Jonathan Bate on How the Classics Made Shakespeare

Ben Jonson famously accused Shakespeare of having “small Latin and less Greek.” But he was exaggerating. Shakespeare was steeped in the classics. Shaped by his grammar school education in Roman literature, history, and rhetoric, he moved to London, a city that modeled itself on ancient Rome. He worked in a theatrical profession that had inherited the conventions and forms of classical drama, and he read deeply in Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca. In a book of extraordinary range, acclaimed literary critic and biographer Jonathan Bate, one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare, offers groundbreaking insights into how, perhaps more than any other influence, the classics made Shakespeare the writer he became.

Is Shakespeare on par with the ancient Greek and Roman writers of the classics? What made him stand out, rather than his contemporaries?

Astonishingly, considering that the theatre was still a fairly disreputable profession in Shakespeare’s time, people began comparing his works to those of classical antiquity even in his lifetime. His poems were compared to those of Ovid, his comedies to Plautus and his tragedies to Seneca. A few years after his death, his fellow-dramatist Ben Jonson wrote a poem in his memory—it’s included in the First Folio—in which he claimed that Shakespeare’s plays actually surpassed those of the ancients. Given that Jonson himself was phenomenally learned in the classics, that was a striking claim indeed. It does immediately provoke the question: why has Shakespeare and not Jonson or any of the other fine dramatists of the Elizabethan age become our classic, the modern equivalent of Sophocles or Virgil? That’s a question I’ve explored in my earlier books on the history of Shakespeare’s posthumous reputation—I return to it in the final chapter of this book, where I look at the classical idea of “fame”—but the implicit answer I have found, in the several years it took to research and write How the Classics made Shakespeare, is that the sheer range of his work was unmatched by any contemporary. Jonson was more obviously compared to Horace, Spenser to Virgil and Bacon to Cicero, but Shakespeare seemed to combine the gifts of them all. Similarly, Marlowe was great in tragedy and Jonson in comedy, but Shakespeare was, as he wittily puts it himself in Hamlet, the master of every genre, “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.”

How important was it that Shakespeare’s audiences understand allusions to fables and myths? Did Elizabethan theatre-goers have greater cultural literacy than modern audiences at Shakespeare plays when it came to understanding these references?

This is a big theme—and an anxiety—in my book. You have to remember that Latin was the absolute core of the Elizabethan schoolroom curriculum. Grammar school meant Latin grammar, morning, noon and night. The history, literature, thought and culture of ancient Rome—and, to a lesser extent, Greece—was everywhere in education, in the Elizabethan frame of mind, even, I suggest, in the architecture and iconography of the city of London. The theatres themselves were designed on Roman models. This meant that anyone who was literate, and probably quite a few citizens who were not, would have known what Shakespeare was talking about when one of his characters mentioned Hercules or Julius Caesar or Lucrece or Adonis or Actaeon or Alcibiades and a hundred others. My anxiety is that with the decline in knowledge of classical literature, history and mythology, many such references now pass over the heads of playgoers and students. For example, I have a riff in the book that begins with an inscription on a funeral monument in a London church in the parish where Shakespeare lived and then goes into a reference to Jason and the Golden Fleece in The Merchant of Venice. Both the monument maker and the playwright clearly assumed that people would know that story—but not many of us know it now (though maybe it is handy that Disney has reanimated some of the old classical myths!).

In the book, you say that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights agreed that “a work was good not because it was original, but because it resembled an admired classical exemplar.” If there are only 7 basic plots under the sun, why do modern audiences and writers frown upon stories that aren’t “original” while also still appreciating Shakespeare for his ability to pay homage to the classics? 

I like to tell my students that they need to get the nineteenth-century Romantic idea of genius and originality out of their head when they think about how Shakespeare put his plays together. It’s better to find an analogy in the way that art students were trained for centuries: you begin by copying the works of the great masters—that is how you hone your technique— and then you start performing variations on classical themes. That is how you prove your ingenuity: by variation and embellishment, not starting with a blank canvas. My book grew from a series of lectures at the Warburg Institute in London: it was the Warburg scholars, such as E. H. Gombrich in whose memory the lectures were named, who did more than anyone else to help us to understand this Renaissance process of offering original re-presentations that engage in dialogue with what they called “the classical tradition.”

Plenty of people have accused Shakespeare of plagiarism, or of lacking sufficient training in Greek and Latin. What are some other common misconceptions about Shakespeare that you’d like to rebut?

These claims go back to Shakespeare’s own time and to the indignation of university-educated dramatists, such as Robert Greene (who called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”), upon witnessing the rapid rise to theatrical prominence of the man from the backwoods with only a grammar school education to his name. But we need to remember that the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon produced some real talent—one of the schoolmasters was a published author of Latin verse, while Shakespeare’s fellow pupil Richard Field became a distinguished printer of books in many languages. The danger of the misconception created by jealous writers such as Greene is that it leads all too easily to the idea that Shakespeare couldn’t have been educated enough to write the plays … and that leads to all those ridiculous authorship conspiracy theories. The classical learning in the plays precisely matches that of the grammar school curriculum, with some later reading added on (notably the English translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans). The poems and plays are emphatically not written in the very different styles that we find among university-educated dramatists, Inns of Court trained lawyers, let alone aristocrats.

Is there any classic tale that Shakespeare reimagined that has made a lasting impression on you? 

I guess the one that has most haunted me is his adaptation of Ovid’s story of how the artist Pygmalion made a statue of a woman that was so beautiful that he fell in love with it and the gods then brought it to life. That’s an allegory of the power of aesthetic delight and a very sexy story, but also a slightly seedy one in which the woman is merely the object of desire. What is beautiful about Shakespeare’s reimagining is that the statue is not some abstract notion of female beauty, but a once and once again beloved wife who has been abused by unfounded male sexual jealousy and is then given back, so that the husband has a second chance—I’m talking, of course, about Hermione and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, where the reanimation at the end is an allegory of the power of theatrical magic (achieved through distinctively female agency in the form of Paulina) and at the same time a triumph of love as opposed to an act of sexual desire. The whole question of eros and its relation to theatre and to magic is at the heart of my book.

In your opinion, are there any writers from the past century who drew upon the classics and/or Shakespearean plots and might stand the test of time like Shakespeare still does today?

There was no guarantee that it would be Shakespeare rather than some other dramatist who became our immortal, and by the same account it would be a fool’s game to guess who will and who will not endure from the last hundred years. What does strike me, though, is that the poets whom I find myself reading—as Ben Jonson said we should read Shakespeare—“again and again” all seem to have been steeped in the classics, fascinated by the old stories and adept at translating, imitating and remaking them. I am thinking, for example, of W. B. Yeats, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. They were the poets who, along with Shakespeare, were my first “classics” when I was a teenager and a student.

Jonathan Bate is Provost of Worcester College and professor of English literature at the University of Oxford and Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College. His many books include Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare and an award-winning biography of Ted Hughes. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC, has been on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is the coeditor of The RSC Shakespeare: Complete Works,

Hamlet: Then and Now

by Rhodri Lewis

Why study Shakespeare? In answer to this question, we commonly hear variations on two basic themes. First, Shakespeare’s particularity. No other author gives us such a clear picture of the historical moment in which he or she lived; no other author writes as well or as skillfully; no other author depicts in such detail so many facets of the human condition; no other author has been read, performed, or discussed so widely; no other author is more responsible for what, in one of the more breathless expressions of New Haven transcendentalism, has been described as the invention of the human. Second, Shakespeare’s universality. He is, we are told, for and of all time: the culmination of what went before him; a prefiguration of what came, and continues to come, after him. His writings can therefore be mined for gems that will help to illuminate present-day discourses including those of politics, religion, gender, race, disability, law, colonialism, cognitive psychology, human-animal relations, economics, and – at the quack end of the market – leadership for corporate executives.

Some of these approaches do a brilliant job of helping us to understand what Shakespeare wrote and why he wrote it. Others less so. In my new book, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, I wanted to try something different. Rather than using Shakespeare as a medium through which to discuss history, philosophy, politics, the nature of genius, or some other subject, I wanted give Shakespeare’s words priority over the uses to which they can be put. Not by studying him in isolation (only to read Shakespeare isn’t even to read Shakespeare), but by seeing what happens when different forms of historical, intellectual, artistic, literary-poetic, theoretical, theatrical, social, cultural, and political discourse are put to work in examining how a particular Shakespearean play functions. As my title suggests, I chose Hamlet. In part, this was because Hamlet is probably Shakespeare’s richest and most demanding dramatic creation. But I was also drawn to it because of its critical history. Hamlet criticism has for a long time taken the form of a literary Rorschach test, in which the play is an inkblot onto which scholars, critics, actors, and directors (not unlike Polonius seeing different shapes in the clouds) project their favorite theories, methodologies, or ideologies. There need be nothing wrong with this provided the critic remains aware of what he or she doing. Too often, however, students of Hamlet have sought to remake the play in the image of the parts of it that most cohere with their own preoccupations. In Stephen Booth’s aptly irreverant phrase, there has been a tendency “to indulge a not wholly explicable fancy that in Hamlet we behold the frustrated and inarticulate Shakespeare furiously wagging his tail in an effort to tell us something.”

In seeking to make sense of a famous play whose famous author was neither frustrated nor inarticulate, and in trying to treat Shakespeare as neither unique nor somehow universal, I was surprised to find myself coming up with an answer to a version of the question I with which I begin above. Why study Shakespeare in in the mid- to late-2010s? Because he offers us an unflinchingly brilliant guide to the predicaments in which we find ourselves in Trumpland and on Brexit Island. Not by prophesying the likes of Farage, Bannon, and Donald J. Trump (it’s true: reality is stranger than fiction), but by enabling us to experience a world in which the prevalent senses of moral order (political, ethical, personal) bear only the most superficial relation to lived experience.

To anyone glancing at my book, this claim might seem counter-intuitive. Its staple is Shakespeare’s engagement with, and ultimate repudiation of, the body of learning and civic-educational doctrine that we think of as renaissance humanism. Historical scholarship doesn’t get much more historically-minded than this. And yet it is Shakespeare’s determination to explore the limitations of the humanistic worldview that draws Hamlet into the nearest dialog with our own age.

In the figures of Claudius and Polonius, Shakespeare makes plain his conviction that humanistic ideals are hollowed out, bankrupt: the usurper and his consigliere mouth the platitudes of personal, familial, and political conviction, but do so only in order advance their own interests. So it is that Hamlet sets himself against the culture of “seeming” in all its particulars. He has, he claims, no more interest in performing so the roles that the court offers him than in affirming normative “truths” about the nature of human existence. He fights against the insidious conventionality of his uncle’s regime, and although he is therefore constrained to die within the action of the play, he lives on outside it as an avatar of personal and philosophical integrity.

And yet, when we read the play in the light of humanist tradition, a very different picture emerges; one in which the comfortingly familiar account of Hamlet is comprehensively upended. Viewed from here, Hamlet appears no less superficial – no less bound to “seeming” and self-interest – than Claudius, Polonius, and their cohort of hangers-on. Even his most soaringly eloquent speeches emerge as a patchwork of quotations and misquotations that twist and appropriate the techniques of humanist rhetoric; their purpose is not to search for the truth, but to present Hamlet with a series of self-images that conform with his elevated sense of self-regard. Likewise, his masquerades as a poet, a historian, a philosopher, a stage director, a lover, and a theologian have few claims to coherence, but Hamlet doesn’t care. Through them, he gets at once to distract his attention from the dynamics of his inner life – specifically, from his inability to feel committed to the act of revenge urged by his father’s ghost – and to enjoy a safe vantage from which to judge the behavior of others in and around Elsinore. The irony is that the harder he tries to separate himself from the culture in which he has been educated and through which he thinks, the more it becomes clear that his fate is bound up with those on stage around him. His failures of communication and understanding themselves inadvertently express the cultural assumptions he disdains; more importantly, they ensure the obliteration both of his family and of the politically autonomous Danish state that his family had sought to protect.

Shakespeare’s drama in general – and his Hamlet in particular – do an extraordinary job of holding up the mirror to a world characterized by illusion, pretense, and self-delusion.  They show us that as we try to detach ourselves from the cultures within which we are obliged to exist, we seek to obscure the ways in which we have helped bring these cultures into being – to say nothing of the ways in which our attempts at self-detachment serve to make things worse. This lesson is no more comfortable in 2017 than it was at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

LewisRhodri Lewis is professor of English literature and a fellow of St. Hugh’s College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Language, Mind and Nature: Artificial Languages in England from Bacon to LockeWilliam Petty on the Order of Nature and Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness.