William Shakespeare Shakespeare And Classical Civilization - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)


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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 particular contributed to the forming of this magnificent work, and when the comparison with the ancients comes into our minds we find ourselves relating what we judge to be the special worth of the contemporary culture to each of them. We do this because much is at stake, for in this way we are attempting to discover the wisdom we can make our own.

There is, of course, a certain provinciality in this modern method of pursuing understanding; but on the key matter—what Dryden calls comprehensiveness of soul, which we translate as a grasp of the range and meaning of human experience—we cannot misconceive the question at issue: does Renaissance Christendom sustain a wisdom as great or greater than antiquity's? If Shakespeare, say, is able to find his way beyond all that would limit him in the thought of his time, does he yet receive from it more to light up his understanding than Homer had, or Plato? Shakespeare participated in the movement of his era in absorbing much of the thought of antiquity, and, no doubt, he found as everyone does that the serious study of the pagan past, inviting emulation, sometimes led to the rebuttal of Christian claims—sometimes the ancient wisdom appeared the better. The old illustration is the telling one—a famous Renaissance humanist was said to have kept on the walls of his study icons of Socrates and Christ, burning a candle before each. He hoped neither would take offense at the honor done the other, although the chances are he knew he could not have it both ways.

Without arguing that Shakespeare so completely expressed the wisdom of his age, that he was in fact matching the depth of understanding the ancients had gained from then-experience, I shall bring forward a few matters centering around his use of classical writing that may help us take the measure of his achievement. Shakespeare will not generally set himself up as a champion of his age, and he will not be challenging Homer on his own ground, however much audiences in recent years are taking his Troilus and Cressida as an image of the horror of the time and of all time, Homer's and his own and ours. Nevertheless, in his baptism for the stage, in The Comedy of Errors, he does begin as one who will outdo the ancients at their own game, and if we should think this taking off from a boisterous Roman comic writer an inappropriate beginning for someone who will ultimately call forth such ideas as Dryden brings into view, we shall be missing much of what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare.

The first theatrical undertaking was nothing if not an outgrowth of humanist education. For about a century everywhere in Europe, schoolboys studying Latin had been putting on the plays of Plautus. Plautus offered the most engaging of opportunities for learning to master the language and for becoming acquainted with a strange and wonderful form of drama. At the same time his plays were being produced at the courts of princes, and everywhere—in Italy, France, England, Spain, Germany—translations and adaptations were among the most powerful forces at work in displacing medieval forms. And just as in his own time he made over Greek originals into the liveliest representations of the city life of the Romans, so Ariosto and Shakespeare and later Molière translated the crowded life of the piazzas of Rome and Syracuse into the squares of Ferrara and the river-side of London and the alleys of Paris, with all the up-to-date jargon of young men's chaffing and the lingo of courtship and the high-toned moralizing of parents. With Shakespeare, the most vivid and imaginative Latin was bathed in the well-spring of the richest of modern languages.

In The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare was working chiefly with Plautus's Menaechmi, although he also drew on at least two others of his plays. The Latin prologue tells us that some years before, as children, twin brothers had been separated from each other in a crowd, and one was given up for lost. The father died of grief shortly thereafter; but when the son who had remained with him reached manhood he took a sea-journey in the hope of finding his lost brother. The play begins with his arrival at a port where it happens that his twin is indeed alive and established, although he does not yet know this, and before he discovers him he encounters a variety of persons who take him for his brother. We are, therefore, treated to a comedy of mistaken identity in which all sorts of confusions are as amusing to us as they are discomfiting to the characters themselves, and these include a badly baffled wife and a badly baffled mistress. Everything is straightened out finally, of course; the brothers are delighted beyond imagination in discovering each other, and the women—who somehow are at fault for having added to the difficulties—are put in their proper place. Plautus is most hilarious when he is teasing them.

Shakespeare took over most of this but complicated it elaborately. He provided the twin brothers at their birth with twin servants. The separation came not in a crowd but when they were all on a sea-voyage with their parents. There was a shipwreck. The twins, each with his servant, are picked up by different ships, and the parents are also separated. So when Shakespeare's play begins, a young man and his servant arrive at a port where each is mistaken for his counterpart, and in the encounters that follow the confusions are, of course, multiplied. The outrageousness of this profligate doubling of the causes of confusion is made more humorous by the preposterousness of the initial circumstances, two sets of identical twins, dressed identically, speaking identically, each master quarreling with the wrong servant, and all the rest. Then, the happiness of the final recognition is multiplied by other unions, the restoration of the father of his wife and of parents to children. Also, another young and virtuous woman is introduced in place of the mistress in Plautus's play to provide the occasion for a new marriage to add to the other happiness. The idea is obviously that we cannot have too much of a good thing, and if there are to be mistaken identities let's have them compounded, and if there are to be happy reunions to end the whole adventure in joy let's have a stage full.

But there is much more to this amplification than mere multiplying. Shakespeare might simply have presented us with an arbitrarily crowded plot, but he did something much more, he let us know that some power was at work in these misadventures and in their very multiplicity, or at least that there were grounds for supposing so; and the audience, so differently from that attending to Plautus, is being brought to think of all this as somehow the demonstration of mysterious influences making use of the confusion, turning it all to good. At the very end of the play, the mother, who in exile had become the head of an abbey, is shown to us as a seer and as skilled in magic. In summing up all that has led to the final resolution, she bears a rudimentary likeness to Prospero, the magician in The Tempest who had manipulated the lives of a number of persons in accord with what he had been able to learn about the intent of destiny, and in this play the Abbess speaks of the incidents of the comedy as "this sympathizèd one day's error:"

And all that are assembled in this place,

That by this sympathizèd one day's error
Have suffered wrong, go, keep us company,
And we shall make full satisfaction.

By this she means to say that all these separations and encounters and unions, properly regarded, are to be known as magically ordered; that the incidents have followed each other not by chance but in accord with something like a magnetic principle, the apparently random elements falling into a pattern as by a sorcerer's mischief. Her observation comes late, and although it may appear gratuitous we in the audience are glad to accept the moral she is drawing for us, since, as any audience, we are disposed to accept happiness as the due of those we have come to care for, particularly when they are attractive and bewildered. For a little while at least we are delighted to entertain the idea that a providential magic could make it all turn out well, destiny mysteriously shaping the ends of the playthings of fortune to a happy conclusion, an appropriate enough fancy for a play that has been preposterous to begin with.

Even the language carries a hint of what in a later work will be called "the prophetic soul of the wide world dreaming of things to come," and there is already here the sense of what The Winter's Tale calls

as strange a maze as e'er men trod,
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of.

And throughout the play, as a matter of fact, there have been a number of things that would prepare us to take the idea of a sympathizèd plan as something more than an old wives' superstition brought forward to justify the happy ending comedy requires. Character after character, vexed to tears by the confusion, began to wonder if he was going out of his mind:

Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking, mad, or well advised?
Known unto these, and to myself disguised?

He might be speaking the same words as Ferdinand in The Tempest:

My spirits, as in a dream, are all bound up.
My father's loss, the weakness which I feel,
The wreck of all my friends.

Or he would wonder if the other fellow was mad:

Wast thou mad
That thus so madly thou didst answer me?

They had already begun to think that sorcerers were at work, or as strangeness followed upon strangeness, that they were living out a dream. One after another fell into such musing, and any audience is bound to sympathize, for even as we laugh we are remembering how we too at times have wondered whether life might not turn out to be a dream or a nightmare.

Plautus had offered us reasoned ideas about a world in which all was fated, where all men knew that they are blind, and that their destiny is inescapable, and what was left was hardly more than the opportunity for humans to outwit each other. The divine is real enough, and there are gods aplenty, often coming on the stage, but there is nothing mysterious about them although they sometimes act peculiarly, and in any event they are not at all interested in orchestrating the affairs and errors of men either towards some final happiness or towards destruction. If they do interfere, as likely as not it is because they are in a mood for joking. There is never any doubt that Plautus conceives of the gods as creatures glorious beyond imagination, however little care they have for mortals. And Shakespeare, here as almost always excluding the gods themselves from his plays, nevertheless depends on the idea of a magical power like theirs at work among men.

And more than that, as a power within the soul. The sister of the wife of one of the twins mistakenly supposes the man before her is her sister's husband, and in scolding him she makes his head spin, the more so since he is coming to feel her attraction. His cry of protest at her reviling tells of the deepest hurt, for she seems to be challenging his central faith, that he bears within him that which properly honored will either enable him to live in harmony with the powers that rule the world, or cause him to defy them:

Against my soul's pure truth why labor you
To make it wander in an unknown field?

This is an idea that will guide one after another of the characters in other plays that Shakespeare will present to our sympathy. In his Troilus there is the same reliance upon "so eternal and so fixed a soul":

Whiles other fish with craft for great opinion,
I with great truth catch mere simplicity;
Whilst some with cunning gild their copper
With truth and plainness I do wear mine bare.
Fear not my truth; the moral of my wit
Is "plain and true."

And later, in The Winter's Tale, the identical affirmation is at the center of the young lovers' resolve, their "wild dedication of [themselves] to unpathed waters, untried shores," sustained by the faith that the wilderness of the world, if they are true to themselves, will become a garden of delight and peace:

I cannot be
Mine own, nor any thing to any, if
I be not thine: to this I am most constant,
Though destiny say no.

The conviction that they are vessels of a holy truth carries for all such as these the need for the blessing of the universe. It may not turn out so, and Troilus and many another may find himself lost and abandoned—like Hamlet cast naked upon the sea-shore—but in more than one play, as it is at the beginning, in The Comedy of Errors, and at the end, in The Tempest, someone with the power of a seer, like the Abbess and Prospero, will declare that fortune is indeed in harmony with purity of affection when it is truly constant, and life itself will demonstrate that the course a person so dedicated proposes for himself is in fact laid out by the very power at work in the world of events.

Plautus, too, in contriving a play in which each coincidence and each mistake is more outrageous than the last will lead his audience to wonder whether sorcerers are not behind it all, but no more than Homer would he ever lead us to suppose that what this or that young fellow takes to be an infallible guide is indeed what the universe actually has in mind for him. It would never occur to Plautus even to point to a consciousness in Caliban-like creatures dreaming of things to come, whether or not it should turn out to be delusion, and no young traveller will hear strange music and be led on by half-images of other-worldly felicity, as if some Lorelei had come to Ephesus to drown him with her in a golden sea, as Shakespeare's bemused twin does as he pleads with his enchantress:

Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote;
Spread o'er the silver waves thy golden hairs;
And as a bed I'll take them, and there lie,
And, in that glorious supposition, think
He gains by death that hath such means to die—

anticipating the heavenly hopes of both Antony and Cleopatra, that eternal felicity.

At this very point, Shakespeare is also going beyond Plautus in a matter of equally great importance to his entire undertaking. Plautus himself had an uncommonly fine sense of the tenderness as well as the strength of human love, and I think he gave Shakespeare the lead he wanted on this very matter although he himself could not have conceived of the happiness Shakespeare took into view. The hint for bringing this unearthly loveliness into this high-spirited comedy came from another play of Plautus's, the Rudens. Here there is a scene like that with which The Tempest was to begin, where two men from the shore are watching a storm tear a ship to pieces. They see survivors, two women, cast loose on a raft, and as it turns out these are being saved for a glorious fate.

This story and its beauty had their origin in a Greek romance where a mother and small daughter are cast afloat in a chest. They become separated after the rescue, the mother to devote her lonely life as a priestess to Diana, but at the end husband and daughter are restored to her. So, in The Comedy of Errors, a hint from the Rudens, more than that from ancient romances, and something else from Plautus's Amphitryon, where gods are mistaken for men and where they lend to the loves of humans something of their own splendor, still another spirit from the ancient world is contributing beauty and poignancy to Shakespeare's comedy, enrichening that central affirmation at the heart of his idea of human character, the idea of the soul's truth.

The Greek romances, tales of marvelous adventure, of shipwrecks, of maidens abducted by brigands, of idyllic love affairs, asserted their charm upon Plautus as upon almost everyone, and through him and through all the translations and adaptations of later times the stories of Daphnis and Chloe and Theagenes and Chariclea and Cupid and Psyche presented to the Elizabethans one of the most attractive of visions, men and women like young gods and goddesses escaping every Odyssey-like vicissitude the fancy could create, ending in loves of incomparable fineness and delicacy. As it was said of Daphnis and Chloe:

In so much as with the birds they sang, seeing the kids leap, they danced, and after the bees they gathered flowers with some part whereof they trimmed their breasts, and of others made pretty small chaplets the bravest of which they carried unto the nymphs and therewith crowned their heads. Finally as it were united in one continued link of amity, these seemly portraitures of well-pleasing youth lovingly always accompanied each other.

Such descriptions helped Shakespeare and many another to conceptions even more fresh and rich than the medieval romances discovered, so that what we call romantic love in Shakespeare becomes, thanks to them, an expression not only of the wonder inherent in human affection but of a flower-like delicacy. In The Comedy of Errors the interest of imbroglio and intrigue in the end is subdued to affection with just such a charm, to, in the play's phrase, a "glorious supposition"—that is to say, to the assurance that glory is the end of all such wandering as these young people were forced to, that glory is the end of all travail, too, such as the old father and mother suffered. In the very process of the world's ways, the heart's desire is fulfilled. And the more one reads the tragedies and the last plays, the more such a notion seems to have the quality of a vision, never to be effaced from Shakespeare's mind.

It is no wonder such a tradition affected him so profoundly that it would guide him to the masterpieces of his last years—The Winter's Tale and The Tempest—since it left its mark even upon the Book of Acts in the New Testament, but the specially fortunate thing is that it made itself known to him at the beginning of his career, and that he was able to divine how that spirit could be made to accord with the spirit of the Roman comedies that were providing him with his first materials and with a governing form for his art.

And having assimilated so much, Shakespeare did something wholly extraordinary—he gave the idyllic a Christian cast.

At the end, when the Abbess speaks of the new life that lies before them all after their trials, she uses words of unmistakably Christian reference. "Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail," she begins, putting herself in the role of a figure almost like Providence responsible for the new life they are now to have, but by the particular number of years she introduces the most unexpected suggestion of the life of Christ. And by the phrase she is now to use, "gossip's feast," together with some other terms, she seems to be speaking of the festivities traditionally accompanying baptisms:

Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail
Of you my sons, and till this present hour
My heavy burden ne'er delivered.
The duke, my husband, and my children both,
And you the calendars of their nativity,
Go to a gossip's feast, and joy with me,
After so long grief, such felicity.

Evidently even in this high-spirited entertainment, and at the very end, Shakespeare wanted to suggest that something more than fancy underlay the comic mixups and the romantic matter alike, as if to say that in a play where confusion and dreams and the thought of madness crowd each other in the midst of the aspirations of love and the terror at the loss of love, it was only right to be reminded that Christian faith might have something to say about it all, something about rebirth in the course of life. A modern audience might think these suggestions superfluous, even inappropriate, nevertheless they are there, and while they represent no diminution to the fantastic character of the play they do show that Shakespeare wants us to remember that he has made an ancient work his own, and that in doing so he is bringing into it something of central importance to his own civilization. For the moment, in these few words, he is pleased merely to startle us just as he is bringing his high-spirited farce to an end; but knowing where his career is to lead him, we can see that here at the very beginning, he is somehow drawn to bring to light matters that will engage his mind and his capacious sympathies to their limits before he is through.

The fact is, however, that even before such an open expression of ideas alien to his classic model the play manifested in its very style a character the antithesis of the classic spirit, and this the very luxuriance with which he transformed the rather simple action of his original, the duplication of characters and episodes and the crowding of the scene. This luxuriance was Shakespeare's heritage from medieval Christendom, an indication in his very first writing of the radical difference in the habit of his imagination from an ancient pattern he would never accept in its own terms, however much it gave him.

It has often been remarked that the statuary of antiquity—the Apollo's and Aphrodite's, the Roman portraits, even the friezes—are dedicated to solitude. This is central to their power over us, part of what we value as almost nothing else, the simple loneliness of even the Winged Victory, and what holds us in admiring the Aphrodite from Milos is as much as anything the idea of the soul left to itself. That same air of the object separated out from everything but the mere air and light is the quality even of the drama. And the art of the medieval age speaks of the very opposite. As for the sculpture, the figures of the portals of Chartres proclaim the glory of God even while they breathe with sympathy for every living thing, for leaves and acorns and animals and flowers, creation in all its abundance is the signature on every stone. And what is crowding Shakespeare's stage now and hereafter is the same sense of the abundance of life, of the inexhaustible plenitude of all-creating nature—multiplying twins now, later writing plays with half a dozen pairs of lovers; when there are shepherds and shepherdesses, there are all kinds from the most elegantly imaginative to the coarsest; when there are plays of chivalry and welt-politik, the stage will also accommodate clowns and petty crooks; dramas of dynastic conflict will involve ghosts from Hell and images of Heaven; and a scene relating the most horrible of murders will be followed by a comic picture of a drunken porter imagining himself the gate-keeper of Hell; a play focusing upon a man driven mad by the ingratitude of his daughters will be accompanied by another action showing a father most cruelly abused by a son. The lavishness, in scene, in incident, in language, in thought, knows no limits. One might think the vitality of Plautus himself inexhaustible, but there is nothing to set against the God's plenty of almost any scene of Shakespeare's so much as Saint Mark's in Venice or Chartres Cathedral.

And this magnificent generosity is not matched even by Homer, not only because it is permeated with the idea of great-creating nature but because all the children of nature in Shakespeare's world are bound to each other in a mesh from which they can hardly free themselves even in death. This "sympathièd one day's error," this insubstantial pageant, this very universe in which affection answers to affection and in accord with its own truth and with the universe that sanctions it, gives body and tone and meaning not only to the comedies, whether or not they include specific Christian allusions, but to the tragedies also where it becomes the matter that is at issue, whether men as they live their lives find themselves trammeled up inextricably in nature's bonds, or whether, by death or by an act of will, they are able to free themselves of it, or are condemned to free themselves of the magic force that works to shape them as it would. The luxuriance of the Shakespearean scene, the profligacy with which his imagination elaborates upon the simplest of adventures and yet finds a proper form, is the character of imagination medieval Christendom conferred upon its descendants. It is a character of imagination and viewpoint the very opposite of that exquisite solitude that is the hall-mark of ancient art.

And so it is not only luxuriance and plenitude he brings to the re-creation of the already rich world of Plautus, it is the sense of the charm of life, of its magical attractiveness, and most especially of the contentment people find in each other. Underlying all the trouble of separation and confusion and recrimination, there is the sense that if the twin could find his brother, the father his wife and sons, it would all once more be as it was in the golden world, where men did fleet the time carelessly, happy simply with each other's presence. The same sense is everywhere in Shakespeare, in those young lords of Love's Labor's Lost conjuring up the idea of an academy in which bound together in affection and trust they might give themselves to study. It is in that first stunning scene in Hamlet where the soldiers are changing guard. Horatio joins them, and later Hamlet, and they speak to each other with the simplicity and trustfulness of children, but they are of course not children but men, and as men they treat each other as though the only element they knew was truth. As the play goes on, it is Hamlet and the world itself that bring doubts upon the possibility that men can count on trust, yet in Hamlet and Horatio themselves it is the air they breathe, the spell that is never loosed. In The Winter's Tale, there is more vileness in the causes of the separations of man and wife and friend and child than the wretches of The Comedy of Errors knew of, and what it was all about was the denial of just such simplicity and comradeliness as the twins and the good brother in As You Like It and Horatio have become the symbols of. Only here, that original peace, though poisoned once, returns again in the course of time, the friends whom it was once thought neither matter nor malice could sever, are reunited in a general amity, evil and outrage have been endured, and a state of holiness—the king's own language—returns. At the beginning and at the end, all strive, and nature helps, to prevent an old man and an old woman from dying alone, not only is there such need to be together, there is such joy as the very endowment of life. All poetry, of course, most certainly ancient, celebrates all the excellence life contains, but in Shakespeare that excellence is not in the Greek virtue of arete or in heroism or even glory so much as in the simplest trust, the simplest acceptance of others for the truth that is in them, when it is.

And again, it is no mere postulate that men require this in order to communicate with each other, it is a quality as it were permeating their thought and feelings, like the air that is spoken of in The Winter's Tale, "The climate delicate, the air most sweet," the inhabitants grave, reverent, most beautiful.

It comes down to this: The sense of God's bounty and the idea of harmony between an individual's conviction of sacred truth and the world itself are transforming the ancient material that is giving Shakespeare his beginning, and he is himself so conscious that he is doing this that in the very re-creation of an ancient model he brings forward reminders of a wholly other dispensation and wonder than was known to antiquity. He does this to begin with in The Comedy of Errors, apparently arbitrarily, almost capriciously, but when we observe how, as his work proceeds, he is to plumb every depth he knows of in that contrast we are drawn to believe that from the beginning Shakespeare understood that, before it was over with, he would labor to meet all the claims of thought itself even as he was giving his fancy its head.

As I see it, there is then a metaphysical substance to this first comedy that is the substance of the entire Shakespearean work, and I can now only scantily point to what I think is to be made of it in the tragedies, the more particularly in order to lead up to that with which I began, the confrontation of Shakespeare's wisdom with that of the ancients. To speak briefly, then.

In trying to get the mob in Coriolanus to come to its senses, a patrician has cited the figure of speech in which he likens the senate to the belly of a human body and the other parts of the state to various other members of the body. The point was that the body politic is indeed like the human body, the different organs have their functions, all depend upon the others, no one should take offense at the flourishing of the other—in this instance, the laboring classes must recognize their dependence upon those who provide them with work, and each class must perform its own duty in order for the whole to prosper. The figure of speech came from antiquity—from a Greek Sophist, from Euripides, from the Stoics—but it took on a new meaning in Saint Paul who used it to affirm the Christian idea of the divinity present in Creation: "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have all been made to drink into one spirit. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it."

Shakespeare's play, taking up the figure from Livy and Plutarch, might have left it as a mere analogy of society to an organism, but he did much more. He put it at the heart of the central question of the play—How free is a human being to cut himself off from kin, from affection, from nature, and from whatever it is that brought him into being? The answer will turn upon Coriolanus's discovery that he is bound more rootedly to nature and to kin than even to pride. When he is set on making the break, he boasts

… I'll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand
As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.

He all but succeeded, and, I think, being the nobleman he was, he carried his resolve farther than Iago or Edmund were able to in the same undertaking, cutting himself off from what had nursed and sustained him, family and country both, staring down every claim of the affections, like another Sartre establishing himself in the great void. But even in his negation Cariolanus was unable to think of himself as uncreated, and the very idea of instinct he associated with the thought of a creator who has in the process of creation bound all his creatures together. And when Coriolanus speaks to his wife, addressing her in what Professor Price spoke of as the most glorious expression of love in all Shakespeare, "Best of my flesh," he uses terms that require a mystical explanation, himself incarnate in another as she in him. And when he is finally overcome by his mother's appeal, it is because, as he says, the gods scorn a separation so "unnatural."

The conclusion we must draw from all this is that nature itself contains the law and the prophets, it guides, sanctions, and destines. It is too much to claim that this is the very Spirit Saint Paul names as the life in the body and its members, but one must nevertheless observe that Coriolanus asserts that the gods themselves uphold nature's authority. The figure of speech of the patrician at the beginning of the play has passed far beyond the character of a rhetorical device to point to the governing metaphysic of the drama, and as such it represents an extension and a deepening of the idea of Shakespeare's earliest writing, that a glorious supposition underlies the flux of events and all that we credit to fortune. What it once pleased Shakespeare, in order to please us, to represent as a dream or a magic spell, it now pleases him to call nature. The tragic crises follow as one protagonist after another falls in the discovery that the soul's truth may not square with what nature requires of him and of all men, sometimes through his mistaken sense of truth, and always because nature, like fortune, has more in mind for him than he can ever know.

Once more, in short, we are being entertained with the thought that if we could but view it rightly we should know that the world was all of a piece. In his beginning work, it was enough for Shakespeare to appeal to magic, and in his final comedy to speak of the entire universe as an insubstantial pageant conjured up by a magician if not by Providence—

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep—

but in the tragedies, where fancy is allowed to play a less important part and where the issues of life as most of us understand them are met squarely, the dominant assertion is of the unity of great-creating nature itself. Hamlet was unable to drive from his mind the presence and authority of the one who begot him. Lear could not learn how to disown his daughters. Coriolanus cried

Out, affection!
All bond and privilege of nature, break!

And it never happened. The rich and various and holy life of nature allows no one to break free of it, not even Iago.

It is in King Lear, however, that the prospect is offered us of nature itself and all that it contains like the insubstantial pageant disappearing into the great void, fading away and leaving not a trace. Lear prays that the universe will dissolve, that all the seeds in nature will dry up, that there shall be no more life, to give the lie to all such as he who have put their trust in creation. What might have...

(The entire section is 14965 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 23572 words.)

Vergil And Ovid

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 16930 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 22632 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 728 words.)