Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14965
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
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 concluded as dignity and sufficiency in the acceptance of solitude becomes raving torment as the hope grows that life itself may be annihilated. And as Lear brings his curses down upon the world, we see that Shakespeare is setting the stage for a full-dress contrast of pagan and Christian understanding. Up to a point the play, as much as Julius Caesar or Coriolanus, is a scrupulous representation of what Shakespeare supposes to be constant in the history of humanity, the irreducibly human apart from what Christianity was to bring forward, but after that point new conceptions are being brought before us.
Throughout the play, the idea that the ties of kinship and love are one, that they are the ties of nature itself, is at the very heart of Lear's suffering. When love fails, nature fails, and pain becomes despair. In his anguish, Lear questions whether nature is not at fault in requiring love from us, whether nature does not feed upon itself and set the world at cross purposes. The bastard Edmund, man as fox or wolf or viper, may claim to be nature and all that nature is, a predatory energy. And when Lear brings his curse down upon all creation and when we for our part begin to think he is praying uselessly since the world is already plainly doomed and chaos has already returned, and truth is a hollow word, when we begin to agree with him that nature is as careless as fortune itself of what men hold sacred, in her and in themselves and in what binds them all together, Shakespeare introduces suggestions of quite another order than nature's. He does this in part through an extension of the rhetorical device he used in the first comedy when the Abbess made her apparently arbitrary Christian allusions, and he does this as much to sound the depths of Christian hope as to sound despair.
When Kent sees the old King in his terrible suffering, he bursts forth in horror—
O thou side-piercing sight!
It is a pointed anachronism, more pointed than that of the Abbess. Shakespeare wants to have us consider that human suffering can be as terrible as that God Himself is said to have known. That any suffering easily takes on the character of the intolerable is everyone's experience, and antiquity in the story of the immortal Prometheus exposed to vultures and the sun and the night cold tells us that much, but the image Shakespeare conjures up is meant to be even more horrible. The point it makes in a play ostentatiously pagan is that humanity itself knows the last extremity of suffering, that nature does not only endure, it is the cause of suffering, and death is its beloved tool; that our recognition of this brings all mankind to its knees in sympathy and in supplication—whether vain or not—but to the unregenerate Kent, the normal, decent man, it can only signify the uselessness of the sympathy of human for human, nature being what it is.
In all but the last words of the play, Kent will again bring forth thoughts that point directly to the Christian story—
I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
My master calls me, and I must not say no.
He means, for one thing, that Lear is asking him to join him in death—it is a kind of crazed way of saying he wants to die. But the words also point ironically to the faith of the Christian in eternal solace, ironically since Kent himself has no such faith. There is instead the hope that death will be nothingness.
In the horror of the sight of the dead Cordelia in the arms of the destroyed father, it is Kent again who brings forward the Christian suggestion, this time of Doomsday—
Is this the promised end?
And Edgar intensifies the horror with the thought that this is only the image of it, that life has before it a store of infinitely worse evil.
The effect of such allusions is to cause us to search our innermost consciousness as children of the new civilization, and paradoxically they diminish the horror the work has done so much to excite. They have brought before us ideas of a Creator sacrificing Himself for the redemption of the world, of a rest from toil, of eternal justice, and simultaneously the vanity of such ideas, and by their very evocation they have dimmed the certainty with which we might have imagined the character of the abyss into which all creation, all natural guides and sanctions are seen to be vanishing. Our sense of the great void as the ending end of all things is becoming confused, as if, as the darkness closes in, something were stirring in what we had been thinking was a mere abyss, a god or a monster vexed by the dream of things as they are, the reality, Hamlet says, that philosophy itself does not succeed in taking in.
And so Kent's other words—
All is cheerless, dark, and deadly,
ring of mere numbed hopelessness, and here I return to the matter with which I began, hopelessness that points to something other than the pessimism of the ancients. In his early comedy about the playthings of a mysteriously harmonized world, Shakespeare was preparing the way for the tragedies in which men thought of themselves as the creatures and playthings of nature, nature as perhaps the all-encompassing power. As fathers, brothers, sons, wives, kings, and subjects, they were being torn from each other, torn even from the embrace of nature, and there was the thought that nature would die. Yet the result, I think, is a pessimism of another character than that of the ancients, as least if Homer, as I think right, is allowed to represent their thought at its most profound. No one in the circumstances in which we regard him in Shakespeare's plays exists in the solitude the ancients accepted as their native air. That luxuriant mode of seeing in everything the sign of the bounty of great-creating nature that the Middle Ages bequeathed to Shakespeare was in itself enough to make inaccessible to him the idea of stillness and solitude that is the loveliest achievement of the imagination of antiquity, but more than that it probably was instrumental in excluding from his thought the idea of total abandonment every mortal in the Iliad took for granted. Not Lear or Macbeth or Othello, seeking for death, can conceive of the completeness of his exclusion from all care that the great figures of the ancient world accepted as the fact.
The contrast with Homer is the most meaningful, though Plautus would also serve to make the point.
Achilles expresses his terrible knowledge thus:
This is how the gods have spun the thread for wretched mortals, that they should live in pain, though themselves are sorrowless. For there are two urns set upon the floor of Zeus holding the gifts he gives to men, the one of evils, the other of blessings. To whomsoever Zeus, that hurls the thunderbolt, gives a mingled lot, that man meets now with evil, now with good; but him to whom he gives only evil, he causes all others to revile, and fearful madness drives him over the face of the sacred earth, and he wanders everywhere honored neither of god nor mortals.
But the passage that seems to me even more telling is in the story of Zeus abandoning Sarpedon. Of all his mortal sons, Zeus loved Sarpedon most, and knowing that fate had determined he was soon to die he debated in his mind whether he should save him in spite of fate, and he spoke to Hera, his wife:
"Most grievous is it for me that Sarpedon, of all mortal men the one I love most, is fated to die at the hand of Patroclus, the son of Menoetius! I am torn two ways, whether while he is still alive I should remove him from the battle, take him far away, to the rich land of Lycia, or whether instead I should give him over to the son of Menoetius to slay."
Then Lady Hera the ox-eyed answered: "Most awful son of Cronos, see what you have said! A man that is mortal, his fate determined long since, you wish to free from evil death itself! Then so be it. But the other gods will not assent, and for my part I tell you something else and be sure you understand this in your heart: if you return Sarpedon to his home alive, hereafter some other of the gods will take it in his mind to remove his dear son from the violent wars, for there are many sons of the immortals warring around the citadel of Priam, and if you do this you will bring wrath among the gods. But though he is indeed dear to you, and your heart is torn with grief, let him fall in this terrible war beneath the hands of Patroclus, son of Menoetius, and when his soul and life have left him then send Death and sweet Sleep to take him to the land of Lycia with the great fields. There his brothers and his kin will give him burial with mound and pillar, the due of the dead."
Thus she spoke, and the father of men and of gods did not demur.
As I see it, no one in Shakespeare's world copes with desolation such as this. Tragedy as he presents it is ultimately in something else, that men fear they may be cut off from their sustaining bondage, from what makes the whole world kin. They fear this, and, for all they know, this may be what death is, but even when they seek it out they cannot quite conceive it. When Lear says, "You do me wrong to take me out of the grave," he means not only that he does not wish to return to life, he does not wish to be restored to the hope he cannot destroy, and he is asking for what he supposes still possible, that someone should do right, should free him from life and hope, should free him from the burden of rebirth. In his exhaustion, he allows himself to say that it is an unjust power that confers life even as resurrection and that a just God would obliterate sense. This is at once an expression of despair and play-acting, as if the world and life were indeed such a creation as an old man could piece together out of his maunderings. For even as he protests, he is still holding to the idea of a just judge and disposer, of the idea of right prevailing, of the integrity of his vision. The thought of annihilation is accordingly inseparable from the idea of perfect justice, which contradicts it. As the play ends, and all the plays to follow, the thought of the world disappearing in the last abyss of all pervades every conception, but each one stops short of qualifying the tragic desolation by bringing forward Christian affirmations, although the continued reminders of these change the sense of the tragic loss.
Towards the end, Lear imagined a Paradise for himself and Cordelia, imagining that in prison they would wear out packs and sects of great ones, like God's spies surveying the kingdom of men outside, telling stories, delighted as children with their games. He is not quite fooling himself, but there remains fixed in his mind the idea of justified trust. And because, as everyone in Shakespeare knows, no matter what perfidy or outrage tears men apart, no matter what the world contrives for their destruction, poisoning affection and killing love, no matter how all finally adds up to the final engulfing evil, civil war itself, trust in some other continues to support the will to live, trust that is inexpugnable and that appears to be founded in truth, in the soul's truth. In short, the trust, the glorious supposition, the thought of justice, is part vision. When Hamlet dies, asking Horatio to tell the story he never does, we are teased with the thought of something more to be known, something not only to explain but to account for, something we must think to be at the heart of it all. The last words in Lear tell us that no one alive shall ever see so much or again live through all that those in the play have endured, and the words tell us of something still left for wonder. Everywhere there persists the sense of something not yet revealed. Sooner or later everything crumbles, everything except the supposition no one ever frees himself of, that even in the disintegration something is at work to which each man seeks to ally himself. The dream dissolves apace, the vision holds.
I do not know whether the abyss of desolation the tragedies of Shakespeare bring into view is more or less appalling than the knowledge the ancients accepted as a matter of course. I think it is less. Whether this is a sign of wisdom or of its failure, each of us can try to determine for himself. Kent's awful words, "All is cheerless, dark, and deadly," Sarpedon and Achilles and all the great ones of antiquity would take to if not as a bridegroom to his bride, as a child to the parent, and the great ones of Shakespeare lack that simplicity. Some other thought survives in the midst of the idea of illimitable suffering, and in this I think is the final distinction between Shakespeare and the ancients—in his work, suffering bears the character of the never ending. And what is thought to survive bears the same character. So, even as Hamlet and Lear and the others go down, there is a different note from that that sounds the deaths of Sarpedon and Achilles and all those magnificent beings, a note Prospero takes up and all but explains—
Begins to swell, and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable shore,
That now lies foul and muddy.
This can bring us back to what we saw stirring in that first comedy, the idea of something unrealized and in the offing. There it was almost enough to think of it as a dream hovering in the back of the mind, even shaping events, although there was the capstone of religiousness as well. As time went on and the tragedies followed, the idea of the dream mingled with most awful thoughts of powers struggling fiercely for the control of nature, the universe degenerating into a single virulent death, and visions with special claims to authenticity came to challenge the notions of madness and of dreams, but even as they took form they were reinforcing what was inherent in the dreams as well, the idea of a promise. It seemed that in the trust humans kept giving each other a promise was always being made, a promise which dream and vision and nature itself would always make.
John W. Velz (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "The Ancient World in Shakespeare: Authenticity or Anachronism? A Retrospect," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 31, 1978, pp. 1-12.
[In the following excerpt, Velz examines the ways in which previous scholars and critics have portrayed Shakespeare's conception of Greece and Rome.]
In 1680 Nahum Tate was quite positive about verisimilitude in Shakespeare: 'I am sure he never touches on a Roman Story, but the Persons, the Passages, the Manners, the Circumstances, the Ceremonies, all are Roman' [The Loyal Gentleman: A Tragedy]. This was a substantial (though not necessarily substantiated) claim, because Tate had just asserted that 'Nature will not do [a poet's] Business, he must have the Addition of Arts and Learning' : acquaintance with 'the Customs and Constitutions of Nations', and with much else, 'the Histories of all Ages', even 'the meanest Mysteries and Trades', 'because 'tis uncertain [whither] his subject will lead him'. Had Ben Jonson been alive to read Tate's opinion of Shakespeare's portraits of the Roman world, he would doubtless have said something memorably contemptuous. His own scholarly pretensions to exact local and temporal verisimilitude in Sejanus and 'well-laboured' Catiline are a commonplace of literary history; everyone knows also that Jonson once described Shakespeare's portrayal of Gaius Julius Caesar in the moments before his assassination as 'ridiculous'. The Tate school of thought has had some notable adherents, Dryden, Pope, and Johnson among the early ones, but the opposed assertion, that Shakespeare's Romans are Elizabethans in togas, has always been with us. From the time of John Dennis's Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakespear (1712) it has been a scholarly parlor game to enumerate Shakespeare's blunders in the Roman plays.
It may be rewarding to consider the question yet once again, expanding the terms to take in Shakespeare's Greek world. When we observe that the ancient world is the setting for just one third of the Shakespeare canon—two of the comedies, both of the narrative poems, four of the five romances, and six of the eleven tragedies—the exercise justifies itself. And though this article cannot claim to survey the history of opinion in any way fully, it may usefully point to some representative studies. It may be instructive to begin with comments on three or four major attempts in the past century to deal with the Tate/Jonson polarity.
Edward Dowden [Shakspere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (1875)]. tried to reconcile the two poles in 1875 in a statement that typifies the Romantic tradition in Shakespeare criticism:
While Shakspere is profoundly faithful to Roman life and character, it is an ideal truth, truth spiritual rather than truth material, which he seeks to discover … Shakspere was aware that his personages must be men before they were Romans … He knew that the buttressing up of art with erudition will not give stability to that which must stand by no aid of material props and stays, but if at all, by virtue of the one living soul of which it is the body.
We are a long way in such Platonism from Tate's Aristotelian insistence on the poet's acquaintance with 'the Customs and Constitutions of Nations'. Dowden transmits in his assertion the consensus of the nineteenth-century German aesthetic critics he so greatly admired, and he acknowledges his debt to the English Romantic tradition (Charles Knight in particular) as well. The legacy of Shakspere has been as long as its ancestry—my copy of the book (1962) is from the twenty-fifth printing, and I can clearly remember being told of Julius Caesar in school thirty years ago very much what Dowden says here of the spirit of Rome in Shakespeare. Dowden's stance may seem to us an evasion, rather more lofty than logical, but there is no doubt of its importance in cultural history.
M. W. MacCallum, writing in 1910 [in Shakespear's Roman Plays and Their Background (1910)], perceived the relation between 'truth material', and 'truth spiritual' in the Roman plays quite differently from Dowden. Pointing out (as Paul Stapfer had done before him [Shakespeare et l'Antiquité (1880)]) that Shakespeare is a very purist by comparison with those earlier Elizabethans (Thomas Lodge above all) who had dramatized Roman subjects, MacCallum declared:
No dramatist had been able at once to rise to the grandeur of the theme [of Roman history] and keep a foothold on solid earth, to reconcile the claims of the ideal and the real, the past and the present. That was left for Shakespeare to do.
There is in Shakespeare more of Rome, MacCallum argued, than of Scotland or of pre-Christian Britain. Poetic license is restrained in the Roman plays (sometimes even to the detriment of dramatic impact) because Shakespeare knew that events in those Roman stories had future consequences of immediate interest to his audience; hence his invented characters in the Roman plays are lesser figures (Lucius in Julius Caesar, Nicanor in Coriolanus, Silius in Antony and Cleopatra) who do not figure in the main action the way invented characters in Schiller's historical plays do.
Shakespeare on the one hand loyally accepted his authorities [in the English history plays and the Roman plays alike—and for the same reasons] and never deviated from them on their main route, but on the other he treated them unquestioningly from his own point of view, and probably never even suspected that their own might be different. This is the double characteristic of his attitude to his documents, and it combines pious regard for the assumed facts of History with complete indifference to critical research.…
But Shakespeare's loyalty to his sources
does not mean that in the Roman any more than in the English plays he attempts an accurate reconstruction of the past. It may even be doubted whether such an attempt would have been intelligible to him or to any save one or two of his contemporaries. To the average Elizabethan (and in this respect Shakespeare was an average Elizabethan, with infinitely clearer vision certainly, but with the same outlook and horizon) the past differed from the present chiefly by its distance and dimness; and distinctive contrasts in manners and customs were but scantily recognised. A generation later French audiences could view the perruques and patches of Corneille's Romans without any sense of incongruity, and the assimilation of the ancient to the modern was in some respects much more thorough-going in Shakespeare's England.…
Waving aside such anachronisms as striking clocks, Galenic medicine, and sweaty nightcaps as 'trifles that [do not] interfere with fidelity to antiquity,' MacCallum shrewdly observed that Shakespeare stressed just those elements in Roman society and culture (e.g., soldiers of fortune and the orgies of aristocratic decadence in Antony and Cleopatra) which appeared also in Renaissance society and culture.
There was a good deal of such correspondence between Elizabethan life and Roman life, so the Roman Tragedies have a breath of historic verisimilitude and even a faint suggestion of local colour. There was much less between Elizabethan life and Greek life, so Timon and Troilus and Cressida, though true as human documents, have almost nothing Hellenic about them.
Even in the Roman plays, he points out, Shakespeare is less at home when he portrays something (life in a republic, for example) which he had not experienced in his own culture.
MacCallum's book remains a landmark after nearly seventy years. In 1954 [in her Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama] Madeleine Doran was to reason in more general terms and with equal persuasiveness that the Renaissance habit of mind was to perceive and fuse analogues between the native and classical traditions. In such an eclectic frame, anachronism and anatopism become aesthetic merits, not naif oversights; and a proper critical stance, one that takes art in its own terms, will rather approve than condemn. In 1960 she went so far as to declare in a public lecture ['A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Metamorphosis', published in Rice Institute Pamphlets, XLVI, 4 (January 1960)] that the amalgam of Chaucer and Plutarch in the character of Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream is entirely harmonious and that in general the Greek and English worlds of the play belong together more naturally than has been thought; in Shakespeare 'the present assumes the past'. Here, of course, is an implicit challenge to MacCallum's view of Shakespeare's Hellenism; other challenges will be discussed later in the paper.
As these accounts of the postures of MacCallum and Doran may suggest, the ground of argument has shifted in the twentieth century. From MacCallum's time, scholarship has gradually abandoned the question whether 'the Persons, the Passages, the Manners, the Circumstances, the Ceremonies' in Shakespeare are authentically Roman to ask instead whether Shakespeare and his audience thought them so. And the trend of commentary since the mid-nineteen-fifties has been with increasing frequency to answer, 'Yes'. The most impressive manifestation of the new scholarly stance came early and has been exemplary. In 1957 in a volume of Shakespeare Survey devoted to the Roman plays, T. J. B. Spencer showed that Shakespeare's portrait of Rome as a world of tumult and flux, of shouting crowds and violent events, is congruent with his generation's view of Roman history as a succession of 'garboyles'. ['Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans', Shakespeare Survey 10] If a Restoration critic like Tate thought Shakespeare's Rome authentic while his contemporaries Rymer and Dennis thought Shakespeare's Romans unpleasantly lacking in dignity, both had some reason. Yet Shakespeare is unlike his contemporaries, Spencer goes on, in emphasizing Plutarch's Republican vision of Rome: 'in spite of literary admiration for Cicero, the Romans in the imagination of the sixteenth century were Suetonian and Tacitan rather than Plutarchan'. It was the Empire, not the Republic, that provided moral exempta to the Renaissance. It can, in fact, be said that Titus Andronicus is a more representative 'Noble Roman Historye' by Renaissance standards than the other three of Shakespeare's Roman plays—it certainly has more garboyles. With some effort of the historical imagination, we must realize that it required individuality for Shakespeare to focus on the heroes and the moral environment of the Republic, especially to write Coriolanus, very nearly the first play ever written on the legendary Gnaeus Marcius. Coriolanus is, Spencer points out, the most authentic, least anachronistic, of the Roman plays, perhaps on the model of Sejanus—or perhaps because Shakespeare, aware of himself as an innovator, is on his mettle. Spencer's summary verdict on Romanitas in Shakespeare would have irritated Ben Jonson, but it is a fair one:
Setting aside poetical and theatrical considerations, and merely referring to the artist's ability to 'create a world' (as the saying is), we may ask if there was anything in prose or verse, in Elizabethan or Jacobean literature, which bears the same marks of careful and thoughtful consideration of the ancient world, a deliberate effort of a critical intelligence to give a consistent picture of it, as there is in Shakespeare's plays.
Before turning to the question, 'What was Rome to Shakespeare?' it is appropriate to consider Greece, a world that appears in the Shakespeare canon as often as Rome does. Though R. R. Bolgar echoed MacCallum in 1954 [in The Classical Heritage and its Beneficiaries] on the difference between Rome and Greece in Shakespeare, not all scholars are now so ready to dismiss Shakespeare's Hellenism as insignificant.
Shakespeare is at pains to bring 'weeds of Athens' into A Midsummer Night's Dream whether or not he had a real sense of what they looked like historically. In the same play and with the same dubious authenticity he introduces 'the ancient privilege of Athens' (l,i,41), a father's appalling authority over his daughter's freedom and even over her life. When we remember that the rigors of 'the sharp Athenian law' (1,i,162) are closely paralleled in the hyperbolic harshness of the Ephesian law under which Egeon is condemned to death in The Comedy of Errors, we may ask whether Shakespeare had a notion that ancient Greek culture was rigid and cruel. The irrational arbitrariness of Leontes in The Winter's Tale and the whimsical nature of Theseus's arbitration in The Two Noble Kinsmen (III, vi) come to mind as analogues. Of course there are other arbitrary laws in Shakespeare (one thinks of the capital penalty for fornication in Measure for Measure) which have nothing to do with Hellenic or Hellenistic culture, and some of Shakespeare's Greek justice derives from Chaucer's Knight's Tale, so one must tread tentatively; but it is possibly significant that Shakespeare, setting two of his early comedies in the Greek world, arranged them so that love, familial or romantic, triumphs over rigid traditionary law which is insisted on early in each play only to be flatly overruled later.
Such a view of rigorous but vulnerable law in the Greek world might have resulted from a mistaken impression of the large number of references in Acts and the Epistles to the brutality and legalism the Apostle Paul encountered in his travels through the Hellenistic world. Paul's encounters are almost all with Jews of the Diaspora, not with Greek civil authorities, who normally appear rather as indifferent than arbitrary. But the number of times Paul is physically threatened after having been accused of preaching doctrine counter to 'our law' in Greek synagogues might easily give a reader of Paul the image of embattled Greek-speaking Christians in a harsh and legalistic environment. The great theme of the Pauline Epistles is, of course, the triumph of love over rigid law, of a new dispensation over an older one. T. W. Baldwin showed in 1963 that the shipwreck and the geography in Errors owe something significant to the Acts of the Apostles, though Baldwin apparently missed the relevance of the Epistle to the Ephesians for the play [On the Compositional Genetics of The Comedy of Errors]. He also neglected the possible importance of Paul to Pericles, where, as in Errors, shipwreck and fracture of the family lead to eventual reunion in a religious hospice at Ephesus. It seems likely enough that a thoughtful study of the Pauline Epistles would show that Shakespeare's conception of the Mediterranean world comes in part from Scripture.
It is not cruelty or the preeminence of law over love but dissoluteness, deception, and perfidy that T. J. B. Spencer finds in the ancient Greeks as seen through Renaissance (and Shakespeare's) eyes. In an essay complementary to his earlier paper on 'the Elizabethan Romans', Spencer documents a pejorative view of the Greek national character in Roman literature, especially in the Aeneid and in stage comedy, whence it found its way easily to the Renaissance [' "Greeks" and "Merrygreeks": A Background to Timon of Athens and Troilus and Cressida ', Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (1962)] There can be no doubt from Spencer's massed evidence that Greeks were pejorated in Shakespeare's time exactly as the French are in some English-speaking circles today. And there seems little room for disagreement when Spencer concludes that the right way to read Timon and Troilus is to strip away our inheritance of nineteenth-century philhellenism and recognize in them Shakespeare's participation in the traditional prejudice. Clifford Leech [in "Shakespeare's Greeks," Stratford Papers on Shakespeare, ed. B. W. Jackson (1964)] challenged Spencer by pointing out (quite rightly) that some Athenians are decent-minded in Timon and that some characters in Troilus, notably Cressida and Achilles, are, however tainted, more than satiric stereo-types, while Trojans share in the immorality ostensibly Greek; but there is no denying that both plays portray sullied Greeks and a corrupt Hellas. We must agree with Spencer that the two plays are best read as orthodox Renaissance portraits of the Greek world. There is certainly no need to see in them the evidence scholarship has so often strained to find: of Shakespearian world-weariness, or of a wholehearted commitment to medieval classicism (Troilus), or of malice toward George Chapman (Troilus), or even of rebellion against 'the schoolmasters' worship of antiquity', J. A. K. Thomson's interpretation, as Spencer quotes it.
Yet this view will not answer all our questions about Shakespeare's Greeks; convincingly as Spencer explains the moral tone of two plays, he must leave five more (The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, The Two Noble Kinsmen) and, as we wish, Venus and Adonis unaccounted for. Even when we have granted that these six works are less studiedly Greek in setting than Troilus and Timon, we must allow that there is more to Shakespeare's Greece than the Renaissance bias. James Emerson Phillips argued nearly forty years ago that Shakespeare's conception of ancient Greece was political, as his conceptions of ancient Rome and of medieval England were, even though politics is not the center of dramatic interest in any of the Greek and Roman plays. He prefigured Spencer's 'Elizabethan Romans' essay by applying Renaissance assumptions about monarchy and the state to Caesar, Antony, Coriolanus, Troilus, and Timon. It remained for Howard B. White to extend a political interpretation to Dream and Pericles (and to Cymbeline and The Tempest, also) and to argue that the political questions are 'Greek' in Shakespeare's Greek plays in something like the way they are English in the histories. So he sees Timon as portraying the decay of Athenian democracy and Dream as portraying the foundation of that democracy. (We might prefer to see the corruption of an entrenched oligarchy in Timon and a sketch for a philosopher-king in Dream, and then to add that The Winter's Tale offers a vivid portrait of a tyrant in action.) White's book is deeply flawed by mistaken interpretation and casual error, but it is sometimes attractively suggestive: on the psychology and ethics of ostracism in Cymbeline, for example, and (too briefly) on St Paul in Pericles.
A fuller, more tightly reasoned book remains to be written on Shakespeare's response to Greek political philosophy; such a book ought to stress his sense of the polis as the core of civilization. One sees it best in Timon, where the failure of the polis to manifest its ontological essence, the reciprocities of human intercourse, leads to an atavistic collapse into a barbarism conveyed by imagery of bestiality and cannibalism; only Alcibiades's eschatological purge of the city can restore the civility (both senses) of Athens. The best commentary on Timon's personal sins against reciprocity is The Odyssey with its insistence on hospitality as a reciprocal ethic and its portrayal of the Cyclopes in Book IX as archetypally pre-civilized, living each in isolation in his cave; the best commentary on the polis as a whole in Timon is the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle constantly emphasizes the centrality of reciprocity in civilized moral life. Knowing Shakespeare's intellectual habits, we might expect to find similar emphases in Coriolanus, written at about the same time as Timon and based on a source in Plutarch parallel to a major source of Timon; and it is there, the reciprocity emblematized in Menenius's fable of the organic body politic in I, i and pervading the play as one of its great moral issues. It will be necessary to return to Coriolanus and the ideal of the polis at the end of this essay.
The political ethic of reciprocity was available to Shakespeare in places other than Aristotle's Ethics; it was in fact so widespread in antiquity that there is not much point in trying to establish a locus classicus for Shakespeare's sense of the classical polity. He may have known Plato's Republic, but he would in any case learn something of the Greek ideal of the city state in Cicero and a great deal more, both about the ideal and about the imperfect reality, in Plutarch's Lives, especially in 'Pericles', 'Dion' (parallel to 'Marcus Brutus'), and 'Alcibiades', which contributed something more to Timon than the quarrel Alcibiades has with Athens. It has sometimes been said (by Bolgar, e.g., see above, p. 4, note I) that Plutarch taught Shakespeare little about Greece; it is time to qualify that judgment. Examination of the Greek lives in Plutarch which are parallel to Roman lives Shakespeare used shows that Shakespeare may have read more widely than his critics: Sidney Homan's article on 'Dion', 'Alexander' and 'Demetrius' is suggestive [Shakespeare Studies, VIII (1975)].
If Shakespeare's Greece offers us as yet only partially answered questions, his Rome does so no less. What, finally, was Rome to Shakespeare? Was it anything more than an analogue to medieval England, or Denmark, or Scotland, or any of the other worlds Shakespeare evoked? Twentieth-century scholarship has in two ways implicitly denied that it was anything more. First, the nearly universal failure to find a generic link among the Roman plays has implicitly suggested that they belong together less inherently than some other groups of plays in Shakespeare; it is still common to exclude Titus from the group, as MacCallum did. Second, scholarship has conventionally studied the classical tradition and then applied it broadcast across the Shakespeare canon, as if Shakespeare had not seen the ancient world in which he set one-third of his works as in any real sense a world apart. To illustrate this second implicit challenge to the identity of Shakespeare's Roman world, two instances can stand proxy for many others. In Hero and Saint, Reuben Brower 'explore[s] probable analogies between the Shakespearian heroic and the Graeco-Roman heroic'; the ancient heroic is to be found in a combination of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, and Plutarch—the analogues in Shakespeare are Othello, Hamlet, and Lear no less than Shakespeare's Greek and Roman heroes. In Milton Boone Kennedy's study of deliberative, forensic, and epideictic oratory in the Shakespeare canon [The Oration in Shakespeare (1942)] no distinction at all is made between plays in which the world of classical eloquence is actually portrayed and Shakespeare's other plays. No one will deny that a Brower or a Kennedy is entirely justified in seeing classical character or classical rhetoric in non-classical plays. But the effect of their method, a method applied almost universally by historical scholarship in this century, has been to encourage a fallacious inference about the ancient world in Shakespeare, Rome especially.
It can, on the contrary, be argued that Rome is a place apart to Shakespeare, a world whose mystique he attempts quite deliberately to depict. Such an argument appears in J. L. Simmons's Shakespeare's Pagan World: The Roman Tragedies. Simmons proposes that the distinguishing characteristic of Shakespeare's Rome is its secularity; the civitas Dei is not yet available as a transcendent absolute, and Shakespeare's Roman heroes grope in a relative world for a moral certainty that can never be accorded them in the same sense that such certainty is available to a protagonist in Christian drama. Perhaps because Augustine contrasted his heavenly city very directly and specifically with the temporal city, Roma, it seems not to have occurred to Simmons to ask whether his thesis might be applied to Shakespeare's Greek characters; they too, after all, operate sub specie temporis. Much greater limitations than the omission of Greeks from the pagan world are the casual dismissal of Titus as under the umbrella of the thesis but not worth discussing, the scanty treatment of Cymbeline, and the total neglect of Lucrece. What Simmons does do, however, is well done: his vantage offers a clear view of three Roman plays, individually and collectively.
A second major attempt to see Shakespeare's Rome as a world apart has recently been made in Paul A. Cantor's Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire. Focusing closely on Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, Cantor finds Shakespeare's portrayal of the Republic dominated by thumos (idealistic commitment, public spiritedness) while in Shakespeare's Empire eros (self-indulgence and the dissolution of moral boundaries) is in the ascendant. Freud would have labeled the polarity 'super ego' and 'id', though Cantor does not do so. Indeed, in a quite unfreudian way he implies repeatedly that thumos is preferable to eros and that it is somehow closer to the true spirit of Rome. Any view that Augustan opulence and hegemony are a casus from the virtues of the Republic runs across the grain of Virgil's insistence that those virtues survive in the Augustan world and that Romanitas in the Pax Augusta is the telos toward which all Roman history has tended. Yet Virgil does not appear in Cantor's index. There are other limitations: the lack of any coherent treatment of Caesar and the total neglect (as in Simmons) of Lucrece and Titus; the entirely mistaken argument that Rome needs a political leader in Coriolanus and that Caius Marcius could have been the man to lead. Yet there is much impressive criticism of both plays in this book. Two examples must suffice: Cantor demonstrates convincingly that the traditional opposition in criticism between Roman thumos and Egyptian eros is artificial, as self-indulgence dominates Roman politics and daily life in the play; he observes perceptively that the focus in Coriolanus is on the urbs while in Antony 'Rome' means something less defined, as the City diffuses into the Empire.
There are other ways in which Shakespeare might be seen to have defined Rome; the space that remains will be devoted to some of them. First is the likelihood that Shakespeare thought of Romanitas as eloquentia and that he made a deliberate effort to forge answerable styles for his Roman plays. Given Shakespeare's grammar-school education in rhetoric it is probable enough that he should have drawn the inference that Romanitas was a mode of utterance. I say here styles, not style, because the four Roman plays differ widely in style, a fact which may account for the neglect of this designation of Roman life in Shakespeare. Yet in all four plays style is prominent—and 'Roman', or so Shakespeare would have thought. Titus Andronicus and Antony and Cleopatra are both florid, though in quite different ways, Titus relying on copia as Ovid does to attain an aesthetic distance from the horrors it depicts, and Antony relying on the 'Brobdingnagian' language of all the characters to elevate the love affair and its tragic consequences to the status of 'high events' [quoted from S.L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Drama (1944)]. The self-conscious overstatement of the play may remind us of the stylistic self-indulgence of Empire writers like Lucan or Apuleius, though Antony never seems merely artificial. In Coriolanus hyperbole serves a more complex purpose, suggesting the protagonist's loss of control as well as his colossal stature: if rhetoric is the controlled language of civilized discourse in the urbs, the pre-civilized hero designates himself an outsider by this failure in him of urbanitas. He would rather pile up the bodies of his opponents like cordwood (I, i, 197-200) than negotiate with those opponents in rational argument.
The most striking of the Roman plays for its style is Julius Caesar, though criticism has never done it full justice. Samuel Johnson detected a Roman style, austere and unaffecting, in the play, and for nearly two centuries criticism echoed him by calling the play sparse; not until Wilson Knight's time was the play seen to have any texture to speak of. What is most 'Roman' about Caesar, however, is not its linguistic leanness, but its oratorical mode. Any number of commentators have observed that Plutarch offered Shakespeare the distinction between Antony's Asiatic oratorical style and Brutus's Laconic style but that Shakespeare had to devise the two orations himself with help perhaps from Appian. Few, however, have seen how much of the rest of Caesar is oratorical. From Marullus's twenty-four-line harangue of the Plebeians in I, i (a prefiguration of Brutus's oration in its merely temporary effectiveness) to Antony's brief laudatio funebris of Brutus in V, V, the play is filled with the solemnity and the intensity of public utterance. Indeed, it can be said with some justice that Portia delivers an oration to her husband in the orchard (while Lady Macbeth, by contrast, communicates with hers at a less formal level) and that the impact of IV, iii in Caesar is a result of the descent of Brutus and Cassius from the pedestal of formal discourse to the intimacies of bickering.
Another 'Roman' element of style in Julius Caesar is illeism, which Shakespeare would have found in Caesar's Commentaries and which he may have thought characteristically Roman—at least at the time he wrote Caesar. A great many characters in the play (not just Caesar, as is sometimes said) refer to themselves or others by name in the third person. Shakespeare made use of this device in Hamlet, which abounds in Roman allusions, and in Troilus, which like Hamlet was written shortly after Caesar, but after that it appears much less often; perhaps by the time he wrote Antony, Coriolanus, and Cymbeline he found illeism too artificial a rhetorical stance for drama, however classical it might sound. Such magniloquence is appropriate enough in Troilus, but in less satiric contexts it may jar—indeed critics who have caught Caesar and Othello employing the device have labeled both pompous.
The fact that illeism appears in Troilus after Shakespeare introduced it in Caesar makes it plain that he could readily transfer to a Greek setting something he thought of as characteristically Roman. Timon and Troilus both evoke as the Roman plays do the relation between personal decorum and verbal eloquence that Cicero and Quintilian thought of as the essence of civility and civilization. In Timon's curses the complete disjunction of eloquence from magnanimity is a living metaphor for the descent from civil conversation to barbarism in the play; when we hear magniloquence used as a clock for bad logic by both Greeks and Trojans in Troilus we may recall Socrates's belief that rhetoric and moral earnestness do not always keep company. T. McAlindon's often very astute book on Shakespeare and Decorum does not make these points; indeed, like Kennedy and Brower, he fails entirely to segregate Shakespeare's classical plays.
It was decorum in its technical sense that Samuel Johnson was referring to in his comments on the style of Julius Caesar, for he juxtaposed Roman style and 'Roman manners'. We may safely guess that he was alluding to the Stoic temperament that we see in several characters, in Cicero (I, iii), for example, and in Portia (II, i), and in Brutus (IV, iii). The contrast between this phlegmatic manner and Cassius's choleric energy and overtness is one of the effective dramatic devices in the play. There are other common traits of character in Julius Caesar that Shakespeare obviously thought distinctively Roman, notably anti-feminism (I, iii, 82-4; II, i, 119-22; II, i, 292-7 etc.); in Antony and Cleopatra, where a woman takes on the role of opponent and alternative to all that is Roman, such sentiments occur even more emphatically (cf. Canidius's embittered 'our leader's [led], / And we are women's men'—III vii, 69-70). In Coriolanus the contrast is not so much between man and woman as between man and boy, surely because Plutarch put so much emphasis in 'Coriolanus' on valor as the Roman measure of mature masculinity (we recall that for young Marcius the puberty rite was to flesh his sword against the Tarquins). There are still those who will argue that Volumnia is an Elizabethan huswife rather than a Roman matron, but most scholars no longer doubt that Shakespeare was consciously striving in all his Roman works for Roman character and style of life, however he may have succeeded.
Rome to Shakespeare was not just language and national character, but institutions also. T. J. B. Spencer once said of Titus that Shakespeare crowded the play with all the Roman political institutions he knew, regardless of their appropriateness to the historical setting in the late Empire. 'The Author seems anxious, not to get it all right, but to get it all in'.… The later Roman plays are much more careful to fit the politics to the time. There is more to Roman institutions than politics, of course; two stimulating articles in recent years have shown that Shakespeare was aware of the importance of family in Rome, even in his earliest Roman ventures. G. K. Hunter [in Shakespeare Survey 27 (1974)] in comparing Romeo and Titus in several ways has occasion to interpret the moral structure of Titus as in part familial: the ordered closeness of the Andronici is the measure in the play of Saturninus's amorphous family with its step-children, its adulterous foreign materfamilias, its illegitimate offspring, its Moorish intruder. A second essay is Coppélia Kahn's learned and intelligent analysis of the rape in Shakespeare's Lucrece in relation to Roman traditions of family honor and patrilineal succession as Shakespeare would have understood them [in Shakespeare Studies IX (1976)]. Lucrece kills herself not to protect her honor but to vindicate the honor of the Collatines: there must be no possibility of a genetic taint on the lineage of the dynastic family.
Rome, of course, is also a place to Shakespeare. It used to be said that he had little sense of Rome as a physical entity, that he dropped allusions to the Tiber and the Capitol into early scenes to suggest locus and let it go at that. Whatever the limitations of his detailed knowledge of buildings, Shakespeare thought of Rome in architectural terms: Menenius points out 'yond coign a' th' Capitol, yond cornerstone' when he wants a symbol of stead-fastness; the Triumvirate are 'pillar[s] of the world'; the Empire itself is a 'wide arch'. When the Tribunes and Plebeians shout 'What is the city but the people?', Cominius replies in a telling architectural metaphor; faction
is the way to lay the city flat,
To bring the roof to the foundation,
And bury all, which yet distinctly ranges,
In heaps and piles of ruin.
(Cor.III, i, 203-6)
The city is also to Shakespeare a set of psychologically significant, virtually symbolic, loci often placed in contrast with one another—the Forum, the battlefield, the Senate house, the street, the domicile. Each is a manifestation of Romanitas, the domicile not less than public buildings, for it is in the Roman plays that Shakespeare most powerfully contrasts public and private life, portraying them sometimes as mutually inimical.
The most important edifice in Shakespeare's Rome, its wall, is seldom spoken of by scholars. To Shakespeare Rome is above all urbs in its etymological sense, the enclave of civilization ringed round with a protective wall, outside of which the dark forces of barbarism lurk. Coriolanus, a lonely dragon advancing on the gates of Rome or an eagle preying inside the walls of Corioles, is Shakespeare's most compelling embodiment of the terror that threatens the urbs from outside its wall; this 'Mycenean' hero, more at home in battle than in the polis, is reminiscent at Corioles of awesome Turnus in Book IX of the Aeneid, slaughtering inside the palisade like a wild beast. Walls, gates, and locks exist to keep the lust represented by a Tarquin outside, but tragically they cannot (Lucrece 302-43). The savage rape and mutilation of Lavinia in Titus takes place in the forest outside the wall of Rome; remembering the symbolic importance of Lavinia in the Aeneid we can readily think of Chiron and Demetrius as assaulting Romanitas itself.
The wall of Rome encloses a polis which in its political and social decorum embodies civilization; it is the ever-lasting wall that Virgil spoke of at the opening of his poem, but it is eminently fragile, as both Virgil and Shakespeare knew. Shakespeare's Romans, like the Trojans in Aeneid II, may breach their own wall to admit barbarism and death; the preying tigers (Titus III, i, 55) and the monstrous horse pregnant with death both enter from without. But there is worse; one may imitate barbarism by oneself negating the values of the polis; it is here that Rome is most vulnerable, as the actions of both Titus and Coriolanus make manifest. Shakespeare is obsessed enough with this horror to transfer it from Rome to Athens: 'The commonwealth of Athens is become a forest of beasts' (Timon IV, iii, 347-8) no less than 'Rome is … a wilderness of tigers' (Titus III, i, 54).
When the full study we need of Shakespeare's Virgil is written, it ought to deal fully with Virgilian symbolism as it appears in the Roman plays: the walls of Rome are only part of the legacy. Virgil's vision of Rome as Fate's protégé, the source of the coherence of the Aeneid, survives muted in Shakespeare's vision of Roman history as teleological and inexorable, larger than any man who may oppose its momentum. It is this grand view of the history of Rome that Menenius Agrippa voices when he says in the first scene of Coriolanus:
you may as well
Strike at the heaven with your staves as lift them
Against the Roman state, whose course will on
The way it takes, cracking ten thousand curbs
Of more strong link asunder than can ever
Appear in your impediment.
He is addressing the riotous Plebeians, but his words apply as much to Coriolanus, who will atavistically seek to repeal the newly created institution of the tribuni plebis.
Virgil's mythic vision of Rome as driven (or called) by Fate toward the Pax Augusta was 'true' in his generation in just the same way the equally vulnerable Tudor myth was in Shakespeare's generation—that is, it was more true in its piety of invention than literalists are likely to understand. Who is to say that in basing his conception of Rome in five plays and a long poem upon Virgil's view of history Shakespeare was not portraying Romanitas authentically?
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23572
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 have escaped Terence, the darling of schoolmasters, whose deplorable moral tone they hushed up because reading him was good for one's style.
There is abundant evidence that Shakespeare had read some of Seneca's plays, both in Jasper Heywood's translation and in the original. For example, he appears to have read (or reread) Hercules Furens before writing Macbeth. There are quotations in Latin in Titus Andronicus and the play is partly based on Thyestes. Shakespeare knew two or three books of the Aeneid (as we can see from Hamlet and The Tempest). He had read the whole of Golding's Ovid; but as late as 1611, when he adapted Medea's speech for Prospero's farewell, he was still able to give a more accurate translation of two words than Golding had done. On the evidence of the storm-scenes of King Lear, Shakespeare had read some Horace—one of the odes and one of the epistles. He had read part of Livy's History, as we can see from Lucrece and Coriolanus; but most of his knowledge of Roman history was derived from North's translation of Amyot's version of Plutarch's Lives, supplemented by some information gleaned from Appian's Civil Wars, and from Plutarch's Moralia and Pliny's Natural History in Philemon Holland's translation. It has to be remembered that there were a large number of compilations by which knowledge of the Roman world filtered down to Elizabethan readers. We can't be sure whether Shakespeare had read Caesar, or found Veni, vidi, vici in some derived work. We don't know where he got the words Et tu Brute, but he is unlikely to have invented them. The story of Lucrece he could have read in Livy or in Painter's close adaption of Livy's account; and, of course, he knew Chaucer's account of love's martyrs—Thisbe, Cleopatra and Lucrece.
Ten or more of Shakespeare's 40 works are set in the Graeco-Roman world, but in some of them there is no attempt at historical accuracy. In Cymbeline there is a Roman invasion of Britain which Shakespeare read about in the legendary part of Holinshed's Chronicles; but the main plot, of course, he took from Boccaccio's Decameron. Timon of Athens is based partly on a passage in Plutarch's life of Antony, partly on one of Lucian's dialogues, partly (it has been argued) on a play by Boiardo, and partly on Plutarch's life of Alcibiades (whose life is paired with that of Coriolanus). Pericles and Troilus and Cressida are legendary medieval stories. The Comedy of Errors, though based on two of Plautus' plays is apparently set in vaguely Christian times, since Emelia is an abbess, though similar to Diana's high priestess in Pericles. I don't propose to discuss any of these plays, but to concentrate on the remainder. Titus Andronicus is a very odd mixture. The period is apparently during the decline and fall of the Roman empire. There are barbarian invasions but the author (Shakespeare probably) mixes up different periods of history. Professor Spencer wittily observed that the play "includes all the political institutions that Rome ever had. The author seems anxious, not to get it all right, but to get it all in". But Spencer goes on to argue that this mix-up was the sort of thing Elizabethan audiences expected. It is true that some of the minor dramatists have the same sort of historical muddle, but there are many others who present the historical institutions with reasonable accuracy I am thinking of Lodge's play, The Wounds of Civil War, Jonson's Sejanus and Catiline (buttressed by quotations from Tacitus and Cicero), Chapman's Caesar and Pompey. If Peele was part-author of Titus, he certainly had as much formal education as Shakespeare, so we cannot blame him for the play's historical confusion. The play reveals a first-hand knowledge of Seneca and considerable knowledge of Ovid, and this makes the historical ignorance the more surprising.
The other four works are much more serious and they cover four separate periods of Roman history—the last days of the monarchy, the early years of the Republic, the last days of the Republic, the early years of the Empire. Although in all of them there are some characteristics of the Elizabethan age, Shakespeare seems to have made a real attempt—a successful attempt—to distinguish the different periods: class conflict and wars with neighbouring status in Coriolanus, the sense that the republican form of government is doomed in Julius Caesar, the struggle for power in Antony and Cleopatra.
Now it has recently been argued that when Jonson wrote his play on Catiline's conspiracy, in spite of his parade of accurate historical learning and his paraphrase of one of Cicero's orations, he was also writing an allegorical drama on the gunpowder plot. He changed one date in the story to November 5 and meant Catiline to be a portrait of Catesby—the leading spirit in the Gunpowder Plot. Jonson had dined (at the Mermaid) with some of the conspirators not long before the plot was discovered. I understand that another book is being written to suggest that Jonson's other Roman play, Sejanus, is likewise a topical allegory. Shakespeare, as everyone knows, did not disdain topical allusions—compliments to Queen Elizabeth or James I, allusions to the trial of Father Garnet in Macbeth, and to the examination of bogus demoniacs in King Lear—but, as far as we know, he avoided direct reference to events of his own time in his Roman plays. We can't be sure. The Elizabethans were expert at finding contemporary meanings in historical writings. The Essex conspirators subsidised a performance of Richard II by Shakespeare's company to prepare the way for their uprising, Hayward got into trouble by dedicating his history of Henry IV to Essex; Samuel Daniel got into trouble over Philotas, a harmless play which was thought to be an allegory of the Essex conspiracy; and Fulke Greville burnt his tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, lest it too, and probably with greater justification, should be regarded as politically dangerous. I've not studied all the lunatic fringe of Shakespearian criticism, but I've never seen any suggestion that his Antony and Cleopatra was concerned with events of his own time.
Apart from historical parallels, intended by the dramatist or suspected by the authorities, it was expected of historians, as well as of writers of history plays, that they should have contemporary relevance. This relevance could range from Ralegh's great preface to his History of the World, in which he affirms his belief that the world is providentially governed, to such books as Hall's Chronicle, which is designed to show the dangers of civil war and the advantages of the tudor settlement. As far as one can tel1, Shakespeare in his English histories avoided allegorical treatment of contemporary history. The plays were doubtless what Lily Bess Campbell called "mirrors of policy", but they did not comment directly on contemporary affairs. The same thing is surely true of the Roman plays; but one of them, as we shall see, may have some more specific allusion to contemporary affairs.
For the story of The Rape of Lucrece, as I have mentioned, Shakespeare went to Ovid's Fasti and Livy; and he knew Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. So we get a kind of four fold image: a classical story of an earlier Roman age, seen through medieval eyes, and told by a Renaissance poet. The painting of the siege of Troy (at which Lucrece gazes) could have been found in a great Elizabethan mansion; but the characters in the painting are similar to those described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses or in Caxton's version of the tale of Troy. Lucrece herself is depicted almost as an Elizabethan aristocrat, but enough is borrowed from Livy and Ovid to make the poem as a whole reasonably true to its origins. It has recently been argued, however by Professor Roy Battenhouse, that Shakespeare, under the influence of St. Augustine's City of God, refused to regard Lucrece as worthy of esteem. Either she was Tarquin's willing victim—in which case she ought to be condemned as an adultress; or she was an unwilling victim—in which case she ought not to have killed herself, thereby committing the sin of self-murder. Battenhouse even suggests that the description of Lucrece before the rape was intended to show her sinfully sensual nature:
Without the bed her other fair hand was,
On the green coverlet; whose perfect white
Show'd like an April daisy on the grass,
With pearly sweat, resembling dew of night.
This I find impossible to accept. The argument of the poem speaks of the incomparable chastity of the heroine and the word chaste—without any irony—echoes through the early stanzas of the poem, contrasting with Tarquin's lust, Shakespeare followed Chaucer and all the poets who had treated the theme in making Lucrece a martyr. Nor can I see any evidence that the poem was written on two levels: so that while the general reader would take it straightforwardly, the more intelligent theologically-trained reader would interpret the poem in a diametrically opposed way. But surely, in this case, the theologian would be crazy. For Helen, the cause of the Trojan war, "the strumpet that began this stir" does not serve as a parallel, but as a contrast, to the innocent, blameless, and sympathetic heroine of the poem.
Soon after writing Lucrece, Shakespeare read, probably for the first time, the translation by North of Plutarch's Lives. The translation has been faulted for inaccuracy; but it was the first prose masterpiece he had read—there is no certainty that he knew Malory—and it came as a revelation to him of the Graeco-Roman world. What is more, from the point of view of a dramatist, Plutarch's short biographies were more useful to him than books like the chronicles of Holinshed or Stow since Plutarch arranged the facts of history in relation to the subject of the biography. When Shakespeare came to write his Roman tragedies he found half his work done for him, for Plutarch did not merely provide the facts in a palatable and artistic form: he also provided shrewd judgements on the qualities and defects of his subjects and high-lighted the dramatic moments of their lives.
The first play which exhibits some knowledge of Plutarch is A Midsummer Night's Dream for which Shakespeare borrowed a few details from the (somewhat legendary) life of Theseus. A few years later, when he was writing Henry V, there are a few echoes from Plutarch, but the real impact is only apparent in Julius Caesar. That play is based, as every schoolboy knows, on three of the Lives: Caesar, Brutus, Antony. And it is remarkable how Shakespeare combines hints from all three. As an example take the three accounts given of Friends, Romans, Countrymen:
ANTONY. When he saw that the people were very glad and desirous also to hear Caesar spoken of and his praises uttered, he mingled his oration with lamentable words, by amplifying of matters did greatly move their hearts and affections unto pity and compassion. In fine, to conclude his oration, he unfolded before the whole assembly the bloody garments of the dead, thrust through in many places with their swords, and called the malefactors cruel and cursed murderers.
BRUTUS. [Brutus] agreed that Caesar's funerals should be as Antonius would have them; the which indeed marred all. For first of all, when Caesar's testament was openly read among them, whereby it appeared that he bequeathed unto every citizen of Rome 75 drachmas a man, and that he left his gardens and arbours unto the people, which he had on this side of the river of Tiber … the people then loved him and were marvellous sorry for him. Afterwards, when Caesar's body was brought into the market-place, Antonius making his funeral oration … and perceiving that his words moved the common people to compassion he framed his eloquence to make their hearts yearn the more.
Plutarch proceeds to describe how the people fell into such a rage and muting that there was no more order kept among the common people. There follows the description of the lynching of Cinna the poet.
CAESAR. In the life of Caesar there is no mention Antony's oration, though there is an account of killing Cinna. In none of the three lives is Antony's oration delivered immediately after Brutus'; and in none of them is there any real suggestion for the splendid rhetorical effects—the carefully contrived effects—that Antony uses. The quiet beginning, the increasingly ironical references to the honourable men who murdered Caesar, and the postponed revelation of the terms of his testament, are all Shakespeare's invention. So too is the injunction by Brutus that Antony should not in his speech blame the conspirators. It has, however, been argued by Professor Schanzer that Shakespeare took some hints from another source—Appian's Civil Wars. All Antony's most characteristic qualities in the play, his consummate histrionic powers, his political cunning, his emotionalism, his devotion and loyalty to Caesar are not to be found in Plutarch's portrait. There he is—what he pretends to be in Shakespeare's play—a plain blunt man, "a plain man without subtlety". As Schanzer says, Appian's Antony (in William Barker's translation) has all the qualities given him by Shakespeare. We are told again of his deceit, his subtlety, his cunning, his dissimulation. Both Antonies are excellent actors; the funeral oration, as described by Appian, is a splendid theatrical performance:
When he had said this, he pulled up his gown like a man beside himself, and girded it, that he might the better stir his hands: he stood over the litter, as from a tabernacle, looking into it, and opening it … And when he had made these and many other invocations, he turned his voice from triumph to mourning matter, and began to lament and moan him as a friend that had been unjustly used.
Both Appian and Shakespeare speak of Caesar's vesture being wounded; both mention that Antony wept; both represent the choric effect of the crowd's lamentations; and in both writers the crowd is swung rapidly from support of Brutus by the mention of Caesar's will. "Now was the people straight turned to anger, being abused by the name of a tyrant, that in his testament had showed most love to his country." None of these points, except perhaps the wounded vesture, is conclusive in itself; but as most critics agree that Shakespeare used Appian for Antony and Cleopatra, it is probable that he read Appian before writing Julius Caesar.
Appian's translator is unwilling to commit himself about the motives of the conspirators, saying that Brutus and Cassius, "either for envy of his greatness, or for zeal of their country, killed him in the Senate house". Appian himself says that they did the deed, "either for envy … or, as they said, for the love of their country's liberty". On the title-page it is stated that Appian's History gives "an evident demonstration that people's rule must give place, and prince's power prevail". A similar point is made by North: "Howbeit the state of Rome (in my opinion) being now brought to that pass that it could no more abide to be governed by many lords but required one only absolute governor." Shakespeare makes the same point through-out the play: the attempt to crown Caesar, the proposal to crown Brutus after his oration, the disagreements between the triumvirs. Indeed, Shakespeare's grasp of the political situation in the last days of the Republic seems to me quite extraordinary.
There are some anachronisms in the play, as when Brutus tells Caesar that the clock has struck eight. But there is plenty of evidence that Shakespeare tried very hard to give the correct Roman atmosphere. The attack by Flavius and Marullus on the citizens for cheering Pompey's conqueror, the Lupercalia, the proscription scene are all authentic in tone. For his account of the portents preceding the assassination he amplified the details given by Plutarch with ethers from the last book of the Metamorphoses, from Virgil's Georgics, and from the first book of Lucan's Pharsalia—perhaps in Marlowe's translation.
Reuben Brower has pointed out that North, in translating Plutarch's Lives, introduced the diction of Elizabethan epic. This I think, is true; but Shakespeare instinctively adopted a more Roman style. This is apparent not merely in Brutus' prose oration (the style of which was suggested by Plutarch's comment on the tenseness and Lacedemonian charateristic of Brutus' oratorical manner) but equally in the poetic style employed by Shakespeare. Unlike the plays written before and after, Julius Caesar is written in a remarkably plain, bare style, with few metaphors. Yet, at the same time, it is the most oratorical of his plays, with the possible exception of Troilus and Cressida, which contains two major debates. It is a style which results from a marriage of Caesar's Gallic War with Cicero's Orations. It is NOT the style one might expect from a close follower of North's translation.
In Brower's fine book, Hero and Saint, he speaks of Julius Caesar as
The turning-point in Shakespear's growth as a tragic dramatist [and it] is related to his discovery … in North's Plutarch of the Graeco-Roman hero in a relatively pure form, freed from some if not all the distortions of the Medieval versions. Shakespeare explores also … some of the conflicts that the Graeco-Roman ideal inevitably produces, when the noble man enters a more complex social and political world than the battlefield of ancient epic. Dilemmas arise, ironic contrasts emerge, tragic 'trouble' and suffering force expression even in the most constant of men.
The behaviour of Brutus in concealing the death of his wife, what MacCallum called a "demonstration in clinical ethics" and the discussion with Cassius about suicide are examples of Shakespeare's understanding of a Roman character. He made no attempt, as Jonson did, either to support his text with learned footnotes, or to make a comment on the events of his own time. Yet his grasp of political realities was masterly—and not entirely irrelevant today. John Palmer's Political Characters of Shakespeare contains a shrewd analysis of Brutus. He shows how wrong Bernard Shaw was when he argued that Shakespeare was unable to depict a political idealist; and he shows how wrong Coleridge had been when he complained about the soliloquy in which Brutus makes up his mind to assassinate Caesar.
It must be by his death; and for my part
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general: he would be crowned.
How that might change his nature, there's the
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking Crown him—that!
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
Th'abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power; and to speak truth of
I have not known when his affections swayed
More than his reason. But 'tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young Ambition's ladder
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face,
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And since the
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus—that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities
And therefore think him as a serpent's egg,
Which, hatch'd, would as his kind grow
And kill him in the shell:
This remarkable speech pays tribute to Caesar's qualities—that he is governed by reason, not passion; that he has not yet abused his power; that what he has done and what he is do not justify his assassination. But Brutus nevertheless decides to assassinate him in case his nature is changed once he becomes King. It is, of course, quite wrong, quite preposterous (like something in Alice Through the Looking Glass) to kill a man for crimes he may never commit; and Coleridge was puzzled by the fact that Brutus makes no mention of the tyrannical acts of which Caesar was already guilty—his crossing the Rubicon, his reduction of the power of the Senate, Etc. Shakespeare wasn't ignorant of these things, as he would have found them all in Plutarch, but he does not allow Brutus to mention them. Coleridge, I presume would have preferred a speech on these lines:
Already Caesar is Rome's bitter foe
And proved a tyrant by a thousand deeds.
He crossed the Rubicon: he packed the Senate
With foreign creatures who would do his will;
On dread Pharsalia's plains he vanquished
And when they brought to him that grizzled
He cloaked his joy with hypocritic tears.
The crown he covets sanctifies his crimes,
We shall behold the last of freedom die.
Shall this man live? Or shall we strike him
And break our chains?
Why didn't Shakespeare write something like this? Presumably he realised that a wholly bad Caesar would be as wrong dramatically as a wholly evil conspiracy. Apart from that, he wished to show that Brutus was horrified by the name of King (because his ancestor had driven out the Tarquins), but that he did not realise that the great dictator was already an absolute monarch. We can all think of examples of similar blindness today where a word inhibits thought. A Hungarian friend of mine lectured in the midthirties to a respectable English audience on International Relations. He discussed the failure of disarmament conferences, Japanese aggression, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, the occupation of the Ruhr. At the end of the lecture, a member of the audience said to him: "You have discussed the actions of the great powers, but what about the League of Nations?" The League had become for him an abstraction completely divorced from the foreign policies of the constituent nations. Brutus' soliloquy is an admirable example of the eternal reference of Shakespeare's plays to the facts of human nature, at the same time as he was giving a faithful portrait of an ancient Roman.
It was some eight years before Shakespeare returned to the Roman theme, Julius Caesar, as we have seen, was a prologue to the Great Tragedies: Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus were the epilogue. In the interval Shakespare's mind occasionally turned to Plutarch and to Rome. In Hamlet the portents remind one character of the most high and palmy state of Rome: Polonius had acted at the university as Caesar; Hamlet himself refers to Plautus and Seneca and chooses a scene from a Dido play. Macbeth is reminded of how Antony's genius was rebuked by Octavius Caesar—an indication, perhaps, that Shakespeare was already thinking in 1605 of dramatising the story of Antony and Cleopatra. Perhaps the actor who had played Lady Macbeth was so successful that Shakespeare realised that he had a possible Cleopatra.
It is a mistake to think of Antony and Cleopatra as a sequel to Julius Caesar. Octavius and Lepidus are the same in both plays; but, as many critics have noted, the portrait of Antony is quite different from that of the schemer of the earlier play. Nor is it merely the result of increasing maturity. The later Antony is much closer to Plutarch's portrait. Plutarch's narrative is so enthralling that Shakespeare made use of all of it, except an account of the Parthian campaign and the story of Timon of Athens. Even passages which seem not to have been dramatised contributed to the atmosphere of the whole. For example, Plutarch has a description of the feasting in which Antony tried to forget his approaching doom:
For these things there was kept great feasting, banqueting and dancing in Alexandria many days together. Indeed they did break their just order which they had set down … and did set up another, which they called SYNAPOTHANUMENON (signifying 'the order and agreement of those that will die together') the which is exceeding sumptuousness and cost was not inferior to the first. For their friends made themselves to be enrolled in this order of those that would die together, and so made great feasts one to another.
This passage, I am sure, contributed to the atmosphere of the one gaudy night Shakespeare did dramatise where Antony says farewell to his servants.
Shakespeare picked up a few facts from Appian, and a few hints from the Countess of Pembroke's translation of Antonie and from Daniel's Cleopatra. [Daniel had just revised his play with a view to performance and in the revision Cleopatra's death is presented on the stage, not reported by messengers.] But, as Brower has remarked, it is not sources, but inner resources which matter. Shakespeare's protagonists, though based on Plutarch's, are transformed. If we are tempted to think "it's all in Plutarch", we should nevertheless realise, as Brower says, how wonderfully Shakespeare selected, "and how skillfully he concentrated on his chosen themes, embodying them in particular dramatic expressions". Plutarch was a great writer; North was a great translator; Shakespeare produced something new and wonderful from them.
We can see, for example, that Shakespeare picked up two references to the fact that Hercules was Antony's supposed ancestor—"He had a goodly thick beard, a broad forehead, crook-nosed: and there appeared such a manly look in his countenance as is commonly seen in Hercules' pictures … Now it had been a speech of old time that the family of the Antonii were descended from one Anton, the son of Hercules … This opinion did Antonius seek to confirm in all his doings". From this and the superstition about music under the ground, Shakespeare ereated the weird scene where the sentries think that the god is leaving Antony. Shakespeare had read Hercules Furens and knew how Hercules died of the poisoned shirt. From this Shakespeare composed one of the grandest speeches in the play:
The shirt of Nessus is upon me; teach me,
Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage;
Let me lodge Lichas on the horns o'th' moon,
And with those hands that grasped the heaviest
Subdue my worthiest self.
Then he noticed Plutarch's mention of the rumour, at the time of the first meeting of the lovers, that Bacchus and Venus were met together for the general good of all Asia. He closely followed Plutarch's description of the meeting but he intensified its effect by the changes he made: the introduction of erotic imagery—the water beaten by the oars was amorous of their strokes; conceits ("what they undid did") and hyperboles. For example, Cleopatra did not merely resemble pictures of Venus, she o'erpictured the goddess. Then, instead of beginning with the lovers' meeting, he postponed the account to the moment when Antony, by marrying Octavia, was apparently deserting Cleopatra for ever. Above all, Shakespeare puts the description into the mouth of one of Cleopatra's enemies, who is driven to testify to her fascination
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety
The choric figure of Enobarbus is virtually Shakespeare's invention. He found a reference to a certain Domitius who died of a broken heart after his desertion of Antony; and a reference to a quite different person, the Domitius Aenobarbus who, after Antony's death, married one of his daughters by Octavia.
Plutarch mentions that Cleopatra dressed up as the goddess, Isis, to the disgust of Octavius, as Shakespeare assumed; but, if we are to believe Michael Lloyd, the poet forthwith consulted Holland's translation of Plutarch's Moralia—he had read Plutarch's essay on flatterers before writing Timon of Athens. However that may be, the play owes a good deal of its significance to the identification of Antony with Mars—to whom he is compared in the opening speeches of the play—Bacchus and Hercules, and the identification of Cleopatra with Venus, Isis and our terrene Moon. The intimations of divinity are nicely counterpointed with their human failings
Another example of Shakespeare's use of classical material is Antony's reference to Dido and Aeneas:
Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in
And with our sprightly port make the ghosts
Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops,
And all the haunt be ours.
In the Aeneid (not written when these words are supposed to be spoken) there is a description of Dido turning haughtily away when Aeneas, while still alive, visits Hades. But Shakespeare most movingly suggests that when Aeneas too dies, he and Dido are reconciled. The implication is that Antony and Cleopatra, at this moment estranged, will be reunited, after death. [Another way by which Shakespeare established the background of the play (if we are to believe Ethel Seaton) is by echoes from the book of the Revelation written at this time.]
I mentioned earlier that mere is possibly a contemporary allusion in Antony and Cleopatra. I'm not referring to the terrene moon which Hotson thought was an allusion to the Spanish Armada, but to the resemblance between Cleopatra's questioning of the messenger about Octavia and Queen Elizabeth's questioning of the Scots ambassador about Mary, Queen of Scots. This was pointed out independently by Helen Morris and myself. Another possible echo of Elizabeth I is of a speech she made to parliament about their request she should marry, in which she said "If I were a milkmaid". So Cleopatra said she was "e'en a woman, and commanded/By such poor passion as the maid that milks and does the meanest chares". This remark has led some foolish critics to complain that Cleopatra isn't queenly.
If we are to judge from the contemporary illustration to Titus Andconicus and from Cleopatra's words, "Cut my lace, Charmian", we may assume that the play was costumed in a compromise between Jacobean and classical dress, as paintings on classical subjects during the renaissance. In spite of which, the play is historically true in spirit if not in all its details.
The translator of Appian in his preface jumped from the story of Coriolanus to the civil wars which ended in Caesar's dictatorship and assassination. The Coriolanus story was in fact one of the favourite ones among Renaissance commentators, because it could be used to warn people of the dangers of democracy. It was so used by Bodin, Fulbecke, Goslicius and Shakespeare's neighbour, Digges. Only Machiavelli in his commentary on Livy condemned Coriolanus and defended his banishment. As for Menenius' fable, it was told by Livy, Camden, Sidney and Averell (whose versions Shakespeare knew) as well as by numerous other writers from the time of Aesop.
The play was written—it is generally supposed—at the time of the insurrections in Warwickshire and elsewhere in the Midlands, and it has been suggested that Shakespeare exhibited the terrified reactions of a man of property. But he had himself joined in a protest about enclosures—one of the grievances of the peasants—and I cannot see any evidence in the text of the play that he regarded the citizens with contempt. They are given genuine grievances and they express them eloquently, without any of the illogicality of the Cade mob in Henry VI. As Coleridge said, the play exhibits the wonderful impartiality of Shakespeare's politics: he analyses in a devastating way the pride and immorality of the Patricians as well as the rancour of the Tribunes. If the play had a lesson for contemporaties it was not the one that was usually drawn from the Coriolanus story. I think it would not have been any different if it had been written before the insurrection.
Shakespeare follows Plutarch closely, although he omits some events and alters the order of others. He omits, for example, the much resented proposal to send the surplus population of Rome to Velitres which had been depopulated by the plague. The shortage of corn, for which the Patricians were blamed, is brought forward to be one of the main grievances in the first scene of the play. Shakespeare omits the departure of the common people from Rome, encamping on the Tiber, "offering no creature any hurt or violence or making any shout of actual rebellion". This early example of passive resistance was less easily dramatised than the insurrection in the first scene of the play.
The main outlines of Coriolanus' character are clearly defined by Plutarch: the fatherless son, unnaturally attached to his mother, fighting and even marrying to please her, and continuing after marriage to live in his mother's house. His
natural wit and great heart did marvellously stir up his courage to do and attempt notable acts. But on the other side, for lack of education, he was so choleric and impatient that he would yield to no living creatures which made him churlish, uncivil, and altogether unfit for any man's conversation.
Plutarch would have told Shakespeare that "in those days valiantness was honoured in Rome above all other virtues; which they call virtus, by the name of virtue itself". This was doubtless necessary in the early days of the Republic when Rome was surrounded by hostile neighbours. Shakespeare brings this home to us by numerous touches.
I have been trying to show that Shakespeare's knowledge of the Roman world and of Roman literature was considerable; that he was fully aware of the differences between the state of Rome and its institutions in the different periods about which he wrote; that his anachronisms are trivial; and that, even if he intended his plays to be relevant to his own time, as every serious dramatist must, he did not sacrifice essential historical truth. He did make alterations in the order of events. He allowed Menenius to live on to Act V; he invented Virgilia and Enobarbus He telescoped events. But the central situations of his three Roman plays—the assassination of Caesar, the clash between Octavius and Antony, the class struggle in the early days of the republic—are more fairly depicted than by more learned historians. This is because, like every true dramatist, he allows his characters to speak for themselves.
George K. Hunter (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: "A Roman Thought: Renaissance Attitudes to History Exemplified in Shakespeare and Jonson," in An English Miscellany Presented to W. S. Machie, edited by Brian S. Lee, Oxford University Press, Cape Town, 1977, pp. 93-118.
[In the essay below, Hunter provides a detailed account of the Tudor conception of Roman history. The critic additionally shows how Shakespeare's portrayal of political events during the Republic and Empire is informed by values that differ from those of Ben Jonson in such plays as Sejanus and Catiline.]
This paper will set out to discover what attitudes Tudor historians, translators of Roman history and some Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, held to the Roman past. One might suppose that these different groups had distinct aims, in that the latter were interested in Roman history mainly as a source of local colour or background to theatrical adventures where the former were in search of the facts of the case as they really occurred. Neither of these expectations is, however, fulfilled. The historians and the dramatists were both caught up by the pressure of the myth (as against the facts) of Rome, by the sense of the past as significant because of the values it has bequeathed to the present.
Some pressure of this kind is, in fact, a constant feature of historiography, and without it history-writing would probably be impossible. The facts of the past only acquire shape and order when the mould of particular questions forces out specific meanings. It is the historian's act of asking questions that determines the hierarchy of facts in the answers; and the historian, of course, asks the questions that the age (and the individual in the age) thinks relevant, largely because these allow the past to contribute to the present and be understood by it. The myth of the past forces the facts to dance attendance on the present's configurations, whether in confirmation or denial.
The exact nature of the pressure exerted by the myth of Rome on the historians and dramatists of the Tudor period is, however, rather different from that found in the modern world. Today, different kinds of questions about the past seem relevant, and different techniques for answering these questions have come into being (archaeological dating, economic analysis of surviving evidence, etc.). For the Elizabethans the prime material to work on was the patchwork of praise and blame of Roman achievement that the Roman historians had left behind them; and the principal problem was of fitting the norms of value that this implied into the value-confirming framework of the contemporary world.
The very word 'Roman' had a value-bearing content as well as the more objective historical/geographical one. In Antony and Cleopatra I.ii we are told of Antony, 'He was dispos'd to mirth; but on the sudden/A Roman thought hath struck him'. This would not be a point worth making, were we dealing only with the geographical sense of the word 'Roman'; Antony, as a Roman, must have 'Roman thoughts' every time he thinks. But the word means more than this: 'Roman', as we easily recognize, carries the sense of a set of virtues, thought of as characterizing Roman civilization—soldierly, severe, self-controlled, disciplined. The point is highlighted in Antony and Cleopatra by the co-presence of an Egyptian culture, thought of as opposite. But the meaning does not require this underlining. In Coriolanus, when the soldiers run away, Martius says they are, 'Though in Rome littered, not Romans' (III.i.239). The distinction I am labouring could not be more clear.
This ethical sense of 'Roman' was transmitted to the Tudors, as to the rest of Europe, and for century after century, in a series of images of virtue held up as models or secular mirabilia, propagated in tapestries and pictures, stained-glass, medallions, poems, speeches of welcome and even plays. The earliest plays we hear of in the Tudor court deal with precisely this range of figures—Mutius Scevola who burned off the hand that had failed to stab Lars Porsenna, Alucius who became Rome's ally when overcome by the magnanimity of Scipio, Virginia who 'lively expressed a rare example of the virtue of chastity … in wishing rather to be slain at her own father's hands than to be deflowered of the wicked judge Apius', and, of course, Lucrece. What we are dealing with here might be called romantic history or rather historical romance, familiar to us from tales of Cavaliers and Round-heads or Saxons and Normans. But it is a rather unusual kind of romance, a self-indulgent daydream of a distant world of political simplicity, in which there was no space for self-indulgence.
The romantic power of these images is in fact so great because they are not simply daydreams; for they have a powerful claim (or seemed to have, on the evidence available) to be not only highly coloured but also true. This is why historians and playwrights could share so many assumptions about the Roman past. The idea of a small city-state which conquered the world, and did so because it had first conquered its own passionate weaknesses, has a great deal of apparent evidence to support it. Certainly ages like the so-called Enlightenment, which were contemptuous of the delusions of poetry and the romance of religion, remained enthralled by the spell of the togaed Senate and the lictor's fasces, and remained enthralled precisely because these were (or seemed to be) accurate images of a real piece of history, a real mode of social organization.
This seductive combination of political truth and aesthetic power has, I fear, faded from the modern scene. This is partly, I suppose, because the evident truth of Roman institutions as the sources of our own institutions has become less clear. Archaeology and Relativism have combined to detach the Roman world from our own one and to place it among other remote civilizations—Etruscan, Aztec, Chinese, for example—with an equal claim to truth, not only in the sense that 'it really happened thus' but also in the sense that their institutions are seen, like Rome's, as adequate responses to a particular set of circumstances and stimuli, and explicable in these terms rather than in any framework of teleology leading to our present situation, or in any framework of general evaluation. In modern terms, in short, the truth about the Roman past has become detached from our romantic and evaluative sense of its heroic achievements, the greatness of the shadow it has cast over succeeding ages. This is a divorce which has been arranged to benefit Truth, but (as in many divorces) the arrangement has had a markedly depressive effect on the discarded partner, the one that we may call Romance, but which earlier ages were willing to entitle Greatness or Heroism. Historical Truth has been freed to live in some kind of a liaison with Science, but Historical Romance has had in consequence to serve the stereotypes of shoddy wish-fulfilment, mothering a tribe of sentimental fictions from The Last Days of Pompeii to Ben Hur and Quo Vadis.
The Tudor and Stuart writers were innocent of these perils of relativism. The Roman past was to them not simply a past but the past, and, therefore, a subject necessarily evaluative, since it led to the present. Roman culture was not simply one competitor for attention among several, but supplied, in fact, the only possible range of meanings that would have attached to the word culture, if it had existed. The adequacy of national or modern culture seemed to be measurable, then, only to the extent that it could reproduce or rival the qualities of Roman culture. The combination of Romance and Truth in Roman history thus offered a set of evaluative norms by which the achievements of modern men and modern nations could be measured; indeed, the principal interest of history was that it provided a set of norms or ideals of conduct.
I have spoken of the modern divorce between the truth of a historical sequence, seen as quite separate from the world in which we live, and the romance of actions that are brought into an evaluative relationship with our own experience as models (either horrenda or miranda), and suggested that this divorce was not present for the Elizabethans. Strictly speaking that is correct. But there is a distribution of emphasis among Elizabethan and Jacobean writers that sets up interesting pointers towards the modern situation, and this is the real subject of my discourse. I wish to stress the point that the distinction in attitudes to Roman history which I perceive among English writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is one of emphasis only. This is important to my thesis because what I seek to derive my critical points from is the proximity of the alternatives and their capacity to overlap, rather than from any extremes of difference that can be set between them. A modern attempt to mediate between Ben Hur (say) and Theodor Mommsen would seem to be doomed to necessary failure, since the coherence that one demanded would necessarily rule out the coherence the other required. But Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Ben Jonson's Sejanus are not only interestingly unlike (and unlike in ways that mark the polarity between Truth and Romance), but also interestingly like; the dialogue between these works (which I shall attempt to report at a later stage) is fruitfully open.
Julius Caesar and Sejanus (usually dated 1599 and 1603) occupy a crucial period of time, inside the great decade (1598-1608) when nearly all the best plays on Roman history were being written. On either side of this decade stretch developing attitudes which eventually create a gap in attitude as large as that between The Mirror for Magistrates and Thomas Hobbes—a gap between the attitude to history which sees it as determined by men (to put it crudely) and as (on the other hand) determined by events. It would no doubt be wrong to say that the Roman plays of the central decade (or so) are great by the external reason that a competition or dialectic of alternatives was freely available at this point. But one can argue that the passion and commitment that Shakespeare and Jonson were able to bring to Roman history, and the human complexity they were able to derive from it, depended on command of a range of vocabulary, both truthful and romantic, then easy to use and elsewhere more difficult to hold together.
A survey of sixteenth-century English translations of the Roman historians provides, I think, a useful index to the way in which attitudes to the Roman past changed throughout the Tudor period.… Such a survey throws up one central and, to me, always surprising point—the point that though comment and translation of Roman history was continuous from 1520 onwards, the major Roman historians, Livy and Tacitus, were not translated till the very end of Elizabeth's reign—Tacitus in 1591 and 1598, Livy in 1600.
Given the mouth-honour accorded to Rome, one would have expected something else. But I think one can see why the complete translation of these authors (or of what has survived from them) posed particular difficulties for Tudor writers. Livy and Tacitus (even in their truncated remains) offer us an overall interpretation of the sweep of Roman history from Romulus to Vespasian, create a pattern of organic rise and fall which not only separates the Roman State from the modern world, but does so in terms of an ethic that denies the official beliefs of the modern world as Tudor historians were given to understand them. Livy and Tacitus are agreed (to simplify grossly) that the characteristic virtues of Rome, those much-prized ethical norms, fides, pudicitia, libertas, concordia, disciplina, are essentially republican in their social context, and so are set implacably against kingship, seen as the effeminizing degradation of Eastern tyrants, the state towards which all single rule naturally degenerates.
This was, of course, an attitude to rule quite counter to that which the Tudor monarchs were assiduously promoting, and to which many Humanist scholars were committed on theoretical as well as prudential grounds. It is impossible to be dogmatic about cause and effect, but it is possible to hazard a guess that Tudor historians, so long as they looked to the past for models of conduct that could be regenerated in the present, were inhibited from offering more than fragments of conduct, speeches, campaigns, lives, leaving the larger Livy and Tacitus pattern to look after itself. Certainly this is what we find when we list the English translations. Thus … the only English translation of Livy in the sixteenth century, Sir Antony Cope's The history of the two most noble captains of the world, [H]anibal and Scipio, of their divers battles and victories, exceeding profitable to read, gathered and translated into English out of Titus Livius and other authors by Antony Cope, 1544 (reprinted 1548, 1561, 1590), effectively turns a political process into an ethical lesson: as the printer tells us in his poem before the book, Hannibal lost the war because Scipio had the greater virtue:
THO. Berthelet on this history
Who so ever desireth for to read
Martial prowess, feats of chivalry
That may him profit at time of need
Let him in hand take this history
That showeth the sleights and policy,
The wily trains of witty Annibali,
The crafty deceipts full oft whereby
He gave his puissant enemies a fall.
Of worthy stomach and courage valiant,
Of noble heart and manly enterprise,
Of gentleness, of mind sure and constant,
Of government prudent ware and wise
Shall find according to his device
This prince Scipio, this mighty Roman,
Which all fon[d] pleasure ever did despise
In continence a lord and sovereign.
Lo thus may men plainly here behold
That wily wit, power, guise nor policy
Could Annibali ever still uphold
But that by Scipio's worthy chivalry,
His manhood, virtue and deeds knightly
He was subdued, there is no more to sayne;
And yet to speak as truth will verify
There was never found a better captain.
Chivalry is a recurrent word in the prefatory matter of the translations of Roman historians, and I think one can see why. It is a word which links prowess in the public field of war with inner or private or personal virtue, implies, indeed, that these are two sides to one coin. Scipio's public success was due to, or at least intimately connected with, his private moral qualities. This is an equation that any impartial or extended survey of history would find it difficult to sustain; but in limited and specially selected contexts the point can be asserted and pushed home in terms of present-day conduct. Cope not only tells his dedicatee—King Henry VIII—that the translation is appropriate to the present time of war:
Wherefore well pondering the time of war to be now in hand as a thing so much needful for many considerations, I (for my poor part) thought that I should do not only to your highness acceptable service but also to all noble men and gentlemen of the realm great pleasure and commodity …
but further tells the king that 'who so beholdeth the conduct of your grace's wars in Spain, France, Britain [Brittany] and Scotland … shall find the triumph thereof much more worthy of glory than any that ever Livius wrote upon.' The flattering implication is clear: as with Scipio, Henry's virtue will cause him to win; and his victory will prove the fact of his virtue.
A translation of a similar kind, with similar ethical and patriotic motives, is Christopher Watson's version of Polybius, Book I: The histories of the most famous and worthy chronographer Polybius, discoursing of the wars betwixt the Romans and Carthaginians, a rich and goodly work containing wholesome counsels and wonderful devices against the incumbrances of fortune. Annexed an abstract of the worthy acts perpetrated by King Henry V (1568). What is in some ways the most interesting part of this book is Watson's explanation of how he came to write it: To the questioners. Those which are desirous to know the causes why I joined this abridgement of K. Henry V his life to this foreign history. He explains that after the labour of reading Aristotle, he sought recreation and thought that he might read histories for this purpose.
So I raught to our English chronicles compiled by Edward Hall which by fortune lay open at that present in the life of King Henry the fift, where was noted in the margent, the Oration of Henry Chickley Archbishop of Canterbury, which oration I read over, and at the end a reply to the same, made by the right honourable Lord Rafe, earl of Westmoreland, a man of no less gravity than experience … [In Westmoreland's oration] There lacked no copy of examples, as of the Persians, the Africans, the Greeks, and especially of the Romans, by diverse other nations, yea of England and Scotland. When I had perused the mellifluous oration of this worthy orator and mighty magistrate I determined with myself to read some of the famous histories out of which he had picked such pleasant pearls, and especially, before the rest, that history intreating of the wars made by the Romans for Sicily and the city of the Samnites, out of the which he had collected the most firm and infringible arguments of his oration.
His translation is thus justified very clearly by the light it is thought to throw on Anglo-French rivalry, the traditional scene of English prowess, and the motive it supplies for military action in the present. As R. W. tells us in his poem in laudem Histor. Polybij, Anglico lectori:
If famous facts
Or worthy acts
Rejoice thy daunted mind
Whereas in deed
Good physic thou shalt find.
Of captains stout
Which fought it out
Their country to defend.
Then virtue learn
That thou mayst earn
Such glories for to have
As Momus sect
Can not reject
When thou art closed in grave.
The alternative to this fragmentation of Roman history into small and manageable ethico-historical vignettes is to find an over-all model which allows the historian to run counter to what I have described as the Livy-Tacitus or vulgate interpretation. This would seem to be the aim of William Fulbecke in a very curious book dated 1601 (by which date it is, I suppose, something of a Parthian shot): An abridgement or rather a bridge of Roman Histories to pass the nearest way from Titus Livius to Cornelius Tacitus, also known as A Historical Collection of the Continual Factions, Tumults and Massacres of the Romans and Italians during the space of 120 years next before the peaceable Empire of Augustus Caesar. For Fulbecke the expulsion of the Tarquins was a disaster for the Romans, who thereby changed gold for brass, 'and loathing one king suffered manie tyrants' (sig. B1). There is also, of course, good Christian reason for such recasting. Augustine had seen Rome as the city of fratricidal conflict, of Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, and from a medieval point of view represented most easily for us by Dante, the establishment of the Empire was a crucial stage in God's plan for a Christian world. But one must suppose that Fulbecke's most immediate motivation was the desire to make the progression of Roman history conform to the expectations of Tudor political doctrine.
Yet another alternative open to the Tudor translators of Roman historians can be represented by the work of W.B., probably William Barker, lately secretary to the Duke of Norfolk and in 1571 imprisoned in the Tower for his implication in the Ridolfi plot—from which he escaped by denoucing his late master. Barker's background may help to explain the somewhat hysterical endorsements of monarchy that his Appian contains, as from a man trying to work his passage back into political favour; but it is only a hysterical form of the common assumption. Barker's choice of Appian almost made his point for him. Appian of Alexandria (fl. c. A.D. 160) wrote to describe the Romans as warriors. His history is a history of campaigns, in Spain, Libya, Macedonia, Syria, etc., and also of the civil wars in Rome (Books 13-17 of the 24 books he wrote). Barker only really seriously manipulates this material by putting the civil wars first; but notice what capital he is able to make out of it in the title-page: An ancient history and exquisite chronicle of the Roman wars, both civil and foreign … in which is declared: Their greedy desire to conquer others. Their mortal malice to destroy themselves. Their seeking of matters to make wars abroad. Their picking of quarrels to fall out at home. All the degrees of sedition and all the effects of ambition … And finally an evident demonstration that people's rule must give place and princes ' power prevail … With a continuation … (to the Principate) (1578).
The notion that the Empire was the goal of the historical process and a safe haven for political virtue seems, however, to have had little effect on sixteenth-century playwrights. The animation of Romanitas in the theatre remained obstinately fixed on the ethical models that the Republic provided. Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece of 1594 (like Heywood's play of the same title of c. 1607) condemns the Tarquins and exalts Collatinus and Brutus just as Livy does. Of the 29 Roman plays whose texts or titles are known to us before 1602, only six deal with the Empire, and of these six five (Julian the Apostate of 1566, Titus and Vespasian of 1592, Diocletian of 1594, Julian the Apostate (again) of 1596 and Constantine of 1599) are presumably (all have perished) stories of Christian triumph and pagan wickedness (like Ben Hur and The Sign of the Cross). The sixth ( Heliogabalus of 1594) seems unlikely, given its hero, to have stressed the virtues of imperial rule. But again, we cannot be sure, for this play also has perished.…
Matthew Gwinne's Latin play Nero of 1603 (written for performance in St John's College, Oxford) and Ben Jonson's public theatre play Sejanus, also of 1603, seem to have been the first plays in England to treat the matter of imperial history in political terms. The coincidence of dates may point to the fact that by this time attitudes to Roman history had begun to change. To stick to the evidence supplied by English translations, Barker's translation of Appian in 1578 and North's translation of Plutarch's Lives in 1579 seem to mark the end of one phase of translating activity. The next English translations, Sir Henry Savile's rendering of Tacitus in 1591, completed by Greneway in 1598, and Philemon Holland's Livy of 1600, belong to a rather different world, a world in which the centrality of the single hero is increasingly being compromised by the sense that success in politics has little or nothing to do with ethics.
What had happened, one may argue, is that England had begun, at the end of the century, to catch up with currents of thought that had been around in continental Europe for some time. The attitude to historiography that we may associate with the names of Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Bodin or Lipsius only began to affect English history writing in the fifteen-nineties. English translations again supply an index of what seemed interesting to the decade and we may note the cluster of titles such as Lipsius' Politica (trans. 1596), Bodin's Commonwealth (trans. 1603), Montaigne's Essays (entered for publication in an English translation in 1595, and finally published in 1603), as well as Bacon's Essays of 1596, and Sir John Hayward's 'political history' of Henry IV (1599). The new attitudes that these titles imply were, of course, at this point still the expression of a minority avant-garde taste. But Roman history was a particularly sharp area of discrimination, and in this field the nature of the opposition declared itself with some rapidity, for Tacitus was the author around whom much of the controversy turned. Diggory Whear in his published lectures as the first Camden praelector in history at Oxford reports an exchange between Lipsius and Casaubon which neatly sums up the role and importance of Tacitus. Lipsius supposed that Tacitus was an author who ought to be in the hands of every prince, since he avoided mirabilia and legends:
Non Ule Annibalis funestas Romanis victorias, non speciosam Lucretiae necem, non vatum prodigio aut Etrusco portento recenset, et quae alia sunt oblectandi magis quatti instruendi Lectoris … Invenies sub tyrannide adulationes, delationes, non ignota huic saecula mala … etc.
Casaubon, on the other hand, thought Tacitus most unsuitable reading for princes and governors. His concentration on vices and pettinesses did not allow his history to form the proper basis of generalization about human destiny: Historiam nihil aliud esse quam Philosophiam exemplis utentem.
For Jonson and the English avant-garde, Tacitus offered an acreb and disenchanted observation of the gradual strangulation, under the Empire, of all those ethical wonders of Republican Rome that I spoke about at the beginning of my essay. What Giuseppe Toffanin, the Italian critic, has described as il Tachismo was already, of course, widespread in European political thought and flowed into England from many sources. But all shared a sense that here was a view of history and life that was plus propre (as Montaigne remarked) à un estat trouble et malade, comme est le nostre present. Even Tudor patriotism could not wholly stem the tide of disenchantment and scepticism, though for long enough the two attitudes preserved their strained relationship intact (as I have noted above). Was 'the State' an ethically neutral machine for self-perpetuating the possessors of power as Tacitus seems to imply and modern theorists repeated? Or was it a value-bearing institution laid down by God or Fate to protect His subjects? All the intellectual prestige of 1600 was on the former possibility, and Jonson and others clearly thought of Shakespeare and Plutarch as slow-witted provincials who hadn't caught up. If the former is the case, then the Empire (as against the Republic) becomes a suitable subject for a literature of satiric or tragic perceptions. Imperial history then becomes an appropriate cockpit for a display of individual destiny, only found real when the legends of a special Roman virtue crumble before realpolitik. Certainly the English stage shifts its emphasis in the seventeenth century. After Jonson's Catiline of 1611, seven out of the eleven known plays on Roman history deal with the empire (compare the figures for the sixteenth century, given above)—usually with its gloomier tyrants, and the same range of drama shows Jonson's influence predominant over Shakespeare's.
But in the decade around the turn of the century the balance of forces is more equal. The Jonsonian view of the distinction between himself and Shakespeare is clearly formulated, and easy to believe; but it leaves too much unexplained. It is true that Shakespeare is closely dependent on Plutarch, and on one English translation of Plutarch, where Jonson, as the margins of his Sejanus amply inform us, had read, digested and reworked the whole of Silver Latin literature.
The stereotypes of Art and Nature misrepresent not only Shakespeare, but also Plutarch. The Lives are, of course, not histories, but their concentration on the ethical content of individual careers by no means repeats the Tudor praise of noble captains or ancient models of chivalry. Bodin certainly thought Plutarch too much a moralist to be a reliable historical witness, too quick with judgements, too much (as he says) a principum censor. He was particularly unimpressed by the method of parallelism as a technique of history: Quid autem aliud est Agesilaum Pompeio quam muscam elephanto conferre?
Bodin's contempt, and the easy antithesis with Jonson, make it sound as if Shakespeare in reproducing or merely dramatizing Plutarch's Lives was falling back into the Tudor habit of setting up isolated deeds of the past as analogies to the present. Some critics have indeed argued this. But perhaps we should see Shakespeare as using Plutarch rather than as simply stumbling across him and thinking what magnetic images these were. Plutarch's point of view may be seen as precisely what Shakespeare was searching for at this point in his career, an escape from the assumption—necessarily implicit in the English histories—that personal qualities and political success are somehow interdependent. But before we accede to Bodin's view of Plutarch's Lives as an evasion of historical objectivity, we should remember that Plutarch was the favourite author of that idol of the avant-garde, Montaigne, who refers to him as 'the most judicious author of the world.' Montaigne makes the same distinction between historian and moralist as Bodin, but entirely to the discredit of the mere historian: 'What profit is it … to read Plutarch? … [We read him] not so much to know the date of the ruin of Carthage as the manners of Hannibal and Scipio … not so much to know histories as to judge of them'.
What the notion of Shakespeare's Tudor backwardness in choosing Plutarch rather than Tacitus as his model conceals from our understanding is that Plutarch's Lives do not offer us models of personal-and-political praise and blame in the manner of the Tudor historians, but rather a concentration on the inexplicable individuality of personal lives, seen together with the tortuousness of the process by which subjective traits become objective and politically significant facts. Plutarch resolutely asks private questions about public men, and Shakespeare follows him in this, but neither blindly (he had reached the point in his thinking where this was his own obvious next question), nor without modification. Modification was indeed inevitable. Plutarch wrote his Lives for an audience still living more or less inside the political system and cultural assumptions of most of his heroes. The political contexts of their public lives could, therefore, remain implicit. For Shakespeare, however, creating plays—i.e. coherent social worlds—for an audience with different and indeed opposed political beliefs, meant making quite explicit the nature of the alternative political possibilities that give the play its definition, and the nature of the organization within which these alternatives exist. Shakespeare's Brutus may be close to Plutarch's Brutus, but the relationship of Shakespeare's Brutus to the whole world described by the play has to be the invention of the playwright.
What Shakespeare offers us in Julius Caesar is, in fact, a highly sophisticated piece of political thinking. If we compare this play to some earlier Roman plays of the public theatre—Lodge's Wounds of Civil War of c. 1588 or Shakespeare's own Titus Andronicus of c. 1594—or even to the academic Caesar's Revenge of c. 1595, we notice at once the strength and stability that is implied of the system within which the characters of Julius Caesar lead their mental as well as their physical lives. In Titus the system for which Titus and others suffer mutilation and death is hardly defined. The Roman myth becomes a crucial factor at certain points, but elsewhere madness, anger, family sorrow, the Goths, make us lose sight of it altogether. Man is a political animal here only when the passionate drives of his private life allow him to be so, but at the end of the play Titus's private virtue and ethical constancy is given a political reward as if this naturally follows. In Julius Caesar, however, the private life of the individual is everywhere and everyhow intertwined with his political role, as if there is no private action he can take that will not cast an enlarged and distorted shadow into the entirely alien and incommensurate dimension of political consequences. Shakespeare, like earlier Tudor writers, offers us for our admiration the ethical splendours of Romanitas in his central figure of Brutus; but like the later 'political' writers he shows us the ethical standards of pietas, fides, pudicitia, which Brutus and Portia display, inside a framework which forces it to seek expression in the enlarged focus of political action and then undercuts it by revealing the total irrelevance of ethics to political and historical development. In this way, Julius Caesar may be said to use as its basic dialectic the overlap of contrasting attitudes to Roman history that I have described above. The Empire, or 'Caesarism' as it is usually called, is seen to be inevitable and therefore in one way 'right'. In terms of the future, of predestination or necessitarianism, Brutus ought to be co-operating with the historical process. But Brutus in his opposition to all this is also 'right'. In terms of the present rather than the future, of ethical self-consciousness and free-will, he makes the right choice, and it is seen moreover as a choice which validates the past, the Republic, the original Lucius Junius Brutus, with his distrust and hatred of kingship.
Cassius and Brutus are said to be (respectively) 'the last of all the Romans' and 'the noblest Roman of them all'. What, then, are Octavian and Mark Antony? The play properly avoids asking the reductive question in this bald way. But an answer is to some degree implied by the action. 'The triumph of Caesarism', as it is usually called, controls the end of the play: it represents a force that men in the play cannot understand, however, though they can and, indeed, must respond to it, so that it is a shadow rather than a shape. The new world of the second triumvirate's proscriptions is clearly going to be a personally unpleasant world; but Shakespeare invites our attention to aspects of it other than the personal and ethical one. It is going to be a pragmatic world; it is going to work effectively, and the moral stance or personal nobility of those who direct it will not matter very much; the coming efficiency of the world will not be reduced by the fact that its directors have not invested a great deal of personal nobility in the system. The Roman Empire whose shadow lies over the deaths of Brutus and Cassius is seen as not only a political necessity but a Roman necessity. The focus of the play is not on what will come out of this dramatized slice of cataclysm, or on what the Roman Empire will be like, but rather on the way in which ethical integrity has become a tragic quality rather than a historical one, drawing its power from its capacity to fail magnificently, one might say—its power to make success and history look cheap and shallow. As Cleopatra remarks in a similar context: ''Tis paltry to be Caesar:/ Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave' (Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii, 2-3). To this extent Julius Caesar may seem a reactionary or at least old-fashioned response to the new sense of history as itself a tragic destiny that was burgeoning in advanced circles in the 'nineties; but it is in fact an alternative novelty, rather than a rehash of the same old thing.
Looking at the route Shakespeare took into Roman history, through English history (he had been writing English history plays fairly continuously in the years preceding Julius Caesar), one can see that the Roman state offered him a milieu in which he could escape from the pressure of teleology—the pressure to make the English past lead up to the English present in which the theatre audience lives. He can hardly be said to assert in the Roman plays that history is a tragic destiny, but at least he has escaped from the necessity to allege that it is a happy destiny (comic in the Dantesque sense). He effectively escapes, indeed, from the necessity to make any long-term pronouncement on history at all. Plutarch allows him to concentrate on the presentness of the action rather than on its future consequences. Plutarch's Lives culminate inevitably in the great man's death and exert little pressure on us to enquire what happened next; and Shakespeare seems happy to endorse this folding back or self-sealing structure. Thus at the end of Julius Caesar, when the required praise of the dear departed has run its course Octavian concludes briskly with, ' … Let's away/To part the glories of this happy day'. We may, if we wish, bring a sense of disillusioned irony to the happiness that is promised for the parting of these spoils. But the play does not ask us to do this. The sense of cadence, of conclusion, is too strong to allow the continuity of history to secure much of an effect.
In Antony and Cleopatra the historical sense that this is the end of the road, the closing of the book of the Civil Wars, is strongly felt. Octavian tells Agrippa (and us) that
The time of universal peace is near.
Prove this a prosperous day, the three-nook'd
Shall bear the olive freely.
It is, however, characteristic of Shakespeare's tact that this is said nine scenes from the conclusion, and is referred to a battle which is inconclusive in itself, even though it does not contradict the truth of Octavian's near. The 'universal peace' is never energized in the play as any part of its dynamic; it is a blank wall erected against the end of the action, with little more content than 'lived happily ever after'. The actual end is concerned with the tomb and funeral service of the dead lovers; and our attention to their future has been phrased exclusively in the unhistorical terms of their behaviour in the Elysian Fields:
Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops
And all the haunt be ours
At the end of the action the army has become purely decorative: 'Our army shall/In solemn show attend this funeral,/And then to Rome'. Its action is phrased as a backward glance into the material of the play rather than a forward glance to new conquests. The future of Rome in terms of the Roman Empire is already in the play, one may say, as a counter-motive to the ethical qualities that are being dramatized inside its present time. The Empire is, as it were, already there in embryo in the character of the future Augustus. The conflicts that in history are extended as a sequence through time have been expressed by Shakespeare as telescoped into a spatial (rather than temporal) design bounded by the life-spans and the ethical outlooks of its central characters. Shakespeare, like Plutarch, is not writing history; he is, as Montaigne says of Plutarch, preferring judgement to knowledge.
Shakespeare's reluctance to expose fully the consequences of the actions of the present on the history of the future was no doubt one of the many aspects of Shakespeare's second Roman play that struck Ben Jonson as (in the manner of Bodin's judgement on Plutarch) an avoidance of the tragic truth of history. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar represents the tension between the romantic power of Roman ethics and the political knowledge that ethics could not eventually save the state; but the attitudes that emerged in Jonson's first Roman tragedy, Sejanus, of 1603, were not able to allow even that degree of balance between the two, let alone the concentration on ethics that appears elsewhere in Shakespeare. Jonson, more fully representative of what Hiram Haydn conveniently labels the Counter-Renaissance, seems to have seen ethics as bound to lose in any true description of public life. We do not know that Sejanus was aimed at Julius Caesar. We only know that Jonson [in his Discoveries] remembered Julius Caesar for the rest of his life as a play containing Shakespearian absurdities. Given the extent to which Shakespeare seems to have taken it upon himself to refashion Roman tragedy for the Elizabethan stage and to rescue it from mere romance on the one hand, and on the other hand from the static discussion form of Garnier closet drama—given this, we can hardly avoid supposing that Jonson determined to show that facile Johannes factotum the only Shake-scene of the Globe (and the rest of the world) what a Roman tragedy might really be like, if one had all classical literature and its commentators at command. At any rate Jonson seems to have shifted the focus of his play from the boys' companies, for whom he had hitherto written, and to have offered his new tragedy to Shakespeare's company. 'Not without mustard', one must suppose.
The choice of the career of Aelius Sejanus for the subject of Jonson's play I take to point to the kind of significance Jonson hoped to extract from his piece. It is not, indeed, very hard to find the trigger of Jonson's intention in his principal source, Tacitus. At the beginning of the fourth book of the Annals, Tacitus looks back over the nine good years at the beginning of Tiberius's reign, in which imperial rule was still (as in Augustus's time) expressed through republican institutions, and notes that this suddenly changed in A.D. 23. The principate became a tyranny. 'And the cause and the beginning of the change,' Tacitus tells us, 'lay with Aelius Sejanus' (Initium et causa penes Aelium Seianum). An irreversible change has occurred and we are meant, I suppose, to sense the forward throw of that shadow on the next three hundred years of the Roman Empire.
In Julius Caesar the depressive ironies of history are well expressed: e.g. in that episode where the populace are so moved by Brutus's defence of the murder of Caesar that they shout out 'Let him be Caesar' (III.ii.50). To some extent this effect is reproduced in Sejanus when, Sejanus dead, the Senate welcomes Macro (the new Sejanus) as their deliverer from the old Sejanus. The similarity between the two plays is, however, a measure of their difference. For Shakespeare the mob's idiocy is a passing moment, serving to indicate the meaninglessness or at least difficulty of the context within which his principal figures try to realize their personal values. The values are not, however, effaced by the mob's incapacity to understand them or indeed anything that is happening. The capacity for personal nobility, for Romanitas, remains powerful and central, and the notion that the mob's innocence could be contained and controlled (rather than exploited) by good as well as effective men is never fully ruled out. The destructive violence of the mob after Antony's speech in the forum is represented by Shakespeare as arising from Brutus's miscalculation and Antony's opportunism rather than from any necessary law that makes historical development the prey of manipulators and places idealists among the failures. In the less deterministic work of Julius Caesar history seems to be made by human decisions, made inside present moments of time which we share with those making them. The mob violence at the end of Sejanus (seen in the moralized mirror of the Nuntius's speech) does not seem to involve any decisions; it is simply the visible lower end of a long chain of consequential manipulations. The mob cannot escape from the scenario that History has already written for it, its pre-determined role, any more than can the Senators or the informers or even the spider at the centre of the web, Tiberius himself. To be good exempts one, in neither play, from the pains of history; but Shakespeare allows his stoical suicides to express for future times the free Roman values of a present moment and an individual outlook that is fixed forever by the escape from flux and decay that suicide offers. But when in Sejanus Act III Silius kills himself rather than be censured by the Senate, we note the extent to which his gesture is made to seem pointless, and is sealed off from any consequential effect on history. His gesture has to be expressed as a defiance of the Senate, for the Senate is the 'front' organization he can see and refer to; but the Senate represents only, as he knows and as we know, a billboarding behind which the real power remains invisible and safe. So Tiberius can appear from behind the mask, wearing an air of injured innocence, and proclaim his personal sorrow at Silius's death: 'We are not pleased in this sad accident/That thus hath 'stalled and abused our mercy/Intended to preserve thee, noble Roman'. Silius's suicide simply allows his memory to be manipulated instead of his person. To avoid manipulation, the implication seems to run, you must opt out of history altogether, avoid having any point of view on any affair.
It seems clear enough that Jonson found this particular passage of Tacitus's Annals significant. It seemed to him to represent the hinge moment between defensible and indefensible kingship. He expects us to be interested in the historical process, so well described by Tacitus, by which the forms of liberty and open government are preserved intact, like the surface of worm-eaten veneered furniture, while the substance of political life is eaten away by the hidden forces of tyranny. The tragedy of the fall of Sejanus forms a complete story, but its general significance is that it is only one episode in the world created irreversibly by the rise of Sejanus. The manipulated impotence of both senators and plebs, who cannot take the chance offered when the new agent, Macro, is set up to replace the old one, Sejanus, extends our sense of what has happened to horizons well beyond A.D. 32. Unlike Shakespeare's Roman plays this is a dramatic action which relies for its full effect on a knowledge of the larger perspectives within which the Roman state is moving from freedom to tyranny, from manly independence to servile timidity. Sejanus is a difficult play to respond to if one does not have the Livy/Tacitus sense of the general sweep of Roman history already in one's mind, and especially if one brings to it the expectations of an action based on personalities of the Shakespearian kind.
This difficulty pales into insignificance beside that offered by Jonson's second tragedy, Catiline, of 1611. In fact, Jonson's central concerns in this play are the same as those in Sejanus—the slide of the Republican system of checks and balances towards the chaos of Civil war and the so-called 'rescue' operation of triumvirs and emperors. But the relationship between the particular episode that forms the substance of the play, the conspiracy of Catiline and its defeat by Cicero, and the use of this episode as an example of the way things are going, is more complex than in Sejanus and has, in general, been missed. The use of the ghost of Sulla as a prologue or protatica persona might, of course, be a warning. We may remember that the settling of Sulla's veterans was one of the triggers of discontent that fired the Catilinarian revolt. Jonson, of course, does not use his prologue to narrate history, but to mimic the Senecan infernal prologue in which the crimes of the father are revivified in the forecast actions of the son, but the personal relationship sketched has clear enough historical roots:
All that was mine, and bad, thy breast inherit.
Alas, how weak is that for Catiline!
Did I but say—vain voice!—all that was mine?
All that the Gracchi, Cinna, Marius would;
What, now, had I a body again, I could,
Coming from hell.
We learn from ancient sources [Seneca's De Ira] that Catiline had indeed been an agent of Sulla's violences: Quis erat huius (Sullae) imperii minister? Quis nisi Catilina, jam in omne facinus manus exercens? but Jonson has a still larger aim in view. It is not only their temperament and personal contacts that associate Sulla and Catiline, but even more their role as links in the great chain of dissidents and subverters of Roman freedom. The dictatorship of Sulla is remembered (like the power of Sejanus) as another of those hinge moments in the Roman decline. As Sallust tells us [in De Catilinae Coniuratione, xi.] (after relating the traditional republican virtues): Set postquam L. Sulla, armis recepta re publica, bonis initiis molas eventus habuit; rapere omnes, trahere, domum alius alius agros cupere; neque modum neque modestiam victores habere, foeda crudelia in civis facinora facere.
So the revolt of Catiline is an episode whose true meaning can only be seen in its historical context. This is more difficult than in Sejanus because the apparent meaning of the plot (taken in isolation) and the historical meaning are here at odds with one another. On the surface Catiline is the story of a democratic triumph, of a plot of subversion that failed, and Cicero is a triumphant hero. Even a little knowledge of Roman history tells us that this is not the larger view; and Jonson weaves this point into his narrative by his handling of Caesar and Crassus. He makes these subsequent triumvirs into secret supporters of the plot (a point Sallust and Suetonius deny), and when the plot fails they are seen to be still too great to touch. Cato, as an absolutist of Republicanism, seeks a showdown, but Cicero is seen to keep what is politically possible in the forefront of his mind: No violence. Caesar, be safe. The survival of Caesar and Crassus is undoubtedly intended to be, for the discerning reader, a reminder of what was to happen next: this conspiracy failed, but they didn't all fail, and Cicero's temporary triumph was only the prelude to a permanent defeat of Cicero and Cato and all they stood for. The individual, in Catiline as in Sejanus, believes himself to be making things happen, and in a limited sense he is; but the current of history moves in a more powerful sweep and will win in the end.
Both Jonson and Shakespeare see Caesar as the man of destiny, the man through whom the Zeitgeist breathed; but Shakespeare sees him in terms of particular successes and failures inside the large general polarizations of attitude that Roman history presented. The existence of Titus Andronicus shows us that these polarities of attitude, implied by the idea of Rome, existed for Shakespeare even when he was not following any Roman historian. Titus shows us Roman integrity, legality, inflexibility, chastity in one fictional family set against the self-indulgence, irresponsibility, lust and tyranny of another fictional group. Julius Caesar offers us a more complex mixture of the alternatives than the Titus, since Julius is no mere tyrant and Brutus is no mere tyrannicide, but the same polarities remain the controlling elements of the conceptual diagram that the play contains. For Jonson, on the other hand, these Roman opposites are not so much simultaneously present alternatives within single minds in a single situation, but rather alternative ends of a historical process which carries Rome from one state to the other. He would have claimed (and virtually does claim) that this is 'truer' than Shakespeare. In the sense that History is a fair representation of the truth, one is obliged to endorse his claim. On the other hand, there is also the fair claim of a play to be an image of truth, in terms of what can be imagined to be seen and known as the internal experience of individuals rooted in a particular point of time.
It may be more instructive for us today to notice what Shakespeare and Jonson have in common rather than what separates them. Both see the same central issue in Roman history—the fatal collision of out-dated but real personal values with shallow but effective opportunism. For both of them the romance of Romanitas attaches to the traditional values of fides, disciplina, pudicitia, libertas—and for both of them these values are 'placed' inside the minds of unsuccessful individuals hypnotized by the past and incompetent to change the future. The dialectic of free individual beliefs and external historical necessity commands both; but Shakespeare's preferences and techniques point towards the exaltation of the free and self-controlling individual. Jonson's techniques and preferences point him rather towards the necessities by which history crushes the individual and the present in order to extract the future.
Robert S. Miola (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "The Road to Rome," in his Shakespeare's Rome, Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 1-17.
[In the following essay, Miola explores the nature of Elizabethan classicism and advocates an organic approach "to the problem of coherence in Shakespeare's Rome," arguing that the city maintains a distinct identity in Shakepseare's poetry and drama despite the variety of ways in which it is portrayed.]
Shakespeare's conception of ancient Rome has long been a focal point in the larger debate concerning his classical learning. This debate began in earnest with Jonson's notorious aphorism imputing to Shakespeare "small Latine, and lesse Greeke" (1623), but hints of it appear earlier. The first printed allusion to Shakespeare, Robert Greene's attack on the "vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers" (1592), expressed the indignation of a university man at the pretensions of a less-educated rival. And in The Return from Parnassus, Part 2 (performed ca. 1600, pub. 1606), William Kemp humorously praised Shakespeare for outdoing those who "smell too much of that writer Ouid, and that writer Metamorphosis, and talke too much of Proserpina & Iuppiter." The debate, ably documented elsewhere, continued throughout the centuries and attracted luminaries to both sides. In 1664, for example, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, admired the veri-similitude of the Roman plays, where fancy, it seemed, almost outworked nature:
& certainly Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, and Antonius, did never Really Act their parts Better, if so Well, as he hath Described them, and I believe that Antonius and Brutus did not Speak Better to the People, than he hath Feign'd them; nay, one would think that he had been Metamorphosed from a Man to a Woman, for who could Describe Cleopatra Better than he hath done.
Others, including John Dennis and Richard Farmer, noted inaccuracies, collected anachronisms, and scoffed. The controversy goes on in our century. In 1952 a classicist, J. A. K. Thomson, reviewed the evidence and concluded solemnly that Shakespeare was "no scholar." [in his Shakespeare and the Classics] In 1976, however, Paul A. Cantor based his Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire on the assumption that the Roman plays provide "an opportunity to learn something about Rome as well as about Shakespeare."
Although the debate about Shakespeare's learning continues, "the ground of argument has shifted in the twentieth century," according to one chronicler, John W. Velz ["The Ancient World in Shakespeare: Authenticity or Anachronism? A Retrospect," Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978)]. Since the time of M. W. MacCallum's Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background (1910), students of Shakespeare's classicism have paid increasing attention to the Elizabethan and Jacobean context of his work. Instead of imposing modern notions of the classical world on Shakespeare, an impressive group of scholars has sought to discover contemporary ideas about the ancients. Robert Kilburn Root and Douglas Bush have traced the highways and byways behind Shakespeare's use of classical mythology. T. W. Baldwin, with daunting thoroughness, has studied Elizabethan school curricula and their possible influence on Shakespeare. Virgil K. Whitaker has explored the connections between Shakespeare's learning and his development as a dramatist. T. J. B. Spencer has illuminated contemporary attitudes toward ancient Greeks and Romans. Kenneth Muir and Geoffrey Bullough have reclaimed source study as a legitimate and potentially valuable interest and constructed a solid foundation for future scholarship. Reuben A. Brower has perceptively analyzed the commingling of classical and Christian in Shakespeare's England and in his works. And Emrys Jones [in The Origins of Shakespeare (1977)] has contributed stimulating studies of Shakespeare's imaginative processes and origins.
In the intense light of these efforts it seems clear that some consideration of Elizabethan classicism should preface consideration of Shakespeare's Rome. Review of the standard sources and methods of classical learning in the period can illuminate the playwright's intentions and achievements. Surveying the substance and methods of English humanism will not, to be sure, guarantee understanding or appreciation of Shakespeare's art; it may, however, direct criticism by guarding against anachronistic misreading and by pointing out likely possibilities.
The roads to Rome in the Renaissance were many, winding, and various. Although they often ran concurrently, the major routes were well marked, and the most widely traveled one was probably that of the grammar schools. T. W. Baldwin has shown that elementary education included study of the Disticha Moralia, Terence, Plautus, Seneca, Cicero, Quintilian, Ad Herennium, Ovid, Vergil, Horace, Juvenal, Persius, and possibly Lucan and Catullus. The texts were often colored by commentary—grammatical, moral, or both—and accompanied by collections, that is, anthologies of memorable snippets and shavings culled from various sources. A schoolboy learned to parse his Latin, for example, by working with Leonhardus Culmannus's Sententiae Pueriles or the Sententiae Ciceronis. He learned to speak the mother tongue by memorizing phrases and sentences from collections of conversations (colloquia) or from florilegia. Later on, he modeled the substance and style of his prose on a Latin translation of Aphthonius, with reference to the Adagia of Desiderius Erasmus or the Apothegms of Conrad Lycosthenes. For verse he imitated the examples of Octavian Mirandula's Flores Poetarum with assistance from Simon Pelegromius's Synonymorvm Sylva or Ravisius Textor's Epitheta. He probably supplemented his reading of Roman historians with a handbook on the order of Thomas Godwin's later Romanae Historiae Anthologia (1614); he sometimes resorted to Valerius Maximus, compiler of famous deeds and men, or to Florus, the epitomator. The study of moral philosophy, of course, was implicit in the whole enterprise, from the elementary sayings of Cato and Cicero on up, but there were numerous and hectic moral compendia available in Latin and English. William Baldwin's A Treatise of Morali Philosophy (1547, reprinted often with revisions and additions) was widely read, probably because it resembled neither a treatise of morals nor of philosophy.
Such a diversity of texts so variously presented could hardly have indoctrinated the student in the glories of Roman civilization or in the turpitude of the pagan ethos. Rome was much too vast and amorphous for simplistic reductions. The tendency to acquire classical learning by means of exuberantly miscellaneous collections characterized the age and worked against the development of any single political, theological, or historical perspective. Copia, not coherence, was the ideal that governed English humanism. And because rhetoric broadly defined, rather than history or philosophy, dominated the curricula, students learned to take a polemical approach to the classics, to watch for usable exempla, arguments, and rhetorical flourishes, and to record them in notebooks for future use. The reassessment and reconsideration of antiquity, as T. J. B. Spencer notes ["Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans," Shakespeare Survey 10 (1957)], was a common activity and a deeply ingrained habit of mind.
The ideal of copia is evident in the second major source of classical learning—the growing number of English translations. Shakespeare relied on Englished classics throughout his career and in his Roman works made use of Golding's Ovid, North's Plutarch, W. B.'s Appian, possibly Heywood's Thyestes (for Titus Andronicus), Holland's Livy (for Coriolanus), and Underdowne's Heliodorus (for Cymbeline). His preference for Ovid's mythological treasury, Plutarch's moral and anecdotal history, and Appian's lively and readable chronicle mark him as a man of his time. For Elizabethans demanded from their classics a generous supply of myth and an abundance of entertaining fact. In such a climate florilegia flourished; there appeared in translation bouquets from Ovid and Terence, as well as whole gardens of classical flowers: Richard Taverner's The Garden of Wysedome (1538), for example; Erasmus's Adagia in Taverner's translation (1539); his Apophthegmata in Nicholas Udall's translation (1542); Timothy Kendall's Flowers of Epigrammes (1577). The environment was also hospitable to excerpts, abridgments, and epitomes. Polybius, Lucan, Caesar, Plutarch, and Livy all appeared in partial English versions. To be sure, there were classical scholars of great learning—men such as Thomas Drant, Henry Savile, Thomas Wilson, and the prolific Philemon Holland. Yet, these men were exceptions in the age of the amateur translator, the age whose critical temper is best illustrated by William Painter's well-read Palace of Pleasure (1566-7). This anthology of Continental nouvelle and classical story satisfied in one serving the public appetite for ancient anecdote, romantic intrigue, and lurid adventure. The miscellany of sources behind Painter's forty-one classical stories reveals the gloriously slapdash character of Elizabethan classicism: "Herodotus (two stories); Aelian (three); Plutarch's Morals (one); Aulus Gellius (twelve); Livy (eight); Quintus Curtius (three); Xenophon (one); Pedro Mexia (two); Guevara's Letters (three); Bandello (six)" [quoted from Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry (rev. ed., 1963)].
A third major source of classical learning, one that catered largely to the public demand for quick information, was the various reference books of the Renaissance. The popular mythographies of Giovanni Boccaccio, Lilius Giraldus, Natalis Comes, and Vincenzo Cartari begot English offspring: Stephan Batman, The Golden Booke of the Leaden Goddes (1577); Abraham Fraunce, The Third Part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch (1592); and Richard Linche, The Fovntaine of Ancient Fiction (1599). Related to these handbooks in content and influence were the dictionaries of Sir Thomas Elyot, Thomas Cooper, and the Stephani (Robert and Charles), works that apparently everyone used, including Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, and John Milton. The quintessential Renaissance reference book—the encyclopedia—borrowed from various traditions and gathered information into vast, sometimes accessible summaries of human learning. Such works as Pierre Charron's Of Wisdome (1606) and Pierre de La Primaudaye's The French Academie (1618) crammed classical lore, legend, fact, and fiction into essays that addressed an astonishingly diverse range of topics.
Living after the labors of Diderot in an age of computerized bibliography, many today may entertain misconceptions about the nature of Renaissance encyclopedias. Typically, such volumes gathered in one place essays on subjects as far apart as the Creation, the vices of Heliogabalus, and the unique properties of bulls' blood. Some, such as the works of Charron and La Primaudaye, were organized after a fashion and showed signs of a guiding intelligence and purpose; others were not. An instructive example of the disorganized type is Pedro Mexia's Spanish compilation, Silva de Varia Lecion (1542), which achieved translation and popularity on the Continent as well as in England. An abridged and Englished version of Mexla's work appeared as The Foreste (1571, 1576), translated by Thomas Fortescue from a French version. Much of The Foreste, along with much else of Mexia, reappeared in the first volume of Thomas Milles's The Treasvrie of Avncient and Moderne Times (1613), translated largely from French and Italian versions. This book clearly illustrates the motley abundance of Renaissance classicism as well as Elizabethan willingness to use intermediary translations. Here biographical sketches (e.g., Polybius 4:32; Tamberlaine 7:2) and stories about ancient lives and works (Plutarch 1:19; Diogenes 3:7) sit quite comfortably with unrelated chapters on history, both civil (Sparta 2:3; Athens 2:4) and ecclesiastical (Popes 1:27; Heresies 6:14). Travelogs describe such exotic lands as Persia (4:1), Fez (6:1), and Moscovia (7:34); moral essays strike closer to home, reminding the reader of his duties (Manhood 3:11; Prodigality 8:20). Essays in the sciences—natural (Honey 3:15; Crocodiles 5:31; Gold 8:30), medical (Melancholy 5:26; Dangerous Years 4:16), and political (Monarchy 8:33; Foreign Civil Wars 9:9)—do not dilute the effects of the abounding mirabilia (Man 3:8; Marvelous Things 9:30). An allegorical description of Charon (2:23), paradoxes (4:38; 7:43; 8:38), moral tales (8:15), and romantic tragedies (7:46) round out the collection. The range of purposes and historical methods here may be illustrated by comparison of the chapter on Ancient Rome (3:1), a detailed and objective description of civil institutions running thirty folio pages, with the brief account of the legendary maiden of Poictu (6:8), who reportedly lived for three years without food or drink.
At the turn of the century the Elizabethan who studied Latin sententiae in school, who browsed through translations as they appeared, or who came upon intriguing Roman examples in the pages of reference books could easily acquire further information from numerous chronicles and biographies. Livy and Tacitus told the story of Rome in the original language and in translation; Saint Augustine and Orosius offered a Christian reading of the history and achievements of the Earthly City. Polybius, Velleius Paterculus, Pomponius Mela, Lucan, Josephus, Pliny, Aulus Gellius, Solinus, Aelianus, Eutropius, and Ammianus Marcellinus also provided occasional commentary. Holinshed's Chronicles contained information on Roman-British relations in antiquity, as did other histories of Britain. Some English writers were more intent on boiling Roman history down to a tasteless porridge of platitudes on the horror of rebellion, the punishment of pride, the necessity of obedience or monarchy. William Fulbecke's An Historicall Collection of the Continvall Factions, Tvmvlts, and Massacres of the Romans and Italians (1601) is a clear example of the type. Biographical information was available in the histories themselves and in the works of Plutarch and Suetonius. A popular form of pseudobiography was the collecting of wise men's sayings. This subgenre of "dictes," according to D. T. Starnes ["Sir Thomas Elyot and 'Sayings of the Philosophers,'" Texas University Studies in English, 13 (1933)] began in England with Walter Burley's De Vita and William Caxton's Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (1477) and continued (sometimes indirectly) in similar compilations by Erasmus, Sir Thomas Elyot, William Baldwin, Nicholas Ling, Robert Allott, John Bodenham, Thomas Floyd, Henry Crosse, and Francis Bacon.
As every student knows, the literature of England rooted itself in classical examples and blossomed with classical allusions. Sometimes the imitatio is bold and blatant; sometimes it is subtle and implicit—ut intelligi simile queat potius quam dici, "so that the likeness can be sensed rather than defined." [I quote from a letter of Petrarch reprinted in Thomas M. Greene's "Petrarch and the Humanist Hermeneutic," in Italian Literature: Roots and Branches, Essays in Honor of Thomas Goddard Bergin, ed. Giose Rimanelli and Kenneth John Atchity (1976).] Whatever the form, imitation of classical models is pervasive and transformative. Prose writers such as Thomas Lodge, Philip Sidney, and Robert Greene, for example, breathed new life into Greek romances; William Painter and George Pettie diluted old wine and poured it into new bottles. Every poet, it seems, from the plodding under-graduate versifier to the brilliant and courtly Edmund Spenser, busied himself with imitations of Horace, Vergil, or Ovid. And some, more strictly meditating the thankless Muse, tried to fit their native English to classical meters. No form of literature was more steeped in classical example than the drama. The use of classical subjects and conventions in the plays of Nicholas Udall, Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, George Peele, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and George Chapman is well known, but the cumulative importance of classical elements to English drama defies tabulation. Harbage and Schoenbaum's Annals of English Drama, 975-1700 records, on the average, the appearance of at least one classical drama for every year of Shakespeare's life. And according to Clifford J. Ronan, no fewer than forty-three Roman plays survive from the period 1588-1651.
The ubiquity of the classical presence in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature should humble any surveyor of English humanism. The effort to chart the main courses of classical learning in the Renaissance must end by soberly acknowledging the magnitude of the source material and the incalculable variety of the conduits. The routes of classical learning were crisscrossed at every point by auxiliary roads and bypaths. Miscellaneous sources abounded, each with its own coloration and perspective. In addition to those noted above, there were medieval works by William Caxton, John Lydgate, John Gower, and Geoffrey Chaucer, as well as the Gesta Romanorum. Also pervasive and influential was the classical learning contained in various mirrors, emblem books, cosmographies, biblical commentaries, homilies, political treatises, theological debates, and works of art—paintings, tapestries, and statues. The figure of Hercules holding up the world at Shakespeare's Globe images the vital and supportive relationship of the classics to Elizabethan culture.
After even so brief a survey several observations seem reasonable. The prevailing attitude toward the classics in England was enthusiastically acquisitive and undiscriminating. The impulse to collect was so forceful as to overwhelm whatever reservations many had about context or accuracy. This impulse was, at bottom, utilitarian. For Elizabethans, ancient authors provided a treasury of practical information on everything from the raising of bees to the attaining of wisdom. Their advice and examples pointed the way to a better, richer, and fuller life. As a result, English classicism came to be ahistorical and eclectic in character, little concerned with understanding the past on its own terms. Shakespeare's anachronisms are to the point here, evidencing the age's disregard for historical accuracy, at least as we understand the concept. Also pertinent are the classical translations that directly aim at establishing instructive parallels between ancient history and contemporary politics.
What is more, English humanism was undogmatic and flexible in character. Writers continually appropriated the same classical figures and incidents to point different (sometimes contradictory) morals and to adorn a wide variety of tales. This flexibility bespeaks a deep fascination with classical culture and a serious (though not scholarly) engagement with it. Speaking of the Elizabethan view of ancient Rome, Emrys Jones describes succinctly the origins and nature of this engagement:
Those who had been through a grammar-school had been saturated in the literature of classical Rome. There was an immense amount of learning by rote. Boys who had spent the best part of six long days a week for perhaps as many as ten or eleven years reading, translating, analysing, and explicating Latin literature would have memorized hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lines or scraps of lines from the poets, as well as having innumerable phrases, constructions, and rhythms from the prose writers impressed on their minds. A classical colouring would be cast over everything they read or wrote.
Such early training, continued by innumerable other contacts and experiences, deserves notice and respect. It provided the material, means, and audience for Shakespeare's transmutation of diverse classical traditions into complex works of art.
In light of the above, it seems unlikely that any single and exclusive perspective could define the ubiquitous presence of Rome in Elizabethan culture. A place like Corinth might become known as a lustful, sin-filled city, and a people like the Parthians might be remembered largely for their tactic of shooting arrows behind them as they retreated. Neither Rome nor Romans, however, could be so easily fitted into categories or so summarily reduced. Conscious of the city's multifaceted diversity, Shakespeare did not insist on any exclusive, dogmatic interpretation, but drew upon various attitudes, stories, and traditions as he pleased.
Several important scenes from the Roman plays clearly illustrate the nature of Shakespeare's response to his cultural and intellectual environment. The account of the portents preceding the assassination in Julius Caesar, for example, probably derives from North's Plutarch, Ovid's Metamorphoses (XV), Lucan's Pharsalia in the original or in Marlowe's partial translation, Vergil's Georgics I and (I shall argue) the Aeneid. Similarly, Menenius's belly fable in Coriolanus is a composite of passages from Livy, North's Plutarch, William Averell's A Mervaillous Combat of Contrarieties (1588), William Camden's Remaines (1605), possibly Camerarius's Fabellae Aesopicae (1573), and Sidney's Apology (1595). In each instance we glimpse the playwright at work. From diverse and sometimes unrelated elements he forges speeches and scenes of striking power and resonance. The sovereign imagination invades, appropriates, combines, and transforms; the old elements become part of a new creation, something rich and strange.
Just as the examination of a cell reveals the biology of an entire organism, examination of the sources behind these speeches reveals Shakespeare's creative method in his Roman works. In a fine frenzy rolling, Shakespeare's eye ranged over a variety of classical texts, translations, and contemporary works, taking and leaving according to his fancy. In each Roman work, as in his other plays, he brought together different elements and struck a new balance. In the early works, for example, he relied on Ovid, Vergil, and Seneca; in the middle, on Plutarch; in the end, on Holinshed and possibly Heliodorus.
At this point, students of Shakespeare's Rome may naturally wonder about its unity and coherence. Yet, some of the most important studies of this century have subordinated this question to other concerns or ignored it entirely. M. W. MacCallum's seminal Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background (1910), for example, concentrates largely on Shakespeare's presentation of character and use of Plutarch in Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. He does not seek to analyze the ties that bind the plays together. In The Imperial Theme (1931), G. Wilson Knight discusses the imagery of the Plutarchan plays perceptively, but offers little insight into their relations to each other. Maurice Charney follows the Wilson Knight line of imagistic criticism in Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in the Drama (1961), adding consideration of visual or "presentational" images on stage. He relegates to an appendix some of the arguments for regarding the Plutarchan plays as a group. At the outset of Shakespeare: The Roman Plays (1963), Derek Traversi declares that the Plutarchan plays combine the impersonal political process of Shakespeare's histories with the heroism of the tragedies. He devotes most of his energy thereafter to close reading and analysis, however, not to the support of this observation.
Other studies have found coherence in the Roman plays by interpreting them in the light of preexisting ideological frameworks. The tendency to read Shakespeare's Roman works in terms of Elizabethan political theory, illustrated in an extreme form by James Emerson Phillips, Jr., The State in Shakespeare's Greek and Roman Plays (1940; rpt. 1972), is evident in much criticism of the individual works. The tendency to view Shakespeare's Rome sub specie aeternitatis is also prevalent, appearing at the end of J. Leeds Barroll's learned "Shakespeare and Roman History" and throughout J. L. Simmons's Shakespeare's Pagan World: The Roman Tragedies (1973). According to Simmons, the Roman plays are united by their common depiction of a pagan world, one in which the characters "must perforce operate with no reference beyond the Earthly City." "The antedating of Christian revelation," Simmons contends, "is the most significant historical factor in these historical tragedies" and Saint Augustine's De Civitate Dei provides the appropriate light by which to read them.
More recently, two critics have constructed their own politico-moral frameworks for the interpretation of Shakespeare's Rome. In Rome and Romans According to Shakespeare (1976), Michael Platt traces the rise and fall of the Republic through Lucrece, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra. In Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire (1976), Paul A. Cantor distinguishes between Shakespeare's portrayal of the Republic in Coriolanus and the Empire in Antony and Cleopatra. He concludes that thumos, or "public spiritedness," characterizes Shakespeare's Republic and eros, or "desire," his Empire.
The political and moral frameworks advanced thus far fail to define the unity and coherence of Shakespeare's Rome for three reasons. First, they do not adequately take into account the diversity of Rome in the canon and the era, the undogmatic flexibility of English humanism, and the ambivalent nature of Shakespearean drama, where political and moral issues are complex and difficult. Second, whether the plays tend to justify monarchy, according to the political interpretation, or to portray the world before Christ, according to the moral one, the reign of Augustus is made to assume a climactic importance in Shakespeare's view. The "ass unpolici'd" of Cleopatra's conception becomes the prince of peace in the critical opinion, as he does in his own. Shakespeare nowhere portrays this miraculous transformation, and the coming apotheosis must be inferred from hints and half-guesses, all removed from their qualifying dramatic context. Third, incredibly, no interpretation to date treats all the works of Shakespeare's Roman canon: The Rape of Lucrece, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Cymbeline. Only Maurice Charney has offered a rationale for regarding the Plutarchan plays as a distinct group, citing three external criteria: "(1) the use of 'Roman' costume on the Elizabethan stage; (2) the Roman praise of suicide as an act of moral courage and nobility, an attitude very different from Christian belief; and (3) the common source in North's Plutarch." If, for the moment, one accepts these criteria, one wonders about the exclusion of Lucrece, which features pagan praise of suicide, and of Titus Andronicus, which derives in part from North's Plutarch and which, apparently, was played in Roman costume. But these criteria are simply inadequate. The little we know about Elizabethan costuming is insufficient for such conclusions; suicide is only one thematic motif that Shakespeare considered typically Roman; and North's Plutarch is only one source of Shakespeare's Roman vision.
Modern criticism of the Roman plays suggests an alternate approach to the problem of coherence: the organic one. In 1951 Roy Walker made a stimulating observation [in "The Northern Star: An Essay on the Roman Plays," SQ, 2 (1951)] "Shakespeare's idea of Rome was not built in a day, or built at all. Like other living things it was subject to growth and decay, and to trace the course of that organic development is not to impute to the poet a neat plan of construction, conscious from the outset." Walker went on to trace some imagistic and thematic patterns from Titus Andronicus through Cymbeline, nothing significant recurrences of idea, but also the different contexts. The inductive approach he outlined and attempted rests on the notion that the Roman works bear a family resemblance to each other and show signs of internal coherence; it allows, however, for the possibility of change, of "growth and decay." Some decades later John W. Velz called for study of Shakespeare's Rome along similar lines of approach [in "The Ancient World in Shakespeare," Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978)] He suggested that future critics might discuss Shakespeare's Rome as a world apart by focusing on its eloquentia, national character, institutions, or topography, as each motif manifests itself in all six Roman works.
The present study takes an organic approach to the problem of coherence in Shakespeare's Rome as the city appears in The Rape of Lucrece, Titus Andronicus, the Plutarchan tragedies, and Cymbeline. It attempts to identify internal similarities while recognizing differences, to reveal central themes while tracing their development or disappearance. Such an approach requires reconsideration of Shakespeare's sources, broadly defined as possible influences and analogs. This reconsideration seeks not to discover direct sources (although such discoveries are always welcome), but to penetrate into the deep sources lying below the surface of the text, to those various subterranean streams that give, enrich, and nourish its life.
Studying all of Shakespeare's Roman canon chronologically has clear advantages over other methods. Most obviously, it can reveal that Shakespeare viewed ancient Rome as a place apart and that his vision of the city and its people evolved dynamically throughout his career. Embryos of idea and image grow to maturity and die. The Vergilian virtue of pietas, for example, central to Shakespeare's first four Roman works, is only marginally important to Antony and Cleopatra, but central again, although strangely transformed, to Coriolanus and Cymbeline. The hint of a blood ritual at the end of Lucrece becomes a potent symbol in Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, only to be rejected finally in Cymbeline, wherein Roman severitas gives way to British mercy. A sequential examination, moreover, can show Shakespeare reworking dramatic situations and scenes in his Roman art. Lucrece's suicide, for example, is replayed variously by Brutus, Antony, Cleopatra, and Imogen, who, of course, stops at the crucial moment. The rape of Lavinia provides a model for Iachimo's unlawful invasion of Imogen's bedchamber. Brutus's death scene supplies important details for Antony's and Coriolanus's. Caesar's triumphant procession sweeps on, although to different effects and ends, in Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. The poem and the plays are connected by an intricate, yet largely unnoticed and unexplored, network of images, ideas, gestures, and scenes. Although the elements of this network appear elsewhere sporadically, here in the Roman canon, transfigured so together, they grow to something of great constancy, howsoever strange and admirable. Viewed in their entirety, they testify compellingly to the coherence of Shakespeare's Roman vision.
At the center of this vision stands the city of Rome. This "city," of course, Shakespeare defines variously: Rome is an extension of Collatine's household in Lucrece, a wilderness settlement in Titus Andronicus, a political arena in Julius Caesar, an Empire in Antony and Cleopatra, a sharply drawn urbs in Coriolanus, and a vaguely localized anomaly, part ancient, part modern, in Cymbeline. It is sometimes metaphor, sometimes myth, sometimes both, sometimes neither. Despite its metamorphoses, Rome maintains a distinct identity. Constructed of forums, walls, and Capitol, opposed to outlying battlefields, wild, primitive landscapes, and enemy cities, Rome is a palpable though ever-changing presence. The city serves not only as a setting for action, but also as central protagonist. Embodying the heroic traditions of the past, Rome shapes its inhabitants, who often live and die according to its dictates for the approval of its future generations. These Romans, capable of high courage and nobility, struggle with a city that demands them to be both more and less than human. Shakespeare tells their stories by combining various sources, by reworking the political motifs of invasion and rebellion, and by exploring the thematic implications of three Roman ideals: constancy, honor, and pietas (the loving respect owed to family, country, and gods). He makes continual reference to Troy, the city that gave birth to Rome and that, in many ways, foretells Rome's later tragedies. Increasingly critical of Rome, Shakespeare finally writes Cymbeline, a valediction to the Eternal City that so long and so deeply engaged his intelligence and imagination.
Charles Wells (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: An introduction to The Wide Arch: Roman Values in Shakespeare, St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 1-12.
[In the following essay, Wells provides an overview of the role of Roman values in Renaissance culture generally, and concludes with a discussion of Shakespeare's handling of these values.]
Gerrit Gerritszoon of Rotterdam, better known as Erasmus, made his first visit to England in the autumn of 1499. His arrival, coinciding as it almost did with the new century, could be taken to symbolise the dawning of English Humanism, and the same eye for symmetry might see, in the opening of Hamlet one hundred years later, the culmination of that prolific age. The teaching of Greek also crossed the Channel at the end of the 15th century, pioneered by such scholars as Grocyn, Linacre and Vitelli. In the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, students were now enabled to read Plato and Aristotle in the original language, giving further stimulus to what was already a surge of interest in Classical literature as a whole. The changed climate of academic thought that followed these developments has been described by some historians as signalling a radical break with the medieval world. There was, undeniably, a marked shift of emphasis.
In the ecclesiastical, Latin culture of the medieval Schoolmen—Aquinas, Ockham, Duns Scotus and others—secular and spiritual values had been inseparable. Truth, for them, was first and foremost a matter of revelation, not to be apprehended through the intellect alone. Nothing was knowable but by the light of divine illumination. Man's relationship with God was all-important. Questions of sin and expiation hung heavily in the air, and debate tended to be excessively abstract, esoteric and metaphysical, focusing on mysteries such as Trinity or the nature of essence as the appropriate matters for learned symposia. Moreover, the Catholic Church propounded an effectively self-validating system of thought, which embraced all aspects of human morality and aspiration but which was largely directed towards the contemplation of predetermined certitudes. By contrast the English Humanists, such as Colet, Cheke and More, joined with Erasmus in advocating a new learning, secularised through reference to the human values they found in their study of ancient Greece and Rome. They developed the belief that man could, through empirical observation and rational understanding, take control of his circumstances and improve his lot on earth. By an act of will he might create his own future. Chaucer's 'Clerk of Oxenford' had studied Classical philosophy the better that he might serve God in the office of a priest, but in the 16th century many scholars began to look towards the very different ideal typified by the uomo universale of Renaissance Italy. As the perceived rift between the physical and spiritual widened, so things came to seem ever more complex and variable, and this new way of seeing is summed up in an elegant passage from John Florio's translation of Montaigne:
There is no constant existence … and we, and our judgement, and all mortali things else do uncessantly rowle, turne and passe away. Thus can nothing be certainly established, … both the judgeing and the judged being in continuali alteration and motion.… It would be even as if one should go about to graspe the water: for, how much the more he shal close and presse that, which by its owne nature is ever gliding, so much the more he shall loose what he would hold and fasten.
This conception of events as random, arbitrary and contingent would have made little sense a hundred years before. If all was not bound into a closed, harmonious system by the miracle of faith then decisiveness and resolution, the larger dare of the intrepid individualist, might sway the issue. The Schoolmen had interested themselves little in statecraft but the legitimisation and just exercise of human government had become a matter of prime concern for Renaissance thinkers, linked to a growing belief in the value of action, as opposed to contemplation, and its wider social consequences. What, it was asked, can history tell us about our own nature and how can it help us to take charge of our own destiny?
These questions were addressed most famously and most candidly by Machiavelli. Fortune, he observed, is the ruler of half our actions, but she allows us to govern the other half ourselves. Whoever wishes to foresee what will happen should look to what has already taken place, for all that exists now had its counterpart in times past.
Men themselves are the stuff of history, a point made cogently in Sir Thomas North's translation of Amyot's Preface to Plutarch's Lives (1559):
For it is a certaine rule and instruction, which by examples past, teacheth us to judge of things present, and to foresee things to come: so as we may knowe what to like of, and what to follow, what to mislike and what to eschew.
It was, of course, not a new idea. Cicero had observed:
Histories … are the handmaids of Prudence and Wisdome, the which may be easily and truly purchased out of the deeds and examples of others there written [Abraham Darcie's translation (1625)].
And this view itself reflects the thinking of Thucydides [in Walter Lynne's translation (1550)], writing over three centuries earlier still:
Yea, though the persons do sometyme chaunge in common welthes, neverthelesse so much as is concernynge the qualytye of mattiers, the worlde is and always abydeth lyke to hym selfe.
The impact of Machiavelli's thought in 16th-century England gave further impetus to a reading of ancient history which was seen to reveal the underlying political realities that form the basis of all communities and states. His admiration for Rome, in particular, sprang from his study of its personal values which, he argued, projected themselves into the wider domain of civil life. He held that valour and high-mindedness had been enfeebled by Christian humility and deference, making rulers effete and opening the way for the ruthless to trample them down. This was, in effect, why the Roman Empire fell.
For Machiavelli, too, events were chaotic and anomalous. The outcome of even the most carefully evolved decision was never certain, its wider ramifications often labyrinthine. Erasmus urged [in The Education of a Christian Prince (1516)] that the prince 'should first question his own right' and then 'should carefully consider whether it should be maintained by means of catastrophes to the whole world'. 'Those who are wise', he continued, 'sometimes prefer to lose a thing rather than to gain it, because they realise that it will be less costly.… What is safe anywhere while everyone is maintaining his rights to the last ditch? We see wars arise from wars, wars following wars, and no end or limit to the upheaval. It is certainly obvious that nothing is accomplished by these means.' Machiavelli [in The Prince], on the other hand, read very different lessons in history. 'Love is maintained by a bond of obligation which, because men are wicked, is broken when an opportunity of private advantage offers, but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails.' Moral scruple, he argued [in Discoverses] must be renounced when necessary by any ruler who wished to remain in power and influence events. 'Men do not go in the direction of Good unless forced to by necessity.'
The traditional religious certitudes had of course also been brought into question by the attacks on the institutionalised Church initiated by Luther and Calvin in the name of reformation. At a time of such moral uncertainty it is not surprising that men should have found in the Classical authors a cool common sense and urbanity that they much admired. Greek and Roman patterns of conduct, since necessarily pagan, were, of course, often at variance with church teaching, though certain attitudes, for example, Stoicism, were found to fit comfortably into either system, despite a few inconsistencies such as, in this case, the differing attitudes towards suicide. Both Christianity and Stoicism, after all, placed the highest value on inner, spiritual strength, found merit in self-denial and looked askance at any hint of uncontrolled emotion; thus Hamlet's famous words to Horatio:
Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, aye, in my heart of heart.
could be endorsed equally from either point of view.
Shakespeare's age saw its problems mirrored in the wide glass of Roman history, staring into it for guidance as to how the stability of the state might be maintained amid the pressures that came crowding in upon it from all sides. Roman constancies appeared alluring, judged against the perplexing moral climate of the time. Referring to the earth's demotion from its place at the centre of the cosmos and the heavenly bodies, John Donne wrote [in "An Anatomy of the World"]:
… new philosophy calls all in doubt.
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and th'earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it …
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation.
This uneasiness was compounded by the social and economic ruptures marking the end of feudalism, which were, in their immediate effects, far more destabilising than all the realignments of cosmography. The Elizabethan view of Rome thus embodied a rigour and an equilibrium that were felt to have been lost.
In 16th-century contemplations of the Classical world the dominant sense is not so much one of innovation as of restoration of an inheritance that had been shouldered aside by medieval mysticism and its excesses of piety. The growth of printing now enabled many to share in their common European legacy on a scale that had never been possible hitherto. A mood of confident optimism is discernible in the early decades of the century, for example, in a letter of 1517 from Erasmus to Pope Leo X.
I congratulate this age of ours which promises to be an age of gold if ever there was one wherein I see … three of the chief blessings of humanity are about to be restored to her, I mean first that truly Christian piety which has in many ways fallen into decay, second learning of the best sort hitherto partly neglected and partly corrupted, and third the public and lasting concord of Christendom, the source and parent of piety and erudition.
This mood was destined not to last. Though More, Colet and others sought, with some success, to reconcile Classical thought with Christianity, the two very different tempers could never really be made compatible. For the medieval scholar the great ages of Greece and Rome were, despite the magnificence of their accomplishments, a part of the pre-Christian darkness. To Humanists, on the other hand, they represented a light that had been extinguished, to be reawakened after a thousand years by Petrarch and Giotto. Cicero was their shining model of wisdom and oratory; but had not St Jerome in his dream been reproved by Christ Himself for reading those same pagan meditations?
With the Reformation this dichotomy became more pronounced, writers on history tending to see the past in natural rather than supernatural terms: events might, for example, take an unfortunate course not on account of the unseen hand of a wrathful God so much as because those involved were misguided, stubborn, selfish or ambitious. Machiavelli again expressed this change of mood [in Discourses]:
It is necessary that he who frames a commonwealth, and ordains laws in it, should presuppose that all men are bent to mischief, and that they have a will to put in practice the wickedness of their minds so oft as occasion shall serve.… It seemed that there was in Rome a perfect union of the people and the Senate when the Tarquins were banished, and that the nobility, having laid by their pride, were become of a popular disposition and supportable to every one, even of the meanest rank.… But no sooner were the Tarquins dead, and the nobility delivered of that fear, but they began to spit against the people the poison that all this while had lurked in their breasts, and in all sorts possible to vex and molest them: which thing confirms what I said before, that men never do good unless enforced thereto; but where choice is abundant and liberty at pleasure, confusion and disorder suddenly take place.
Discord such as this between the Roman plebeians and patricians mirrored the social and political unease that ran like a dark thread through so much of Elizabeth's reign, just as the power struggles between Lancaster and York, which paved the way for the Tudor dynasty, could be seen as a parallel to the civil wars of Caesar and Pompey, Octavius and Antony. Equally, the achievements and reborn splendours of England and her Virgin Queen were felt, by enthusiasts and by sycophants alike, to echo the greatness of Rome itself. Roman history seemed more than ever relevant: the courage and tenacity of the great military leaders of Classical times found equivalents in the feats of such contemporary heroes as Frobisher, Sidney, Grenville, Essex and Blount. Through resolve and endeavour, aspiration might be turned into achievement for, as Cicero affirmed, virtue was praiseworthy only in the doing. Men must, therefore, take responsibility for themselves and their own actions, thus acquiring the true moral freedom that is the essence of human dignity, an idea implicit in the word humanitas itself and one which can be traced back as far as Aristotle. An idealisation of 'manliness' along these lines is at the heart of the Latin term 'virtus ', the central value of the Roman moral system. Machiavelli called it 'virtù', by which he intended a combination of strength of character, resolution, intelligence, courage and—above all—decisiveness. The values derived from virtus had a particular appeal to the Elizabethans with their cult of individualism. If heroism lay in exploits, in deeds of nobility and valour, then its essence was to be sought in that blend of austerity, firmness, dignity and action that constituted 'the high Roman fashion'. It was this, above all, that caught the imagination of so many writers of the time.
Into his own Tudor milieu of flux and ambiguity Shakespeare brought, plucked from the pages of Plutarch and Livy, stern-minded, heroic figures, possessed of a mysterious, inward power that enabled them to face life's daunting complexities with an enviable equanimity. He shared Marlowe's burning faith in the possibility of man's triumph here on earth although, unlike his passionate contemporary, he survived long enough to reach more complex judgements, often sceptical, contradictory and inconclusive. For both men moral integrity was fundamental, as we see in plays like Tamburlaine and Titus Andronicus written, it seems, within a year or two of each other. Single-mindedness and unwavering constancy clearly fascinated Shakespeare, though he was well aware that these qualities might teeter on the edge of fanaticism. There is something terrible about Shylock's refusal to be deflected by so much as a 'scruple' from his ghastly purpose. We find in it a compelling blend of the awe-inspiring and the absurd. Irresolution, on the other hand, often earns contempt. Othello's words to Iago as he embarks on his sacred 'cause' contain the cold hardness of imagery which is characteristic of what might broadly be termed Shakespeare's 'Roman' attitude:
Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont:
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace
Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up. Now by yond
'How terrible in constant resolution', as the French Constable says of Henry V. Brutus' inescapable conclusion: 'It must be by his death' contains the epitome of that uncompromising self-belief Shakespeare found so quint-essentially Roman.
It is significant that Shakespeare should have written no Roman comedy. The nearest he came to one was The Comedy of Errors, based closely on the Menaechmi of Plautus and set in Ephesus on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, an area for many years a part of the Empire. The play contains, nonetheless, not one reference to Rome or to Romans, and the presence of an abbess and a priory seems to place it in a later, Christianised world (although historical consistency was often a minor consideration, as we shall see when we turn to Cymbeline).
Shakespeare's six 'Roman' texts—five plays and a narrative poem—fall into three distinct pairs. There is a pattern of development in the thinking about Rome which, with one discrepancy, follows the chronology of composition now broadly agreed by scholarship. It is a process which evolved over two decades, spanning almost the whole of Shakespeare's career. The two earliest of these texts, Titus Andronicus and The Rape of Lucrece, were both written, apparently, between 1590 and 1593 when Shakespeare was still in his twenties. Rome, here, is envisaged in relatively simplistic terms, and there is little attempt to question the values put forward by the protagonist despite the extremes of behaviour to which they give rise. Both Titus and Lucrece propel themselves towards the ends they have determined with a startling, unswerving, though scarcely admirable logic.
Unlike Mark Antony, Titus holds his 'visible shape' with little difficulty. He is 'steel to the very back', something Antony merely talks of becoming. Supremely untroubled by conscience and always clear as to where his duty lies, only once throughout the play does Titus waver. Having denied life to his disobedient son, he further determines to refuse him his traditional funeral rites, and it is with great reluctance that he eventually yields to the entreaties of his family, allowing him burial in the ancestral tomb. When, in the final act, he tells Tamora that 'what is written shall be executed the words sum up the linearity of his mind. Lucrece shares the same uncomplicated moral stance.
Her honour is ta'en prisoner by the foe …
'Few words', quoth she, 'shall fit the trespass
Where no excuse can give the fault amending'.
Despite her promise, however, she is, like Richardson's Pamela, unremittingly verbose on the subject of chastity. Her lengthy and over-elaborate exposition of 'The story of sweet chastity's decay' (1.808) may at times try the patience of all but the most tolerant reader.
In both these early works Shakespeare's sense of the tragic is expressed in terms of bloody conflict between an evil that is uniformly dark and a virtue that is spotlessly pure, though there is a recognition that one world may be corrupted by the other.
In Julius Caesar this picture alters radically. Here, as later in Coriolanus, motive is complex, decision onerous, outcome equivocal, and Shakespeare enters the realm of Renaissance introspection and ambiguity so eloquently expounded by Montaigne:
Whosoever looketh narrowly about himselfe shall hardly see himself twise in one same state.… If I speake diversly of my selfe it is because I looke diversly upon my selfe. All contrarieties are found in her, according to some turne or removing … and whosoever shall heedfully survey and consider himselfe shall finde this volubility and discordance to be in himselfe, yea and in his very judgement. I have nothing to say entirely, simply and with soliditie of my selfe without confusion, disorder, blending, mingling.
Better, perhaps, than any other of Shakespeare's Romans, Brutus epitomises the late Tudor moral dilemma. In Julius Caesar characters are often confused and uncertain as to their proper course, a situation not encountered in Titus or Lucrece, where no one seems to have doubt about anything. Now Roman values are called into question, often by bringing a cogent irony to bear, as when the conspirators wash their hands in the blood of their fallen victim to accompanying shouts of 'peace, freedom and liberty!' The contrast between Brutus' remote idealism and its catastrophic consequences forms the play's ironic core. Clearly Shakespeare had begun to have misgivings about the characteristic Roman ability to separate mind from feelings, above all in its effect on the urgings of the sentient heart.
He returned to this problem with still greater uneasiness a few years later in Coriolanus, a play which has many affinities with Julius Caesar and, for the purposes of this study, will be paired with it, though Antony and Cleopatra (rather inconveniently from the critical viewpoint) stands between them in terms of its date of composition. Few Shakespearean characters arouse stronger, more conflicting feelings in an audience than Coriolanus. In this play we find, at its starkest, the confrontation between stern Roman virtus, built on long tradition, and the gentler, more instinctive claims of familial love and harmony. The concept of pietas, which in the end prevails over the harsh warrior code, again provides an opportunity for pagan Roman values to move into line with those of Christianity.
Coriolanus is often seen as a study of Roman politics, and in this it has more in common with Julius Caesar than with the four other texts. Increasingly, however, critics have focused on the play's intensely human and personal elements, particularly the hero's relationship with his mother, Volumnia. At the heart of Coriolanus there exists the same dilemma that Shakespeare encountered when he studied Plutarch's picture of Marcus Brutus: how may a man preserve that integrity and cold self-reliance so fundamental to romanitas and so clearly commanding respect while, at the same time, possessing that natural, spontaneous warmth and sympathy which expresses itself in the Christian virtues of humility and forgiveness? This quandary is well illustrated by Volumnia's bewilderment. Torn between admiration for her son's resolute consistency and irritation at his pig-headed intransigence, she produces a sentence which ties itself into an impressive semantic knot:
You are too absolute,
Though therein you can never be too noble,
But when extremities speak.
Roman values receive a very different treatment in Antony and Cleopatra. It is as though Shakespeare has burst out of the dark, claustrophobic tunnel of the earlier tragedies into a new world of vibrant colour and exhilaration. Now, for the first time, Roman values, as embodied in Octavius, seem to have become staid and dull, exemplifying a 'squareness' which Antony, by his own admission, has failed to keep. The play's central metaphor of fluidity and evanescence contrasts with a Rome that appears stolid, angular and marmoreal. The quality of gravitas—weighty, enduring, monumental in earlier works—is now diminished and deglamorised until it strikes us as rigid, sterile and tedious. The imagery here conveys Shakespeare's meaning to a degree unique among the Roman plays. We move, it is true, from the frivolity of Antony's 'dotage' in the opening line to the 'high order' and 'great solemnity' of the last, passing from the chaotic period of the Civil War to the beginning of the Augustan golden age, when Rome was to reach the pinnacle of its power and influence. This historical progression counts for little, however, when juxtaposed against the mercurial passion of the lovers and the music of their poetry. Antony looms larger than the Rome that bred him and which, in part, he still inhabits. As Cleopatra tells the bewildered Dolabella:
… his delights
Were dolphin-like, they show'd his back above
The element they lived in …
This is a new world of capriciousness, fluctuation and fantasy that is far distant from the solemn Rome of Titus Andronicus, consecrated to 'virtue … justice, continence and nobility.' The way is open for Cymbeline, perhaps the strangest of all Shakespeare's plays.
Historically, the events behind Cymbeline follow on from Antony and Cleopatra, with Augustus now firmly established on his throne. Although geographically remote from Celtic Britain where the action largely takes place, Rome is never out of sight for long. Again its values are severely questioned, though admittedly more by implication than direct discussion, since in Arviragus' words: 'Love's reason's beyond reason'—a line that would sit easily in Antony. In reading—or, better still, watching—Cymbeline we may be momentarily struck with the disturbing thought that when he embarked on Titus Shakespeare was unconsciously aiming towards this late romance. There is a weird, dream-like quality about it which is difficult to define. Time and again we hear half echoes of the earlier Roman texts as though Shakespeare had them, as he wrote, all jumbled in the forefront of his mind. The imagery has much in common with Antony, particularly in its insistence upon natural growth, fruition and renewal, and there is the same note of poignant lyricism in the verse. Aaron's attempt on Imogen's chastity sharply recalls both Titus and Lucrece. The chamber tapestry depicts Cleopatra in her barge on the River Cydnus, while there are implicit links between the typically Roman general, Lucius, and several earlier bearers of this resonant name. In the final act the two great peoples, Roman and British, come together in propitious harmony, as though Shakespeare had at last achieved a synthesis of the values each stood for, a synthesis towards which he had been moving—though he could hardly have realised it—ever since that opening speech of Saturninus two decades before.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16930
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 Vergil among those who form "themselves by rules" and work within the "restraints of art."
The biographical fallacy dividing Vergil from Shakespeare, of course, does justice neither to the Roman's genius nor the Englishman's art. Nor can it diminish or obscure Vergil's ubiquitous influence on the art and culture of the Renaissance. Central to such diverse figures as Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Montaigne, Spenser, and Milton, Vergil clearly transcended the boundaries of artistic temperament and taste. To those in the age of imitation he was the preeminent poetical authority, the noblest and highest fountain of Latin eloquence. Annotated by Servius, Donatus, Ascensius and others, allegorized by men like Fulgentius, Silvestris, and Landino, appropriated by almost all writers of pastoral and epic, the works of Vergil were a centerpiece for European literary and popular traditions. In Shakespeare's day one met Vergil everywhere: in anthologies of sententiae and in florilegio; in rhetorical handbooks and classical dictionaries; in the works of classical and contemporary writers and artists; in editions and translations of the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid. As T. W. Baldwin has demonstrated, the works of Vergil, parsed and pored over by countless schoolchildren, were practically unavoidable steps on Shakespeare's road to Parnassus.
Throughout his career Shakespeare shows a working familiarity with Vergil's text and a strong attraction to his art. In early works like Titus Andronicus and Lucrece Shakespeare's allusions to Vergil smell of the lamp: they are labored, ostentatious, and self-congratulatory. Later, by about the turn of the century, the allusions become subtle and sharply controlled. In Julius Caesar and Hamlet smoothly-integrated allusions to Vergil provide point and irony. In Shakespeare's last phase extensive treatment of Vergilian idea and image broadens allusion to eristic imitation. The final mode is radically transformative: in works like Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest the Vergilian sub-text assumes new life and meaning as Shakespeare adapts it to articulate his own visions of love and civilization.
Like Ovid, Vergil appears at first in Shakespeare's mannered and self-conscious allusions. Shakespeare's earliest Roman play, Titus Andronicus (1593-94), is a chrestomathy of Latin scraps and fragments boldly pasted together. With partial success, the play attempts to incorporate Vergilian motifs into a dramatic structure. Vergilian and Ovidian allusions to the iron age combine to depict a world wherein pietas, the quintessential Vergilian virtue, lies vanquished. During the course of the action two sets of brothers take arms against each other; one helpless bystander endures his brother's misfortune and madness, his niece's mutilation, his nephews' death or banishment. One mother sells her child for gold while another encourages her sons to acts of rape and murder. A Roman father slays his son and then his daughter. After the Roman royal family dine on a gory Thyestean banquet, the play ends in a spasm of murder and revenge.
Such impious Romans, of course, are not fit inhabitants for the promised city of the Aeneid, that vision of peace and order ruled by Augustus, divi genus, aurea condet / saecula qui rursus Latio regnata per arva / Saturno quondam (6.792-4 "son of a god, who will renew a Golden Age in Latium, in fields where Saturn once was king"). Shakespeare's portrayal of the decaying Roman Empire in Titus Andronicus provides a rude ending to Vergil's dream. His Lavinia, regrettably coarse in conversation (2.3.66ff.), bathetic in injury, and desperate in revenge, pointedly opposes Vergil's, that silent and shadowy figure who waits for the great forces of history to decide her fate. Although both Lavinias are contested brides who cause strife between rival leaders, the rape and mutilation of the helpless woman in the play grimly parody the marriage of the destined wife in the epic. Whereas the wedding of Aeneas and Lavinia begins Roman civilization and Empire, the rape of Shakespeare's Lavinia brutally expresses the savagery that ends Roman civilization and starts a new and barbaric dispensation.
Shakespeare also portrays Titus Andronicus in Vergilian terms, as a type of Aeneas. Like Aeneas, Titus is "Pius" (1.1.23). At the funeral of his sons, it has long been noted, he echoes the conversation of Aeneas and Sibyl in hell (6.318ff.). Later, reminded of his daughter's mutilation, Titus sees himself as Aeneas in Carthage, forced to retell the story of Troy and to relive his anguish:
Ah, wherefore dost thou urge the name of hands,
To bid Aeneas tell the tale twice o'er
How Troy was burnt and he made miserable?
Of course, the Vergilian allusions here, blended with references to Seneca and Ovid, are merely indecorous shreds from the original robes. Costumed in them, Titus appears ludicrous and artificial rather than tragic and human. Unlike Aeneas, who weeps at suffering, growing wiser and richer in sorrow, Titus tears passion to tatters and goes mad.
Shakespeare invokes Vergil to help shape character and theme in Titus Andronicus. Yet the effort is comparatively clumsy and juvenile: the allusions to Aeneas and Lavinia are crudely and baldly inappropriate rather than ironic. They are stitched on to the play rather than woven into its fabric. Shakespeare is clearly excited by the Aeneid as subtext but he is overwhelmed by it as well, unable to control fully the powerful resources at his disposal. After invoking Hecuba to illustrate Tamora's grief (1.1.135ff.), for example, he indiscriminately invokes her again to illustrate Lavinia's (4.1.20ff.). Dido, for another example, appears incongruously in Tamora's seduction of Aaron the Moor:
And after conflict such as was suppos'd
The wand'ring prince and Dido once enjoyed,
When with a happy storm they were surpris'd,
And curtain'd with a counsel-keeping cave,
We may, each wreathed in the other's arms
(Our pastimes done), possess a golden slumber.
The absurdity of the parallel here between the illicit lovers (especially that between Aaron and Aeneas) is matched only by the absurdity of Dido's reappearance at the end of the play. A Roman urges Lucius:
Speak, Rome's dear friend, as erst our ancestor,
When with his solemn tongue he did discourse
To love-sick Dido's sad attending ear
The story of that baleful burning night,
When subtile Greeks surpris'd King Priam's
Tell us what Sinon hath bewitch'd our ears,
Or who hath brought the fatal engine in
That gives our Troy, our Rome, the civil wound.
The general analogy between shattered Troy and Rome can hardly justify the pointless evocations of Dido and Sinon.
Although drawn largely from Ovid and Livy, The Rape of Lucrece (1593-94) provides another illustration of Shakespeare's early engagement with Vergil, an engagement which has all the intensity and rashness of young love. For some two hundred lines in the poem Lucrece muses over an imaginary depiction of Troy. The dramatic situation of this ekphrasis, as well as its substance and effect, owes much to Vergil's model in Aeneid 1. Aeneas weeps at a depiction of Troy in Carthage, but takes comfort in the sympathetic portrayal of his suffering. Similarly alone and estranged from familiar surroundings, Lucrece weeps to look on her present sorrow pictured forth in "Troy's painted woes" (1492). Like Aeneas, she focuses on the human tragedies of the war, the struggles between Greeks and Trojans "from the strond of Dardan, where they fought, / To Simois' reedy banks" (1436-7), and the destruction of the city, bright with fire. Although Shakespeare draws upon the thirteenth Metamorphoses as well as the Aeneid, his ekphrasis expresses a Vergilian sense of Greek perfidy, Trojan helplessness, and pervasive doom. The vicarious experience of Trojan woe brings Lucrece, as it does Aeneas, "from the feeling of her own grief (1578) to comfort and relief. She marvels at the sympathetic imagination of the "well-skill'd workman" (1520) who understands the tears of things and whose heart, like those of the Carthaginians and the Trojans, is touched by mortal sorrows.
Shakespeare's remembrance of Troy in Lucrece draws also upon Vergil's second Aeneid. In the climactic incident of the Iliupersis, Pyrrhus, animated by his father's fury, breaks through various gates and doors to reach the innermost chambers of Priam's house. Priam, horrified, sees Pyrrhus and prepares to defend his home:
urbis uti captae casum convolsaque vidit
limina tectorum et medium in penetralibus
arma diu senior desueta trementibus aevo
circumdat nequiquam umeris et inutile ferrum
cingitur, ac densos fertur moriturus in hostis.
When he saw the fall of the captured city, saw
the doors of the house wrenched off, and the foe
in the heart of his home, old as he is, he vainly
throws his long-disused armour about his aged
trembling shoulders, girds on his useless sword,
and rushes to his death among his thronging
Arrogantly, Pyrrhus scorns Priam, slaughters one of his sons, Prince Polites, and then kills the aged King on one of his own altars. The invading Pyrrhus, who slays a son and then a father, violates person, household, and family. Profaning the residence of the household gods, his attack on the penetralia is an attack on all the spiritual and physical principles necessary for human life, quae ad vitam sunt necessaria, as Servius put it. No wonder Aeneas comments, ferit aurea sidera clamor (488 "The din strikes the golden stars").
The importance of this incident to Shakespeare's dramatic imagination is clearly evident in Lucrece (and, as we shall see, in Hamlet). The pictorial representation of Priam's death arrests Lucrece's gaze and closely mirrors her own predicament:
Many she sees where cares have carved some,
But none where all distress and dolor dwell'd,
Till she despairing Hecuba beheld,
Staring on Priam's wounds with her old eyes,
Which bleeding under Pyrrhus' proud foot lies.
Seeing in Hecuba an image of her own grief, Lucrece assumes the identity of an onlooker and achieves some distance from her situation. However momentary and illusory, the identification with Hecuba enables Lucrece to give tongue to unspeakable sorrows. As the imaginary ekphrasis works its magic, she envisions herself as Priam:
To me came Tarquin armed so beguild
With outward honesty, but yet defil'd
With inward vice: as Priam him did cherish,
So did I Tarquin, so my Troy did perish.
Here Lucrece becomes the central figure in the Trojan tragedy, "slain" by the barbaric invader in the penetralia of her home. Tarquin, like Pyrrhus, is a cruel and bloody usurper armed with a gleaming weapon. Like the Greek, he breaks through locks and doors until he reaches the inmost recesses of his victim's home. Both invaders aim at the very center of civil stability, the mid-point of the concentric circles of social order, and both attack with the fury of their fathers. Their deeds crack the foundations of civilized life and turn the city into wilderness.
Extended allusion to Vergil allows Shakespeare to portray various vignettes from the epic tradition and to present a mythological perspective that expresses the various levels of Lucrece's violation. But the artificial and stylized ekphrasis intrudes upon the narrative of the poem. It is a heavy rhetorical device bolted on rather than fitted in. Moreover, as in Titus Andronicus, the handling of classical allusions in Lucrece shows a lack of firm control. The opening ten stanzas of the ekphrasis labor to provide totally extraneous commentary on the figures of Ajax, Ulysses, Nestor, Achilles, and Hector. This throat-clearing completed, the climactic invasion sequence quickly loses power and focus. Lucrece sees herself as mourning Hecuba and murdered Priam, momentarily as Helen, "the strumpet that began this stir" (1471), and then as Priam again. This last identification is made not with the murdered king but, surprisingly, with the gullible ruler who listened to Sinon's lies. In an equally unchronological and anticlimactic progression, the conceit proceeds to cast Tarquin as terrible Pyrrhus, fond Paris, and finally deceitful Sinon. One cannot help thinking that the ekphrasis is too long and too ingenious, especially as Priam appears one other time in it with no reference to anyone in the poem, as the doting father who should have restrained Paris's lust (1490). The extraneous characters and ever-shifting identifications vitiate the allusions even as they display the poet's youthful ardor and eagerness. Enamored with Vergil and the possibilities of allusion, Shakespeare is unable to subordinate the sub-text to the demands of the text. The poet has yet to discipline his imagination and to master the subtle art of classical allusion.
By the turn of the century, with almost a decade's writing experience behind him, Shakespeare becomes more fluent and self-assured in his continuing dialogue with Vergil. The initial infatuation is succeeded by mature understanding. The ingenious conceits and awkward gesturing of the early works now give way to sharply controlled allusion. In Julius Caesar (1599), for example, Cassius evokes a well-known Vergilian scene in order to denigrate Caesar:
I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor,
Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder
The old Anchises bear, so from the waves of
Did I the tired Caesar.
Shakespeare here alludes to the archetypal scene of pietas, memorialized on Roman coins and celebrated often by ancient writers. In addition to Vergil's account, Ovid's brief sketch of the Trojan war in Metamorphoses 13 includes reference to the episode (624-6) and Propertius alludes to the scene in an elegy (4.1.43-4), as does Seneca in De Beneficiis (3.37.1).
Later generations followed Vergil and the ancients in regarding the carrying of Anchises as a supreme example of pietas, the virtuous respect for gods, country, and family. Commentators on Vergil provided appropriate glosses, ranging from the brief but touching paraphrase of Donatus to the elaborate and learned moral essay of Pontanus, replete with classical, medieval, and Renaissance allusions, as well as various analogues. The lessons of the grammar school on Vergilian pietas were reinforced by various sources: by collectors of proverbs like Erasmus, for example; by compilers of classical lore like Aelianus; by cataloguers of moralized antiquity like Ravisius Textor; and by emblematists like Alciati and Whitney. Interestingly enough, the Vergilian emblem was also recalled on stage by one of the characters in The Tragedie of Caesar and Pompey (pub. 1607), a play often cited as a possible source for Julius Caesar. By the time of Cassius' allusion, the original Vergilian passage and its moral significance were commonplaces of Renaissance humanism.
Seen in the Renaissance context, the irony of Cassius' allusion clearly emerges. His appropriation of the famous scene urges not humble filial piety but arrogant self-assertion and murderous betrayal. Cassius' awkward repetition of the first-person singular subject ("I … Did I … ") suggests the fumbling impatience of his self-assertion in the conceit and in the play. Cassius casts himself as a new Aeneas here, one unwilling to shoulder the burden of the past but destined to found a new Rome. He sees Caesar as a new Anchises—weak, old and troublesome—one who should not be carried on the shoulders of true Romans but thrown off. In so doing, Cassius replaces the articulated emblem of pietas with the unarticulated emblem of impietas, the image of the son slaying the father. To be true sons of Rome, Cassius argues, he and Brutus must murder Caesar, the pater patriae. Cassius' allusion to the Aeneid repudiates its most important virtue—pietas, one of the fundamental principles of Roman civilization.
Shortly after, Cassius, recalling his conduct during the storm, again appears in the role of Aeneas:
For my part, I have walk'd about the streets,
Submitting me unto the perilous night;
And thus unbraced, Casca, as you see,
Have bar'd my bosom to the thunder-stone;
And when the cross blue lightning seem'd to
The breast of heaven, I did present myself
Even in the aim and very flash of it.
This bravado has no basis in Plutarch but most probably originates in Shakespeare's remembrance of Aeneid 5.685-95, where Aeneas bares his chest to the gods, invites the thunderbolt to strike, and witnesses as an answer to his prayers a divine tempest. Once again, Cassius envisions himself as Aeneas, just before chiding Casca for not having "those sparks of life / That should be in a Roman" (1.3.57-8). Yet, as before, there is certain irony in Cassius' imitation of Aeneas. Aeneas bares himself as a gesture of piety, as an expression of his humility and his dependence on the gods. The storm is a reward for piety and a sign of divine favor. Cassius' baring of his chest after the storm has begun is an arrogant assertion of self, a gesture which brashly proclaims his own manhood and courage, and assumes rather than petitions the favor of the gods. Unlike the clumsy stitching and patching earlier, Shakespeare here weaves Vergilian images into powerful dramatic symbols.
No less striking and skillful is Shakespeare's use of Vergil in Hamlet (1600-1). Welcoming the players to Elsinore, Hamlet remembers from a recent play Aeneas' tale to Dido concerning Priam's slaughter and Pyrrhus' revenge:
"The rugged Pyrrhus, like th' Hyrcanian beast—"
'Tis not so, it begins with Pyrrhus:
"The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couched in th' ominous horse,
Hath now this dread and black complexion
With heraldy more dismal: head to foot
Now is he total gules, horridly trick'd
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Bak'd and impasted with the parching streets,
That lend a tyrannous and damned light
To their lord's murther. Roasted in wrath and
And thus o'er-sized with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
Old grandsire Priam seeks."
So proceed you.
First Hamlet assumes the role of storyteller Aeneas, the exemplar of filial piety. This assumption suggests Hamlet's struggle to act the role of pious son, to render service to his father by killing Claudius. Hamlet then surrenders the speech to the First Player, who proceeds with the narration of Pyrrhus's "roused vengeance." Now a spectator, Hamlet sits rapt with attention as the tale of bloody murder unfolds. He curtly admonishes Polonius for complaining about the length of the speech and urges the actor, "Say on, come to Hecuba" (501). Clearly, Hamlet sees Pyrrhus, the fierce son of Achilles who slays a king to avenge his father, as an idealized image of himself And just as clearly, Hamlet sees Hecuba, stock example of grief and loyal mourning, as an idealized image of his mother, Gertrude. The art of the speech here dramatically and pointedly rebukes life: the heroic images of Troy ironically expose Elsinore's degeneration, Gertrude's inconstancy, and Hamlet's vacillation. After the players leave, Hamlet lacerates himself with self-reproach:
But I am pigeon-liver'd, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should 'a' fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal.
Like the ekphrasis in Lucrece, the allusion to Pyrrhus in Hamlet is stylized and set apart from the surrounding action. It is a rhetorical set piece recited on cue by two actors. Unlike the earlier references to Aeneid 2, however, this one is subtle and complex. The self-conscious artificiality in manner and style reveals Hamlet's preoccupation with art and with the power of playing. In fact, Hamlet is shamed by the Player's shedding of real tears for the fictional characters. So forcing the "soul to his own conceit," the Player weeps, thereby entering the imaginary scene and becoming a participant. The power of art and the artistic imagination transforms reality, creates it anew in the present. Recitation of Pyrrhus's revenge can thus help Hamlet to perform his own. Through the magic of art, the allusion may transform the rapt gazer, Hamlet, into the pitiless avenger, Pyrrhus.
Although the inspiration for the Pyrrhus speech derives ultimately from Aeneid 2, its lurid and melodramatic style are reminiscent as well of Ovid and Lucan. Shakespeare overlays the incident with Marlovian sensationalism, not to parody quaint theatrical styles as has been suggested, but to portray the internal drama of his main character. To Hamlet, fascinated and horrified, the prospective murder of Claudius must seem as bloody, bombastic, and oversized as the narrated murder of Priam. To complicate matters further, there is even a fleeting parallel between Priam and the elder Hamlet, two cruelly murdered kings and fathers. In art's many-faceted mirror the archetypal assassin, Pyrrhus, the royal assassin, Claudius, and the would-be assassin, Hamlet, all appear as images of each other. No wonder Hamlet stares in stupefaction. In order to avenge his father he fears that he must become his enemy Claudius and also another Pyrrhus, roasted in wrath and fire, horridly tricked with blood and gore.
Examination of Shakespeare's Vergilian allusion here leads us through the twisted corridors of the royal palace and through the labyrinth of hope and fear in Hamlet's mind. What is more, the speech and Hamlet's reaction to it resonate throughout the play. When Hamlet stands with drawn sword over the praying Claudius, for example, we recall Pyrrhus over Priam:
lo his sword,
Which was declining on the milky head
Of reverent Priam, seem'd i' th' air to stick.
So as a painted tyrant Pyrrhus stood
[And,] like a neutral to his will and matter,
Of course it is the differences between Hamlet and Pyrrhus that obtain here: Pyrrhus's sword comes down like the "Cyclops' hammers" (489), whereas Hamlet walks away and waits for a better time. So too in the rest of the play. Hamlet never becomes the savage Pyrrhus, inhuman avatar of revenge. Instead, he becomes more noble and humane. Unlike the impious violator of all civilized value, Hamlet expresses faith in the Providence that brings all to completion:
There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.
Calm, faithful, ready to meet his end, he finally kills Claudius and dies in peace. His final revenge presents to us an unresolved paradox, one central to Shakespearean tragedy: the man of pietas and humanity acts in impious furor. This is, of course, the paradox central to the Aeneid, especially evident in the final books as pius Aeneas ruthlessly slays Magus and Turnus.
In Shakespeare's middle phase, then, allusion to Vergil is complex and controlled. The allusions in Julius Caesar and Hamlet create a standard by which the speakers judge themselves and are judged. In Julius Caesar Shakespeare draws on the literary and emblematic traditions descending from a famous Vergilian scene in order to expose Cassius' pretensions. In Hamlet another Vergilian scene provides richly satisfying ironies and develops themes. The reworking of Aeneid 2 in Hamlet contrasts neatly with Shakespeare's reworking in Lucrece and clearly illustrates artistic development. In the mature work, over-wrought style and attention to detail are not merely clumsy contrivances but purposeful in the revelation of character. Shakespeare here creates a revenger antithetical to Pyrrhus, who represents all that Hamlet can never be. In this play as in the final ones, Shakespeare shows his increasing mastery and maturity. By this time he has learned to subordinate the sub-text to his own text, and to harness the inexhaustible energy of allusion. Such knowledge brings new freedom and power.
In Shakespeare's final phase, as in Hamlet, Vergil is a pervasive presence, a deep source that, directly or indirectly, shapes character and action. Yet, at the last, the dramatist shows increasing skill and boldness in allusion. In Antony and Cleopatra (1607-8), Antony's famous comparison of himself and Cleopatra to Aeneas and Dido clearly illustrates the point:
Eros!—I come, my queen!—Eros!—Stay for me!
Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in
And with our sprightly port make the ghosts
Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops,
And all the haunt be ours. Come, Eros, Eros!
Antony's vision of Aeneas and Dido reunited in Hades is his own creation. In the sixth Aeneid, of course, Dido's shade coldly and silently turns from Aeneas to rejoin her former husband, Sychaeus. By misconstruing the famous scene, Shakespeare transforms the epical love story into a reflection of Antony's own desires and aspirations. After Antony, unlike Aeneas, decides the archetypal conflict between love and duty in favor of love, he hopes to live forever with Cleopatra in the next life.
Throughout Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare turns to Aeneid 4 and boldly reshapes Vergilian scenes. Antony's first leave-taking of Cleopatra (1.3), for example, follows the scenic rhythms established by Vergil's Aeneas and Dido. Dido, we recall, knows (praesensit, 4.297) that Aeneas is preparing to leave before he breaks the news to her. So Cleopatra divines Antony's intentions before he can reveal them:
Ant. Now my dearest queen—
Cleo. Pray you stand farther from me.
Ant. What's the matter?
Cleo. I know by that same eye there's some
What, says the married woman you may go?
Would she had never given you leave to come!
Before Aeneas has a chance to speak, Dido berates him for betraying her love and breaking his promises:
dissimulare etiam sperasti, perfide, tantum
posse nefas tacitusque mea decedere terra?
nec te noster amor nec te data dextera quondam
nec moritura tenet crudeli funere Dido?
Deceiver, did you even hope to hide
so harsh a crime, to leave this land of mine
without a word? Can nothing hold you back—
neither your love, the hand you pledged, nor
the cruel death that lies in wait for Dido?
Similarly, Cleopatra denies Antony the chance to speak and berates him for his perfidy:
Cleo. Why should I think you can be mine, and
(Though you in swearing shake the throned
Who have been false to Fulvia? Riotous
To be entangled with those mouth-made vows,
Which break themselves in swearing!
Later, Dido reminds Aeneas that she granted mercy and hospitality to him, a wretched castaway and beggar (eiectum litore, egentem, 373). Angrily, she tells him to leave: i, sequere ltaliam ventis, pete regna per undas (381 "Go then, before the winds to Italy. Seek out your kingdom over seas"). Likewise, Cleopatra reminds Antony of his former suppliance and tells him to leave:
Nay, pray you seek no color for your going,
But bid farewell, and go. When you sued
Then was the time for words; no going then.
Aeneas' response is pauca (333), "brief as well as "small," compared with Dido's large passion. He blames fata (340) for shaping his life and tells Dido to cease complaint as he does not search for Rome voluntarily:
desine meque tuis incendere teque querelis.
ltaliam non sponte sequor.
No longer set yourself and me
afire. Stop your quarrel. It is not
my own free will that leads to Italy.
Antony also lays the blame for his departure on an unapproachable abstraction, the "strong necessity of time" (42), and bids the angry queen, "Quarrel no more" (66). Shakespeare follows Vergil very closely here, even going so far as to transfer Dido's speechlessness—incipit effari mediaque in voce resistit (76 "she starts to speak, then falters / and stops in mid-speech")—to Cleopatra:
Something it is I would—
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten.
The Vergilian undertones that Shakespeare sounds throughout the play enrich Cleopatra's final moments. Cleopatra's death scene incorporates and transforms Dido's. Both women decide to commit suicide because they suffer from broken hearts and because they fear imminent conquest. Dido's companions help prepare a purgation ritual; Cleopatra's handmaids help prepare a sacrificial rite. Dido retreats into the locked penetrale that contains Aeneas's sword, clothing, and the familiar bed, notumque cubile (648); Cleopatra withdraws into the monument, also an epithalamial tomb, a place of marriage and self-immolation. Before dying, both queens recall the first meeting with their lovers, both receive kisses and loving ministrations from their companions, and both give the lie to Mercury's cruel jeer, varium et mutabile semper /femina (569-70 "an ever / uncertain inconstant thing is woman").
And yet, the differences between the fourth Aeneid and Antony and Cleopatra remain fundamental. Vergil's Dido is a tragic figure whose leave-taking expresses broken-hearted pathos and chthonic rage. Shakespeare's Cleopatra is in the parallel scene essentially comic, a consummate actress whose quicksilver shifts of mood bewilder and captivate her Roman lover. So too are their deaths dissimilar. Whereas Dido dies bitterly and tragically, Cleopatra dies triumphantly and joyfully. Her glazed rapture (5.2.76ff.) replaces Dido's grim curse (607ff.); and Antony's transformation from guest to husband ("Husband, I come! / Now to that name my courage prove my title!" 5.2.287-88) neatly reverses Aeneas' degeneration from husband to guest: hospes, / (hoc solum nomen quoniam de coniuge restat) (323-4 "I must say 'guest': this name is all/ I have of one whom once I called my husband").
In this play allusion broadens to eristic imitation as Shakespeare recalls an entire episode—its characters and thematic implications. Lying below the surface of Shakespeare's text, the Aeneas and Dido story deepens and enriches the play. It must be observed, however, that Shakespeare here appropriates Vergilian ideas for most un-Vergilian ends: namely, for the glorification of Antony and Cleopatra. The play rewrites the fourth Aeneid and reverses its values. In this work the playwright molds a Vergilian episode into radically new shape and form. The sub-text provides the material for its own counter-statement, for the articulation of a fundamentally different vision.
Such transformative imitation is also evident in Shakespeare's final masterpiece, The Tempest. The Vergilian presence makes itself felt conspicuously in 3.3, wherein Ariel dressed as a harpy descends to confront Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, and the rest. Obviously, Shakespeare here imitates the harpy episode of Aeneid 3. In both scenes winged harpies shatter an island banquet and astonish shipwrecked voyagers. A struggle ensues but ends quickly as the humans discover that they cannot harm the supernatural creatures. Vergil's sed neque vim plumis ullam nee vulnera tergo / accipiunt (242-3 "No blow can wound their wings or scar their backs") echoes in Ariel's proud notice of his untouched "plume" (65). After both battles one harpy speaks with divine authority. Celaeno, eldest of the Furies (maxima Furiarum, 252), repeats the message of Jupiter and Phoebus Apollo; Ariel, also a minister of "Fate" (61), speaks for omniscient "pow'rs" (73). Both accuse the dazed listeners of wrongdoing and promise grim punishment: Celaeno prophesies that the voyagers will eat their tables from hunger, and Ariel threatens "Ling'ring perdition (worse than any death / Can be at once)" (77-8).
The manifest differences between the two scenes, however, reveal the purpose of Shakespeare's elaborate imitation. Ariel, we observe, differs sharply from Celaeno, that hideous creature of filth and ordure. He merely enacts a charade for Prospero, who greets him warmly after the performance:
Bravely the figure of this harpy hast thou
Perform'd, my Ariel; a grace it had, devouring.
Of my instruction hast thou nothing bated
In what thou hadst to say.
As in Lucrece and Hamlet, Shakespeare frames the Vergilian allusion in art and artifice. Much like the Player at Elsinore, Ariel acts out a Vergilian role to instruct his audiences on stage and in the theatre. His dire threat, unlike Celaeno's, points the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. "Heart's sorrows / And a clear life ensuing" (81-2), Ariel promises, will guard the amazed auditors from the wrath of the powers above. Here the curse of the screaming harpy yields to the reassuring admonition of a benevolent spirit; the epic ordeal becomes an internal drama of penitence and salvation.
In his own way, Shakespeare thus follows the well-trodden paths of allegorical humanism. Commentaries on classical texts in the Middle Ages and Renaissance frequently transformed classical characters and incidents in this fashion, to accord with Christian values. Cristoforo Landino's enormously influential Camaldolese Disputations, for example, provides an instructive parallel to Shakespeare's revision of Aeneid 3 in The Tempest. According to Landino, the harpies represent Avarice: their faces are pale and haggard from desire; they have hooked claws for grasping, which drag men down into bestiality; the broken banquet suggests that Avarice is born of stupidity and baseness of spirit and prefers death to the diminishment of treasure. The Trojans strike at the harpies ineffectually but, Landino tells us, the creatures may be easily repelled, si fort generosumque sumamus anim ("if we assume a brave and generous spirit"). Landino's confrontation between Avarice and the brave and generous spirit glosses interestingly Shakespeare's confrontation between those grasping villains—Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio—and the forgiving Prospero.
The Tempest represents the culmination and conclusion of Shakespeare's relationship with Vergil. In it the playwright ponders an essentially Vergilian concern—the cost of civilization in human terms. Unlike the Roman poet, however, Shakespeare does not end his vision in epic action, but in recognition of the human capacity for spiritual growth. "The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance" (5.1.27-8); and Prospero, wiser and sadder, learns finally to put furor aside for forgiveness. This option, of course, is not open to Aeneas, who must, to his own sorrow, end in furious and bitter triumph over Turnus. Yet, despite these differences, the two conclusions are similar in spirit: they are in their own ways sad victories, shadowed over by the same exhausted awareness of evil, suffering, and loss. The weary Aeneas finally understands what is needed to build the high walls of Rome, and the weary Prospero returns to Milan, where "Every third thought" is his grave (5.1.312). In such transformative imitation, as in the early and middle allusions, there is meaningful tribute. Shakespeare, even as he adapts Vergil, acknowledges for all time the importance of his work, the keenness of his understanding, and the lasting power of his art.
Jonathan Bate (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Renaissance Ovid," in his Shakespeare and Ovid, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1993, pp. 1-47.
[In the following essay, Bate examines the profound influence of Ovid on Renaissance culture and Shakespeare's works. The critic additionally provides an overview of the Elizabethan educational system, describing the emphasis placed on memorizing and imitating Latin literary models.]
We need stories to help us make sense of the world. Things change. Men and women are driven, powerfully if not exclusively, by sexual desire (men in more aggressive ways). Myth, metamorphosis, sexuality: doubtless Shakespeare knew something about them by instinct; as a young man who got an older woman pregnant and then married her, he must have known a good deal about one of them from experience; but much of his most profound and characteristic thinking about them was derived from his reading of Ovid.
The enchantment which the law student from Sulmona exercised over the grammar-school boy from Stratford-upon-Avon was a matter of style as well as substance. Through the mouth of Holofernes the schoolmaster, the dramatist wittily apostrophized his own favourite classical poet: 'for the elegancy, facility, and golden cadence of poesy … Ovidius Naso was the man: and why indeed "Naso" but for smelling out the odoriferous flowers of fancy, the jerks of invention?' 'Naso' is, of course, from the Latin for 'nose'; the poet's very name is made to embody the gift for verbal play which Shakespeare inherited from him and which is exhibited to supreme effect in the drama in which Holofernes appears, Love's Labour's Lost. Ovid was the epitome of poetic stylishness: what better model for the ambitious young Elizabethan writer? The title-page of Venus and Adonis, the first work which Shakespeare saw into print, was adorned with an epigraph from the Amores, a proclamation of the poem's affiliation: 'Vilia miretur vulgus; mihi flavus Apollo Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua'—'Let what is cheap excite the marvel of the crowd; for me may golden Apollo minister full cups from the Castalian fount' (Amores, I. XV. 35-6). Ovid is claimed as Shakespeare's route to the Castalian spring on the side of Parnassus, which is to say as his source of inspiration and his guarantor of high cultural status, his way of rising above the 'vulgus'. The poem from which the epigraph is quoted ends with the claim that poetry is a way of cheating death—the claim which is also that of Shakespeare's Sonnets and which is borne out every time Shakespeare reanimates Ovid and every time we reanimate either of them in the act of reading.
Ovid's inspiriting of Shakespeare seems to have been recognized ever since 1598, when Francis Meres undertook an exercise in the art of simile entitled 'A Comparative Discourse of our English Poets with the Greeke, Latine, and Italian Poets'. Not all of Meres's comparisons have been borne out by literary history—William Warner is no longer thought of as 'our English Homer'—but one of them is justly famous: 'As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras: so the sweete wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous and hony-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private friends, &c.' Meres went on to assert that 'As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines: so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage'. But this was not to say that Ovid's influence was restricted to Shakespeare's non-dramatic works, for the comparison with Plautus and Seneca is simply made in terms of shared excellence, whereas that with Ovid is phrased in such a way as to imply both stylistic and spiritual resemblance. The soul that has been metamorphosed into Shakespeare is that of Ovid, the poet of metamorphosis. Pythagorean metempsychosis, as expounded in the fifteenth book of the Metamorphoses, becomes a figure for the translation of one poet into another.
In support of Meres, one could list many points of similarity: a method of composition which involves shaping inherited stories in such a way that they are wrought completely anew; a refusal to submit to the decorums of genre, a delight in the juxtaposition of contrasting tones—the tragic and the grotesque, the comic and the pathetic, the cynical and the magnanimous; an interest above all else in human psychology, particularly the psychology of desire in its many varieties; an exploration of the transformations wrought by extremes of emotion; a delight in rhetorical ingenuity, verbal fertility, linguistic play; variety and flexibility as fundamental habits of mind and forms of expression. The Ovidian and the Shakespearian self is always in motion, always in pursuit or flight. And, bewilderingly, one can never be sure whether one is running towards what one desires or running away from it: no myth is more emblematic of the worlds of the two writers than that of Actaeon, the hunter who in punishment for his gaze upon the naked Diana becomes the hunted. When you think you've seen what you most desire, it destroys you.
Recent criticism has been much concerned with 'the flexibility of the self in Renaissance literature' [quoted from Thomas M. Greene in The Disciplines of Criticism (1968), ed. by Peter Demetz, Thomas Greene, and Lowry Nelson, Jr.]. Such criticism has not always recognized that the flexible self has a prime classical exemplar in Ovid. There could be no better motto for the Renaissance self-fashioner than some lines in the Ars Amatoria, which Shakespeare's fellow-dramatist Thomas Heywood translated as follows:
He that is apt will in himself devise
Innumerable shapes of fit disguise,
To shift and change like Proteus, whom we see,
A Lyon first, a Boar, and then a Tree.
The Ars is about how you fashion yourself as a lover; it recognizes that the well-fashioned lover is dextrous in the assumption of poses (you may even have to fake orgasm) and the handling of masks (Ovid also wrote a verse treatise on facial cosmetics). It also recognizes that the fashioning of the self is limited by the constraints of social convention and ultimately of state power; ironically for Ovid himself, this point was proved drastically when Augustus exiled him from Rome, partly because the poem appeared to be advocating sexual licence in general and female adultery in particular at a time when the Emperor was pursuing a programme of domestic moral reform. The specific impulse for the banishment of the poet in AD 8, a decade after the writing of the Ars, seems to have been connected with the adultery of the Emperor's grand-daughter, Julia, who was also exiled that year. Nine years earlier, Augustus' daughter, Julia's mother, also called Julia, had committed the same offence—Renaissance commentators confused the two Julias: hence Thomas Cooper's phrase, 'for abusynge Julia, daughter of the emperour Augustus', in the biography of Ovid cited at the beginning of this chapter. The confusion between the two Julias, and the identification of them with the 'Corinna' of Ovid's Amores, goes back at least as far as Sidonius Apollinaris in the fifth century.
What the Ars argues in its mock-didactics, the Amores exemplify in their nimble practice; the flexible self in these love elegies is the poet himself, working through a repertoire of attitudes and voices, writing as both subject and object, both poet and lover, in anticipation of the manner of Elizabethan love-poets like Sidney and Shakespeare in their sonnet sequences. Though theirs is a poetry of frustration and his of consummation, Petrarch could not have created Laura or Sidney Stella without the example of Ovid's Corinna. But Ovid is not only a self-dramatizer: in the Heroides and the Metamorphoses, he dramatizes others, most notably victims of desire, many of them women. The females who speak the Heroides and a variety of related figures in the Metamorphoses, for instance Myrrha and Medea, are among the models for the soliloquizing that is the distinctive activity of Shakespeare's most admired characters. The Ovidian dramatic monologue and the Shakespearian soliloquy create the illusion that a fictional being has an interior life. This illusion is achieved principally by the arts of language. The character's 'self is both created and transformed by the very process of verbal articulation; her or his 'being' is invented rhetorically. In Shakespeare, of course, the verbal rhetoric inherited from Ovid and other classical exemplars is accompanied by a new visual rhetoric of stage gestures and actions.
To think of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan Ovid is to see him as a typical, if exceptionally gifted, product of his age. Renaissance thinkers believed passionately that the present could learn from the past; the belief was the starting-point of education and a formative influence upon writing in the period. It was the essence of what we now call Renaissance humanism. The great Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives acknowledged that 'It is true there are those men who persuade themselves that a knowledge of antiquity is useless, because the method of living all over the world is changed, as for example in the erection of elegant dwellings, the manner of waging war, of governing people and states'. But he went on to claim that such an opinion was 'opposed to the judgement of wise men' and therefore against reason. 'To be sure,' he wrote,
no one can deny that everything has changed, and continues to change, every day, because these changes spring from our volition and industry. But similar changes do not ever take place in the essential nature of human beings, that is in the foundations of the affections of the human mind, and the results which they produce on actions and volitions. This fact has far more significance than the raising of such questions as to how the ancients built their houses or how they clothed themselves. For what greater practical wisdom is there than to know how and what the human passions are: how they are roused, how quelled?
The passage occurs in Vives' treatise of 1531, De tradendis disciplinis, 'on the transmission of knowledge'. There is no more vital humanist activity than the translation of the classics with the aim of transmitting knowledge, making the wisdom of the past available in the vernacular. Shakespeare was a product of the educational revolution in which Vives played a part: he was trained to value the classics and he was glad to use the new translations of them, such as Sir Thomas North's version of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes. As a dramatist and hence a student of what Vives calls the 'human passions', he was especially interested in the classical texts in which the extremes of emotion were explored. Among these, none was more congenial to him than Ovid's Metamorphoses. This, I suspect, was partly because his sceptical, dynamic temperament would have had a certain resistance to the humanist implication that 'the essential nature of human beings' does not change; what Ovid taught him was that everything changes—'In all the world there is not that that standeth at a stay', as the character of Pythagoras sums it up in Book Fifteen—and this accorded with his desire as a dramatist to examine human beings at key moments of change in their lives, such as when they fall in love or make a renunciation or, most drastically, decide to kill themselves. Ovid's philosophy of instability modified the 'essentialist' premiss of humanism even as his exemplary force sustained it.
I use the word 'essentialism' to mean 'the belief that we possess some given, unalterable essence or nature in virtue of which we are human' [quoted from Jonathan Dolli-more in his Radical Tragedy (1984)]. The passage from Vives is a magisterial statement of this belief, though elsewhere, for example in his Fabula de homine of 1518, the same writer posits a more protean, Ovidian view of human nature: he imagines Jupiter sitting in an auditorium and watching man on a stage demonstrating his capability to become 'all things', one moment lion, wolf, boar, fox, and donkey (emblematic of the passions), the next a prudent and just civic being. One reason why Ovid was so valuable to sceptical humanists like Vives, Montaigne, and Shakespeare was that the fifteenth book of the Metamorphoses provided a beautiful solution to the problem of instability and change. Change itself becomes constancy, instability a fixed principle: the humanist is thus able to retain his faith that there is an essence in both human and non-human nature, whilst acknowledging the infinite variety of human passions and actions.
Readers who have inherited John Milton's image of Shakespeare in the poem 'L'Allegro' as 'Fancy's child', 'warbling his native woodnotes wild', will be puzzled by claims that he can be read in the context of Renaissance humanism and that his plays have an especially close relationship with the work of a classical author. Didn't Ben Jonson write in his elegy 'To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author Mr William Shakespeare', 'thou hadst small Latine, and lesse Greeke'? What about John Dryden's claim in the essay Of Dramatic Poesy that Shakespeare 'needed not the spectacles of books to read nature'? These are, however, relative statements: Shakespeare may have been unlearned by the standards of the Jonson who furnished his play Sejanus with marginal notes written in Latin or the Dryden who translated the complete works of Virgil, yet the classical accomplishments of the average Elizabethan grammar-school boy were considerable indeed by the standard of most of us today. And if 'lesse Greeke' really means 'less' rather than 'no', Shakespeare would have been above average, for Greek was only studied in the upper forms of the better schools, and it was not begun until Latin had been thoroughly mastered.
In his Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare, published in 1767, Richard Farmer, whose standards were those of the Master of a Cambridge college, showed that Shakespeare used Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch, and Arthur Golding's of Ovid, and furthermore that Plautus' Menaechmi, the principal source for The Comedy of Errors, his most formally classical play, had been done into English (albeit unpublished) by Warner. Dr Johnson was impressed: 'Dr Farmer,' he said, 'you have done that which never was done before; that is, you have completely finished a controversy beyond all further doubt.' [quoted by James Northcote, Memoirs of Sir Joshua Reynolds (London, 1813)]. But the scholarship of the subsequent two centuries has decided the question in the opposite direction: although Shakespeare used translations when he could, presumably for speed and convenience, he did read sources in Latin and French—in the case of Ovid he did not rely solely on Golding's Englished Metamorphoses of 1567.
His use of both the Latin original and the early Elizabethan translation may be demonstrated from his most powerful imitation of Ovid, Prospero's renunciation of his rough magic. The relevant passage in Ovid begins 'auraeque et venti montesque amnesque lacusque, dique omnes nemorum, dique omnes noctis adeste', of which a literal translation might be 'ye breezes and winds and mountains and rivers and lakes, and all ye gods of groves and of night, draw near' (Met. vii. 197-8). Golding translated this as 'Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone, Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone' (Golding, vii. 265-6). The first line of Prospero's speech is 'Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves' (Tempest, v. i. 33). Shakespeare got his elves from Golding (in Ovid they are 'gods' and are not associated with the hills) and he also followed the translator in amplifying 'lacus' into 'standing lakes'. But later in the speech, where Ovid had 'convulsaque robora' ('and rooted up oaks'), Golding did not specify the kind of tree ('and trees doe drawe'), so Shakespeare must have gone to the Latin for his 'and rifted Jove's stout oak'. Again, Golding lacks an equivalent for the ghosts actually coming out of their tombs: Prospero's 'Graves at my command Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth' is a version of Ovid's 'manesque exire sepulcris'. Medea in Ovid says that she has made the sun go pale by means of her song ('carmine nostro'); Golding has 'Our Sorcerie dimmes the Morning faire'; Shakespeare neatly combines the song and the sorcery with Prospero's climactic 'By my so potent art', the art being that of both the sorcerer and the poet-singer. Medea's use of the noun 'carmen' allies her with Ovid himself, for he began the Metamorphoses with a reference to his own unbroken song, 'perpetuum carmen' (i. 4); in a similar way, the phrase 'my so potent art', spoken by a character who has a little earlier put on a play, cannot but ally Prospero's magic with the magic of Shakespeare's verbal and theatrical arts. This is not, however, to say that Prospero's renunciation of his magic is Shakespeare's farewell to the stage.
The fact of Shakespeare's imitation of Ovid is beyond dispute; it is much more difficult to be sure of its implications. Were Jacobean audiences of The Tempest supposed to recognize the imitation and, if so, were they then supposed to reflect upon Prospero's art in relation to that of Ovid's Medea? Charles and Michelle Martindale, in their book on Shakespeare and the Uses of Antiquity, think that the answer to the first part of the question is probably 'yes,' to the second part, definitely 'no':
In this instance it should be plain that the use Shakespeare is making of Ovid is imitative, not allusive; educated members of the audience would recognize the presence of Ovid, but there is no question of any such complex interplay between the divergent meanings of the two texts as our more ingenious critics so often suppose.
I believe that the Martindales are wrong about this. The distinction between stylistic imitation and purposeful allusion would not have been made in this way in the Renaissance. Sixteenth-century models of reading were always purposeful: texts from the past were valued for their applicability to present endeavour. Hence the widespread habit of extracting wise passages from their sources and transcribing them in 'commonplace' books which built up a composite model of ideal behaviour. In writing Prospero's speech, Shakespeare is following a standard humanist procedure: he needed a formal invocation of magical powers, so he imitated a famous classical example of one. To imitate it was to assert its continuing relevance; humanist imitation was based on the premiss that classical texts were appropriate patterns or models because they embodied fundamental, enduring truths. This was the point that Vives made. The act of imitation here implies that all invocations of magical power are in some sense the same—just as a Renaissance imitation of an Ovidian locus amoenus implies that all loci amoeni are in some sense the same—and therefore that Prospero and Medea are in some sense the same.… [I] suggest that the imitation is an allusion and is supposed to be recognized as such. What I mean by allusion is that the source text is brought into play (from Latin al-ludo, to play with); its presence does significant aesthetic work of a sort which cannot be performed by a submerged source.
It should also be pointed out that the Martindales' sneer at 'our more ingenious critics' is oddly patronizing to the Renaissance. It implies that Shakespeare and his audience were simple souls who never got beyond stylistic elegance, who lacked the ingenuity to make associations between dramatic characters and mythical archetypes. But Renaissance mythography was as inventive as anything in modern critical theory. Despite the reservations of humanists such as Erasmus, for whom myth was a repository of moral wisdom rather than a system of mystical correspondences, the tradition of multiple interpretation, inherited and adapted from the Middle Ages, was still very much alive. Edmund Spenser, say, or George Sandys, author of Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologiz'd, and Represented in Figures, would have had no difficulty in finding historical, moral, and allegorical meanings in a single story. Sir John Harington's reading, published in 1591 [in the Preface to his translation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso], of the slaying of the Gorgon Medusa by Perseus is worth quoting at length as an example of this interpretative technique:
Perseus sonne of Jupiter is fained by the Poets to have staine Gorgon, and, after that conquest atchieved, to have flown up to heaven. The Historicall sence is this, Perseus the sonne of Jupiter, by the participation of Jupiters vertues which were in him, or rather comming of the stock of one of the kings of Creet, or Athens so called, slew Gorgon, a tyrant in that countrey (Gorgon in Greeke signifieth earth), and was for his vertuous parts exalted by men up unto heaven. Morally it signifieth this much: Perseus a wise man, sonne of Jupiter, endewed with vertue from above, slayeth sinne and vice, a thing base & earthly signified by Gorgon, and so mounteth up to the skie of vertue. It signifies in one kind of Allegorie thus much: the mind of man being gotten by God, and so the childe of God killing and vanquishing the earthlinesse of this Gorgonicall nature, ascendeth up to the understanding of heavenly things, of high things, of eternal things, in which contemplacion consisteth the perfection of man: this is the naturali allegory, because man [is] one of the chiefe works of nature. It hath also a more high and heavenly Allegorie, that the heavenly nature, daughter of Jupiter, procuring with her continuali motion corruption and mortality in the inferious bodies, severed it selfe at last from these earthly bodies, and flew up on high, and there remaineth for ever. It hath also another Theological Allegorie: that the angelicali nature, daughter of the most high God the creator of all things, killing & overcomming all bodily substance, signified by Gorgon, ascended into heaven. The like infinite Allegories I could pike out of other Poeticall fictions, save that I would avoid tediousnes.
Readers who are inclined to accuse modern critics of over-ingeniousness should keep an analysis such as this beside them as a touchstone of Renaissance ingenuity. As will be shown, even Shakespeare, whose hermeneutics were much less formal than Harington's are in this passage, frequently invoked myths as patterns within the plays, and when invoking myths sometimes also assumed knowledge of the received moral interpretation of them. When Cleopatra says that Antony is 'painted one way like a Gorgon', it is left to the audience to supply the interpretation of the simile.
Harington's interpretative strategy is premissed on the conviction that allegory shadows forth a universal interconnectedness; this enables him to pull together pagan narrative and divine revelation, and thus to defend poetry from the strictures of puritans. Ultimately, both the practice of humanist imitation and Renaissance hermeneutics more generally draw strength from a belief in the read-ability of the world: myths, classical texts, nature itself, are books in which moral truths may be read. Thus not only are all loci amoeni alike, they may all be read as vestiges of the classical Golden Age, which, according to the syncretic way of thinking so much favoured in the Renaissance, is itself equivalent to Eden before the Fall.
Mythological allusion pervades Elizabethan and Jacobean writing.… For it to have been worth its place in the drama, dramatists must have presumed that at least a proportion of their auditory was capable of 'reading' it. Having described the different ways of interpreting the story of Perseus and the Gorgon, Harington anatomized Renaissance readers into three kinds: 'the weaker capacities will feede themselves with the pleasantnes of the historie and sweetnes of the verse, some that have stronger stomackes will as it were take a further taste of the Morali sence, a third sort, more high conceited then they, will digest the Allegorie'.… Ben Jonson made a similar, though twofold, distinction with regard to the audience for theatrical shows: he contrasted those with 'grounded judgements' who merely used their 'gaze' to enjoy the spectacle, and 'the sharpe and learned' who had the wit to comprehend his allegories. Shakespeare's colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, addressed the First Folio of 1623 'To the great Variety of Readers', who, they said, were numbered 'From the most able, to him that can but spell'. The great variety of playgoers who frequented the Rose, the Globe, and the Blackfriars in Shakespeare's lifetime covered a similar spectrum; the most able—the university and Inns of Court men—would have been intimately versed in both classical texts and the art of allegorical interpretation, while even those who had read but little would have had a rudimentary working knowledge of ancient mythology. And for Elizabethan culture, Ovid's Metamorphoses constituted the richest storehouse of that mythology.
Shakespeare's ideal spectator would have shared the dramatist's own grammar-school education. The comic but affectionate portrayals of pedantic schoolmasters in Love's Labour's Lost and The Merry Wives of Windsor suggest that Shakespeare may often have been bored at school, but they leave no room for doubt that he did go to school. John Aubrey, on the not wholly unreliable testimony of the son of a member of Shakespeare's acting company, established a tradition that in the so-called 'lost years' of the 1580s Shakespeare was himself a schoolmaster; E. A. J. Honigmann [in his Shakespeare: The 'Lost Years' (1985)] has recently proposed that those years were spent as tutor to a Catholic family in Lancashire, and that the recommendation for this post may have come from a Stratford schoolmaster with a high opinion of Shakespeare's accomplishments. Even if we discount these scholastic possibilities, we cannot question the competence of Shakespeare's Latin, small as it may have been by Ben Jonson's prodigious standards. Latin was the substance of the grammar-school curriculum (it is to Latin that the epithet 'grammar' applies); and within that curriculum, Ovid occupied a very special place, as will be shown in the next section of this chapter. Shakespeare got a good enough education for him to be able to base his Lucrece on a story in Ovid's Fasti, which was not published in an English translation until well after his death.
I do not suppose for a moment that any individual seventeenth-century reader of Shakespeare, still less a playgoer, would have consciously recognized, let alone reflected upon the significance of, all the Ovidian associations which I discuss in this book. Where professional critical readers pursue their theme with relentless single-mindedness, readers for pleasure and, to an even greater degree, playgoers—both Renaissance and modern—attend to many different facets of the Shakespearian text and cannot always be expected to attend to it at all (in the Elizabethan theatre there would have been a lot of distractions, what with nut-cracking neighbours and prostitutes plying their trade). A literary-historical book of this sort by its nature regularizes and gives apparent unity to connections that an ordinary reading or viewing will only make fragmentarily and spasmodically. But by picking out the figure in the carpet it becomes possible to discern that Shakespeare was an extremely intelligent and sympathetic reader of Ovid and that his readings are embedded in his own works. And I am convinced that every individual connection I make could have been perceived by an educated Elizabethan: it must be stressed again that the method of reading which this book adopts is a Renaissance method. For the Renaissance, reading meant reading with a consciousness of the classics. The author of the Gesta Grayorum, an account of the revels at Gray's Inn during the winter of 1594-5, considered The Comedy of Errors to be 'like to Plautus his Menechmus'. This book imagines other educated Elizabethan playgoers returning to Shakespeare's works and again and again finding them, despite the differences of genre, like to Ovid his Metamorphoses.
As I affirmed in my preface, one compelling reason for writing a study of Shakespeare and Ovid at this time is the simple fact that fewer and fewer students and playgoers are now versed in the classics as their Renaissance forebears were. Dramatists like Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood did not want the classics to be what they have now become, the preserve of a tiny intellectual élite. They took Ovid out of the academy and put him on the popular stage; in his Golden Age, Silver Age, Brazen Age, and Iron Age plays, Heywood actually dramatized a whole collection of stories from the Metamorphoses for the audience of the Red Bull, the most notoriously 'lowbrow' of the London theatres. In the prologue to The Silver Age, he made a distinction regarding his audience that was similar to Jonson's: the 'learned' come to the theatre with their 'judging wits', while the 'ruder' respond only with their 'eyes'. The prologue continues, 'Since what we do, we for their use compile': 'their' refers to both segments of the audience, which is to say that Heywood is compiling his mythological material for the 'use' of all kinds of theatregoer. In the epilogue to The Brazen Age, he addressed the 'unlettered' in the audience, asking them 'Rather to attend than judge; for more than sight We seeke to please'. Heywood was writing at a time when the morality of the theatre was under attack from puritan polemicists: there could be no better riposte than the claim that the drama could traverse 'The ground of ancient Poems' and bring edification of the kind that was the rationale of humanist educational theory. Indeed, performance could evoke the substance (res) of ancient poems, whereas education was locked into analysis of their grammar, syntax, and rhetoric (verba); the drama brought the classics to life, whereas the techniques of the schoolroom killed them stone dead. In his own way, Shakespeare had anticipated Heywood in this project: … [I] suggest that in Titus Andronicus he undertook both a critique of a schoolroom education and a defence of a theatrical one. Shakespeare's Ovidianism proposes that the classics need not be only a matter of rote-learning and beatings, of Sir Hugh Evans's 'hig, hag, hog' and 'If you forget your quis, your ques, and your quods, you must be preeches' [Merry Wives of Windsor, IV. i. 38, 71-2]. Elizabethan theatrical Ovidianism constitutes an exceptionally fruitful embrace between 'high' and 'low' culture; it proves that the classics can reach a popular audience, can give pleasure even as they edify, can be a source of profound vitality.
Shakespeare enjoyed Ovid hugely, but also found in him a source of disturbance. The coexistence of vitality, enjoyment, and disturbance is apparent above all in the matter for which Ovid was best known in the Renaissance, that of human desire and sexuality. Sexual behaviour is of course determined by culture as well as nature, but culture has its continuities: in the Ars Amatoria, Ovid associates theatregoing with sex, noting that the theatre is a good place to take a prospective lover, since 'the rows compel closeness, like it or not, and by the conditions of space your girl must be touched' (Ars Am. i. 141-2). This is as good a piece of advice for the young man about town in Shakespeare's time or in ours as for Ovid's implied reader. Whether Ovid is advising on such preliminaries or on the art of achieving simultaneous orgasm (Ars Am. ii. 719-28), he has a modernity which may be seen as testimony to literature's power to continue to work beyond its moment of production. Using the Ars Amatoria as a sex manual may not be quite what the learned humanists had in mind when they recommended the study of the classics, but the efficacy of doing so proves their point that we can learn from the literature of the past. Roman marriage, Elizabethan marriage, and modern marriage are very different things, but to read Ovid and Shakespeare today is to see that neither the lightness nor the darkness of sexual desire has changed so very much over two millenniums.
This continuity might seem to offer support for Vives' claim about 'the essential nature of human beings'. His grand phrase 'the foundations of the affections of the human mind, and the results which they produce on actions and volitions' could be translated into Sigmund Freud's single word, libido. Freud himself viewed both classical myth and Shakespearian drama as anticipations, and hence proofs, of his own 'essentialist' account of human sexuality. There has accordingly been a steady stream of books and articles translating the language of Shakespeare's plays into that of psychoanalysis—every student knows about Hamlet's Oedipus complex. I am, however, sceptical of this procedure and I have done everything I can to avoid such translation, on the grounds that it is tendentious enough to move between the languages of texts composed for particular purposes in Rome around the beginning of the Christian era and in London around the beginning of the seventeenth century without also introducing that of texts which Freud composed for particular purposes in Vienna around the beginning of the twentieth. Shakespeare's representations of sexuality may be Freudian—or Kleinian or Lacanian—but my concern is to show that they are Ovidian.
Freud notwithstanding, the fact that these representations still elicit a nod of recognition does not necessarily mean that the dynamics of sexual desire are universally constant. Their endurance may instead be a demonstration of the way in which life imitates art. That sexuality is learnt from poets as much as it is determined by biology would seem to be the view of Montaigne in the sixteenth century's wisest and most playful essay on the subject, 'Upon some Verses of Virgil': there it is argued that the 'power and might' of erotic desire 'are found more quick and lively in the shadowe of the Poesie, th[a]n in their owne essence'. For Montaigne, literature serves to educate the reader in sexual language: 'It is high time indeed for us to go studie the phrases of Amadis, the metaphors of Aretine, and eloquence of Boccace'—that is to say, to study erotic texts—'thereby to become more skilfull, more ready and more sufficient to confront them: surely we bestow our time wel'. As one recent commentator on the mythological tradition in the French Renaissance puts it [Ann Moss in her Poetry and Fable (1984)], 'When Montaigne turns to himself he finds that it is not in searching his own memory that he recovers most fully the experience of love, but in reading the stylised formulations of poetic fiction.' In Shakespearian comedy, love is among other things an art learnt from Ovid.
Ovid was not of course the first poet to make sex full of both fun and anguish, but for Western culture he has been the one in whom the joy of sex has found its foremost apologist and the pain of desire one of its most skilled analysts. This is due in considerable measure to the hazards of manuscript transmission in pre-print culture: had more of Sappho survived, she might have taken the credit. Indeed, Ovid would have been the first to acknowledge the supremacy of Sappho. In the Tristia (ii. 365) she is cited as his precedent as a teacher of the art of love, and in the fifteenth of the Heroides he writes in her voice and so celebrates her poetry even as he ironically twists her lesbianism by making her the victim of heterosexual desire:
But once I seemed beautiful enough, when I read
my poems to you.
You swore that, alone among women, I took
grace always from the
words I spoke.
I would sing, I remember—lovers remember it
As I sang, you returned me my kisses, kisses
stolen while I sang.
Whilst listening to Ovid's reanimation of Sappho, we should take the opportunity to acknowledge that his writing can be charged with a sexual intensity which Shakespeare was wholly incapable of reproducing (in the Elizabethan age only Donne comes near it). Here, for instance, is a translation of what must be Western poetry's most stirring account of a woman's wet dream:
My dreams bring you back to me:
dreams more intense and dazzling than radiant
I find you in those dreams, although you are
But sleep offers pleasures too brief to satisfy.
Often it seems that your arms are holding the
weight of my neck,
often I seem to be holding your head in my
the kisses are familiar, those kisses, tongue to
tongue, I recognize them,
the kisses you used to take and give back to
Sometimes I caress you, and say words that
seem utterly real,
and my lips are awake, responsive to all that I
I hesitate to say what happens next, but it all
there's no choice, just joy, and I'm inundated
In the arena of sexuality, Ovid was both an original and an inheritor of Sappho and others; in that of myth, he was equally both an innovator and a rewriter of material from a vast range of earlier writers, most notably Euripides and Callimachus. He did not invent his stories, he just happened to have codified them and told them in an artful and memorable way at an unusually stable moment in early Western culture. The idea of myth presents as many theoretical problems as that of sexuality. Again, my aim has been to present the material in the terms of Ovid and his Renaissance readers, not to translate it into those of some later theorist. There may be a book to be written on Shakespeare and the Metamorphoses in relation to Claude Lévi-Strauss's theory that myths encode the deep binary structures of all cultures, but this is not it. Jacques Derrida's essay on Lévi-Strauss, 'Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences', is one of the foundation texts of deconstruction, but my aim is to reconstruct, not deconstruct Renaissance mythography. There is a certain smack of Derridean hermeneutic play about Sir John Harington's multiplication of readings of the Gorgon myth, but with a crucial difference: for a Renaissance reader multiple readings offer many roads to truth, whereas for Derrida reading is a circular road going to nowhere but itself. In order to understand the work that myth does for Shakespeare—and to try out for ourselves whether it can do any work for us—we have to suspend our disbelief in the possibility of words and stories referring to a reality beyond themselves. We certainly do not have to believe that Shakespeare's sonnets were written out of personal desire for the Earl of Southampton or whoever, but we do have to believe that even if desire may be read as a textual phenomenon, as Montaigne seems to imply, love-poetry can be made to serve extra-textual ends. We do not have to believe in gods; we do not even have to believe that Shakespeare and Ovid believed in them. But we do have to believe in the reality of the human conditions and aspirations that are storied in myth—negatively, that desire is often blind (Cupid) or self-consuming (Narcissus, Actaeon); positively, that a marriage might be blessed (Hymen), a harvest might be good (Ceres), or society a fairer place (the Golden Age). In its assumption that one of the values of literary and dramatic creations is their capacity to speak of such conditions and aspirations, this book is unapologetically a work of reconstructed humanism.
Shakespeare was fortunate in his place of birth. In 1553 the King's New School at Stratford-upon-Avon was chartered as a free grammar school that would employ one master who was to be comparatively well remunerated with twenty pounds a year and housing. Shakespeare probably entered the grammar school at the age of seven in 1571, having already spent two or three years at an attached petty school where, under the auspices of an usher, he would have learnt reading, writing, and the catechism. The grammar-school master from 1571 to 1575 was one Simon Hunt, and for the next four years the post was held by Thomas Jenkins. They both seem to have been able men, with Oxford degrees; Jenkins had for some years been a fellow of St John's College. A measure of the quality of the Stratford education is that Richard Field, a near contemporary of Shakespeare, began an apprenticeship in London after leaving school and rapidly became one of England's best printers of classical texts—his work included an important annotated edition of the Metamorphoses published in 1589. It was to Field that Shakespeare turned a few years after this for the printing of his Venus and Adonis and Lucrece.
The grammar-school curriculum was limited but intense. It depended on learning by rote: Shakespeare and his contemporaries had Latin words and structures ingrained upon their memories in such a way that classical influences would inevitably shape their verbal forms in later life. The principal aim of an Elizabethan education was for the student to learn not merely to read Latin with facility, but also to write and speak it. He (girls did not attend the grammar school) would begin with William Lily's A Shorte Introduction of Grammar and complete his accidence and syntax in the same author's Brevissima Institutio, which was illustrated with examples from various Latin authors, such as the line from Horace that Chiron in Titus Andronicus remembers from reading in his grammar. At this early stage, he would also be required to construe and translate from collections of maxims such as Leonhardus Culmannus' Sententiae Pueriles and the Disticha Moralia (ascribed to Cato, with scholia by Erasmus). These collections provided the origin of many of the tags and sententiae that are found so frequently in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. It was a favourite Renaissance practice to extract moral wisdom from the classics in the form of adages and apophthegms; the educated members of Shakespeare's audience would accordingly have been adept in the art of recognizing classical allusions, whether they were highly self-conscious, as in some of the early works, or woven more subtly into the text, as in the later plays.
At a later stage, the sententiae in Culmannus and Cato would provide the basis for rhetorical exercises in amplification. Thus not only the pithiness, but also the prolixity and rhetorical inventiveness of Elizabethan writers have their roots in the educational system. One of the major rhetorical texts used in schools was Erasmus' De Copia, which instructed in the art of using tropes and schemes to imitate classical copiousness; Ovid was seen here as the most copious of authors, his description of Hecuba in the thirteenth book of the Metamorphoses as the exemplary illustration of the use of extreme 'copia' to create emotion. Dramatic laments in plays from Gorboduc onwards make Hecuba into 'a mirror' of woefulness. The player's speech in Hamlet, with its accumulation of figures designed to elicit sympathy for the passion of Hecuba, is a standard rhetorical set-piece. But although any grammar-school boy would have been given the training to have a stab at the exercise, few could have undertaken it with the facility of Shakespeare. His contemporaries recognized and appreciated this, praising his distinctive qualities with such epithets as 'sweet', 'honie-tong'd', 'hony-flowing Vaine', 'fine filed phrase', 'happy and copious', 'mellifluous'. These were the terms in which the Elizabethans also praised Ovid. Gabriel Harvey spoke of 'conceited' Ovid, Thomas Lodge of his 'promptnes' in versification; to Thomas Nashe, he was 'silver-tong'd' and 'well-tun'd' in his style. The two writers offered respective Latin and English exemplars of facility, copiousness, mellifluous rhetoric, and verbal wit. In the mid-seventeenth century, Thomas Fuller would associate Shakespeare with 'Ovid, the most naturali and witty of all Poets'.
Rigorous rhetorical training was undergone in the upper school, where boys were drilled in the writing of epistles, themes, and orations. The textbook for themes was Aphthonius' Progymnasmata, in which Shakespeare would have found Ovid's story of Venus and Adonis discussed as an example of narratio (and immediately followed by citation of Pyramus and Thisbe). The upper school would also have provided Shakespeare with his first exposure to the major Roman poets in themselves, rather than in extract. Ovid, being perhaps the easiest to read and to imitate in verse-writing exercises, occupied the foremost place. Extensive reading and memorizing of the Metamorphoses was almost universally required in sixteenth-century grammar schools. In addition, at most schools selections from one or more of Ovid's other works were studied, most frequently the Fasti, his poem on Roman festivals and ceremonies, the Heroides, his elegies in the form of imaginary letters from legendary heroines to their lovers or husbands, and Tristia, his laments written in exile.
Exercises in imitation were usually based on passages from collections of elegant extracts, such as Mirandula's Illustrium Flores Poetarum, in which Ovid was heavily represented. Little changed in the grammar-school curriculum between the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries, so Shakespeare was in all probability taught in a manner similar to that recommended by John Brinsley a generation later (Brinsley explicitly based his system on the Scholemaster of Roger Ascham, Queen Elizabeth's tutor):
Take Flores Poetarum, and in every Common place make choise of Ovids verses, or if you find any other which be pleasant and easie: and making sure, that your schollars know not the verses aforehand, use to dictate unto them as you did in prose. Cause also so many as you would have to learne together, to set downe the English as you dictate.… having just the same words, let them trie which of them can soonest turne them into the order of a verse … And then lastly, read them over the verse of Ovid, that they may see that themselves have made the very same; or wherin they missed: this shall much incourage and assure them.
Thus the boys would be expected not merely to translate back into Latin, but to produce a rhetorical arrangement that corresponded to Ovid's original; the exercise is analogous to that in the training of a musician, whereby the student is given a melody and asked to harmonize it in the style of a particular composer. It is not an exaggeration to say that Shakespeare's first lessons in poetry were lessons in the imitation of Ovid. Brinsley describes the method of double translation as the pupil's 'first entrance into versifying':
By the translations of the Poets, as of Ovid, and Virgil, to have a most plain way into the first entrance into versifying, to turne the prose of the Poets into the Poets owne verse, with delight, certainty and speed, without any bodging; and so by continuali practice to grow in this facilitie, for getting the phrase and veine of the Poet.
Another common exercise was to write letters in the style of the Heroides: in so doing, the student had to find a rhetoric appropriate to a fictional character's circumstances and passions. The dramatist's art begins here. Even as a mature playwright Shakespeare would continue to base his composition on inherited texts; in Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, for example, Sir Thomas North's prose originals are transformed into elegant verse, sometimes word for word, but always with a distinctive rhetorical arrangement.
The exclusive study of Latin, learning by rote, writing according to rhetorical formulas, reproducing the sententiae and the beauties of classical authors, the work of imitation: these fundamentals of Elizabethan education exercised a profound influence on Shakespeare's writings and the ways in which his audiences read them, whether on stage or page. It is only by an effort of historical reconstruction that we can learn to share the educated Elizabethan's frisson of pleasure in the recognition of a familiar sentiment, an elegantly turned phrase, a delicate rhetorical manœuvre, a full-scale imitation.
We have no record of Shakespeare's early reading habits outside the classroom, but it is not fanciful to suppose that his experience was similar to Montaigne's (though one suspects that Shakespeare would not have been such a precocious developer, since his father would not have educated him in Latin from his very early years, as Montaigne's did): 'The first taste or feeling I had of bookes, was of the pleasure I tooke in reading the fables of Ovids Metamorphosies; for being but seven or eight yeares old, I would steale and sequester my selfe from all other delights, only to reade them.' From his grammar-school training and his reading of Golding's translation, Shakespeare grew to know the fables extremely well. All fifteen books of the Metamorphoses make themselves felt in his works in the form of mythological allusions and borrowings of phrase. His range of reference may be seen from a list of the stories which we will find were of particular significance to his work: the Golden Age (Book One); Phaëthon (Book Two); Actaeon, Narcissus and Echo (Book Three); Pyramus and Thisbe, Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (Book Four); Ceres and Proserpina (Book Five); Arachne's tapestries depicting the Olympian gods as rapists and seducers, Tereus and Philomel (Book Six); Medea (Book Seven); the Calydonian boar, Baucis and Philemon (Book Eight); Hercules and the shirt of Nessus (Book Nine); Orpheus, Pygmalion, Venus and Adonis (Book Ten); Ceyx and Alcyone (Book Eleven); Ajax and Ulysses, Hecuba (Book Thirteen); the philosophy of Pythagoras, Julius Caesar (Book Fifteen). Books Twelve and Fourteen may have been the least used, but Shakespeare seems to have derived from them his knowledge of the battle of the Centaurs and Lapithae (Book Twelve, alluded to in Titus Andronicus and A Midsummer Night's Dream) and Circe's enchantments (Book Fourteen, importantly alluded to in The Comedy of Errors).
Many mythological references are of a vague character that makes it impossible to pin down a precise source for them, but the great majority of them—approximately 90 per cent—could come from Ovid, and would usually have been thought of by mythologically literate playgoers as Ovidian. Where Ovid is an obvious source, there is little point in making claims for more obscure sources (Pyramus and Thisbe is a classic instance: the play in A Mid-summer Night's Dream is supposed to be Quince's translation of Ovid, yet critics have insisted on relating it to such obscure works as Thomas Mouffet's poem Of the Silkewormes, and their Flies, which was not published and may not even have been written when the Dream was first performed). Since we know from his direct borrowings, both narrative and verbal, that Shakespeare was well versed in Ovid, we may assume that the bulk of his incidental mythological allusions derive from the Metamorphoses, unless there is proof positive of a debt to another source; the only exception to this rule is that the primary source for a particular work must take precedence, though in these cases the audience, not all of whom would have been familiar with such sources as, say, Greene's Pandosto, might still have thought of Ovid. A much smaller number of references derive from Virgil, who would have been the second most widely read author at school. The most celebrated Virgilian story is that of Dido and Aeneas, yet the image in The Merchant of Venice of 'Dido with a willow in her hand' (v. i. IO) is Ovidian rather than Virgilian—it is an adaptation of Ariadne's parting from Theseus in the tenth epistle of the Heroides, possibly mediated via Chaucer's version of this tale in his Legend of Good Women. Furthermore, as will be shown, Shakespeare's reading of The Aeneid, important as it was for Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest, was contaminated by Ovid's reading of it in the Metamorphoses and the letter of Dido in the Heroides. In addition to the Metamorphoses and the Heroides, Shakespeare knew the Fasti—his principal direct source for Lucrece—and at least parts of the Amores, Ars Amatoria, and Tristia. As has been noted, the Fasti was not published in an English translation until 1640, so this was one work which Shakespeare could only read by making use of his 'small Latine'.
Texts such as the notoriously licentious Ars Amatoria, denounced by Stephen Gosson as 'that trumpet of Baudrie', were not of course studied in school. In the sixteenth century Ovid was condemned for his 'wantonness' as frequently as he was praised for his verbal sweetness—a mark of Shakespeare's Ovidianism is William Covell's juxtaposition, 'All praiseworthy. Lucrecia Sweet Shakespeare … Wanton Adonis.' Shakespeare lived during a period in which ways of reading Ovid underwent radical transformation, as a newly unapologetic delight in the poetic and erotic qualities of the Metamorphoses came to compete with the predominant medieval practice of moralizing and even Christianizing them. This broad shift does not, however, mean either that moral and allegorical readings disappeared in the Elizabethan period—witness Harington on Perseus and the Gorgon—or that moralization was the only medieval approach to Ovid: Chaucer provides the principal example of what might be thought of as a playful Elizabethan-style reading two hundred years before its time.
The allegorizing and moralizing of Ovid's often explicitly erotic tales was an interpretative device that enabled his poetry to retain currency and escape suppression in an age when all education and most art was dominated by the precepts of Christianity. The fourth-century Latin poet Prudentius used Ovidian allusion in his poems on Christian dogma and tales of the martyrs; his Contra Symma-chum drew together the transformation of Lot's wife into a pillar of salt and the metamorphosis of Niobe into stone, thus foreshadowing a strategy that would become common a thousand years later. Similarly, a sixth-century bishop, Venantius Fortunatus, moralized Ovid's amorous poetry by applying it to a nun's love for Christ. When John Milton in the seventeenth century converted one of Ovid's cries of post-coital bliss into the climax of a vision of Lancelot Andrewes, the late Bishop of Winchester, entering into heaven, he was doing something very traditional.
There was, then, a millennium-long tradition of reading Ovid's poems as if they were allegorical and as if their sentiments were morally elevated rather than erotically charged. The tradition was formalized and codified by the French writers of the fourteenth century who produced detailed theological elucidations of the Metamorphoses. The anonymous Ovide moralisé, a translation which introduced commentary that swelled the length of the poem to some seventy thousand lines, was the most influential work of this sort. Ovid's account of the creation was yoked to that in Genesis, Deucalion's flood to Noah's, and so on. Allegorical and biblical interpretations were set beside moral ones; thus the revolt of the giants against the Olympian gods was made to represent the building of the tower of Babel, but also the pride of any worldly human who rebels against the authority of God. Some of the interpretations of individual stories are ingenious, to say the least: Lycaon, who plotted to make Zeus eat human flesh and was turned into a wolf for his pains, is read as Herod, and his plot as the attempt on the life of the infant Jesus; his destruction of sheep is made to represent the massacre of the innocents, and his metamorphosis into a wolf, Herod's dethronement and damnation. It was this kind of reading which went into decline, though not desuetude, in the sixteenth century. In accordance with the secularization of literary texts which is one of the great characteristics of the Renaissance, allegorical translation of Ovid into biblical terms gradually became less prominent, save in the case of such powerful correspondences as the creation and the flood. George Schuler, Melanchthon's son-in-law, whose edition of 1555 (published under the name of Georgius Sabinus) was one of the most widely used, viewed allegoresis as a hermeneutical discipline of some value, but argued that sacred truth should not be mixed with pagan fable save when both agreed on historical fact. The moral interpretation, in which Lycaon represents all oppressive and cruel men, was more readily sustainable, and indeed gained new strength from the humanist emphasis on the moral wisdom of pagan culture.
Through the Ovide moralisé and such commentaries as the Metamorphosis Ovidiana moraliter … explanata, ascribed to 'Thomas Walleys' but in fact by Pierre Bersuire, the medieval conception of Ovid reached the Renaissance mythological handbooks, of which the most notable were the Mythologiae (1551) of Natalis Comes (otherwise known as Natale Conti) and Le Imagini, con la Sposinone de i Dei degli Antichi (1556) of Vincenzo Cartari. Their interpretations were condensed and rendered into the vernacular in Shakespeare's lifetime, first in Thomas Cooper's comprehensive Thesaurus (1565, frequently reprinted), then in such texts as Stephen Batman's Golden Booke of the Leaden Goddes (1577) and Abraham Fraunce's Third part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Ivychurch (1592), which contained sixteen Ovidian tales in verse and the fullest English commentary of the sixteenth century. In 1632 George Sandys published his magnificent Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologiz 'd, and Represented in Figures, a compendium of the previous hundred years' interpretative work. Although Sandys's book was published after Shakespeare's death, it may, since it is a synthesis of earlier interpretations with many passages translated or developed from commentators such as Sabinus and Comes, be used to suggest some of the meanings which sophisticated readers and playgoers of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries would have found in Shakespeare's mythological allusions.
The plundering of the handbooks by Elizabethan writers in search of mythological elaboration is suggested by John Marston in one of his satirical poems:
Reach me some Poets Index that will show.
Imagines Deorum. Booke of Epithetes,
Natales Comes, thou I know recites,
And mak'st Anatomie of Poesie.
Shakespeare, however, went directly to Ovid rather than to the mythographies. It was the more self-consciously learned and allegorical poets, George Chapman especially, who plundered Comes. Indeed, one sense in which Chapman stood in a rival tradition to that of Shakespeare is that his Ovidianism was far more allegorical.…
Annotated editions, most of them deriving from one which first appeared in 1492 with a commentary by the great textual scholar Raphael Regius, contributed to the sixteenth-century knowledge of Ovid in England. There is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford a copy of the Aldine edition of 1502, bearing the signature 'Wm She' and a note by one 'T N' dated 1682, 'This little Booke of Ovid was given to me by W. Hall who sayd it was once Will. Shakespeares'. The testimony is questionable—'Hall' presumably refers to Shakespeare's son-in-law, but his name was John, and he died in 1635—but plausible, given the comparatively early date (Shakespearian forgery did not become a vogue until the mid-eighteenth century). With the exception of a Montaigne in the British Library, no other surviving book can plausibly be said to have belonged to Shakespeare; it is perhaps a little too convenient that the two which survive are copies of two of his favourite texts, the Metamorphoses and the Essais. The Aldine Ovid includes a life of the poet and an index of tales, as well as a good text; even if this is not Shakespeare's, he must have owned a similar edition. It is significant for the nature of Ovid's influence on Shakespeare that sixteenth-century editions tended to eschew the more elaborately allegorical form of interpretation; Sabinus was representative in suggesting that the transformation of men into beasts should be viewed metaphorically as an image of monstrous human behaviour. This implicit internalizing, which reads metamorphosis as psychological and metaphorical instead of physical and literal, is one key to Shakespeare's use of Ovid.
As important a part of the Renaissance as the multiplication of editions was the translation, the 'Englishing', of the classics. In 1560 one Thomas Howell published The Fable of Ovid treting of Narcissus, translated out of Latin into Englysh Mytre, with a Moral ther unto, an accurate translation of just under two hundred lines of Book Three of the Metamorphoses, together with nearly seven hundred lines of moralizing on Narcissus as an emblem of pride and vanity. Also in the tradition of the Ovide moralisé was Thomas Peend's The pleasant Fable of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, published five years later; here Hermaphroditus represents youth and purity and Salmacis the allurements of the world. Peend intended to translate more of the Metamorphoses, but Arthur Golding beat him to it: his version of the first four books was published in 1565 and the whole poem two years later.
The fourteener couplet, Golding's verse form, has none of the crispness that is one of Ovid's glories. Ezra Pound exaggerated typically when he claimed [in his ABC of Reading (1934)] that the translation is 'the most beautiful book in the language', but it was undoubtedly prized by the Elizabethans. It is best when Ovid is most down to earth, as J. F. Nims implies when he writes, justly if patronizingly, of Golding 'turning the sophisticated Roman into a ruddy country gentleman with tremendous gusto, a sharp eye on the life around him, an ear for racy speech, and a gift for energetic doggerel'. Mythological figures are tricked out in sixteenth-century dress, rather as they are in the tapestries of the period—when Atalanta runs in Ovid she has bare feet and ribbons fluttering at her knees, whereas Golding gives her socks and 'embroydred garters that were tyde beneathe her ham' (Golding, x. 692). The process of 'Englishing' not just the words but also the atmosphere of Ovid is an important precedent for Shakespeare's own combinations of the native and the classical. The introduction of 'elves' in the Medea passage cited earlier is typical. Golding is characterized by his robust vernacular vocabulary—he finds no indecorum in words like 'queaches', 'plash', 'skapes', 'collup', and 'codds'—and his bustling narration of the stories, which was probably the main reason for the popularity of his translation (it was reprinted in 1575, 1584, 1587, twice in 1593, 1603, and 1612). If Shakespeare and his contemporaries owed their intimacy with Ovidian rhetoric to the grammar schools, their easy familiarity with Ovidian narrative was as much due to Golding.
In 1586 William Webbe, in his Discourse of English Poetrie, commended [in his introduction to Ovid's 'Metamorphoses': The Arthur Golding Translation (1965)],
Master Arthur Golding, for hys labour in englishing Ovids Metamorphosis, for which Gentleman surely our Country hath for many respects greatly to gyve God thankes: as for him which hath taken infinite paynes without ceasing, travelleth as yet indefatigably, and is addicted without society by his continuali laboure to profit this nation and speeche in all kind of good learning.
Webbe's emphasis on Golding's service to his country reminds us that the Elizabethan translation movement in which Golding was prominent was a significant part of a post-Reformation project to establish England as a Protestant nation with its own high culture. Golding's patron was a key figure in this early Elizabethan endeavour, the Earl of Leicester. The dedication to The Fyrst Fower Bookes, dated December 1564, praises Leicester for his encouragement of translators 'in their paynfull exercises attempted of a zeale and desyre too enryche their native language with thinges not heretoofore published in the same'. The transformation of Ovid into an English country gentleman is not just a quaint aesthetic move, as J. F. Nims implies—it fulfils the humanist requirement that 'the general end' of literary creation should be 'to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline'.
Golding stressed the morality and civic worth of his project in the prose dedication to Leicester. The complete translation of 1567 had a fuller verse epistle, also addressed to Leicester, which expounded Ovid's 'dark Philosophie of turned shapes' in a manner which goes back to the Ovide moralisé. A number of traditional interpretations are followed, as Ovid is reconciled with the Bible: 'Not only in effect he dooth with Genesis agree, But also in the order of creation, save that hee Makes no distinction of the dayes' … Golding does not commit himself as to whether Ovid is 'following of the [biblical] text aright' or unconsciously recognizing 'that there are no Gods but one'.… The Golden Age is compared to 'Adams tyme in Paradyse' … and Deucalion's flood to Noah's, but once Golding's exposition gets beyond the first book, interpretations of this kind give way to moral ones, in accordance with common sixteenth-century practice. Medieval allegoresis is replaced by a humanist emphasis on the ethical exemplariness of the classic text. Thus, much of the Epistle consists of select moralizations of tales from the second book onwards: Daphne is 'A myrror of virginitie'… Phaëthon 'ambition blynd, and youthfull wilfulnesse' … Narcissus 'scornfulnesse and pryde' … Pyramus and Thisbe 'The headie force of frentick love whose end is wo and payne' … and so forth.
Golding's Epistle probably constituted Shakespeare's only sustained direct confrontation with the moralizing tradition—that is, if he bothered to read it and did not skip straight to the English text of his admired Ovid. The Epistle may certainly be said to have provided a convenient embodiment of the interpretations of major myths that Shakespeare and his audience would have shared. The interpretative tradition should not, however, be over-stressed: in the second half of the sixteenth century the Metamorphoses was being read as much for its wit as its wisdom. Golding himself spoke in his 'Preface too the Reader' of Ovid's 'lyvely Image[s]' and 'pleasant style'.… The poem had an energetic life as a linguistic resource that could not be contained by the work of moralization.
The momentum of the translation movement was such that the Elizabethans soon tried their hand at Englishing Ovid's other works: George Turbervile's The Heroycall Epistles of the Learned Poet P. Ovidius Naso Translated into English Verse appeared in the same year as Golding's complete Metamorphoses, Thomas Underdowne translated the Invective against Ibis two years later, together with notes that formed a compendium of mythological reference, and in 1572 Thomas Churchyard produced a version of the first three books of the Tristia. Turbervile's Heroides, an attempt to make 'A Romaine borne to speake with English jawes', went through four editions before the end of the century. It brought a further series of mythological love-stories into the vernacular, strengthened the link between the Ovidian tradition and the medieval convention of the despairing lover's 'complaint', and eventually inspired an extremely popular English imitation, Michael Drayton's England's Heroicall Epistles of 1597, which took the form of exchanges of letters between famous couples from English history. By the time Drayton was writing, another translation, Marlowe's version of the Amores, was circulating in manuscript and being produced in surreptitious editions. By the 1590s then, Ovid had become for many writers, readers, and playgoers a source of poetic and even licentious delight rather than moral edification. The apogee of the new Ovidianism was constituted by the genre which modern critics call epyllion, the erotic narrative poetry, influenced by both the Heroides and parts of the Metamorphoses, that flourished in the 1590s and of which Marlowe's Hero and Leander and Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis … are the pre-eminent examples. In this erotic tradition, Ovid became once again what he described himself as in the Ars Amatoria (ii. 497), 'lascivi praeceptor amoris', the preceptor of wanton love. And with this development, the wheel turned full circle to Augustus' proscription of the poet: in 1599 Marlowe's Amores were banned and burned by episcopal order. Late-Elizabethan Ovidian eroticism was distinctly difficult to reconcile with the humanist conviction that the classics should be translated because of their moral worth.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 22632
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 count, just as Shakespeare's historical plays are indelibly the sources of their information about English politics and personalities in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The usual reply to the above-quoted opinion of Gilbert Highet (in The Classical Tradition, 1949, p. 197) would be something about the 'medieval tradition,' with mention of Chaucer, Lydgate, and Caxton.
This was, in essence, Matthew Arnold's explanation. "The Greeks in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida," he said in his lectures On Translating Homer, "are no longer the Greeks whom we have known in Homer, because they come to us through a mode of representation of the romantic world." A more novel view was propounded by a betterinformed classical scholar, J. A. K. Thomson, in his Shakespeare and the Classics (1952): that Shakespeare was writing in reaction against "the schoolmasters' worship of antiquity" (p. 224).
These explanations are unnecessary and misguided, because they are anachronistic. Our idealization, our emotional approval, of the Grecians and their civilization is a comparatively recent attitude; and to build up this mood of admiration, and sometimes of nostalgia, many influences have been at work: Winckelmann, Chénier, the Elgin marbles, the Ode on a Grecian Urn, Matthew Arnold's "Hellenism," the works of Victorian anecdotal painters, the sharp focus on the culture of fifth-century Athens in nineteenth-century educational institutions—these, and many other things, have played their part. On the whole, in spite of all that modern cynics, anthropologists, and economic historians have said, a distinctly favorable impression persists regarding the glory that was Greece, "land of lost gods and god-like men." This vision of Grecian life is shared by the unliterary, as is occasionally revealed by modern advertisements and travel brochures.
It is quite misleading to expect to find something resembling our admiring attitude towards the ancient Greeks in the literature of the Renaissance. This was written with a different background. It is true, of course, that Greek literature then had a great reputation (being fairly well known in Latin translations) and that certain Greek sages were regarded with admiration and awe. But this respect was not transferred to the ancient Greeks as a whole, to their national character, or to their way of living. The reason is simple. Latin literature was much more familiar than was Greek literature; and the opinion about the ancient Greeks which prevailed in the sixteenth century, and for some time afterwards, was, broadly speaking, that of the Romans of the Republic and the Empire. It was derived from a reading of the favorite Latin writers; and the prejudices thus acquired were, in most cases, far from favorable. Of course, the Greeks were the inventors of the arts and the sciences, the civilizers of the human race, and so forth. But, as men? … Excudent alii!
We learn from Plutarch, in a passage in his life of Cicero, that, as terms of contempt, "Graecian and scholler … are the two wordes, the which the artificers, (and such base mechanicall people at Rome), have ever readie at their tongues ende" (North's translation, 1579). One Roman opinion, perhaps plebeian, of the Greeks was clearly revealed in Roman comedy, and was therefore well known in the Renaissance. In Plautus the verb pergraecari had come to mean 'to spend the hours in mirth, luxurious drinking and eating, and general dissipation':
dies noctesque bibite, pergraecaminei,
arnicas emite, liberate: pascite
parasitos: opsonate pollucibiliter.
Likewise, congraecare meant 'to squander one's money in luxury and fast living.' In the Bacchides the young man pretends that he has no intention of wrongly using his father's money, "quod dem scortis quodque in lustris comedim, congraecem, pater" (743). 'To play the Greek' (graecari) meant to live luxuriously and effeminately; and Horace's rustic sage, Ofellus, sneers at those who, having become accustomed to the loose ways of living of the Greeks, find Roman field-sports to be too exhausting and therefore prefer ball-games: "Romana fatigat militia assuetum graecari" (Satires, 2.2.10).
The convivial, dissipated Greek might be pardoned or tolerated; but the perfidious Greek was not to be endured. To the Romans, 'Greek faith' was proverbial, like the Greek Calends, and meant no faith at all. When in Plautus's Asinaria the bawd Cleareta informs the eager young lover, "Graeca mercamur fide" (199), she is referring to purchases for ready cash, no credit being allowed. We must also take into account the strongly anti-Greek bias of the Aeneid, probably the most widely read and highly esteemed work of Latin literature during the Renaissance. There, the hostile comments on Greek conduct, though of course dramatically appropriate in the poem, were capable of being given a wider application.
accipe nunc Danaum insidias et crimine ab uno
Most famous of all was the proverbial "timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" (2.49), which could be construed as a general condemnation of Greek double-dealing.
Cicero, who brought so much Greek culture to Latin literature and philosophy, wrote disparagingly of the graeculus on many occasions, and the Romans of the Empire declared their contempt, dislike, or derision of the Greeks, often in highly vituperative terms, which made a deep impression upon the habits of thought of the men of the Renaissance. Everybody knows Juvenal's superb and scathing passage of indignation at the insinuating Greek in Rome: "non possum ferre, Quirites, Graecam urbem," the poet exclaimed (3.60-61). Pushing, versatile, quick-witted, and utterly unscrupulous, the Greek wormed his way into the confidence of great men.
ingenium velox, audacia perdita, sermo
promptus et Isaeo torrentior. ede quid ilium
esse putes; quemvis hominem secum attulit ad
He is ready to play any part, physician or professor, acrobat or soothsayer, what you will; "omnia novit Graeculus esuriens" (77-8). The brilliant phrase stuck. Other Roman writers were equally emphatic. The elder Pliny wrote of the "portentosa Graeciae mendacia" (5.1.4) and the "Graeciae fabulositas" (12.5.11); and likewise Livy, Seneca, Quintilian, and others sneered at the failings of the Greeks, their impudence, venality, mendacity, vanity, and servility. There were very few good Greeks; and they were all dead. Tacitus records the rebuke of the proud Roman Piso to Germanicus, the romantic Hellenist, for his honoring "non Athenienses, tot cladibus
Graecorum gens mala audit passim apud poetas Latinos, et item apud Ciceronem, non solum quasi voluptatibus addicta, et effoeminata delitiis, verum etiam quasi lubrica fide.
But Erasmus in his Adagia (from which this is quoted, 4.1.64) incorporated all these Roman prejudices; and so words and phrases such as pergraecari and fide graeca and Cretiza cum Cretensi (" … id est, adversus mendacem mendaciis utere") were given authority in the numerous editions, epitomes, adaptations, and translation of Erasmus's great garnering of flowers of speech, elegant aphorisms, and figurative and proverbial expressions in the Latin tongue. Every schoolboy could learn to sneer at the Greeks.
This helps to explain why the word Greek appeared in sixteenth-century English as a common noun in derogatory senses. There were two usages, both based upon Roman precedent.
First, the word Greek, generally preceded by an epithet like 'mad' or 'merry,' became an ordinary conversational expression meaning a person of loose and lively habits, a boon companion, a fast liver. The name of the well-known character Mathewe Merygreeke in Roister Doister (about 1553) is obviously related to Plautus's use of pergraecari. Nashe mentions "one Dick Litchfield, the Barber of Trinity Colledge, a rare ingenuous odde merry Greeke, who (as I have heard) hath translated my Piers Pennilesse into the Macaronicall tongue" (ed. McKerrow, 3.33). "Its a good mery greke," says Orgelus to Sir John in Misogonus (1560-77, 2.4). In John Cooke's play Greene's Tu Quoque, or The City Gallant (printed 1614), Pursenet says of Spendali:
This is the captain of brave citizens,
The Agamemnon of all merry Greeks.
(Collier's Dodsley, 7.34)
In Thomas Heywood's Edward IV (printed 1599), Spicing exclaims to Falconbridge: "My brave Falconbridge, my mad Greeke, my lusty Neville!" (ed. Shepherd, 1.26). The phrase is common in Ben Jonson who in his prefatory contribution to Coryats Crudities in 1611 ("the Character of the famous Odcombian") gave his testimony of the author: "Hee is a mad Greeke, no lesse than a merry" (ed. Herford and Simpson, 8.377; see also ). There are instances in Dekker, Fletcher, Massinger, and others; and the phrase is, of course, familiar in Shakespeare. "I prithee, foolish Greek, depart from me," says Sebastian to Feste in Twelfth Night (4.1.19), when he begins to lose patience with what he supposes to be the clown's unseasonable jests and licentious solicitations on behalf of some 'lady.' "Then she's a merry Greek indeed," says Cressida of Helen, on hearing an anecdote of her wanton conduct (Troilus and Cressida, 1.2.118); and when she parts from her Troilus, she laments that she will be "A woeful Cressid 'mongst the merry Greeks" (4.4.58).
There was a widespread opinion that the Greeks were remarkable for their persistent indulgence in drunkenness, a view which (in spite of the Symposium) hardly colors our estimate of the countrymen of Sophocles and Pericles. To drink graeco more, according to Cicero, referred to the continued drinking of healths; and so the opinion was encouraged by the scholars of the period. The humanist Nicolaus Leonicus, for example, included in his volume of serious essays on classical themes a discussion "de variis bibendi consuetudinibus apud Graecos." Rabelais (Pantagruel, 2.1) casually declares that those fine fellows the Greeks were eternal drinkers; "Gregoys, Gentilz, qui furent buveurs eteraelz." In Les Serées of Guillaume Bouchet (1584) we read:
Les Grecs estans plus grands biberons que les Romains ne laissans gueres leurs vins en repos. Que cela soit vray, quand on veult parler de bien boire … on dit graecari & pergraecari. (ed. C. E. Roybet, 1873-83,1.51)
This conviction about Greek inebriety may have been, in part, encouraged by the popularity of Greek wines in western Europe; every reader of Elizabethan literature is familiar with their reputation. In The Old Law by Middleton, Massinger, and Rowley, there is a comic scene of dissipation in which the Drawer cries: "Here, gentlemen, here's the quintessence of Greece; the sages never drunk better grape." And the Cook replies: "Sir, the mad Greeks of this age can taste their Palermo as well as the sage Greeks did before 'em." The arrival of some new revelers is, naturally, greeted with: "Here's a consort of mad Greeks" (4.1). In A Hermeticall Banquet drest by a Spagiricall Cook, for the better Preservation of the Microcosme (1652), the poets are given various duties in the family of Eloquentia: Shakespeare, butler; Ben Jonson, clerk of the kitchen; and "Homer because a merry Greek, Master of the Wine-Cellars".
In brief, to do things after the high Roman fashion was very different from behaving like a frivolous or dissolute Greek. It is Ben Jonson who gave expression most neatly to the contrast between Roman gravity and Greek levity, between (say) Lucan's "victrix causa deis placuit sed victa Catoni" and Plautus's "pergraecaminei." Mosca exclaims to Volpone, at the moment when their plot has failed and they are both in extreme danger of exposure and punishment:
Let's die like Romans,
Since wee have liv'd like Grecians.
The second common meaning of the word Greek, which developed during the sixteenth century, was based upon the opinion of Greek wickedness, rather than of Greek dissoluteness. A 'Greek' meant what we should call a 'twister,' that is, a sharper, a cheat, a crook, any kind of confidence-trickster; it meant, in fact, all that was implied in the proverb fide graeca. This popular usage received full support and encouragement from learning and literature. In The Civile Conversation of M. Steeven Guazzo, as translated by George Pettie (1581), Annibal declares "touching conditions you knowe that the Greekes though singular in learning and eloquence, yet are they disloyal and faythles, and therefore it is proverbially saide, The Greekish fayth" (Tudor Translations, 1.64). In Lyly's Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and its continuations and imitations, this attitude to the Greeks is a commonplace. When Philautus fears that his friend Euphues has robbed him of his love Lucilla, he soliloquizes:
Is this the curtesie of Athens, the cavillyng of schollers, the craft of Grecians? Couldest thou not remember Philautus that Greece is never without some wily Ulisses, never void of some Synon, never to seeke of some deceitfull shifter? Is it not commonly saide of Grecians that crafte commeth to them by kinde, that they learne to deceive in their cradell? (ed. Bond, 1.232)
In lists of national characteristics, it is this derogatory view of the Greeks that is introduced as a matter of course. Euphues, "being demaunded of one what countryman he was, he answered, what countryman am I not? if I be in Crete, I can lye, if in Greece I can shift, if in Italy, I can court it" (1.186). Almost the same words are used in Euphues and his England (1580), where one of the characters says: "If I met with one of Creete, I was ready to lye with him for the whetstone. If with a Grecian, I could dissemble with Synon … " (2.24). And in Euphues and his Ephoebus, the Elizabethan reader was told that "of olde it was sayde to a Lacedemonian, that all the Grecians knewe honesty, but not one practised it" (1.275). In like manner, in Greenes Mourning Garment (1590) the Greeks are notorious:
In Creete thou must learne to lye, in Paphos to be a lover, in Greece a dissembler, thou must bring home pride from Spaine, lascivousnesse from Italy,
and so on (ed. Grosart, 9.136). In the anonymous play, The Statelie Tragedie of Claudius Tiberius Nero (printed 1607), the ambitious Sejanus declares that "He that wil clime, and aime at honours white" must be able to accommodate himself to all temperaments,
Drink with the Germain, with the Spaniard
Brag with the French, with the Ægiptian lie,
Flatter in Creet, and fawne in Graecia.
Donne in one of his epigrams jeers at the Mercurius GalloBelgicus, a periodical publication of the early seventeenth century which gave news of events in Europe, some of it apparently untrustworthy:
Change thy name: thou art like
Mercury in stealing, but lyest like a Greeke.
And the seventeenth-century traveller John Josselyn, who first came to America in 1638, took the proverb to the New World and applied it to the inhabitants: "No trading for a stranger with them, but with a Grecian faith, which is not to part with your ware without ready money" (An Account of two Voyages to New England, 1674, ed. 1875, p. 181).
With this background, it is easy to see how, from the early sixteenth century onwards, the word Greek had the meaning, by antonomasia, of a 'crook.' It was widespread for three centuries. A favorite use of the word was for a sharper at cards, but it could be applied to any kind of cheat. For example, in Greene's Defence of Conny-Catching (1592) we are told "A pleasant Tale how a holy brother Conny-catcht for a Wife." A sly rogue hears of a young lady who has an ample portion in her own right; so "to this girle goeth this proper Greek a wooing, naming himself to be a Gentleman of Cheshire … " (ed. Grosart, 11.80).
It needs to be added that the women of Greece had a reputation that corresponded to the men's, the complement of rogue with whore having long been usual. Juvenal had deplored the grecizing libidinous habits of the women of his time. Every provincial girl wanted to be a 'maid of Athens.'
Nam quid rancidius, quam quod se non putat
formosam, nisi quae de Tusca Graecula facta est,
de Sulmonensi mera Crecropsis?
The fame of the Grecian women for venery was widespread in the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Antique fables about Cythera and Paphos, memories of Corinthian revels, of Phryne and Lais, of the Grecian courtesans celebrated in Roman poetry—these could not be forgotten. The 'Greek vice,' too, was of course a byword, and Shakespeare deliberately introduces this Renaissance notion in relation to Achilles and Parrochas: "Thou art thought to be Achilles' male varlet," says Thersites to Patroclus. "Male varlet, you rogue! What's that?" "Why, his masculine whore" (5.1.19).
Thus it came about that, in England, France, Italy, and elsewhere, during Shakespeare's lifetime, Greek was a household word for a voluptuary or a crook. The Greeks were, clearly, a bad lot. There was little to resist the influence of the prevailing Roman attitude to the Greeks, namely, that they were licentious, luxurious, frivolous, bibulous, venereal, insinuating, perfidious, and unscrupulous.
The fact that some of these qualities are both inconsistent among themselves and inconsistent with the reverence and admiration owed to the civilizers of mankind, the glorious creators of philosophy, science, and art, need not perplex us; for the existence of such contrary opinions at the same time, even in the same mind, is common enough.
Furthermore, in one of Horace's most famous poems ("Troiani belli scriptorem, Maxime Lolli," Epistolae, 1.2), we have an interesting account of the Roman moralistic attitude to Homer, which is entirely appropriate to the general Roman attitude to the Greeks. It was the source of the characteristic Renaissance attitude to Homer as an ethical poet who in the Iliad expounded the evils of quarrelsome and unreasonable conduct among rulers ("quidquid delirant reges plectuntur Achivi"). In Horace's poem the lofty Homer of our imagination is scarcely recognizable. The story of the Iliad, says Horace, concerns wicked conduct both inside and outside the walls of Troy, including intrigue, double-crossing, lechery, and quarrelsomeness:
seditione, dolis, scelere atque libidine et ira
Iliacos intra muros peccatur et extra.
This may not, to our notions, fit the Iliad. But is it not an accurate and pithy description of most of Troilus and Cressida? Of course, it need not be supposed that Shakespeare had read this Epistle of Horace; it is, however, a curious coincidence that one of the few verbal quotations from Latin literature in Shakespeare's mature works should be taken accurately from this very poem (62). In Timon of Athens Timon describes Apemantus: "They say, my lords, ira furor brevis est; but yond man is ever [F "Verie"] angry" (1.2.28). Still, whether or not Shakespeare had had a look at the poem or some Horatian friend had talked to him about it, it was an important, influential, and accessible opinion of Homer. It was not Chapman's attitude; but it was the orthodox attitude which would have been expounded to Shakespeare (if he needed it) by Ben Jonson or any other Horatian. Chapman, obsessed with the importance of Homer and a desire to defend him against his Scaligerian detractors, tried to make out Achilles to be an epitome of all virtues and an image of the Earl of Essex. But Horace in his Ars poetica had given the Roman view of Achilles, and therefore the usual Renaissance view:
impiger, iracundus, inexorabilis, acer,
iura neget sibi nata, nihil non arroget armis.
This is Horace's Achilles, and it is Shakespeare's Achilles; and Swinburne was under a misapprehension when he supposed that Shakespeare "set himself as if prepensely and on purpose to brutalise the type of Achilles … an enterprise never to be utterly forgiven by any who ever loved from the birth of his boyhood the very name of the son of the sea-goddess" (A Study of Shakespeare, 1880, p. 201). This is eloquently and touchingly written, for Swinburne loved his Homer; but he ignored the history of opinion about Homer.
Are the Greeks of Timon of Athens and Troilus and Cressida any different from what we should expect, if we can disentangle ourselves from merely modern classical prejudices and see the Greeks as they were seen in the Renaissance? Shakespeare does not merit the regrets of our classical scholars, nor is there need for subtle explanations of his attitude to these Greek stories—least of all that he was writing in reaction against "the schoolmasters' worship of antiquity." We should be equally cautious of the facile explanation that Shakespeare was writing under the influence of medieval habits of telling the tale of Troy; these habits were in many respects as remote from Troilus and Cressida as Troilus and Cressida is from the Iliad. As for Timon of Athens, we should certainly be thinking anachronistically if we were to regret that the chaste Doric beauties of the Parthenon and a Sophoclean or Socratice elevation of thought do not provide the background to Timon's life. Rather, he exists (appropriately, by Renaissance ideas of the ancient Greeks) in a world inhabited by Alcibiades with his 'beagles,' Phryne and Timandra, and by perfidious friends like Lucullus and Sempronius. In fact, Timon and his circle 'live like Grecians.' Similarly, Achilles, Diomedes, and the rest of the Grecian host, do not represent an attempt by Shakespeare's ignorant or disordered imagination to deny, distort, debunk, or calumniate the nobility of the Homeric heroes. They—and the wanton Cressida and Helen as well—are merely 'Greeks.'
Clifford Leech (lecture date 1963)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Greeks," in Stratford Papers on Shakespeare, edited by B. W. Jackson, W. J. Gage Limited, 1964, pp. 1-20.
[In the essay below, Leech argues that in such plays as Timon of Athens and Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare's choice of a Greek setting "was bound up with his desire for experiment and for the taking of an oblique view of the world. "]
One of the things which demonstrate the variety of Shakespeare's work is the difficulty we sometimes experience in attaching a generic label to an individual play. When the great Folio was published in 1623, its contents were divided into comedies, histories, and tragedies. This was a fairly rough classification, putting Cymbeline among the tragedies and keeping the label 'history' for plays immediately dependent on the sixteenth-century prose chronicles and concerned with events of comparatively recent date. Since that time there has been some disputing about whether Troilus and Cressida is tragedy or comedy, though we know that the editors' original intention was to put it among the tragedies. And scholars at different times have isolated small groups of plays and seen them as cohering within themselves, although perhaps also belonging within one of the three types named on the Folio title-page. In 1904 A. C. Bradley published his famous book Shakespearean Tragedy. It was concerned only with Hamlet, Othello, Lear, and Macbeth, and the inference was that in some fashion these four were more fully 'tragic' than, for example, Romeo and Juliet or Antony and Cleopatra. In 1910 M. W. MacCallum published his book called Shakespeare 's Roman Plays, which restricted itself to Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Titus Andronicus is set in Rome, and Cymbeline deals with a Roman war with Britain; but these did not, in MacCallum's view, qualify as fully 'Roman' plays. At different times, moreover, books have been published on 'Shakespeare's Problem Plays' or 'Shakespeare's Problem Comedies,' though there has been some notable disagreement as to which plays have the right to inclusion in this group.
Perhaps there are two major considerations for us to hold in mind. One is the essential separateness of any piece of creative writing that has escaped from pastiche or from the simple attempt to reproduce the effect of another piece of writing, or a group of writings, already in existence. The character and the effect of Lear differ notably from the character and the effect of Othello. In spite of the fact that each of them is a greater play than The Duchess of Malfi, the two Shakespeare tragedies are as different from one another as either is from Webster's masterpiece. Criticism is indeed concerned with identifying the genre, because that helps us to see how the play has come into existence and thus helps us to understand it better. But critism is concerned with far more than the identification of genre: at his best the critic will enable us to grasp the unique character of the separate work.
Nevertheless, our second major consideration is that a dramatist writing at a time when the notion of traditional Kinds is strong will be likely, at the outset of any process of composition, to have in mind the characteristic marks of a particular Kind. The general direction of his writing will be along lines normally associated with that Kind. He may—he will, if he is a major writer-in some measure permanently modify the reader's expectancies in relation to that Kind, through the very fact that he has made a contribution to it which is essentially 'new.' As, for example, Shakespeare writes Twelfth Night with a traditional idea of Comedy in his mind, but Comedy has never been quite the same since that plays was completed.
Groupings not dependent on a traditional Kind are more slippery things to work with. Shakespeare did not inherit a notion of a 'problem play,' or of a 'Roman play.' Such things were growing up sporadically in his time. Yet there is a family resemblance to be seen among many plays with a Roman setting: the audience must have come to expect some sense of the massiveness of the Roman achievement, some conveying of the gravity and the eloquence that were Roman ideals, some sense of a major European civilisation that existed before Christianity. And from the last years of the sixteenth century we can see an occasional tendency for some plays to take on a mode of existence which, whether the obvious affiliation was to tragedy or to comedy, was marked by a concern with a problem of human behaviour for which no solution was firmly offered, no reference to a securely held scale of values was firmly made. Among 'problem plays' we can see Marston's The Dutch Courtesan, Jonson's Volpone, perhaps Chapman's Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles Duke of Byron, as well as Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and All's Well. To see any one play in relation to such a grouping enables us to see how it differs from, as well as in some ways closely resembles, other plays of its time and of other times. And labels are not exclusive. Antony and Cleopatra is Roman play and tragedy and perhaps, as Ernest Schanzer has recently argued, problem play as well. Cymbeline is in some measure Roman play and, more fully, tragicomedy—thus bringing together two types of recent development in Shakespeare's time. Volpone is comedy and in some measure problem play; and so on.
When, therefore, one suggests a new grouping, among Shakespeare's plays or among the plays of his or any other time, it is as well to guard against the misapprehension that one is claiming more than a type of connection between the plays of the group, a connection that may be useful in drawing attention to certain features of the individual plays. It does not equate the plays of the group with one another, either in quality or in what I may call 'total Kind'—which is in any event an abstract idea, and not an ideal, for live imaginative literature. Thus it does not preclude other groupings which cut across the one that is currently being offered.
All this by way of caveat. What I want to do now is to discuss a grouping which has, I think, a special interest for us at Stratford this year. We may call it 'Shakespeare's Greek plays'—that is, those plays that prominently make use of a Greek or Hellenistic setting. And when one comes to look at Shakespeare's writings with this in mind, one may at first be surprised at how many such plays there are. In chronological order we have The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens, Pericles, and The Winter's Tale. Perhaps the last of these may seem dubious, but the Sicily of four acts of the play is manifestly a Hellenistic island where recourse is had to the oracle of Apollo. Now there is no question that here we have a most diverse collection of plays. They range from one of Shakespeare's earliest, The Comedy of Errors, to one of his last, The Winter's Tale. They include two comedies (Errors and the Dream), two tragicomedies of the last period (Pericles and The Winter's Tale), one particularly strange tragedy (Timon), and one play (Troilus) which was called a 'history' on its quarto title-page in 1609, a 'comedy' in the anonymous preface printed in one issue of that quarto edition, and a 'tragedy' according to the place originally intended for its printing in the 1623 Folio. There has been some debate on whether Timon can be called a tragedy, much more debate on the Kind to which Troilus belongs. Moreover, all of these plays have something of an oddness about them. The Comedy of Errors is based on two Roman comedies of Plautus, a writer of importance for Elizabethan playwrights but nowhere else in Shakespeare used as a direct source. If we think of his other early comedies—The Two Gentlemen of Verona with its romantic story, its character-comedy in Launce, its Italian setting; Love's Labour's Lost with its witty lords and ladies, its minimal plot, its strain of high and precarious love-play—we must recognise something of a gulf between them and the Plautan story of the twins. In the somewhat later A Midsummer Night's Dream we have an extraordinary bringing together of diverse elements. In some ways it is very English in atmosphere: the fairies are partially the figures of a native fancy, living in an English woodland and beguiling human beings as English folk-lore would have them do; Bottom and his companions have all the manner of English artisans, and their very names derive comfortably from the native tongue. The Pyramus and Thisbe interlude is from antiquity, and Shakespeare doubtless knew in principally from Ovid in Latin and in translation. But the play's setting is nominally Athens and a wood near that city. The prince is Theseus, the city's legendary king. His bride is his conquered Queen of the Amazons. The four young lovers have Greek names. The fairies themselves have an exotic element in their make-up, being linked with antique pagan cults and with an eastern world that lay remotely on the other side of Athens. If we compare the Dream with other comedies of Shakespeare's early and middle years, we shall nowhere else find such a variety of material. If we want an analogue, we must go to the plays of his final period, where The Winter's Tale juxtaposes its Hellenistic Sicily with a seaside Bohemia which, more perhaps than any other setting in Shakespeare, is divorced from any land he or we might visit, and where the Greek-named Autolycus is an English rogue who makes free with, and is made free of, a timeless world. Pericles is a partially dramatised version of Hellenistic romance, in which the narrator Gower distances character and incident, in which the hero's suffering comes without guilt and is ended when the gods will: it is the loosest in structure of all Shakespeare's plays, the most simply charactered, the most varied in its use of locality. And Troilus and Timon, taking us respectively to Troy and the Dardan plain and to Athens and its woods once more, are alike bold in their structural principles, alike the source of critical puzzlement as to their total effect. It may indeed appear that, when the writing of a play involved the use of a Greek or Hellenistic setting, Shakespeare was encouraged both to technical experiment and to a certain, but varying, oddness in his presentation of human beings. Or perhaps the very choice of such a setting was bound up with his desire for experiment and for the taking of an oblique view of the world.
The point becomes clearer, perhaps, if we think once again of the Roman plays. These, it is true, are neither wholly Roman nor uniform with one another in manner and treatment. The common people of Julius Caesar and Coriolanus are native Elizabethans. The Senecan and Ovidian horrors of Titus are remote indeed from the austere world of Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, where the sudden violence suffered by Coriolanus himself and by Cinna the poet are momentary incursions of savagery, making us aware of the fragility of a generally sustained decorum. And the presentation of Antony's and Cleopatra's love not only has a psychological depth otherwise foreign to the Roman plays but also has an element of challenge in it, a defiance of the Roman idea itself. Nevertheless, all four of these plays, under the impress of first Seneca and later Plutarch, have strong affiliations with an ancient notion of the tragic. All of them, though with varying degrees of success, cultivate a marmoreal kind of language appropriate, in Elizabethan ears, for the men of Rome. Each of them has at its centre a man of power and of dominant personality—Titus, Brutus, Antony, Coriolanus—whose ultimate fall is the crashing of a tower. Even the casual appearance of a Roman army in the romance Cymbeline brings into that play a touch of authority from the ancient world. Through all these plays, diverse as they are (and of course they grow in diversity as one looks at them more closely), there runs the single Roman thread, binding them together in dignity and in awe. In the Greek plays, on the other hand, there is far greater diversity, dignity is evanescent, and the tragic note is rare and muted.
Partly, this is connected with the different attitudes taken up by the Elizabethans towards the Greeks and the Romans respectively. There was no question about Roman Stature. The achievement and the language of the Republic and the Empire formed the main substance of Elizabethan education; Latin was still the vehicle for communication between the scholars of Europe, and Francis Bacon wrote sometimes in Latin for fear that English might not survive as a literary language. For much of Christendom the tongue of the Romans was that in which a man addressed and celebrated God. The medieval Empire was called 'Roman' as well as 'Holy'. The Second Rome in Byzantium lingered on into the fifteenth century. The Roman state had left its impress on European law, and fragments of Roman architecture, traces of Roman road-building, were there as reminders of the wealth and ambition of the ancient world. Vergil was everyman's epic poet, Cicero his philosopher, Ovid his advisor on the conduct of a love-affair. No wonder that Montaigne could say he felt closer to the figures of the Roman republic than he did to the politicians of his own time, that the Tiber was more his river than the Seine could be.
But the Greeks were another matter. Their language and their writings were known only to a small number of scholars. Athens itself was remote and rarely visited. The Pope ruled in Rome, but it was the non-Christian Turk whose flag flew in south-eastern Europe. And while the Roman empire had become Christian through Constantine, the legend of Athens was uniformly a pagan thing. Moreover, as T. J. B. Spencer has pointed out in an article he published last year in the Festschrift presented to Hardin Craig ['"Greeks" and "Merrygreeks": A Background to Tintori of Athens and Troilus and Cressida, ' Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. R. Hosley, (1962)], the Elizabethans were inevitably led to see the Greeks through Roman eyes and through the eyes of St. Paul. In the time of the republic, Cicero could see Greek influences at work in Rome, and see them as a source of decadence. Greek literature provided, of course, models for the Romans to imitate, standards for emulation, and yet its subject-matter was dangerously questionable. Horace could say of The Iliad that 'in seditions, in trickery, in crime and lust and anger' it showed the commission of sin inside and outside the walls of Troy. Vergil's Aeneid had an anti-Greek bias, presenting Rome as the city willed by the gods to take the place of the Troy the Greeks had treacherously and savagely destroyed. A Roger Ascham might praise a host of Greek writers above all Romans but Cicero, and he could rejoice in the eminence in Greek studies achieved in the mid-sixteenth-century in St. John's College at Cambridge. But Ascham knew Greek as common men, and nearly all poets and dramatists, did not; and even he might have doubted the wisdom of making Greek literature totally available in his time. For the generality of Elizabethans, as Spencer has pointed out in his article, a 'Greek' was a boon companion, a twister, a sharper, a crook. The women of Hellas, from Helen, wife of Menelaus, to the hetairai of Periclean Athens, were notoriously of loose life. And the words of St. Paul were available to show his dissatisfaction with the men who constituted his first mission-field among the gentiles. Spencer assures us that we should not be surprised at the kind of men Shakespeare shows us in Troilus and Timon. They are 'merely "Greeks",' he says, as the Elizabethans imagined Greeks to be—dissolute, full of tricks, avid for luxury, prone to wrath and butchery.
And yet surely that is altogether too simple a picture. First of all, let us note that Troilus and Cressida is no simple pro-Trojan, anti-Greek play—despite the legend that Britain, like Rome, had been colonised by a descendant of King Priam, a legend that commonly gave the name 'New Troy' to London and that still enjoyed some popular currency in Shakespeare's own day. The very prologue to the play refuses to make a distinction between Trojans and Greeks. If the splendour of 'Priam's six-gated city' is here celebrated, so too are the 'brave pavilions' of the Greeks on the Dardan plain, so are the sixty-and-nine crowned heads that brought their ships from the port of Athens. And the two sides in the war are embroiled over the ludicrously small matter of determining where Helen shall sleep. And on both sides there is the simple-minded thrill of a large-scale armed encounter:
Now expectation, tickling skittish spirits
On one and other side, Troyan and Greek,
Sets all on hazard—
an encounter whose rebrs depends, not on the Tightness of the quarrel, not even on military skill, but on the mere chances of war. In the prologue's last words, the issue of the fighting is seen as totally haphazard, unrelated to the merit, just as the success or failure of a play might be in Shakespeare's theatre. And as the play proceeds, we are reminded that the fighting men are 'Fools' on both sides,' and that suffering and destruction have through the long years of the siege been impartially dealt out to Trojans and to Greeks. In the fourth act Diomed the Greek has spoken sharply of Helen's worthlessness, and her protector Paris protests: 'You are too bitter to your country-woman.' To that Diomed replies in a speech where for a moment he is no longer the partisan but can look with compassion on the Trojans as well as on his own people, seeing them alike as victims of a senseless war for a light woman:
She's bitter to her country. Hear me, Paris:
For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian's life hath sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight
A Troyan hath been slain; since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Troyans suff' red death.
(Act IV, Scene i: 68-74)
And a Troy which includes Paris and Pandarus among its citizens, that has taken Shakespeare's Helen to its bosom, that squanders its own blood, is not the 'right side' in the war. There is no right side. The madness is shared.
In fact, though Shakespeare does defferentiate the Trojan city from the Greek camp (making the Trojans go astray in their wanton pursuit of an 'honour' which has no valid relation either to the cause of the fighting or to the realities of death and maiming, and showing the Greeks as equally deluded by their belief that events can be planned and guided by reason or ingenuity), he is nonetheless concerned with a single world in this play. Ajax the Greek is partly Trojan. Calchas the priest has deserted from Troy and given his services to the Greeks. Cressida, Troilus's love, must follow her father. Helen, the toast of Troy, comes from Greece and will return to it. In a time of truce, the men on both sides practise courtesy and compliment. It is surely no accident that Shakespeare, giving us one of his most remarkable anachronisms, makes Hector quote the Greek Aristotle when he is rebuking his brothers Troilus and Paris for their shallowness in moral philosophy. Moreover, in this same speech in the council-scene in Troy, Hector invokes the law of Nature and the law of 'each well-order'd nation' as alike providing on overwhelming argument that they must give Helen back and bring the war to an end. Here the nations are brought together in the uniformity of their law and in their existing within the total frame of Nature. One of the things that Troilus and Cressida surely says to us is that men belong together, and kill themselves when they kill each other.
And within this one world of the play we have by no means a wholly adverse picture of human behaviour. Hector's yielding to his brothers, despite the strength and firmness with which he has argued for the ending of the war, marks him as a man who rejects the light that reason has given him. And he can be foolish in dressing up the war as a medieval game, challenging the Greeks to prove by battle that any Grecian woman could be more fair or more chaste than his wife Andromache. We are bound to ask whether Andromache would be the less fair, the less chaste, if, by ill fortune or lesser skill, Hector lost his fight. And he can kill a man for the sake of the fine armour that he wears, as he does just before he is himself killed by Achilles' Myrmidons. Nevertheless, there is distinction in the man. When he is even mentioned in the dialogue, the medium almost always changes to bank verse, and it seems that he represents for all the Trojans an ideal that they must try to live up to. And it is made abundantly clear that the whole city's safety depends on him. When chance has delivered him unarmed to Achilles' slaughtermen, the tissue of the war has been decided. The Trojans may exert themselves to win revenge, but the city is doomed. Chance has operated decisively; now the avalanche will move downhill. Then, too, his clearsightedness goes beyond his recognition of the moral duty which he shirks in his decision to continue the war. He is aware that his efforts on the field will not ultimately affect the larger pattern of events. When, on his visit to the Greek camp in Act IV, Ulysses assures him that Troy will fall:
Yond towers, whose wanton tops do buss the
Must kiss their own feet—
(Act IV, Scene v: 220-1)
he does not contest the prophecy. Only, he says, he must not let himself be affected by the thought that the end is already settled. 'I must not believe you,' he says:
There they stand yet; and modestly I think
The fall of every Phrygian stone will cost
A drop of Grecian blood. The end crowns all;
And that old common arbitrator, Time,
Will one day end it.
(Act IV, Scene v: 222-6)
For an instant Hector and the rest seem to see the city in ruins, the men slaughtered, the women captive and humiliated; and thus Hector leads us from the immediate dramatic situation to a position outside time where the whole temporal pattern is at once visible. For such a purpose a dramatist does not use a character that is meant to invite our condescension. In his Hector, Shakespeare does not give us a merely traditional figure, one of the Nine Worthies, nor does he display him as a braggart and a bully. Rather, we see a manifestly imperfect man who yet has the power and the right to win and hold his fellows' esteem.
So in a simpler way it is with several other figures in this play. Cressida is faithless, but she is alive and witty. Her love is shallow, and it can be a bit cheap, as when she reproaches Troilus for leaving her early in the morning after they have become lovers:
You men will never tarry.
O foolish Cressid! I might have still held off,
And then you would have tarried.
(Act IV, Scene ii: 15-18)
But that her feeling is rightly to be called 'love' can, I think, hardly be questioned. When she first meets Troilus, the two of them fence, a little smuttily, in awkward prose, and then suddenly, in blank verse, she declares herself:
Boldness comes to me now and brings me heart.
Prince Troilus, I have lov'd you night and day
For many weary months—
(Act III, Scene ii: 121-3)
And to Troilus' question 'Why was my Cressid then so hard to win?' she responds by asserting again the long continuance of her love, while at the same time showing concern for what she feels to be the imprudence of her confession:
Hard to seem won; but I was won, my lord,
With the first glance that ever—pardon me.
If I confess much, you will play the tyrant.
I love you now; but till now not so much
But I might master it. In faith, I lie;
My thoughts were like unbridled children, grown
Too headstrong for their mother. See, we fools!
Why have I blabb'd? Who shall be true to us,
When we are so unsecret to ourselves?
But, though I lov'd you well, I woo'd you not;
And yet, good faith, I wish'd myself a man,
Or that we women had men's privilege
Of speaking first. Sweet, bid me hold my
For in this rapture I shall surely speak
The thing I shall repent.
(Act III, Scene ii: 125-39)
It is true that she protests too much when the order comes for her to join her father: hers is not the grief that silently cuts the heart-strings. It is true that, away from Troy and Troilus, she can jest with and at the Greek leaders and distribute her kisses with some readiness. And of course it is true that she quickly abandons Troilus for the strong-purposed Diomed. But not without regret, not without self-reproach, not without the realisation that Troilus gave her a love she will not again have. Thersites calls her 'a commodious drab,' Ulysses' words are 'sluttish spoil of opportunity' and 'daughter of the game,' but these utterances have not a full choric force. Such judgments are not comprehensive accounts of any human being, or of any character in a play that gives us an impression of human personality.
And I shall take one further example of the way in which Shakespeare humanises his characters. Achilles would seem a difficult choice for this purpose, but I think insufficient attention has hitherto been given to this figure. We see him sulking in his tent, a deserter from the war for merely splenetic reasons, jesting at Agamemnon and the rest with his 'male varlet' Patroclus. We see him frightened and disturbed when Ulysses speaks to him of the necessity of emulation, of the way men's short memories put into Time's wallet those good deeds past whose remuneration is not a continuing thing. This of course is Ulysses the dog-fox, talking in very different terms from those he used in the council of the Greek leaders, where he saw emulation as the evil which destroyed the army's good order and success. But his argument for Achilles, so eloquent in phrasing, so rich in imagery, works on the man as he had intended. It seems incredible and absurd that Achilles should believe that now the Greeks are ready to 'worship' Ajax, but Ulysses knows that a man's credulity and fear can be widely stretched: in this speech he drives home the lesson that he began to administer to Achilles when he proposed a lottery as the means of determining who should meet Hector's challenge to single combat, and then with Nestor's help rigged the lottery to ensure that Ajax was chosen. There is every sign that Ulysses' stratagem will work. Achilles turns away from the jesting of Patroclus and Thersites, resuming the blank verse that he had a few minutes before been using with Ulysses:
My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirr'd;
And I myself see not the bottom of it.
(Act III, Scene iii: 311-12)
And this turning to blank verse, always a sign that we should probably take a character with seriousness, is characteristic of Achilles in the play. He is never wholly at ease in the prose he exchanges with his hangers-on. And when soon after he sees Hector on his visit to the Greek camp, there is a dreadfulness which we cannot despise when he asks himself in what part of Hector's body his death-wound shall be given:
Tell me, you heavens, in which part of his body
Shall I destroy him? Whether there, or there, or
That I may give the local wound a name,
And make distinct the very breach whereout
Hector's great spirit flew. Answer me, heavens!
(Act IV, Scene v: 242-6)
This contemplation of the living body as if it were a thing of brick or stone or wood and one were examining it for the likeliest place to make a breach, this physical insult amounting to a verbal violation, deliberately spoken moreover for Hector to hear, is more deeply pathological than the killing itself. We are made to feel in the play that Achilles' reputation is inflated: when he meets Hector on even terms in Act V, Hector wins the advantage and characteristically lets him escape till he shall be readier for the fight. But, as Ulysses knows, it is Achilles' reputation that matters—both to himself and to the Greek cause. So he appears to have won the man back to the field, for the sake of keeping that reputation fresh. Achilles, inwardly insecure, must be brutal in words, must cry 'Timber!' before the axe is lifted. But Ulysses does not bargain for the letter from Queen Hecuba that Achilles receives. He loves Hecuba's daughter Polyxena and a word from her mother overcomes Achilles' resolution again:
Fall Greeks; fail fame; honour or go or stay;
My major vow lies here, this I'll obey.
(Act V, Scene i: 48-9)
And so his attachment to the girl makes him care nothing for reputation, and Ulysses' plans have proved vain. But there is a further twist. Patroclus has gone to the fighting, and Hector has killed him. The loss of Patroclus does what argument could not do; the loss of the man is more powerful than the threatened loss of Polyxena. He enters in comic rage calling for Hector, 'thou boy-queller.' And when he does not get the better of his enemy in even fight, he comes with his Myrmidons, who surround an unarmed Hector and murder him. Achilles here speaks a kind of dramatic rhetoric that belongs rather with the early Senecan imitations than with the rest of this play, invoking the spectacle of night. Thus first he addresses his victim:
Look, Hector, how the sun begins to set;
How ugly night comes breathing at his heels;
Even with the vail and dark'ning of the sun,
To close the day up, Hector's life is done.
(Act V, Scene viii: 5-8)
And when the man is dead and a retreat is sounded:
The dragon wing of night o'erspreads the earth
And, stickler-like, the armies separates.
My half-supp'd sword, that frankly would have
Pleas'd with this dainty bait thus goes to bed.
(Act, V, Scene viii: 17-20)
Indeed Achilles' sword has not devoured much: there is irony in its sheathing as a 'half-supp'd' weapon. And there is mockery too in the inflation of the language. And yet Shakespeare makes us feel the element of frustration here. The very bogusness of Achilles is something he must live with. His sword would have liked to have fed 'frankly,' fully. But that is not for him when the adversary is a Hector. The Trojan goes to the underworld, but Achilles too must lie in the darkness of self-knowledge. That he had to resort to a mass-ambush, that he failed when he met Hector face-to-face, are things he will not be able to put away. And when he says that the onset of night separates the armies 'stickler-like'—that is, like an umpire—he admits the smallness even of his imagined accomplishments. Time, still the arbitrator, declares what and how and when. To be the best of butchers becomes a small thing.
No one could claim that Achilles makes a favourable impression on us, as Cressida from time to time does. I have used words like 'bogus' and 'pathological' to describe his reputation and his speech. But Achilles, we can see in this, is very different from Ajax, the beef-witted and companionable fighter. Achilles is a menace as Ajax never is, because he is more fully alive, because he can practise evil in an attempt to banish fear. There is no question of our sympathy being involved, but there is a sense of our knowing human nature more profoundly because we have seen into this man's being. His evil is petty as well as appalling; much of his conduct is merely trivial; but this is no simple embodiment of a simple Greekish folly or vice. Shakespeare is telling us something about his world and ours, not just echoing a libel on the past. The one world of Troilus and Cressida, in fact, is our world too.
When we turn from Troilus to Timon of Athens, it must be remembered that we are dealing with a less full-wrought play. Probably Timon in the version that we have, the play as it was apparently inserted at a late stage in the printing of the 1623 Folio, had not been brought to a point of completion. It bears many of the marks of a rough draft, and we cannot know what changes Shakespeare would have made if he had worked on it further. Nevertheless, we can discern in this play, as in Troilus, the presentation of a human life that we can recognize, not merely in its painfulness but in its diversity. Timon is a man who knows well enough that men flatter, that human fortune is subject to mutability, but he cannot apply this knowledge to his own situation. When at last he realizes that his wealth is gone, he encourages himself to think he is still rich in friends, that he will get help from them as so often in the past they were helped by him. When that proves an illusion, he not only rails on his false friends, but—in a whole series of soliloquies—he curses the city of Athens, all the race of men, and the Nature that has hitherto given men life. Once he believed that gold was the outward sign so friendship, the giving of it a demonstration of the bond between man and man; now he sees it as the corrupter of men, the ready instrument for the fulfilling of his curse. Digging for roots, he has found a new supply of the metal. He will stay in the woods, away from a society he now sees as wholly corrupt. But he will give gold to whores and bandits, to encourage them in their professions; he will give it to Alcibiades, because the army that Alcibiades leads will, he thinks, bring Athens to ruin.
He was wrong in his trust of false friends; he is equally wrong in his total denunciation of human nature. We have evidence enough in the play that loyalty and compassion are to be found in Athenian society. Timon's Steward tries to preserve his master from the effects of his extravagance. When Timon is poor, the Steward seeks him out with no thought of reward but in the hope that somehow he may yet serve him. And the Steward is not alone in his loyalty and grief. In the latter half of the play there is one scene for which we return to Timon's house, and its separateness from the immediate dramatic context gives it a special emphasis. There we see the Steward along with others of Timon's servants, and they take farewell of each other, not merely regretting the 'better days' they knew when their lord was rich, but lamenting his fall as that of a man they knew and loved.
When Apemantus the cynic visits Timon in the woods, he claims that Timon has no right to rail on men because he ought to have seen what they were like even while they flattered him. And of course Apemantus is right in this. But he is wrong in the contempt he pours indiscriminately on all men's behaviour. There is worth and dignity in the servants, and there is a flawed but striving virtue in Alcibiades, the one among Timon's friend, who was not false to him. Before Timon's wealth was gone, Alcibiades had been banished by the Senate because he pleaded for the life of one of his followers who had killed in fair fight a man who had slandered him; when his petition was refused, Alcibiades in hot terms claimed that his own deserts should be remembered. This scene before the Senate comes into the play without preparation, and its suddenness is puzzling to a reader or spectator. But it displays the mixed nature of Alcibiades' character. He pleads eloquently for mercy, which the Senators on principle reject—thus damning themselves, for in the eyes of Shakespeare's contemporaries as well as in, surely, our own eyes, the obligation to accept mercy as a principle, and to apply it where it can be applied, is the keystone of the social fabric. Alcibiades is perhaps on more disputable ground when he refuses to distinguish between a valour shown in war and a valour privately exercised. He is manifestly in the wrong when, at the end of the scene, he plans rebellion out of personal spleen, and asserts the right of 'Soldiers' to 'brook as little wrongs as gods.' When we see him again, meeting Timon in the woods, he is on his way to Athens at the head of his rebel army. We learn that his soldiers are unruly, because he has not had the money to pay them. His following includes Timandra and Phrynia, whores whom Timon welcomes as instruments for human destruction. But Alcibiades, though he accepts Timon's gold to pay his soldiers, makes it evident that he will not destroy Athens as Timon thinks and hopes he will. 'I'll take the gold thou givest me, Not all thy counsel,' he says. And when he appears before the walls of Athens and the city yields to him, he proclaims his intention to punish only his and Timon's enemies. He promises, too, that there will be no sacking of the city, that his concern will be that the citizens shall join with each other in the task of rooting out the ills that have come upon all of them. Alcibiades is no simple embodiment of virtue; he is, for example, utterly unlike the Richmond who, at the end of Richard III, was in a simple way to bring good in place of evil. Rather, he is an imperfect man who yet at his best wants justice for Timon and good order and honour in Athens.
Alcibiades, in fact, is right to the best of his ability; Timon is wrong. Yet in Timon's rejection of mankind, in his refusal to return when once again he has gold, in his withdrawal from life (whether that is death through weariness of heart or plain suicide Shakespeare does not make clear), in his choice of a grave covered each day by the sea (so that finally he escapes from the earth where man lives and is nourished), there is in all this at least the virtue of totality. Alcibiades will, on the whole, do men good; Timon challenges them to contemplate his desertion. And in the play we do not enter the city with Alcibiades: our thoughts remain outside, along with that other imperfect man, who dreamt a dream of human brotherhood and could not live when the dream vanished.
It will be evident that in this play, as in Troilus and Cressida, there is no simple exposure of decadent Greeks. Timon's conduct is a challenge to us, as in the flawed heroism of Hector, the shallow love (but still love) of Cressida, the dark mania of Achilles. I have spoken mainly of the characters of these two plays, because they perhaps first of all make us aware of the dramatist's peculiar sharpness, and sharpness of compassion, in the Greek setting that here he chose. And it is impossible not to notice the structural boldness of both plays. But it is also evident that both Troilus and Timon are plays in which ideas are held up for scrutiny: in Troilus the idea that human reason and human prowess are without effect on the march of events, which in detail are affected only by passion and in the larger sense only by time; in Timon the idea that our social need is to support the imperfect Alcibiades, our personal need to recognize the force of Timon's rejection. The choice of a Greek theme gave to Shakespeare a special liberty: he could use Plutarch's Lives for the story of Alcibiades as he had used that book for the story of Coriolanus, the man whom Plutarch gave as his Roman parallel to Alcibiades; but in the Greek instance, Shakespeare departed almost wholly from his historical source: Plutarch's Alcibiades never led an army against Athens. And similarly the Greek setting gave him a freedom to speculate, to contemplate figures possessing authority—after all, the fact of being Greek gave a kind of authority, however suspect—yet caught up in the meshes of circumstance, the trammels of illusion and corruption.
I have spoken almost wholly of Troilus and Timon. There are oddities in all Shakespeare's Greek plays, including The Comedy of Errors, which we are seeing in Stratford. There Shakespeare transferred the scene from Plautus' Epidamnum to St. Paul's Ephesus, a setting appropriate for confusion, for the suspicion of magic, for a measure of fear. In this play he gives us a Duke of Ephesus who condemns Aegeon to death unless he can pay a thousand marks, regretting his inability to override the law, but who overrides the law with alacrity at the end of the play, when he refuses the payment offered by Aegeon's son. The Comedy of Errors was written at or near the beginning of Shakespeare's career, but, like the mature Troilus and Timon, it has a strangeness which Plautus knew nothing of. "Whose word can we trust?" is a question that is discreetly asked here. It is a merry comedy, Plautan but with special complications of its own. Shakespeare was perhaps puzzled by the notion of Greece and its citizens, but it seems he felt curiously free when he was in their company.
Charles Martindale and Michelle Martindale (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Troy," in Shakespeare and the Uses of Antiquity: An Introductory Essay, Routledge, 1990, pp. 91-120.
[In the following essay, the Martindales examine Shakespeare 's picture of the Greek world by focusing on the playwright's treatment of the story of Troy in Troilus and Cressida.]
In the view of Gilbert Highet [in his The Classical Tradition, 1949], Shakespeare offered, in Troilus and Cressida, only 'a distant, ignorant, and unconvincing caricature of Greece'. It is doubtless true that Shakespeare, even if he had wanted to, could not have given a historically convincing picture of the archaic or classical Greek world, still less of the Bronze Age (but then who could?), in the way that he did of the various stages in the history of Republican Rome in the three Plutarchan plays. Part of the reason for this, no doubt, is the overwhelming emphasis on Latin literature and Roman culture in the educational system. Shakespeare knew a great deal about Rome before his decisive encounter with Plutarch. A second factor is the stereotyped view of the Greeks widely held in Renaissance England, the subject of an influential article by T. J. B. Spencer ["'Greeks' and 'Merrygreeks', in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, (ed.) Richard Hosley, 1962]. Spencer argues that the use of 'merry greek' to mean a riotous liver illustrates the hostility to the character of Greeks and Greek culture typical of the period. There is some confirmation of this picture in Troilus itself, where there are two instances of this usage, both employed punningly with wry effect. In I.ii.110 Cressida calls the winsome Helen a 'merry Greek indeed', while, in IV.iv.55, she describes herself, with pretty pathos, as 'a woeful Cressid 'mongst the merry Greeks'. In IV.iv.84-87 Troilus presents himself as a plain man unlike the nimble Greeks:
I cannot sing,
Nor heel the high lavolt, nor sweeten talk,
Nor play at subtle games; fair virtues all,
To which the Grecians are most prompt and
But this self-characterization, like that of the bluff Henry V of the wooing scene, is hardly borne out by the play, and is rather, as Patricia Thomson observes [in "Rant and cant in Troilus and Cressida," Essays and Studies Vol. 22 (1969)], 'a highly sophisticated way of projecting sincerity'. Spencer further points out that the Roman and later traditions were generally hostile to the Greeks, who were seen as immoral and dishonest; and he cites Erasmus' view, in Adages IV. 1.64, that 'the Greek race is everywhere described as evil among the Latin poets, and like-wise in Cicero, not only as being addicted to pleasures and rendered womanish by self-indulgence, but also as it were of slippery reliability'. So Shakespeare's sordid Achilles is simply Horace's: impiger, iracundus, inexorabilis, acer ('indefatigable, angry, inexorable, fierce', Ars Poetica 121). Although there is truth in this picture, Spencer overstates his case. In treating Chapman's endorsement of Homeric heroism as eccentric, he fails to mention that Spondanus (Jean de Sponde), in the standard humanist edition of Homer (containing a Latin translation), expressed approval of the exemplary qualities of Achilles; or that his enthusiasm for Homer and the values he found in the Homeric poems was shared by Erasmus and by Thomas Elyot in The Governor, who wrote of 'noble Homer, from whom, as from a fountain, proceeded all eloquence and learning'. Clearly the two views—merry greeks on the one hand and impressive Trojan and Greek champions on the other—could exist side by side, even in the same individual.
It would not be entirely satisfactory to attribute Shakespeare's comparative failure to depict Greece in a way that would satisfy a modern classical scholar merely to lack of knowledge. Dryden, who knew the Iliad intimately, and produced a fine vigorous translation of book I and the Hector/Andromache scene from book VI, and who was well-read in Greek literature generally, thought that Shakespeare, being 'untaught, unpractised, in a barbarous age' had written, in Troilus, a 'rough-drawn play', and set out to correct its 'faults'. Yet, despite his familiarity with Homer, he produced a version even remoter from the Iliad than Shakespeare's. His Cressida is not false and commits suicide before her lover to prove her loyalty; his Hector is consistently noble, his Andromache the ever-dutiful wife who urges Hector to issue his challenge and condemns the lovers Paris and Helen; the fighting in the final act is heroized, and, in place of Shakespeare's sleazy epilogue, Ulysses draws a trite moral about the need for order. In other words, Dryden's characters are neo-classical ciphers, not sharply observed individuals with spiky characteristics, both good and bad, like Homer's. The idea of dramatic decorum involved, and an impoverished conception of the heroic, here proved stultifying. By contrast Shakespeare's Hector, Agamemnon and Nestor at least are recognizable descendants of their Homeric prototypes.
The story of Troy, first set forth in Homer and subsequently the subject of innumerable reworkings, is perhaps the greatest secular story of the Western world. Troilus and Cressida is, we would argue, Shakespeare's Iliad, that is, his play on the matter of Troy, something which had interested him as early as Lucrece, and to which he had returned in the player scene in Hamlet. To that extent the play's title is misleading; all the world loves a lover, and it is easy to forget that, in terms of allotted space at least, the love plot is subsidiary. War, not love, is the theme announced in the prologue (31). The play's generic affiliations have of course proved controversial. The original prose preface calls it a comedy, and many have seen the satiric note as dominant, though to treat the whole play as debunking is to privilege Thersites' blistering comments, some of which are obviously false (for example his claim, in V.iv, that there is no difference between Troilus and Diomedes); a case can also be made for calling Troilus a tragedy, at least in its treatment of Hector and Troilus himself. Of course this generic uncertainty is part of the point, but, when all is said and done, the Quarto's 'famous History' seems as good a description as any.
The prologue is essentially epical in style (although, as we shall see, in a peculiarly mannered and self-conscious way), and this epic discourse is certainly one of the competing discourses of the play, even if the speech initially proves something of a false start. There is an immediate contrast with the courtly banter and medieval ambience of the two scenes which follow, and it appears that after all love, not war, is going to be centre-stage, until we revert to the Homeric war-council. Likewise, in the best epic fashion, following the prescript of Horace, we are promised a Homeric epic structure 'beginning in the middle' (in medias res, Ars Poetica, 148); but in fact the beginning chosen is arbitrary, unlike the quarrel which inaugurates Achilles' wrath and determines the shape of the action in the Iliad. Troilus to some extent lacks a plot: although it ends with Hector's death and with the fall of Troy imminent, the final act consists of a rapid sequence of perfunctory scenes treating the wrath motif. This arbitrariness of structure, along with other oddities, is ruthlessly excised by Dryden, who cuts the prologue, opens with the Greek council of war (thereby removing the ironic sequence of discrepant tones), 'improves' the randomness of the ending, reduces the intellectual content of the debates, and omits the sleazy Paris and Helen and the discussion about reputation between Achilles and Ulysses. Those who think that orthodox structures and generic propriety are necessarily virtues might ponder the result.
Shakespeare must have read a good deal on the subject of Troy before 1602 (when Troilus was probably completed)-he surely knew Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, an edition of which appeared in 1598—but the nature of that reading cannot be determined, beyond all doubt, by the internal evidence of the play. It is a reminder that Shakespeare can be as imperious in his way as Milton when treating his 'sources'. The only source whose use we can prove is Caxton's Recueil of the Histories of Troy, reprinted in 1596 (probably supplemented by Lydgate), although Shakespeare corrects the forms of names in Caxton—for example Andromache for Andromeda—in a properly Renaissance way. In the prologue the names of the Trojan gates come from Caxton, although the effect of their use in their new context is much more grandly epical. During the final battle (V.v.6ff.) we have two typical Iliadic routines in high epic style, first a list by Agamemnon of slayers and slain:
The fierce Polydamas
Hath beat down Menon; bastard Margarelon
Hath Doreus prisoner,
And stands Colossus-wise, waving his beam,
Upon the pashed corpses of the kings
Epistrophus and Cedius,
and secondly an account by Nestor of Hector's aristeia (heroic feats), decorated with a couple of brief epic similes, the second with analogues in Homer (e.g. Iliad, XI.67ff.). The names of the warriors—and of Hector's horse (Galathe)—are taken from Caxton. The conclusion is, we believe, unavoidable. Shakespeare had Caxton closely to hand when he was writing Troilus, but not a version of Homer, whether Chapman's or another, even if, as we believe, he had read one earlier. Clearly he here wanted to evoke the world of Homeric warfare, and would surely have found his names in Homer had it been easy for him to do so.
All plays about historical events deal both with the past and with the present. Anachronism is thus, in one form or another, the necessary condition of their being. Not even the most learned historian could avoid it, because the past is only partly knowable, because we cannot wholly detach ourselves from our own time, and because any presentation of the past in contemporary language will involve accommodations. Nevertheless Shakespeare's Roman plays are given a reasonable unity of historical texture. By contrast, when, in the Trojan debate, Hector cites Aristotle's Ethics, we receive a shock of anachronism which is surely deliberate. It is inconceivable that Shakespeare thought that Aristotle lived before the Trojan War (even if unlearned, he was no Trimalchio or Bottom), and the effect of violent disjunction is quite different from that of a trivial anachronism, like the reference to Milo, a famous Greek athlete of the sixth century BC (mentioned by several classical writers, including Ovid) in II.ii.247; we are reminded that we are listening to a debate, conducted in 'modern' terms, but in a heroic setting (one could compare the Fool's fey remark in Lear III.ii.95: 'This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time'). Hector's unmotivated change of heart at the end of the debate, about which there has been so much discussion, could be said to dramatize the gap between Homeric/heroic and 'modern' virtues.
Chapman's translation of seven books from the Iliad (1-2; 7-11) appeared in 1598. In 1608 Chapman added the remainder of the first twelve books, and in 1611 the complete translation appeared with revision of the 1598 version. It was not in fact the first English rendering of Homer. Arthur Hall (?1539-1605) had already translated, from the French of Salel, Iliad I-X (1581). On common-sense grounds it seems likely that Shakespeare, who knew Chapman, read the Seven Books; its publication must have been something of a literary event, it was dedicated to the Earl of Essex, and its appearance about four years before Shakespeare wrote his play looks significant. But, once again, we cannot prove it-none of the proposed parallels is decisive, and one of the more plausible is in fact to the fifth book, which Chapman did not publish until after Troilus. Indeed we cannot prove that Shakespeare read Homer in any form whatever, even if those who treat Shakespeare as a learned humanist think that he knew the whole Iliad in Latin or French. It is sometimes supposed that the presence of Thersites, who does not feature in the medieval Troy story, shows that Shakespeare read some version of the Iliad. However there is a lively Tudor interlude, Thersites ('In Homer of my acts ye have read, I trow', 5) expanded from a Latin work by Ravisius Textor, the author of a number of standard textbooks in use in Elizabethan schools. Thersites is also vividly described by Leonard Cox in The Art or Craft of Rhetoric (1524), a description evidently based directly on Homer's. Anyway five minutes' conversation with a friend could have given Shakespeare all he needed to know, or he could have found the information in some note on Ovid Metamorphoses XHI.232f., where Thersites is mentioned. More significant is the fact that the 'Iliadic' episodes on which Shakespeare concentrates all occur in the Seven Books, and that there are larger parallels of a non-verbal type. Agamemnon's address to the troops (II. 1 l0ff.) is like his opening speech at the debate in Troilus; Nestor's speech in IX.96ff. has a long preamble to soften the blow to his leader's pride, which resembles his role in Shakespeare; Ulysses' speech on order elaborates his Homeric counterpart's assertion of the need to obey kings in II.200ff. But none of this even begins to constitute proof.
Nevertheless it is a reasonable hypothesis that Shakespeare read Chapman's Seven Books, that this was his only direct encounter with Homer, and that the experience was part of the genesis of Troilus and Cressida. For a classical scholar it requires an effort of the imagination to reconstruct the effect of Homer encountered solely through this distorting medium. But two centuries later Keats repeated the experience, and seems to have believed that Chapman had provided him with a gateway to the original:
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.
Shakespeare might well have been surprised, and even disconcerted, by what he encountered. Aristotle had praised the artistic structure of the Homeric poems, but a reader of Chapman's particular selection would have found a work, full indeed of powerful moments, but apparently random and even incoherent in organization (compare Troilus itself). Chapman in his preface offered Essex 'the true image of all virtues and human government', yet the hero is seen quarrelling over a girl, allowing his friends to die, and refusing their overtures even as he admits the justice of their case. Many modern readers of Homer prefer Hector to Achilles; C.S. Lewis famously [in his A Preface to Paradise Lost, 1942] thought the latter 'little more than a passionate boy', and Horace, in another unheroic age, found, in the Iliad, a picture of the effects of the vices of leaders on the welfare of their followers (Epistles I .2 6-16).
In some ways Chapman's 1598 version, despite additions, contractions and misunderstandings, is closer to Homer's 'sense' than most of its successors, including Pope's. Indeed its literalism can be grotesque when Chapman tries to reproduce exactly the Homeric compound epithets to create such monstrous births as 'famous both-foot-halter' and 'heavenly-wild fire-god' (I.592f. of Hephaistos and Zeus = Iliad I .607-609). But in terms of style the results are remote from the smooth-running, leisurely and relaxed Homeric manner. Chapman substitutes Latin names for Greek (e.g. Saturnides = son of Chronos, I.539 = Iliad I .552), and employs a large number of Latinate words, partly under the influence of the parallel Latin translation by Andreas Divus in Spondanus' text of Homer: for example 'opprobrious breath' (I.509; Iliad I .519); 'to give this excitation act' (II.82; Iliad II .83); Ulysses 'the razer of repugnant towns' (II.269; Iliad II .278); 'orbicular targe' (Bullough p. 128). To avoid metrical monotony, he sometimes uses, in his handling of the problematic fourteener, enjambment and mid-line pauses to create an effect rugged, difficult and unmusical. The result is both denser and more bombastic than Homer, in a way which can recall Troilus and Cressida. When he revised the Seven Books for his later complete version, and in particular rewrote books I and II, Chapman removed many clumsy touches, and in some ways approached closer to the 'spirit' of Homer, but he also, if anything, increased the overall grandeur and knottiness. Thus 'the general' (II.84) becomes 'the people's rector' (70; Iliad II .85 'shepherd of the people'); new phrases include 'revoluble orb' (II.257; Iliad II .295) and 'redemptory hire' (I.94; Iliad I .95); and the detail of the bees simile (Iliad II.87ff.)
as when black swarms of bees
Break ceaseless from a crannied rock, and none
the exhausture sees
Of their sweet vault
is rendered still more 'artificially':
as when of frequent bees
Swarms rise out of a hollow rock, repairing the
Of their egression endlessly with ever rising new
From forth their sweet nest.
The manner can approximate closely to that of Troilus, as when, before the catalogue of ships, Chapman prays for 'a voice/Infract and trump-like' to recount 'so inenarrable troops' (II.418-21; Iliad II .488-90). In short this is what Chapman believed a proper Homeric and heroic style ought to be like. And why should Shakespeare have thought any differently? There are many ways of looking at Troilus and Cressida; one that is too seldom tried is to examine it against the background of the Iliad as mediated by Chapman. When this is done, we find a range of common themes, even if differently treated: war, debate, value, fame, time. These Iliadic materials, which Shakespeare covered with a medieval-chivalric wash, will be the subject of the next section of this chapter.
HOMERIC TRACES IN TROILUS AND CRESSIDA
War is obviously central to both works, yet the sense of it is strikingly different. Ancient commentators pointed to the tragic texture of the Iliad, whose announced theme is nothing like 'hair-breadth scapes in the imminent deadly breach', but 'Achilles' baneful wrath' which 'did worlds of woes disperse' (Chapman's 1598 version of Iliad I .1-2). The poem emphasizes the pity of war as well as its glory; indeed the two are fused—glory is precious because of the price which it entails. By contrast there is little pathos in Shakespeare's Troilus, and its atmosphere is overwhelmingly harsh and bleak. The debunking element is strong, though not so much as to make the play merely a deconstruction of Homeric warfare and of Chaucerian love. Homer's gentle Patroclus becomes a catamite, in Thersites' phrase a 'male varlet' (V.i.14), following a tradition which is Greek but post-Homeric. Troilus V.iii contains a briefer and less moving treatment of Andromache's pleas to Hector not to fight than Iliad VI (not in the Seven Books). Hector, having spared Achilles in single combat, is treacherously killed by Achilles' Myrmidons in a short but powerfully atmospheric and anti-heroic scene (V.viii). In consequence Troilus is often seen as a play of disillusionment. But it should not be treated as a straightforward key to its author's views at this or any other period of his life; like all his other plays it is an exercise in dramatic and moral possibilities, partly reflecting the taste of the time and the expected interests of the public, here particularly in relation to the fashion for satiric drama. There is a danger too of oversimplification. For example we are presented with a genuinely heroic image of a merciful Hector, however flawed. His 'ruth' is confirmed by friend and foe alike (V.iii.37ff.; IV.v.l84ff.); Cressida's man, Alexander, testifies to his 'patience' 'as of a virtue fixed' (I.ii.4f.). When Thersites encounters him in battle and denigrates himself, Hector responds, with ostentatious if exaggerated nobility, 'I do believe thee: live' (V.iv.30)—ironically on this code only the worst will survive. Certainly he is not faultless, and he shows some of the inconsistency and discontinuity typical of the play's characters, but something of constancy shines through. We have seen that many readers of the Iliad have found Hector a more sympathetic figure than his opponent, and even (wrongly) treated him as the poem's hero. The post-Homeric tradition is generally favourable, and this Shakespeare follows. Yet he never gives Hector the full glamour of (say) Hal in 1 Henry IV (IV.i.97ff):
All furnished, all in arms,
All plumed like estridges that wing the wind,
Baited like eagles having lately bathed,
Glittering in golden coats, like images,
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer,
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young
I saw young Harry with his beaver on,
His cushes on his thighs, gallantly armed,
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury.
Similarly Shakespeare's Achilles is not as purely black as he is often painted. Rather he displays an interesting mixture of oafishness, arrogance, cruelty, philosophical intelligence and turbulent strangeness of mind (this last a feature of the Homeric Achilles also): 'My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirred,/And I myself see not the bottom of it' (III.ii.306f). Winifred Nowottny [in "'Opinion' and 'Valve' in Troilus and Cressida," Essays in Criticism Vol. 4 (1954)] has noticed of his experience, as of the whole play, that it 'turns upon a tragic view of life: the view that the "unbodied figure of the thought", whatever it may be, can never be realized in action'. Many modern Homerists have written in similar terms of Achilles' anguish of mind revealed in his turbulent answer, in Iliad IX, to the proffered gifts, in which he wheels inconclusively around his resentments and uncertainties. But in the end he will play the role which his society expects of him.
Homer's characters are great talkers, most notoriously the garrulous (but respected) Nestor. Little that happens in the Iliad happens in silence. Formal discussions are frequent. The two debates in Troilus belong to the Homeric, not the Chaucerian tradition, even if they contain some medieval features, like the chivalric character of Hector's challenge, 'a sportful combat' (I.iii.335). There is however a constant tension between the heroic setting and such unheroic notions as that the planning of a war is more important than individual deeds (I.iii.l97ff.).
The debate in the Greek camp (I.iii) is concerned with the reasons for the poor progress of the war and the measures to be taken to counteract this. The centre-piece is Ulysses' speech on degree, which used often to be taken as representing the play's philosophical and moral keynote. The manner of the opening three speeches is public and political—words predominate over ideas—and even Ulysses here offers only elaborate compliments and no eager thought. Many argue that the intended effect is parodic (Graham Bradshaw supposes [in his Shakespeare's Scepticism, 1987] that usually in this play 'Latinisms signal pretentiousness'). Agamemnon uses words like 'protractive' and 'persistive' (20f.), and Nestor's speech (3 1ff.) is written partly in a hyperbolic epicized style:
But let the ruffian Boreas once enrage
The gentle Thetis, and anon behold
The strong-ribbed bark through liquid mountains
Certainly Patroclus, as reported—perhaps maliciously—by Ulysses, mocks, for the amusement of Achilles, the pomposity of Agamemnon and his 'terms unsquared' (159). But the disaffected Achilles is hardly an objective judge, and Paris, while adopting so different a style with Helen (III.i.42ff.), talks like the Greek leaders in the debate in Troy, employing the words 'propension' and 'propugnation' (II.ii.134 and 137). In this of all plays discourse is king, and different contexts can be more important than the character of the speakers.
Bradshaw is also less intellectually nimble than usual over Ulysses' degree speech, which he sees as wholly 'orthodox', even if at odds with Aeneas' subsequent failure to identify Agamemnon correctly. There is at this point a strong sense of disjunction and disparity of purpose: Agamemnon and Nestor (unashamedly verbose and echoing his leader) wish to boost morale, Ulysses to administer a warning about lack of respect for rank. He establishes his ground, at length, by lecturing the meeting on the nature and importance of hierarchy in the universe, in nature and in human communities. Where Agamemnon had differentiated categories of human beings good and bad, Ulysses has no interest in the value of individuals, even for rhetorical amplification. When he talks about 'the unworthiest' masquerading as his superior, he does not attempt to explain, even briefly, what such unworthiness might entail. The matter is treated simply as transparent, so that degree, readily visible, should not be 'vizarded'. Despite the authoritative manner—perhaps partly because of it, since Ulysses is defter in private conversation—the argument is uncomfortably circular at certain key points. When Ulysses claims that the heavenly bodies observe degree,
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other,
the 'therefore' is logically suspect. Sol's eminence, it is true, is partly a 'medicinable' one, but partly Sol is eminent because it is placed in eminence. Similarly in the description of human affairs:
How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree stand in authentic place?
the 'authentic place' seems, in many ways, rather identical with degree than the result of it. Ulysses sounds as if he is in intelligent control of his surroundings and arguments, and his coolness and scepticism cut through the circuitousness of Agamemnon but, on careful probing, his assessments, like those of others, weaken and crumble. The argument is pursued too single-mindedly; degree is valued for degree's sake, without any interest in what differences of degree might signify in a specific human context. In Ulysses' depersonalized universe, degree, emptied of any differentiation of human value, is the object of veneration. It is a chilling picture, as an abstract system becomes sole bulwark against chaos. Agamemnon's response: 'The nature of the sickness found, Ulysses,/What is the remedy?' can, and perhaps should, be read as sardonic. Dryden may have sensed some of the problems. He evidently thought the speech too long and elaborate, and he cut the section about the cosmos, shortening and clarifying the argument. Kings and generals must be obeyed, or faction destroys the common weal (this is closer to the simpler picture in Homer, where Odysseus berates the ordinary soldiers on the need for obedience to kings). Dryden also cut Agamemnon's dry rejoinder. Instead of suggesting a plan of action, Shakespeare's Ulysses, in response, merely illustrates his previous point by describing the disruptive behaviour of Achilles, Patroclus and Thersites. At this juncture Aeneas' interruption with Hector's challenge effects an abrupt change into a different mode, and the debate dematerializes. All the lengthy talk has come to nothing. It is a pattern, perhaps in part suggested by Iliad IX, which will be repeated.
In the Homeric world values are things comparatively uncontroversial. It can of course be argued that Homer's values may not always be those of his characters, but the broad impression remains of a world of agreed mores and settled procedure (illustrated by the frequency of phrases like 'as is fitting'). The hero as an agathos displays arete, which involves military prowess, coupled with high social standing, and usually other marks of competitive excellence, including skill in debate. He seeks to avoid defeat in war as shameful; heroic death in battle can, however, be admired, and the death of the gallant Hector, although it will entail the destruction of his people, is presented as a tragic event, evoking the sympathy of the auditors. 'Quiet' virtues are openly appreciated in the case of women, and at least insinuated in the case of men. Hector's kindness is mourned by Helen, while his gentle treatment of his mother, wife and child is part of his attractiveness. It likewise calls forth admiration when Achilles returns Hector's body to Priam, and the two men establish a relationship of mutual respect in these most unpropitious of circumstances; Agamemnon's jibe at Achilles during the quarrel that only 'contention and stern fight/To thee are unity and peace' (Chapman I.184f. = Iliad I .177) thus proves false.
In such a world is value something intrinsic or extrinsic? The Homeric hero inhabits what anthropologists call 'a shame culture'; that is, he avoids actions which will make him feel shame before his peers, and embraces those which he thinks will arouse their respect. In a shame culture much clearly depends on what others think of you. On the other hand there is a strong sense in the Homeric poems, conveyed in part by the fixed epithets, that the hero's essential qualities and characteristics are stable entities. So, while Adkins [A.W.H. Adkins in his Merit and Responsibility, 1960] may be right in theory to claim that in Homer 'facts are of much less importance than appearances', and that 'the Homeric hero cannot fall back upon his own opinion of himself, it is also true that there is in general little sense of a gap between appearance and reality in individuals or communities. There is thus a potential clash about the source of value (whether it resides in the prized individual or is bestowed upon him by others), which becomes increasingly problematic in the post-Homeric classical world. For example the Stoic conception of virtue remains essentially one of competitive excellence, but now paradoxically internalized and deprived of its audience; hence an unHomeric fear of instability and a constant reaffirmation of personal authenticity in a writer like Seneca. There is also some disagreement about what is valuable in Iliad IX, but Achilles' disillusionment, which brings him insights both unfamiliar and cleareyed, is nonetheless eccentric in the world of the poem. By contrast, in Troilus, the fissures are exposed to general view, and subjected to intense and constant scrutiny.
Value is a continual preoccupation in Troilus. A simple iconic treatment occurs in the scene in which the worthless man in golden armour, who embodies the gap between being and seeming, is pursued and killed by Hector for his 'hide' (V.vi.27-31; viii.1-4). The question of value is particularly focussed on the issue of Helen's return, the subject of the Trojan debate in II.ii (in Renaissance schools the matter was a stock topic for argument). Hector maintains that Helen should be returned, since she is not worth the continuing price; Troilus that the choice has been made and must be adhered to. In the Iliad Helen, the cause of the war, is a surprisingly attractive figure. Her beauty is such that even the old men of Troy can understand why she has aroused such strife, although they wish that she would go home; but she herself regrets the wrong she has done, dislikes bedding with Paris and is treated with affection by Priam and Hector—yet it is also true, as Richmond Lattimore has observed, that 'in neither epic can she make a speech without talking about herself. It is a less subtle, more Euripidean Helen we encounter in Troilus. In IV.i.55ff. Diomedes denounces her, bluntly and with increasing power:
For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian's life hath sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight
A Trojan hath been slain.
To the reductive Thersites 'All the argument is a whore and a cuck-old' (II.iii.74f.). When we eventually see Helen in III.i, she is something of a vamp, a shallow coquette, whom Paris calls 'my Nell' (133) and who engages in silly, camp court-conversation. On the other hand, the discontinuous nature of the characters in the play makes any definitive valuation problematical. As Stephen Med-calf puts it [in The Later Middle Ages: The Context of English Literature, 1981], the play sometimes suggests that 'there are no selves, only sequences of volitions'. Certainly Cressida's behaviour—the same Cressida who in III.ii. 113f. had given so movingly direct expression of her love: 'Prince Troilus, I have loved you night and day/ For many weary months—' seems in the later part of the play moulded by the opinion which the Greeks hold of her. There is an insight here about the behaviour of women in a man's world.
In the debate the comparative worthlessness of Helen has the measured support of the worthy Hector (who cannot be accused, like Diomedes, of any lack of gallantry), and the prophetic judgement of Cassandra. Even Priam, who to an extent occupies the position of neutral chairman, in his opening résumé sets Helen against a collection of concerns so weighty—'honour, loss of time, travail, expense/Wounds, friends and what else dear'—that it seems her worth must buckle. However the case for keeping her has an unexpected champion both ardent and intelligent in Troilus, who is, as we know already and as the play continues to allow us to believe, a man of some integrity. Even if, in the event, his convictions fall on stony ground, his case retains power and interest. The common assumption that Hector's position is the obviously correct one ignores Troilus' considerable argumentative skill, which makes his opponents look both dull and conventional.
The focal point of the debate is stated baldly in 51-53:
She is not worth what she doth cost the
Troilus: What's aught but as 'tis valued?
Troilus has already impetuously rebutted Hector's point that too many lives have been lost 'as dear as Helen', with the implication that Hector's worries for the common good betray a sort of vulgar tradesman's attitude; with aristocratic and Homeric disdain he rejects Hector's language of measurement and calculation—Priam's 'worth and honour' should not be weighed 'in a scale of common ounces'. Both here and in his angry exchange with Helenus, Troilus points us towards the acknowledgement that reason and heroism sit uneasily together. But the argument about value moves the discussion on to a more abstract, technical and philosophical plane. Hector asserts the 'orthodox' position that there are objective values for things in the universe, and not merely personal assessments (54ff.). The examples move away from war and the immediate issue to other areas, especially those of personal relationships (thereby indirectly helping to bridge the war plot and the love plot). Hector suggests that the 'idolatry' of some love affairs where the lover sees more in the beloved than the reality justifies is a kind of madness (57-61). Troilus does not attempt a direct answer, but builds up to his view of Helen with a series of parallel but different examples. He starts with the one closest to his heart—though in its present form carefully distanced—about choosing a wife. The choice would be influenced by 'will', which in turn would be 'enkindled by mine eyes and ears' in a way not necessarily rational, but, the choice once made, even if the will revolts and alters, there can be no reneging on the decision. After further analogous instances he reminds the Trojans, with dazzling shifts of tone by turn satiric, flamboyant, flippant and romantic (79f.: 'a Grecian queen, whose youth and freshness/Wrinkles Apollo's, and makes stale the morning') that they gladly and unanimously welcomed Helen's coming. Troilus' strenuous, radical opposition to Hector is linked with his belief that, once chosen, a course of action must be maintained. There is an obvious personal dimension to this position, as also to Hector's. Both Hector and Troilus are honourable men, heroic and decent; but, whereas Hector is in the personal sphere calm and at peace with himself, and thus fits comfortably with the view of a settled and ordered universe where values are fixed, Troilus is full of anguished tension, craving some means of stability which he thinks achievable by fixity in decisions and affections. As later he is overwhelmed by Cressida's alteration, so here he is wounded by the Trojans' changed attitude towards Helen, almost as if it were undermining his grasp of the world. His concern with fidelity to the point of nervous obsession later makes it difficult for him to fix upon the disloyal Cressida as the same individual as the one he has loved. In other words he can be likened to a certain sort of existentialist, combining a scepticism about values in the universe with a strong moral instinct to forge his own values, in his case with an intense and perilously unfixed idealism. As a result there is some crossing over of expected patterns of argument in the debate. Hector takes a pragmatic view of the war which he thinks should be ended, but at the same time he espouses a traditional view of objective value, whereas the true pragmatist might prefer compromise with current circumstances to adherence to general principle. Troilus is philosophically a sceptic, but is passionately devoted to an heroic assessment of the war, which could sit more comfortably with a world-view that admitted objectivity.
In a movement highly characteristic of the play—and one which Euripides would surely have relished—the interruption of Cassandra prophesying doom breaks off this discussion. There is a change of gear from modern philosophizing to old-fashioned heightened drama with keening apostrophes and prominent alliteration. Hector tries to use her prophecy to support his case, but Troilus—who, like many sceptics, can be curiously intolerant of others—simply dismisses her as 'mad'. Eventually Hector starts to bring the debate to its end with the tones of a philosophy tutor who has listened patiently to his pupils' attempt at argument. Patronizingly he remarks that Paris and Troilus have spoken well but 'superficially'—'not much/Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought/Unfit to hear moral philosophy' (166-168). Whereas they are moved by 'pleasure and revenge', he will reach a mature, balanced decision. He then starts a wholly new point about right of possession in families and nations, which requires Helen's return. In thus admitting that the Trojans have done wrong and that persistence in this wrong only worsens the situation, he has reached a view completely opposite to Troilus'. But then he suddenly crumbles with a brief, awkward distinction between 'truth' (perhaps an absolute standard which can be argued for) and some other opposing factor:
Is this in way of truth; yet ne'ertheless,
My spritely brethren, I propend to you
In resolution to keep Helen still,
For 'tis a cause that hath no mean dependence
Upon our joint and several dignities.
He even reveals that, to stir events, he has already (as we know) sent 'a roisting challenge' to the Greeks. All the careful and intense discussion has led nowhere. Hector, after reiterating his position nearly to the bitter end, suddenly and breathtakingly switches, without further pressure, with hardly any explanation and for no good reason. (Dryden, a careful if conventional reader of the play, makes Hector issue the challenge only after the conclusion of the debate.) The long build-up and brief fizzling-out has the curious futility of much of the play's action; Shakespeare seems also to project something of the special psychology of group discussions, of meetings.
Troilus displays a preoccupation with fame which parallels Homer's. In the world of the Iliad a man performs high heroic deeds, and in return receives time (honour, worth) in this life and a lasting reputation (kleos) after his death. The poem itself is thus an act of memory, of remembering the mighty dead. It also to an extent scrutinizes the notions involved, for there is some truth in Adam Parry's observation [in "Have we Homer's Iliad?" Yale Classical Studies Vol. 20 (1966)] that the Iliad is a 'poem dealing critically with the heroic conception of life'. Characters in Troilus sometimes echo these relatively straightforward heroic concepts: in I.iii.333ff. Nestor refers to the 'honour' and 'opinion' which a victory over Hector would bring the Greek champion; in II.ii.l99ff. Troilus argues that fighting for Helen will make 'fame in time to come canonize us' (203). But in general the play subjects conceptions of fame, honour and heroism to quasi-philosophical scrutiny.
In Iliad XII (again not in the Seven Books) the Trojan Sarpedon serenely enunciates an heroic code. He and his peers receive concrete benefits, and in return have the obligation to lead their people into battle. From this idea of noblesse oblige he moves to one more metaphysical:
O friend, if keeping back
Would keep back age from us, and death, and
that we might not wrack
In this life's human sea at all, but that deferring
We shunned death ever—nor would I half this
vain valour show,
Nor glorify a folly so, to wish thee to advance;
But, since we must go though not here, and that,
besides the chance
Proposed now, there are infinite fates of other
sort in death
Which (neither to be fled nor 'scaped) a man
must sink beneath—
Come, try we if this sort be ours, and either
Glory to others or make them resign the like to
(Chapman XII, 323-332 = Iliad XII.322-328)
Heroism is seen as a rational response to our mortality. Death comes in a thousand forms, and fame is the only lasting prize for men who are mortal. A rough equation of a similar kind is also implicit in the choice of Achilles, whereby he can have a full-length life of obscurity or a brief one with honour (Iliad IX.410-416). His quarrel with Agamemnon and his ensuing mental turmoil lead Achilles to question his previous mode of proceeding. In his answer to Odysseus he inverts the argument of Sarpedon with jerky forcefulness. If coward and hero alike are to die unhonoured, heroic values are futile:
Even share hath he that keeps his tent and he to
field doth go.
With equal honour cowards die and men most
The much-performer and the man that can of
(Bullough, p. 135 = Iliad IX.318-320)
Life, he subsequently avers, is too precious to be thrown aside; it is worth more than any gifts. Achilles' extremism, here as elsewhere, marks him out from his fellows and confirms his heroic superiority to them (the point is frequently reduced to pale moralizing about his overstepping of the mark).
In Troilus too the discussion of the nature of fame, honour, heroism focusses on Achilles, whose withdrawal raises problems which continue the interrogation of these traditional ideas, and draws forth complex philosophical ruminations. Ulysses' plan that the Greek leaders should try to humble Achilles into returning to the war is set in motion, and in II.iii Agamemnon crossly observes to Parrochas:
Much attribute he hath and much the reason
Why we ascribe it to him; yet all his virtues,
Not virtuously on his own part beheld,
Do in our eyes begin to lose their gloss,
Yea, like fair fruit in an unwholesome dish,
Are like to rot untasted.
'Attribute' seems most naturally to mean 'reputation', but the word hovers uneasily between the reputation ascribed and the quality on which the reputation is based, which is precisely the central problem. Likewise 'virtue' slithers between the vaguer sense 'good qualities' and, in this heroic context, the older meaning of courage and martial prowess. Agamemnon, like others in the play, manages to talk about military and heroic matters in a style characteristic of more modern societies, a partly philosophical style in which direct mention of war is evaded. Agamemnon's central point is a traditional one; but, partly because of his exasperation, there is something unstable in the picture. While the argument suggests that attribute is related to intrinsic worth (there is 'reason' for it), the emphasis falls rather on the unreliable nature of reputation. Achilles' virtues are losing their gloss, as if only their surface is really valued anyway—now that the gloss is fading, the rest may fall into oblivion. Agamemnon thus partly pre-echoes the chilling vision of Ulysses in III.iii where all value crumbles under the pressure of time. Later in the scene the dialogue jestingly incorporates riddles, which also suggest profound thoughts on value:
Ajax: What is he [Achilles] more than another?
Agamemnon: No more than what he thinks he is.
Ajax: Is he so much? Do you not think he
thinks himself a better man than I am.
Agamemnon: No question.
As part of his manipulation of Ajax, Agamemnon claims that pride is an emptiness in which there is no image and no story, because these can only be provided by the judgement of others: 'He that is proud eats up himself; pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle' (156-158). For there to be even a mirror-image of pride there has to be a mirror; the point drifts us towards some objectivity, but without a thorough-going scale of values in objects and persons and qualities. Similarly Ulysses describes Achilles' condition as an extreme state of egocentricity in which his mind circles round itself and his world is peopled only by his own thoughts and utterances (164-167; 171-179; 186-189). Achilles' obsession with 'imagined worth' (parallel to Troilus' obsession with the deceptive worth of another) takes him further and further from human society and affects his grasp of 'reality'. All this can reasonably be regarded as a development of Homer's Achilles.
In III.iii, after organizing the Greek leaders to pass 'strangely' by, Ulysses gives Achilles a lesson on the slipperiness of reputation which unsettles him. The plot in the end comes to nothing, since Achilles reneges on his decision to fight on receipt of another letter from Polyxena, and only finally goes into battle, as history dictates, because of Patroclus' death. But it is not just in the longer term that Ulysses' clever scheming amounts to so little. As the episode progresses, we seem to leave the world of cynical, manipulative plotting, for one of grim and private meditation on the bleakness of a universe without lasting values. As a result it comes as something of a shock when Ulysses starts to put the screws on Achilles in relation to Polyxena. But perhaps this is only to say that Shakespeare gives a brilliant portrayal of a suave secret policeman with all the cool misdirections, delaying tactics and general but relevant reflections of the master tactician. Do we foreground the action, or the atmosphere, or the ideas? Ulysses introduces his programme with a comment on pride and the image of mirrors, so recurrent in this play (47-48: 'pride hath no other glass/To show itself but pride'). We cannot know whether Ulysses sees an educative role for his scheme—to bring Achilles to an awareness of his vices—or simply wishes to goad him into action by playing on his jealousy of Ajax. Achilles' subsequent musings combine intelligent, dispassionate comment with superb impercipience in his failure to relate his observations to himself (74-92). He sees, with an eye that could be Ulysses', that the honour given to men depends on the gifts of fortune, on extrinsic circumstance, and that such honour is no longer accorded when fortune frowns; yet he remains puzzled by what he has seen (74-90). The mirthless witticism about honour(s)
And not a man for being simply man,
Hath any honour, but honour for those honours
That are without him
nevertheless opens a gap between reputation, its external and accidental sources, and, by implication, true value in an individual, so that Achilles seems partly to accept that there is an objective value beyond the estimation of others. As part of his contrivance, but also in a pointedly contemplative stance, Ulysses is 'discovered' reading a book by a philosopher, whom he calls, not to sound over-enthusiastic, a 'strange' fellow whose views he doubts. The author of the book, while apparently accepting that an individual can have good qualities, denies that he is able to judge such qualities except when they extend to others and are reflected back. The argument may have a moral basis but, as formulated, it has lost any moralizing shape (95-102). Ulysses' ploy of fictive scepticism draws Achilles into the argument in a way which suggests that, despite his accidie, Achilles enjoys flexing his intellectual muscles. He defends the writer's viewpoint by developing an analogy with the nature of sight and of the eyeball which cannot see itself; again the image of reflection draws together much of the thought on the relativity of value and fame.
Ulysses presses ahead with a fine philosophical distinction: the Arden editor [Kenneth Palmer] glosses 'position' as 'opinion or tenet advanced' and 'drift' as 'general line of argument', but so defined there seems insufficient difference. We would suggest that Ulysses is attempting to nudge the discussion from the world of abstract philosophical debate to the situation of Achilles; the problem is how to apply the familiar ideas to present realities. When giving the 'drift' (114-123) Ulysses seems merely to be going over old ground, with the recurrent images of reflection and reverberation, but the language is moving us, stealthily, to apply the philosophy to the present situation:
in his circumstance expressly proves
That no man is the lord of anything,
Though in and of him there be much consisting,
Till he communicate his parts to others;
Nor doth he of himself know them for aught
Till he behold them formed in the applause
Where they are extended; who, like an arch,
The voice again, or like a gate of steel
Fronting the sun, receives and renders back
His figure and his heat.
The author's 'circumstance', that is his provision of detail, suggests that he does not merely tinker with abstractions. A man's 'parts' have to be formed in the applause of others, and applause is something close to Achilles' heart. Ulysses is now ready to address the present situation and the promotion of Ajax. Hereupon, with a tone which wavers between humour and bitterness, he presents an unstable world where all things of value crumble away, and in which men hectically pursue new fashions and enthusiasms. Honour becomes a social commodity which has to be perpetually polished to prevent its decay, and descent into the 'monumental mockery' which awaits the trophies of yesteryear. A haunting image then gives a nightmarish vision of a continual movement in a narrow passage, where there appears to be no goal to reach, no stopping places except those which take one out of the race; the sons of emulation have no standard to follow. The image does not measure achievement, but presents a terrifying picture where success is simply the negative business of avoiding failurebr:
Take the instant way;
For honour travels in a strait so narrow
Where one but goes abreast. Keep then the path;
For emulation hath a thousand sons
That one by one pursue; if you give way,
Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
Like to an entered tide they all rush by
And leave you hindmost.
So, with a certain virtuosity, Ulysses is able to reach his directly stated conclusion that everything which men value—and the examples build up wearily through 171-173, social factors, external advantages, ethical criteria—'are subjects all/To envious and calumniating Time.' With this grim conclusion Ulysses and Shakespeare seem to bid farewell to Homer's world, but, as we shall see, there are also faint glimmers of more optimistic possibilities for living.
Two points are often made about time in Homer. One is that Homeric time is simply a continuum, cyclic insofar as its patterns constantly reappear and disappear, meaningless in that it contains no purpose or end; by contrast time in Virgil is teleological and linear. (This distinction is powerfully made by Auden in his poem 'Memorial for the City'.) Troy is a great city but others, equally significant, will replace it; whereas Virgil's Rome is a type of all earthly cities and—in the Christianized version of Virgil which stretches from Augustine to T. S. Eliot—a type too of the heavenly city, the goal of our pilgrimage. Secondly, as we have already seen, the one victory over time available in Homer's world is through song, which keeps alive the deeds of men. In that sense the Iliad itself is the fulfilment of the promise which it predicts for its heroes, and the Homeric hero needs the poet as much as the poet needs the hero.
In respect of time the world of Troilus is both like and unlike that of the Iliad, like in that it offers no ultimate meaning or goal, unlike in that it foregrounds this lack of meaning (so creating a sense of disappointment) and fails to give any secure fame as a foil. As Medcalf well says, 'it is haunted by a sense of time as only a succession of presentational immediacies, offering no meaning but oblivion'. We have observed how Ulysses, in his conversation with Achilles, suggests that time renders all human values worthless; what unites mankind is the frenzied pursuit of the new. This is the 'one touch of nature' that 'makes the whole world kin', so often misunderstood (sentimentally) out of its context. As an argument to persuade Achilles to fight, it is bizarre; there is no encouragement in it for a jaded or depressed or confused soldier, nothing of the heroic consolation that great deeds will be recalled, lovingly, in song, to compensate for the sacrifice of life. Ulysses suggests a world where nothing is remembered, and where effort and great deeds will achieve only the most fleeting recognition. Achilles might as well sit in his tent for all this offers him. As with the speech on degree, so here Ulysses' arguments are pushed to an extreme where they become counter-productive.
Such, however, is not the only stance of Troilus on time. In III.ii love is seen in its perspective. In some beautiful lines Cressida guarantees her profession of constant love for Troilus, and thereby pronounces judgement on herself (182-189):
If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth,
When time is old and hath forgot itself,
When water-drops have worn the stones of Troy,
And blind oblivion swallowed cities up,
And mighty states characterless are grated
To dusty nothing—yet let memory,
From false to false, among false maids in love,
Upbraid my falsehood.
The subordinate clauses carry more poetic weight than the ostensibly more important but more conventional phrases of the vow itself. Cressida's vision of the future, while sad and empty, brings gentleness and peace. She reflects on the loss of identity of all we know and value, the inevitable loss that the passing of time must bring—oblivion is blind and mighty states will be nothing—but she presents the process as one gradual and quiet. Even Troy is not seen in terms of the speedy destruction of war; the stones could be those of a ruined or of a complete city—no matter which—while the age-long erosion by water-drops differs hugely from the brutal clamours of much of the play. In part Cressida's vision could be seen as Homeric; ironically she will be remembered in story precisely as a false lover—Troilus and Pandarus too have their recorded roles in history which poets keep alive. But with the 'water-drops' we move to an Ovidian rather than a Homeric sense of time, to the world of flux depicted in the fifteenth book of the Metamorphoses which made such an impression on Shakespeare. Dryden, faced with the gentle discordances of this Ovidian moment, predictably cut it (III.ii.73ff.: in a better vein, in the Fables, he relished Ovid's account of the transience of all things, and translated it wonderfully).
In IV.v, after the drawn contest between Hector and Ajax, Agamemnon has to find words to greet a valued enemy. He begins, ham-fistedly, by trying to be pithy and bluffly honest, realizes his failure to strike the right note and begins afresh. On his second attempt he is able to free himself from the restrictions of the present and to see events in larger perspective; as a result he can focus on what is genuinely heart-warming in the present moment:
Worthy all arms! as welcome as to one
That would be rid of such an enemy—
But that's no welcome. Understand more clear:
What's past and what's to come is strewed with
And formless ruin of oblivion;
But in this extant moment, faith and troth,
Strained purely from all hollow bias-drawing,
Bids thee with most divine integrity
From heart of very heart, great Hector, welcome.
Again the lines on time carry the main emotional weight, and they also have a way, typical of Shakespeare, of spilling out beyond their immediate context. It is not the least of this play's startling effects to see the stiff, perhaps absurd, certainly unglamorous and insensitive Agamemnon pour forth, if ever so briefly, such delicate, ravishing words; 'husks' is excellent in its combination of the concrete and mundane with a sense of lightness, the melancholy of autumn leaves, while the 'of in line 166 keeps the words floating somewhat impressionistically. The lines cancel out the initial gruesome bêtise and mould this moment into one of positive harmony; only this moment, of course, but a play which seems so often to deny all value provides this and a few others which are not wholly nullified by their temporariness. In terms of ideas the two speeches we have discussed correspond to the views of Ulysses: nothing, no matter how strong and admired, has lasting power. But the tone, lyrical wistful elegiac, is wholly other, and Agamemnon, in particular, achieves, by acknowledging time's power, a temporary but important victory over it.
Troilus is one of the most strenuously intellectual of Shakespeare's plays. For this reason we have been obliged to explore the dense arguments in a number of key scenes in some detail. We hope that we have thereby demonstrated the play's involvement in several of the principal concerns of the Iliad. Of course the treatment differs radically from Homer's, sometimes, but by no means always, to the extent of constituting a deconstruction of those concerns. It cannot be proved that the impulse for all this came from Shakespeare's reading of Chapman's Homer, but this is, at the very least, a plausible hypothesis. The result was Shakespeare's Iliad, a modern rehandling of ancient epic themes.
SHAKESPEARE'S TROJAN STYLE
There are obvious similarities between the style of some parts of Troilus and that of the player's narration of scenes from the sack of Troy in Hamlet (II.ii.430-516), written not long before. For Dryden such 'pompous' writing was 'the delight of that audience which loves poetry, but understands it not', and came close to 'the blown puffy style', though Shakespeare had the excuse of writing in a less refined age. In both we find a diction which combines the bombastic and Latinate and neologistic with contrasting blunt monosyllables. Moderns tend to suspect an intention of parody, of deliberately contrived 'figures pedantical' (Love's Labour's Lost V.ii.408). We would rather argue that this is Shakespeare's 'Trojan style', a style deemed appropriate to epic, as the age understood epic, part of a tradition which stretches from Marlowe, in particular Dido, Queen of Carthage and the translation of Lucan's first book, via Chapman's Iliad to the war in heaven in Milton's Paradise Lost (the style of which has also worried twentieth-century critics). Although in Dido the matter comes from the Aeneid, the style does not strike a modern reader at least as convincingly Virgilian, but English Renaissance writers seem often to have assimilated Virgil to later Latin poets, so that their work in this mode comes to resemble Lucan or the messenger-speeches in Seneca's tragedies. Thus Marlowe's description of the treatment of Hecuba by Pyrrhus and his soldiers lacks all Virgilian 'restraint':
the frantic queen leapt on his face,
And, in his eyelids hanging by the nails,
A little while prolonged her husband's life.
At last the soldiers pulled her by the heels
And swung her howling in the empty air.
The player's 'passionate speech' (428) is certainly admired by Hamlet and those he regards as still better judges, however much it proved 'caviare to the general' (433). It is not easy to know how to interpret Hamlet's taste. His observation that the play was 'well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning' (435-437) is almost bland enough to please Polonius, a conventional but uninformative humanist critical position. What follows
I remember one said there were no sallets in the lines to make the matter savoury, nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the audience of affection [i.e. affectation], but called it an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine,
suggests the authority of a plain style which avoids excessive wit and polish. However the speech itself sits rather uneasily with this description, since, while craggy rather than slick or witty, it contains a number of bizarre phrases and strained hyperboles. Hamlet specifies that it comes from 'Aeneas' tale to Dido' (442f.), and, were we not told of its provenance in a play, we might assume that, as a narrative piece, it is a rendering of part of the Aeneid itself. It is thus reasonable to argue that Shakespeare is attempting an epic style, grand, slowmoving, with strange and archaic words, numerous tropes, adjectival doublets and half-lines, a distinctively Virgilian feature. Those who think the speech parodie have failed to establish the object of the parody. There is the odd touch which recalls Aeneas' 'woeful tale' to Dido in Marlowe's play (III.i.l14ff.), but Shakespeare could hit off the Marlovian manner with complete accuracy when he wanted, and he does not do so here. While there is a general stylistic similarity with Marlowe (since both poets are working in a highly-wrought epic style), there is nothing specific enough to suggest parody. Prosodically the player's speech is rather more old-fashioned and more stiffly artificial than anything in Troilus, but that is presumably because Shakespeare wants to mark it off decisively from the style of the rest of the play. Apparently, particularly in view of his later instructions to the players, Hamlet thinks the performance 'realistic' as well as moving, possibly a reminder, by the sophisticated playwright, of the clichéd character of much literary response and of the relative nature of realism. It is worth remarking that there are some distinctly grand and epic features of style in the main action of Hamlet too, for example in Horatio's description of Old Hamlet in his heroic ethos (I.i.65f.: 'So frowned he once, when in an angry parle/He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice'). Horatio's account of subsequent events employs a distinctly leisurely form of the high-style; there are numerous phrases with inversions, repetitions and 'windy' and abstract language which would almost certainly have been described as fustian if they had occurred in Troilus: 'in the gross and scope of my opinion'; 'pricked on by a most emulate pride'; 'a moiety competent'; 'the same covenant/And carriage of the article designed'; 'terms compulsatory'; 'into our climatures and countrymen' (70ff).
The player's speech begins with a description of Pyrrhus covered in blood:
The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble,
When he lay couched in the ominous horse,
Hath now this dread and black complexion
With heraldry more dismal—head to foot
Now is he total gules, horridly tricked
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Baked and impasted with the parching streets
That lend a tyrannous and a damned light
To their lord's murder. Roasted in wrath and
And thus o'ersized with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
Old grandsire Priam seeks.
'Rugged', which, as the Arden editor observes [Harold Jenkins], is 'apt … for both the landscape and the beasts of Hyrcania'—an image which comes from Virgil and which Hamlet uses of Pyrrhus in his first, mistaken opening—corresponds to Virgil's horrens, and means 'terrifyingly wild in appearance'. The black armour—in Virgil it is rather 'shimmering' (coruscus, Aeneid II .470)—resembles the darkness in the horse, so that Shakespeare does not merely draw together the physical and the moral, but gives a sense of black on black (such preoccupation with fine shadings of colour is typical of Renaissance poetry); Pyrrhus' 'complexion' is his general colouring, but also suggests, more vaguely, his whole body and being. Black then gives way to red. The notion of heraldry, in grim ironic understatement, is continued in the phrases 'total gules' and 'horridly tricked with blood'. Pyrrhus, paradoxically as well as zeugmatically, is 'roasted in wrath and fire', and has become both literally and metaphorically monstrous in size with his outer coating of blood—a hyperbole worthy of Lucan. Equally extreme and paradoxical is the picture of Priam falling through the mere 'whiff and wind' of the blow of Pyrrhus' sword, which overgoes a similar conceit in Marlowe's Dido (II.i.253f.): 'Which he [Pyrrhus], disdaining, whisked his sword about,/ And with the wind thereof the king fell down'. The death of Priam is described in slow motion. The moment of stillness, and the subsequent descent of the blow, is related with the help of an epic simile depicting the lull before the storm and its onset, and there is a stately build-up of clauses towards the climactic verb, in a Latinate, epical and indeed Virgilian manner:
And never did the Cyclops' hammer fall
On Mars's armour, forged for proof eterne,
With less remorse than Pyrrhus' bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam.
The light pause after 'sword' followed by the two heavy monosyllables is finely mimetic. This is, in its peculiar way, distinguished writing, whose effect, in a sympathetic listener, is clearly the arousal of fear and, above all, pity. So, in Dido, Queen of Carthage, a comparable narrative manner prompts the queen to the response: 'I die with melting ruth' (II.i.289).
Hamlet's fondness for a play which was only acted once suggests an elitist and academic taste appropriate to the university-educated prince. But, while we would want to call the speech a pastiche, it should not be treated as parody. Troilus is a more complex case, for the epicizing manner is employed with a distinct self-consciousness and may sometimes be pitched at the edge of absurdity, while never, in our view, quite toppling over into it; in that sense the style can be closer to the excesses of Milton's war in heaven than to the more straightforward manner of Marlowe or Chapman. This is partly the effect of the play's competing discourses already discussed, partly of its overall indeterminacy. But the point should not be coarsened. Critics who see in the play's grand style nothing but 'cant and rant' are not only yielding to the vision of Thersites, but ultimately depriving its epic moments of any real interest. Bradshaw talks of the prologue's 'signalled inflation', its 'stylistic dissonances', its 'flawed grand style', although he does allow 'a momentary, curiously Miltonic, grandeur' to lines 11-15:
To Tenedos they come,
And the deep-drawing barks do there disgorge
Their warlike fraughtage. Now on Dardan plains
The fresh and yet unbruised Greeks do pitch
Their brave pavilions.
Certainly the prologue has its own anti-heroism incorporated within it; after the grand opening we learn, flatly, of the cause of the war: 'The ravished Helen, Menelaus' queen,/With wanton Paris sleeps—and that's the quarrel' (9f.), and the ending, dismissive and cynical, is likewise unheroic. But the effect of these sardonic touches is spoiled if we do not concede to the rest some authentic grandeur achieved in part by inversions, archaisms ('orgulous', perhaps from Caxton, 'fraughtage', the rare Germanic word 'sperr', if that is the correct reading in 19) and Latinisms (e.g. 'immures'). The description of the shutting of the gates—'with massy staples/And co-responsive and fulfilling bolts' (17f.)—juxtaposes, in a positively Miltonic way, long rolling words which are also learned etymological Latinisms with the calculated brutality of the monosyllabic 'bolts' placed in an emphatic position at the end of the line. One can compare the Miltonic sinewy pedantry of Agamemnon's 'Tortive and errant from his course of growth' (I.ii1i.9).
When Ajax (not the most subtle of heroes) addresses his trumpeter thus:
Now crack thy lungs, and split thy brazen pipe;
Blow, villain, till thy sphered bias cheek
Outswell the colic of puffed Aquilon,
we may suspect bombast, but in the event Hector's visit in the rest of the scene proves uplifting enough, even if powerfully darkened by Achilles' dire threats, which the other Greek leaders find inappropriate. Yet some of the diction is particularly lofty ('multipotent', 'impressure', 'mirable', 'prenominate', 'convive'; 128, 130, 141, 249, 271). To T. McAlindon [in "Language, Style and Meaning in Troilus and Cress ida," PMLA, Vol. 84 (1969)] such things are 'verbosity', 'mere wind', 'strain and unnaturalness'—his conclusion about Troilus as a whole, that 'its subject … is its own indecorum', is fashionably reflexive. But, in the play's most gripping scene (V.ii), it is difficult to believe that Troilus' use of words like 'recordation', 'deceptious' or 'calumniate' (114ff.), or his subsequent violent language against Diomedes (170ff.), convicts him of mere bombast. There is an important point of principle here. It is easy for both Renaissance and modern critics to define 'decorum' in a general way, or to list stylistic vices like macrologia (excessive length) or cacozelia (frigid affectation of novelty)—both criticized by George Puttenham in his Art of English Poetry—but there can be no objectivity about their application to specific instances. If we take macrologia, we have to ask 'how long?' and 'for whom?', and Puttenham cannot tell us, because there is no answer. The objection applies to those modern critics who argue that Ulysses' degree speech displays this fault. The central problem of rhetorical analysis is how to apply it. There is far too much hyperbole in Shakespeare for all of it to be considered rant, and some of the speeches of Lear or Othello are quite as extreme, in their different ways, as anything in Troilus. The use of adjectival doublets by Othello does not convict him of pomposity, but rather establishes his heroic status. In practice it is our knowledge of the characters, and our sense of the whole timbre of the language, not just the question of vocabulary or rhetorical style, which enables us to say that Don Armado's 'posteriors of this day' (Love's Labour's Lost, V.i.81) is ridiculous, whereas the presence of a similar and, in some ways, even more indecorous metaphor in Henry IV' s lines:
O Westmoreland, thou art a summer's bird,
Which ever in the haunch of winter sings
The lifting up of day,
(2 Henry IV, IV.iv.91-93)
does not detract from their exquisite effect of lyrical melancholy. If we want to show that Shakespeare's Trojan style has no genuine power—and the play is actually much more interesting if it has—we shall need to do better than scan the pages of the rhetoricians. We might instead develop a taste for heroic verse, which would enable us to enjoy a greater variety of English Renaissance texts.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728
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 and Jacobean Studies Presented to Frank Percy Wilson, pp. 65-85. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.
Study of Shakespeare's use of classical allusions throughout his career.
Cantor, Paul A. Shakespeare's Rome Republic and Empire. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976, 228 p.
Study of Shakespeare's conception of Rome that focuses on Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra.
Gesner, Carol. Shakespeare and the Greek Romance: A Study of Origins. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970, 216 p.
Explores Shakespeare's use of Greek romance material in his comedies and final plays.
Jones, Emrys. The Origins of Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, 290 p.
Highly regarded study of Shakespeare's intellectual background that argues for possible Euripidean influences in such works as Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar.
Keach, William. Elizabethan Erotic Narratives: Irony and Pathos in the Ovidian Poetry of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Their Contemporaries. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1977, 277 p.
Analysis of Marlowe's Hero and Leander and Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis in the light of Ovid's poetry and Elizabethan Ovidian narratives.
Kayser, John R., and Lettieri, Ronald J. "The Last of all the Romans': Shakespeare's Commentary on Classical Republicanism." CLIO: A Journal of Literature, History and the Philosophy of History 9, No. 2 (Winter 1980): 197-227.
Argues that Shakespeare's Julius Caesar contains a critique of Republican Rome: "Through his characterization of Brutus, Shakespeare demonstrates that lack of sufficient consciousness or reason ends in human tragedy and political disaster."
Miola, Robert S. Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, 224 p.
Examination of Seneca's influence on Shakespeare "both in stylistic minutiae and in oblique, audacious effects."
Riehle, Wolfgang. Shakespeare, Plautus and the Humanist Tradition. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1990, 309 p.
Analysis of Shakespeare's interest in Plautus and the New Comedy, containing a detailed discussion of The Comedy of Errors.
Salingar, Leo. Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974, 356 p.
Important study of Shakespeare's handling of classical, medieval, and Renaissance comic traditions.
Siegel, Paul N. "Shakespeare's View of Roman History." In his Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays: A Marxist Approach, pp. 100-34. Rutherford, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1986.
Marxist analysis of Shakespeare's handling of Roman history in Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Cymbeline.
Spencer, T. J. B. "Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans." Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production 10 (1957): 27-38.
Influential article in which the critic asserts: "I take it that Dryden and Pope were right; that Shakespeare knew what he was doing in writing Roman plays; that part of his intention was a serious effort at representing the Roman scene as genuinely as he could."
Thomas, Vivian. Shakespeare's Roman Worlds. London: Routledge, 1989, 243 p.
General study aimed at demonstrating "how a clear understanding of Shakespeare's exploration and articulation of Roman values provides an invaluable means of gaining fresh critical insights into the Roman plays."
Thomson, J. A. K. Shakespeare and the Classics. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952, 254 p.
Influential account of Shakespeare's knowledge of Greek and Latin sources.
Velz, John W. "The Ovidian Soliloquy in Shakespeare." Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews XVIII (1986): 1-24.
Examines the influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses on Shakespeare's meditative soliloquies, paying particular attention to The Rape of Lucrece and Measure for Measure
Wilders, John. The Lost Garden: A View of Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays. London: Macmillan Press, 1978, 154 p.
Valuable study of Shakespeare's conception of history and human nature.
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