high time for you to unf-Earl some evidence.

  3. […] world has been understood and interpreted since antiquity.  Not least of which was this excellent blog post by Colin Burrow, author of Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity, about how the Bard learned about […]

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