BMCR 2005.10.14

Shakespeare and the Classics

, , Shakespeare and the classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xiii, 319 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521823455 $75.00.

O O O O that Shakespeherian rag — it has lots of tricky bits. Here’s one from Coriolanus. Volumnia to Virgilia (1.3.41-44):

The breasts of Hecuba,
When she did suckle Hector, looked not lovelier
Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood
At Grecian sword contemning.

Her unexpected juxtaposition puts everyone on edge, but the inevitable discussion seems to ignore the passage in Iliad 22 that would be among a Classicist’s first points of reference:

Hecuba then fell upon her knees,
Stript nak’t her bosome, shew’d her breasts and bad him reverence them
And pitie her — if ever she had quieted his exclaime,
He would ceasse hers and take the towne, not tempting the rude field
When all had left it …

(22.68-72, tr. Chapman)

It is a challenging association — two mothers, two pleas for two cities, two sons dead at the end — but are we right to make it? Shakespeareans who miss the opportunity may be revealing even smaller Latin and still less Greek than their Bard, but perhaps those of us with too much of them for our own good are simply mistaking a classical tree for a Renaissance forest. How to decide? Beneath the relatively simple problem of whether or how Shakespeare knew Homer lie more general problems of how he read and how he used what he read. Questions like that run deep and wide, but they will surely attract the notice of Classicists if, as the editors of the present volume claim, “the classics are of central importance in Shakespeare’s works and in the structure of his imagination” (2). What, then, does this collection have to say that is of particular interest to us?

It will be obvious at once that source-hunting is not what it was. The questions have gotten vastly more complex (and the answers a good deal more interesting) over the years. Having identified with reasonable precision what Shakespeare himself studied in school and read as an adult, scholars now increasingly consider how sixteenth-century readers in general acquired and used their knowledge of the classics. And that is just the beginning. As modern reappraisals of ancient authors and genres enter the picture, Renaissance scholars following our lead are able to recognize unexpected innovations and affinities between their texts and ours on ideological as well as aesthetic levels. Even more striking for Shakespeare in particular is the recognition that his presentation of classical antiquity itself informs our own view of the ancient world, with all the challenges and potential circularities that such a complex process of reception entails. Such realizations create opportunities for discussion across our departmental divides are genuinely exciting, and if the present collection did little more than represent the current variety of perspectives on the set of problems raised by its title, it would be valuable. But it does more.

After an introductory chapter on humanistic culture, the collection breaks into Latin and Greek parts, and within each part, groups of essays focus on individual authors or genres. Two final essays then discuss the reception in turn of Shakespeare’s classicism. The groupings work out like this:

Colin Burrow, “Shakespeare and humanistic culture” (9-27)

Vanda Zajko, “Petruchio is ‘Kated’: The Taming of the Shrew and Ovid” (33-48)

A. B. Taylor, “Ovid’s myth and the unsmooth course of love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (49-65)

Heather James, “Shakespeare’s learned heroines in Ovid’s schoolroom” (66-85)

Charles Martindale, “Shakespeare and Virgil” (89-106)

Wolfgang Riehle, “Shakespeare’s reception of Plautus reconsidered” (109-121)

Raphael Lyne, “Shakespeare, Plautus, and the discovery of New Comic space” (122-38)

Yves Peyré, ‘”Confusion now hath made his masterpiece’: Senecan resonances in Macbeth” (141-55)

Erica Sheen, ‘”These are the only men’: Seneca and monopoly in Hamlet 2.2″ (156-67)

John Roe, “‘Character’ in Plutarch and Shakespeare: Brutus, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony” (173-87)

Gordon Braden, “Plutarch, Shakespeare, and the alpha males” (188-205)

A. D. Nuttall, “Action at a Distance: Shakespeare and the Greeks” (209-222)

Stuart Gillespie, “Shakespeare and Greek Romance: ‘Like an old tale still'” (225-37)

Michael Silk, “Shakespeare and Greek Tragedy: strange relationship” (241-57)

David Hopkins, “‘The English Homer’: Shakespeare, Longinus, and English ‘neo-classicism'” (261-76)

Sarah Annes Brown, “‘There is no mend but addition’: the later reception of Shakespeare’s classicism” (277-93).

A bibliography arranged first by ancient author and genre and then by individual works of Shakespeare ends the book with well chosen suggestions for further reading (294-310).

All these essays are competent, though they are not all equally exciting. A few could probably have been written a century ago, and a few seem a little mechanical. Some authors may be coasting. Charles Martindale’s contribution on Shakespeare and Virgil, for example, shows that if you write enough on a subject over the years, you can always write a little more by engaging with your former self, while Gordon Braden brings his characteristic verve to the subject of Shakespeare and Plutarch with something less than his characteristic originality. Even so, masters are masters for a reason, and a digression like Martindale’s on why Virgil is so difficult to imitate (pp. 100-102) can excuse much. Occasionally, authors might have benefited from deeper engagement with contemporary classical scholarship. This is a perennial problem in discussions of Renaissance comedy, where the relevant truths about Greek New Comedy and its Roman variants are genuinely hard to determine, and distinguishing what Shakespeare took directly from Roman sources from what may have reached him through later Italian intermediaries is no easy task. (cf. BMCR 1995.10.21). It is very satisfying, however, to see recent work on Ovid, Seneca, and the romance applied with such good effect to specifically Renaissance problems. Even more striking is how some of the best essays here raise problems equally relevant to our own work as Classicists.

Take the question of reading. How should the parameters of an author’s engagement with texts affect the way critics then go about their business? When, as Colin Burrow points out, education is pragmatic, encouraging the use of commonplace books, anthologies, and phrase books to facilitate exercises in imitation and embellishment, the result even in later life can be unexpected, idiosyncratic, and sometimes leads to chance juxtapositions and associations. Content yields to form and style, so that ” what Shakespeare read (even if we could reconstruct it) matters less than how he read it — indeed the ‘how’ can often supplant the ‘what'” (20). Thus, in Burrow’s brilliant explication of the final, unsettling exchange between Lorenzo and Jessica ( MV 5.1.3-22: “in such a night…”), the issue becomes not whether their mythological allusions should be understood as ironic or romantic, i.e. the game Shakespeare plays with Ovid and audience members able to recall the Ovidian contexts, but how the tension between the lovers themselves works itself out through a competition in classical learning as their enthusiasm for knowledge makes classical allusions “part of the texture of conversation” (24). The powerfully charged negotiation between Jessica and Lorenzo trumps the old, shopworn question of authorial intent.1

“Author” is in any case a problematic concept in the Shakespearean context, and not only for the well known reason that everyone from playwright to producer to prompter to the pirate in the audience might claim a role in creating what became his printed texts. In a world before copyright, when concepts of originality and ownership were, if not confused, at least differently defined, it was not only the text but the role of its sources that can be difficult to establish. As Erica Sheen demonstrates in a deeply suggestive essay, concepts of property were matters of keen interest in Elizabethan England, and the patent debates of the time found a significant source of concepts and values in Seneca’s De beneficiis. Ideas of reciprocity and mutual benefit loomed large, and the contemporary model of exchange, along with the emerging Elizabethean concept of monopoly, Sheen suggests, can provide “a far more useful point of departure for an account of authorial transfer in the 1590s and 1600s than the concept of intertextuality” (161). The point is illustrated with analysis of the Player’s tale of Priam’s death in Hamlet 2.2, and while her theoretical statements can be opaque — a phrase like “a mode of authorial agency that figures its subsumption of other people’s labour into its private symbolic capital” will always give me the shakes — Sheen’s challenge to current modes of intertextual analysis and her twist on the New Historicists’ mode of social analysis demand serious attention.

An equally challenging nexus of ideas forms around matters of reception. This is probably inevitable when, as in the case of Michael Silk on Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, the investigator is so deeply versed in the subject being (or not being) received. The result in that case is no simple appeal to platitudes and truisms about “the tragic.” A keen sense of fifth-century tragedy as a performed art, not just as a read text, makes Silk especially sensitive to its essential strangeness, and the result is a powerful, nuanced argument for a “profound affinity” between these two instantiations of tragic experience rather than a more conventional “reception” by Shakespeare via Roman mediation of the Athenian genre. Another interesting bend in reception’s road is mapped by David Hopkins, who considers how later revaluation of the classics in turn affected the reception of Shakespeare. Hopkins concentrates on the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when Shakespeare was first distinguished from his contemporaries and became a “classic.” He argues that the strange adaptations and rewritings of Shakespeare in this period were the result not of neo-classical dogma but the response of practical men of the theater to the demands and expectations of contemporary audiences, and that Boileau’s translation of “Longinus” On the Sublime (1674) played a central role in making Shakespeare the English Homer. On this view, neoclassicism was more help than hindrance to Shakespeare’s reputation.

But what about Hecuba’s breasts and Hector’s forehead? Is there help for that kind of problem? It depends on the question asked. Little attention is paid to the old, though still relevant question of sources, viz. did (or how did) the English Homer know the Greek one?2 The answer is too well know: almost certainly not in Greek. French and Latin translation were available, and while Chapman’s English Iliad was not completed until 1611, Shakespeare knew Chapman and probably heard, perhaps even discussed with him drafts of a project launched in the 1590s. The Troy story was also widely known from William Caxton’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (1474) and John Lydgate’s The Troy Book (1513). Shakespeare, then, almost certainly knew some version of Iliad 22, but that just makes the problem worse. Or more intriguing. What Volumnia’s recollection suggests is not Hector’s death in the Iliad but his treacherous ambush by Achilles and the Myrmidons at the end of Troilus and Cressida : “contemning” reads almost like a stage direction for that very problematic scene (5.8).3 How do we explain that self-allusion? The present book does not discuss this particular problem — the allusion to Troilus here seems to have escaped comment altogether — but the kind of reading and writing that could produce this kind of “contaminatio” is very well documented in these essays. That is important. Anyone intrigued by such complexities of allusion and eager to understand how they can happen and what they can mean will need some help, and this volume is an excellent place to begin the search for it.


1. Burrow’s discussion represents a considerable advance over the kind of analysis found in Jonathan Bate’s Shakespeare and Ovid (1993) 154-7 and Charles Martindale in Shakespeare’s Ovid (2000) 203, though Heather James’ reference to the passage in this volume (71-2) then comes as a disappointment and a missed opportunity.

2. Nuttall 216-18 is a partial exception in a solid, traditional discussion of Shakespeare’s idea of Greeks and Greekness.

3. Editors generally cite the death of Troilus in Caxton’s Recuyell, 638-9 as its model and leave things at that. So, e.g., A. B. Dawson in the New Cambridge Shakespeare (2003) 256-8 and David Bevington in the New Arden (1998) 390. The play was performed by February 1603, though not published until 1609, while Coriolanus probably dates to 1608-9.