How the Classics Made Shakespeare

Eulogizing Shakespeare in 1623, Ben Jonson mischievously noted that the departed author had “small Latin and less Greek.” That perplexing dig helped to spawn the legend of Shakespeare as a natural-born genius, a poet unspoiled by formal learning who “warble[d] his native wood-notes wild.” In some respects, Jonson's slight made sense: The country boy from Stratford-upon-Avon had only a grammar-school education. Yet Shakespeare's plays and poems overflow with classical learning, as Jonson—who was deeply versed in the classical tradition—surely knew. “Shakespeare's knowledge of classics and philosophy has always puzzled his biographers,” wrote E.K. Chambers, the early-20th-century Shakespeare scholar.

Some have tried to resolve the puzzle by downplaying Shakespeare's erudition: The plays merely “looked learned,” especially “to the less literate public,” argued Harvard's Alfred Harbage in 1972. As scholars have uncovered Shakespeare's rich use of classical literature, that view has become untenable. In “How the Classics Made Shakespeare,” Jonathan Bate finds that the Bard was “almost always Ovidian, more often than is usually supposed Horatian, sometimes Ciceronian, occasionally Tacitean, an interesting mix of Senecan and anti-Senecan, and . . . strikingly anti-Virgilian.” In short, he was profoundly engaged with his classical inheritance.

Mr. Bate, a professor at Oxford and the author of previous works on Shakespeare, including “Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare” (2009), aims to fill in the gaps in the scholarship. Shakespeare's debt to Horace has been neglected, he points out; so, too, the influence of Cicero. Rather than confining himself to explicit references to the ancients, as has been the scholarly habit, he takes a broad view of Shakespeare's encounter with antiquity. Elizabethans were steeped in the classical tradition. Horatian sayings (dulce et utile; carpe diem; nunc est bibendum) were to them what scraps of Shakespeare became to later generations: memorable tags widely known even to those who haven't read the texts. Shakespeare didn't merely draw from certain sources; the ancients shaped the very cast of his mind. “Shakespeare,” writes Mr. Bate, “had a classical intelligence.”

It's a beautiful formulation, reminding readers of a kind of lost language, a way of thinking and a fluency with classical mythology and history that have lapsed in us. It's also a clever formulation, allowing Shakespeare both more learning and less. It makes it possible for Mr. Bate to argue that the importance of Cicero to Shakespeare was not strictly dependent on his actually reading Cicero: “This was an influence transmitted by osmosis as well as by education.” That's convenient, especially if one's formal education ended at 13. Still, even as he leans toward less, Mr. Bate can't resist giving Shakespeare more. Mark Antony's oration in “Julius Caesar” (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me yours ears . . .”) is the “most effective piece of Ciceronian rhetoric in his entire canon,” he writes. And in dramatizing the factionalism of ancient Rome, Shakespeare was implicitly warning about the divisions between the patricians of his day. “In this,” Mr. Bate concludes, “Shakespeare was the Cicero of his age.”

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