William Shakespeare Shakespeare And Classical Civilization

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(Shakespearean Criticism)


The study of Shakespeare's use and conception of the classical past has become an increasingly important part of modern scholarship, which has taken as one of its goals the thorough delineation of the playwright's intellectual background. Beginning with T. W. Baldwin's monumental study, William Shakespeare's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke (1944), contemporary commentators have overturned the Romantic conception of Shakespeare as an untutored genius whose works were the result of inspiration rather than learning. By painstakingly examining the ways in which the Tudor educational system was shaped by the values of European humanism, scholars have demonstrated that Shakespeare in fact possessed an impressive grounding in Latin literature that informed virtually every one of his works. One-third of his plays have a classical setting; his entire oeuvre resonates with mythological references, echoes of Virgil, Ovid, and Seneca, and, occasionally, the direct importation of plot and dialogue from such authors as Plautus and Plutarch.

In the Roman history plays and the dramas set in the Greek world, Shakespeare clearly reveals a continuing fascination with classical culture and politics shared by Renaissance artists generally. Such Roman plays as Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus focus on what was for the Renaissance the nodal point of the European past: the Roman Republic and Empire. While earlier critics frequently dismissed Shakespeare's knowledge of Roman history and institutions, modern scholars, especially Robert Miola (1983), have persuasively agued that Shakespeare was sensitive both to Rome's political transformations over time and to the enduring coherence of its ideals, which included constancy, honor, and pietas.

By contrast, Shakespeare's portrayal of the Greek world in Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens has engendered far less critical commentary. A persistent but unresolved subject of debate has been whether Shakespeare was influenced directly by Greek tragedy, or indirectly through the Latin plays of Seneca. Additionally, some scholars have argued over Shakespeare's evaluation of the Greeks themselves. Many commentators have asserted that, like the majority of Renaissance writers, Shakespeare was heavily influenced by Roman perceptions and prejudices, which generally characterized the Greeks as dissolute and perfidious. Recently, however, Charles and Michelle Martindale (1990) have attempted to qualify this view, and have suggested that in composing Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare might have relied upon George Chapman's 1598 translation of part of Homer's Iliad. They conclude that, from whatever sources Shakespeare derived his knowledge of the Troy story, his rehandling of ancient material reveals a sensitive response to genuine Homeric themes.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

John Arthos (lecture date 1970)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Ancient World," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. X, No. 3, Summer, 1971, pp. 149-63.

[In the following lecture, originally delivered at the University of Michigan in 1970, Arthos argues that Shakespearean drama represents the synthesis of classical source material and the medieval Christian imagination.]

There are many reasons for valuing Shakespeare, and one of them is the quality of his understanding. We read or see his plays in their all but unlimited wealth of interest and beauty, and they bring not only delight but the revelation of an understanding so embracing we can hardly credit it as within the power of a human. Dryden's praise says it best: "He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul."

When we ourselves reflect upon the place of Shakespeare in the history of the western world, we are often led to bring to bear what we know of his age, and when we make comparisons we commonly find ourselves comparing the civilization of Shakespeare's time with that of Homer's, say, whom Dryden had in mind as...

(The entire section is 79,237 words.)