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Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity

How the Classics Made Shakespeare. Jonathan Bates. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.


Jonathan Bate is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Shakespeare. He is a senior research fellow and professor of English literature at Worcester College at the University of Oxford, as well as Arizona State University’s Foundation Professor of Environmental Humanities. Any new book from him is significant, and his How the Classics Made Shakespeare is especially important. It is a sad commentary on the current state of Shakespeare criticism that this book needed to be written, but Sir Bate has indeed performed a valuable service by reminding us that the achievement of the greatest English author was deeply rooted in traditions that go all the way back to the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. As Shakespeare criticism becomes increasingly redirected and limited to our own contemporary concerns, people are in danger of forgetting that Shakespeare drew a great deal of his wisdom and inspiration from the ancient past. It is not just that people today have lost sight of Shakespeare’s grounding in the classical tradition. They are on the verge of losing sight of the classical tradition itself. How can they appreciate the ways that Shakespeare drew sustenance from the Greek and Roman classics when they have never experienced for themselves the depth and grandeur of these works?

In a firmament that included Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, Shakespeare was one of the brightest stars of the Renaissance. Renaissance means “rebirth,” in this case the rebirth of classical antiquity in a largely Christian civilization. This development was evident in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, and even politics throughout Europe beginning as early as the fourteenth century. If Shakespeare was a Renaissance playwright, how can we sever our understanding of him from our understanding of classical antiquity? The problem is compounded by the fact that the Renaissance itself is dropping out of view in contemporary scholarship. For several decades the term that Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt popularized in his magisterial book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy has been replaced by the “Early Modern Period.” I have been unable to determine which learned body legislated this change in terminology, but it has proceeded with the inexorable force of a scholarly decree. A movement that has largely succeeded in banishing the term “Renaissance” from academic discourse is beginning to affect the way the general public perceives the period.

This development has always struck me as ill-conceived, another example of how the humanities profession is shooting itself in the foot. It’s as if Hawaii chose to rename itself the Central Pacific Islands. This name might be correct geographically but gone would be all the glamour that has accumulated over the years around “Hawaii.” The Tourist Board in Oahu would caution against such a rebranding of a legendary destination. Who would think of booking the vacation of a lifetime to some place called the Central Pacific Islands? Very few scholarly terms in the humanities have a glamorous aura to them, but “Renaissance” is one of them. The general public has been fascinated by the phenomenon of “Renaissance man,” and they line up for exhibitions of the works of Leonardo or Michelangelo. Will they be similarly captivated by tributes to some “Early Modern Person” (as the term would have to be phrased today)?

The choice between “Renaissance” and “Early Modern Period” may initially seem like a merely semantic issue, the kind of dispute that only academics could get excited about. But something significant is at stake here. The term “Renaissance” suggests that the period had a kind of integrity—that it stood for something on its own. The Renaissance was long viewed as a peak of human achievement, not the beginning of something that came to fruition only centuries later. Indeed, in the areas of sculpture, painting, architecture, and literature, one might plausibly argue that Renaissance achievements are unsurpassed in history, before or since. The term “Early Modern Period” has very different connotations. It diminishes the period in our eyes, as if it had to wait for later ages to bring its potential to fulfillment. What began with Michelangelo’s baby steps at sculpting culminated only in the fully realized masterpieces of Jeff Koons. The scholarly shift from “Renaissance” to “Early Modern Period” reflects the reorientation in contemporary humanities scholarship, its dogmatic progressivism, and its confining itself within the narrow horizons of the present-day world.

The term “Renaissance” is past-oriented; by pointing to the revival of classical antiquity as the driving force of the period, it suggests that the past is valuable and a source of inspiration and creativity. The term “Early Modern Period” is future-oriented; it implies that we should judge the early manifestations of a movement by its later developments. The term hides the classical past of the period from view. The past leads only upward to the future, and that means that the Early Modern Period leads to us. “Early Modern Period” is a condescending term; it is typical of contemporary scholarship in the way that it implies that the past is relevant only insofar as it speaks to our contemporary concerns. Just as directors today endlessly modernize Shakespeare’s plays, updating their settings and sometimes even their language to make them seem relevant to contemporary audiences, literary critics appropriate Shakespeare, making him our Shakespeare. Instead of looking for what makes Shakespeare different from us, in the hope of using his alien views to gain fresh perspectives on our own world, we assimilate Shakespeare to our ideas and opinions and turn him into a mirror in which we see only our own reflections.

This is the larger context in which we can understand why How the Classics Made Shakespeare is needed at the moment. As Sir Bate shows in his book, if we take seriously the importance of the classical world to Shakespeare, we are forced to acknowledge its importance to us as well. For me, Shakespeare’s Roman plays provided my entrance into the world of classical antiquity. He awoke my sense of the greatness of the ancient Greeks and Romans and first taught me the many ways in which they offer fundamental alternatives to modern life. Sir Bate’s wide-ranging and capacious knowledge of classical antiquity is what used to constitute the core of an education in England. That makes him an excellent guide to the territory he unveils in this book, as he surveys the manifold ways in which Shakespeare drew upon classical sources, from Ovid and Horace to Plautus and Virgil, from history to philosophy, from epic to drama to lyric poetry.

A Classical Education

Given its subject, How the Classics Made Shakespeare is inevitably a scholarly book, but in the good sense of the term. It is intelligent, well-written, and learned. Readers already familiar with and interested in Shakespeare’s works will profit from reading it; newcomers to Shakespeare should probably start somewhere else. Still, the book is free of critical jargon and succeeds in making its argument accessible to the nonexpert. Sir Bate reminds us that in Shakespeare’s day, a boy from a solidly middle-class family like his would have gotten a rigorous classical education even at a regional local school in Stratford. In Elizabethan England the core of education was learning Latin and then reading and translating into English the Roman classics, including Ovid, Horace, Virgil, and Cicero. It was thus largely the classics that initially shaped Shakespeare’s basic conception of literature, offering him models of lyric poetry, comedy, and tragedy that he followed throughout his career.

One of Sir Bate’s best chapters is called—echoing Polonius in Hamlet—“Tragical-Comical-Historical-Pastoral.” Here Sir Bate analyzes the way that ancient genre theory, from Aristotle to Horace, influenced Shakespeare’s development as a dramatist. We often think of genres as categories invented by literary critics and simply imposed by them on literature. Such categories seem external to the process of literary creation itself. But for authors—especially dramatists—the genres can guide their original act of composition. Generally speaking, a playwright does not sit down to write a drama, but specifically a comedy or a tragedy (or perhaps a hybrid form like a tragicomedy). This was particularly true in Shakespeare’s case. He called one of his early plays The Comedy of Errors, leaving no doubt as to its genre. Moreover, he based the plot on Plautus’s The Menaechmi, a famous—and prototypical—Roman comedy that Shakespeare likely studied in school. Similarly, Shakespeare’s first tragedy was Titus Andronicus, modeled on the tragedies of the Roman playwright Seneca, which deeply influenced Elizabethan playwrights. Thomas Kyd’s Senecan play The Spanish Tragedy—one of the first blockbusters of the Elizabethan Theatre—became hugely influential, contributing, for example, several central dramatic motifs to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, including the use of a ghost and the play-within-the-play. As Sir Bate shows, Shakespeare operated not just within certain genre categories, such as tragedy, but also within specific genre traditions, such as the Senecan revenge tragedy. And these categories and these traditions can be traced back to the classical world.

Sir Bate’s book is filled with this kind of detailed analysis of the impact that classical civilization had on Shakespeare. In one chapter, he examines the way that ruins from the Roman Empire, which still dotted the European landscape in Shakespeare’s day, sparked artistic imaginations in the Renaissance, including Shakespeare’s. For example, Shakespeare’s contemporaries mistakenly believed that the Tower of London was not originally a Norman construction but a Roman one. Indeed, the tradition was that Julius Caesar had originally built the Tower. Sir Bate calls attention to a haunting passage in Shakespeare’s Richard III in which the young Prince Edward—soon to be murdered by the hunchbacked tyrant—speculates on the connection between Julius Caesar and the Tower, vowing once he is king to rival ancient Roman greatness. I know of no passage that better conveys the fact that Shakespeare’s imagination was haunted—and fired up—by images of the Roman past and symbols of the grandeur of classical antiquity.

Sir Bate makes such a timely intervention in current debates about Shakespeare that I hesitate to question some of his conclusions. But in the interest of pursuing his larger purpose, I will say that he does not press his argument far enough. Shakespeare’s debt to classical antiquity was even greater than Sir Bate claims, and the ancient world moved Shakespeare at a level deeper than Sir Bate imagines. His strength is as a scholar, and as such he has a scholarly temperament—he is in fact bookish. His book is largely about the books that had an effect on Shakespeare’s books. Sir Bate thinks of classical antiquity largely in terms of books. But Shakespeare responded to the ancients at a more visceral level; he was engaged with the people behind the books. His encounter with classical antiquity did not just shape his artistic temperament. It made him rethink his understanding of the world by presenting him with ethical, political, and religious alternatives to the civilization in which he grew up.

Venus’s Poet

For Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare responds to the ancient world primarily as a poet, mining the likes of Ovid and Horace for poetic strategies and resources. Sir Bate places an inordinate emphasis on Shakespeare’s poems as opposed to his plays, and in the process he distorts our view of Shakespeare. His poems are of course important, but ultimately they occupy a minor place in his achievement as a whole. To read Sir Bate’s book, you would think that Venus and Adonis should loom larger than King Lear in any estimate of Shakespeare’s achievement. Indeed, Sir Bate gives Venus and Adonis a prominence in his book out of all proportion to its poetic merit or significance in Shakespeare’s career. Yes, it’s a witty erotic poem, but it’s a bagatelle compared to Hamlet. For evidence for his claims about Venus and Adonis, Sir Bate resorts to bestseller lists: “It went through no fewer than nine editions in the decade following its first publication in 1593, making it by far his most popular printed work. This was his signature work. Like Ovid, from which he derived the story, he may accordingly be described as Venus’s poet.”

What does the number of copies Venus and Adonis sold during Shakespeare’s lifetime tell us about the poem’s quality or its long-term significance in his career? Sir Bate is on shaky ground if he thinks sales figures prove that one of Shakespeare’s poems was more important than his plays. It is dubious to assess the popularity of a stage play only by the number of times it appeared in print, especially in an age when plays were just beginning to be printed and almost never in editions authorized by the playwrights. Then, as now, a play ultimately succeeded or failed on the stage in theaters. There is substantial evidence that Shakespeare’s plays were becoming quite well known and celebrated already in the 1590s, particularly in the testimony of Francis Meres, who in his 1598 Palladis Tamia ranks a number of Shakespeare’s plays with Roman classics by Plautus and Seneca. All told, Shakespeare was far more famous during his lifetime as a playwright than he was as a poet, and rightly so. Sir Bate’s claim that Venus and Adonis was Shakespeare’s most popular or successful or representative work—whatever he means by “signature work”—thus falls apart. And yet that is the basis for his establishing his larger claim that Shakespeare was Venus’s poet.

And that turns out to be one of Sir Bate’s central claims about Shakespeare: “One key argument is that Shakespeare’s form of classical fabling was profoundly antiheroic because it was constantly attuned to the force of sexual desire.” Sir Bate gives a one-sided view of Shakespeare by overvaluing his poems and always taking the side of Venus in the playwright’s works. Sir Bate is strangely confident about his knowledge of what exactly Shakespeare thought of his characters: “Those he relished most are often the ones who embrace their carnality, Cleopatra and Falstaff foremost among them.” Sir Bate simply ignores the many critics who have questioned the actions of characters like Cleopatra and Falstaff, seeing them as forces who undermine virtue and political order. We can argue this kind of interpretive issue back and forth forever, but one thing is clear: Shakespeare often portrays eros as one of the principal forces that can lead to tragedy, not as something to be simply, unproblematically, and triumphantly embraced.

In The Tempest, the goddess Venus, far from being celebrated, is banished from the masque that the wise man Prospero creates for the young lovers, Ferdinand and Miranda. It is sexual moderation, not inflamed eros, that Prospero wants from them. The play cannot achieve harmony and resolution if the violent force of eros is not controlled and even expelled. Venus is too overcharged with erotic passion for the peaceful and long-lasting marital union Prospero is promoting. As the masque figure Iris says of the goddess of love and her son Cupid:

                           Here thought they to have done
Some wanton charm upon this man and maid,
Whose vows are, that no bed-right shall be paid
Till Hymen’s torch be lighted; but in vain,
Mars’s hot minion is return’d again;
Her waspish-headed son has broke his arrows.

Far from being simply “Venus’s poet,” as Sir Bate insists, Shakespeare in his mature wisdom knows that there are times when even the goddess of love must be put in her place, and that is a subordinate position.

Earlier in his career, Jonathan Bate wrote an important book called Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination. Shakespeare did have a profound role in shaping the imaginations of the English Romantic poets, especially Byron, Shelley, and Keats. But as is evident in his new book, Sir Bate has allowed the Romantic poets to shape his imagination of Shakespeare. Wherever possible, he takes a Romantic angle on Shakespeare. His book threatens to reduce Shakespeare to the principle “make love, not war.” He discounts the sincerity of anything in Shakespeare that appears to celebrate heroism on the battlefield. Sir Bate views any nod to martial heroism in Shakespeare as a mere concession to the taste of his audience: “Shakespeare had to recognize that the audience wanted martial heroes.” Bate’s logic here is weak: Why couldn’t the prominence of Romantic heroes in Shakespeare’s plays equally be attributed to the fact that his audience demanded them? How does Sir Bate know that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry V’s martial heroism is insincere, but that he truly loved Falstaff for his embrace of his carnality? On the issue of Shakespeare’s preference for eroticism over heroism, Sir Bate is largely arguing by assertion in his book. He never considers any evidence contrary to his thesis, although a great deal is available in standard Shakespeare criticism.

Sir Bate’s one-sidedness becomes evident in his insistence when evaluating Shakespeare’s classical heritage that he was simply pro-Ovid and anti-Virgil. In discussing a reference to Dido in The Merchant of Venice, Sir Bate dwells on this point: “A broken-hearted woman about to commit suicide is not exactly auspicious augury. This suggests that Shakespeare just might have had what could be described as a counter-Virgilian, or at least an antiheroic imagination.” There it is again—the word antiheroic. I cannot think of a word that is less applicable to Shakespeare’s plays, especially in a book that purports to be about Shakespeare’s classical heritage. The most important thing that Shakespeare derived from classical antiquity was its view of heroism and, from Achilles to Aeneas, classical heroism meant primarily martial heroism. On these issues, Reuben Brower’s book Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition provides an effective counterweight to Sir Bate’s book, especially in its chapter “Our Virgil.” More generally, Brower refutes the notion that Shakespeare rejected the classical heroic tradition; in fact, Brower traces in great detail how the idiom of Shakespeare’s tragedies grew out of Elizabethan attempts to translate the Iliad and the Aeneid into English.

If we judge by what Shakespeare chose to write about in his plays, he admired great soldiers and was fascinated by the complications they create in their domestic lives. He certainly elected to make them, more often than not, the heroes of his tragedies: Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony, and Coriolanus—to name only the most obvious examples. This is not to say that Shakespeare viewed their heroism as unproblematic. Quite the contrary; that is why they are tragic heroes. Their virtues as soldiers come into conflict with what is demanded of them in peacetime domestic situations. Shakespeare evidently thought that one of the most tragic situations in human life is that of the soldier who triumphs on the battlefield but finds it difficult to make the transition to the very different requirements of living in peacetime. Sir Bate seems to think that if he can show that Shakespeare raises any doubts about martial heroism—and he certainly does so—then that means that Shakespeare simply rejected it root and branch. On the contrary, the core of Shakespeare’s tragic vision is that he understood that not all forms of human excellence are compatible with each other, and sometimes the martial virtues of a heroic figure come into conflict—tragic conflict—with other, more domestic, virtues in his world. This is one lesson that Shakespeare learned from his encounter with the classical world and its all-important tradition of martial heroism, embodied in its epic poetry, especially the works of Homer and Virgil. Shakespeare was not all “sweet Ovid” and his eroticism; he was at least equally “tough Virgil” and his martial heroism. Shakespeare’s ability to see both these sides of life is what made him the great playwright that he was, capable of dramatizing the complex and tragic conflicts that germinate in divided souls.

Sir Bate betrays his biases inadvertently at one telling point. He tries to use Hollywood movies to provide a larger context for his argument. He contrasts action movies, which are about heroes, with “RomComs and tearjerkers,” which “are about lovers.” And the first example he gives of the latter category is Casablanca! Casablanca is of course about lovers, but the film pointedly sets its love story in the context of World War II, and its insistent wartime message is that heroism must trump eroticism. Rick Blaine loves Ilsa Lund, but at the film’s end he tells her that she must leave him and rejoin her husband, the heroic freedom fighter Victor Laszlo, to carry on his struggle against the Nazis. In one of the most famous lines in movie history, Blaine says, “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Casablanca is precisely not a story of “love conquers all” or “make love, not war.” It is much closer to the spirit of Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories in the way that it points to a heroic dimension of life that transcends the petty horizons of domesticity. Amazingly, in the end Casablanca reduces its own central love story to no more than a “hill of beans,” and “being noble” takes precedence over being in love. Set partly in North Africa, Casablanca turns out to be an Aeneid for the twentieth century.

A Clash of Virtues

If Sir Bate can lose sight of the World War II context of Casablanca, I have to wonder: Might he be missing a heroic dimension in Shakespeare’s plays? Sir Bate denies that Shakespeare drew upon the martial spirit of classical epic, but only by ignoring the main evidence for his having done so. In his second tetralogy of history plays, Shakespeare works up the story of Henry V into something that many have called the Henriad—the national epic of the English people, the foundational story of the British regime. In that story, Falstaff has an important role to play, but nevertheless in the end he does not represent, as he himself tries to claim, “all the world,” but only one set of erotic virtues that, in the larger picture, must be balanced by the martial virtues of characters like Hotspur and Henry V. Shakespeare does not simply side with Ovid against Virgil; he plays off one form of wisdom against the other, which is why he offers such a comprehensive vision of human life. And it was his knowledge of the classical tradition that radically expanded his understanding of the human condition, inspiring above all his very classical appreciation of martial heroism as a form of human excellence (although of course not the only form). The tragic conflicts in some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, including Hamlet, are generated by the clash of classical virtues with modern, often specifically Christian, virtues.

Shakespeare the SJW?

I have done my best to redress what I regard as a major imbalance in Jonathan Bate’s book in his presentation of both Shakespeare and his classical heritage. Sir Bate tends to dwell upon figures from relatively late in antiquity, such as Ovid and the Epicureans. As a result, he often emphasizes just those tendencies that antiquity has in common with modernity, such as a premium on eroticism and a retreat from public life. And at the same time, Sir Bate tends to downplay those aspects of antiquity that are most alien to us as moderns, such as its celebration of martial virtue and the aggressiveness that fuels it. At times Sir Bate himself does a little bit of modernizing Shakespeare: “Throughout his plays he continued to give voice to ordinary working men and women—gardeners and tapsters, hostesses and whores, servants and countrymen, shepherds and pedlars—as if to remind himself that the Horatian ‘good life’ is a privilege, not a right.” Here Sir Bate seems uncomfortable with the aristocratic ethos that was one of Shakespeare’s chief legacies from classical antiquity; he tries to come up with a more politically correct playwright. As Erich Auerbach argues in his book Mimesis, Shakespeare did have an aristocratic view of the world and worked within the classical idea of decorum (the hierarchy of styles). Like the ancients, he wrote tragedies only about high-born people and accordingly treated them in the high style. He did present characters of low social status but only in comic terms, and thus in the low style; he never gave a commoner a serious tragic treatment. Sir Bate’s Shakespeare, by contrast, would meet contemporary standards of social justice because he “gives voice” to socially marginalized figures. Sir Bate toys with the idea of a democratic Shakespeare who would be more acceptable to our anti-aristocratic age. In consequence, Sir Bate sometimes threatens to blur the line between antiquity and modernity.

Despite Sir Bate’s occasional—and questionable—attempts to drag Shakespeare into the fold of modernity, How the Classics Made Shakespeare has so much of value to say about Shakespeare and the classical tradition that I want to end on a positive note. In a brief review, I have been unable to discuss many of the highlights of Sir Bate’s book. It usefully discusses Shakespeare’s embrace of Ovidian eroticism in the context of his anti-Puritanism. It offers a concise overview of the influence of classical rhetoric on the poetic texture of Shakespeare’s plays, with an especially helpful analysis of the impact that the great rhetorician Cicero had on Shakespeare. Sir Bate provides a perceptive discussion of the way that Shakespeare uses the classical myth of Hercules in his portrayal of Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. Perhaps best of all, in a series of dispersed observations on Hamlet, especially on the Senecan role of ghosts in the play, Sir Bate succeeds in illuminating perhaps the most mysterious of all of Shakespeare’s plays by highlighting the tension between classical and Christian values at its core. Even if Sir Bate’s book is one-sided, it offers multiple rewards to the serious reader. And one hopes that it will succeed in its goal—to restore a sense of the importance of the ancient world to Shakespeare and more generally of the classical tradition as the complex and precious heritage of our modern civilization.


This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on April 22, 2020.

Paul Cantor

Paul Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia and author of several books, including Shakespeare’s Roman Trilogy: The Twilight of the Ancient World (Chicago, 2017).

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