Shakespeare And Classical Civilization
SHAKESPEARE AND CLASSICAL CIVILIZATION
The study of Shakespeare's use and conception of the classical past has become an increasingly important part of modern scholarship, which has taken as one of its goals the thorough delineation of the playwright's intellectual background. Beginning with T. W. Baldwin's monumental study, William Shakespeare's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke (1944), contemporary commentators have overturned the Romantic conception of Shakespeare as an untutored genius whose works were the result of inspiration rather than learning. By painstakingly examining the ways in which the Tudor educational system was shaped by the values of European humanism, scholars have demonstrated that Shakespeare in fact possessed an impressive grounding in Latin literature that informed virtually every one of his works. One-third of his plays have a classical setting; his entire oeuvre resonates with mythological references, echoes of Virgil, Ovid, and Seneca, and, occasionally, the direct importation of plot and dialogue from such authors as Plautus and Plutarch.
In the Roman history plays and the dramas set in the Greek world, Shakespeare clearly reveals a continuing fascination with classical culture and politics shared by Renaissance artists generally. Such Roman plays as Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus focus on what was for the Renaissance the nodal point of the European past: the Roman Republic and Empire. While earlier critics frequently dismissed Shakespeare's knowledge of Roman history and institutions, modern scholars, especially Robert Miola (1983), have persuasively agued that Shakespeare was sensitive both to Rome's political transformations over time and to the enduring coherence of its ideals, which included constancy, honor, and pietas.
By contrast, Shakespeare's portrayal of the Greek world in Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens has engendered far less critical commentary. A persistent but unresolved subject of debate has been whether Shakespeare was influenced directly by Greek tragedy, or indirectly through the Latin plays of Seneca. Additionally, some scholars have argued over Shakespeare's evaluation of the Greeks themselves. Many commentators have asserted that, like the majority of Renaissance writers, Shakespeare was heavily influenced by Roman perceptions and prejudices, which generally characterized the Greeks as dissolute and perfidious. Recently, however, Charles and Michelle Martindale (1990) have attempted to qualify this view, and have suggested that in composing Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare might have relied upon George Chapman's 1598 translation of part of Homer's Iliad. They conclude that, from whatever sources Shakespeare derived his knowledge of the Troy story, his rehandling of ancient material reveals a sensitive response to genuine Homeric themes.
John Arthos (lecture date 1970)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Ancient World," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. X, No. 3, Summer, 1971, pp. 149-63.
[In the following lecture, originally delivered at the University of Michigan in 1970, Arthos argues that Shakespearean drama represents the synthesis of classical source material and the medieval Christian imagination.]
There are many reasons for valuing Shakespeare, and one of them is the quality of his understanding. We read or see his plays in their all but unlimited wealth of interest and beauty, and they bring not only delight but the revelation of an understanding so embracing we can hardly credit it as within the power of a human. Dryden's praise says it best: "He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul."
When we ourselves reflect upon the place of Shakespeare in the history of the western world, we are often led to bring to bear what we know of his age, and when we make comparisons we commonly find ourselves comparing the civilization of Shakespeare's time with that of Homer's, say, whom Dryden had in mind as possibly Shakespeare's equal, supposing that their individual achievements represented in part the accomplishments of their different civilizations. We accordingly ask ourselves how much Christendom in general and the Renaissance in...
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Kenneth Muir (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Roman World," in The Literary Half-Yearly, Vol. XV, No. 2, July, 1974, pp. 45-63.
[In the essay below, Muir analyzes Shakespeare's handling of Roman themes, maintaining that despite certain trivial anachronisms, the playwright's "knowledge of the Roman world and of Roman literature was considerable."]
We have it on the authority of Ben Jonson that Shakespeare had small Latin and less Greek—which doesn't mean hardly any Latin and no Greek. Throughout the 18th century there were arguments about the extent of his knowledge of the Classics, arguments which were temporarily settled by the proof that he could have read most Latin authors in translation. But in the present century the various massive works by T. W. Baldwin have shown that Shakespeare apparently underwent an ordinary Grammar School training and that he had read a number of Latin works in the original. We know, for example, that he knew at least two of Plautus' plays—the Menaechmi and the Amphitruo. He made use of his knowledge in The Comedy of Errors, and as there are no verbal parallels with the translation of the former, it is reasonable to assume that he read the plays in the original. Baldwin has argued at length that Shakespeare had studied in editions of Terence his 5-Act structure; and, indeed, no Elizabethan grammar school boy could...
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Vergil And Ovid
Robert S. Miola (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Vergil in Shakespeare: From Allusion to Imitation," in Vergil at 2000: Commemorative Essays on the Poet and his Influence, edited by John D. Bernard, AMS Press, 1986, pp. 241-58.
[In the following essay, Miola explores the ways in which Shakespeare used and adapted the poetry of Vergil throughout his career.]
Surprisingly slight and desultory is the extant criticism on Vergil's presence in Shakespeare's art. Although Plutarch, Ovid, and Seneca have attracted much scholarly attention, no systematic study illuminates the complex and pervasive influence of Vergil on Shakespeare. Few have seriously considered the subject; fewer have navigated safely past the Scylla of broad, interpretive generalization and the Charybdis of narrow-minded quellenforschung. The general neglect derives partly from the obvious differences in genres and subjects of the two artists. It derives as well from the long-standing conception of Vergil as learned and meticulous craftsman and that of Shakespeare as Fancy's child, warbling native woodnotes wild. John Dryden recognized the contrast between the two orders of genius in his celebrated comparison of Shakespeare to Homer and Jonson to Vergil. And Joseph Addison sharpened and canonized the distinction by placing Shakespeare among those writers who possess nobly wild, extravagant, and natural talent, and...
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T. J. B. Spencer (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: "'Greeks' and 'Merrygreeks': A Background to Timon of Athens and Troilus and Cressida," in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, edited by Richard Hosley, University of Missouri Press, 1962, pp. 223-33.
[In the essay below, Spencer shows how Renaissance attitudes towards ancient Greece, derived ultimately from unfavorable accounts in Latin sources, informed Shakespearean drama.]
A few years ago, in a book which demonstrates the contribution of the classics to the literatures of modern Europe, an eminent classical scholar described Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida as a "distant, ignorant, and unconvincing caricature of Greece." Timon of Athens is still more outrageous as a representation of society in that city at the height of its civilization, when it was the "educator of Hellas." One can sympathize with the discomfort or indignation which has been felt by those whose ears and eyes are full of the glory of Homer and Plato and Thucydides, when they meet the rather objectionable personages of Shakespeare's plays. The difficulty is felt less and less, of course, as fewer Shakespeare critics are brought up on Homer and the rest. Most students nowadays gain their impressions of the tale of Troy divine primarily from Troilus and Cressida. Those are the impressions that...
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Barkan, Leonard. The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis & the Pursuit of Paganism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986, 398 p.
Detailed study of the importance of Ovid's Metamorphoses in Medieval and Renaissance literature that contains a lengthy discussion of Shakespeare's treatment of this material.
Bono, Barbara J. Literary Transvaluation: From Vergilian Epic to Shakespearean Tragicomedy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984, 264 p.
Study of the Vergilian influence in European literature from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance with a particular emphasis on Shakepseare's Antony and Cleopatra.
Braden, Gordon. Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger's Privilege. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, 260 p.
Analysis of the Senecan and Stoic presence in Renaissance tragedy, focusing in particular on Seneca's autarchic style of selfhood and rhetoric of power.
Brower, Reuben A. Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971, 424 p.
Highly regarded exploration of "probable analogies between the Shakespearian heroic and the Graeco-Roman heroic," containing detailed information on Shakespeare's sources.
Bush, Douglas. "Classical Myth in Shakespeare's Plays." In Elizabethan...
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