How the Classics Made Shakespeare

E. H. Gombrich Lecture Series

Book 3
Princeton University Press
Free sample

From one of our most eminent and accessible literary critics, a groundbreaking account of how the Greek and Roman classics forged Shakespeare’s imagination

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.

Revealing in new depth the influence of Cicero and Horace on Shakespeare and finding new links between him and classical traditions, ranging from myths and magic to monuments and politics, Bate offers striking new readings of a wide array of the plays and poems. At the heart of the book is an argument that Shakespeare’s supreme valuation of the force of imagination was honed by the classical tradition and designed as a defense of poetry and theater in a hostile world of emergent Puritanism.

Rounded off with a fascinating account of how Shakespeare became our modern classic and has ended up playing much the same role for us as the Greek and Roman classics did for him, How the Classics Made Shakespeare combines stylistic brilliance, accessibility, and scholarship, demonstrating why Jonathan Bate is one of our most eminent and readable literary critics.

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About the author

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, and wrote a one-man play for Simon Callow, Being Shakespeare. Twitter @provbate ‏
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Additional Information

Publisher
Princeton University Press
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Published on
Apr 16, 2019
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Pages
384
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ISBN
9780691185637
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Language
English
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Genres
Literary Criticism / Ancient & Classical
Literary Criticism / European / English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh
Literary Criticism / General
Literary Criticism / Medieval
Literary Criticism / Shakespeare
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Content Protection
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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Saint Augustine famously “wept for Dido, who killed herself by the sword,” and many later medieval schoolboys were taught to respond in similarly emotional ways to the pain of female characters in Virgil’s Aeneid and other classical texts. In Weeping for Dido, Marjorie Curry Woods takes readers into the medieval classroom, where boys identified with Dido, where teachers turned an unfinished classical poem into a bildungsroman about young Achilles, and where students not only studied but performed classical works.

Woods opens the classroom door by examining teachers’ notes and marginal commentary in manuscripts of the Aeneid and two short verse narratives: the Achilleid of Statius and the Ilias latina, a Latin epitome of Homer’s Iliad. She focuses on interlinear glosses—individual words and short phrases written above lines of text that elucidate grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, but that also indicate how students engaged with the feelings and motivations of characters. Interlinear and marginal glosses, which were the foundation of the medieval classroom study of classical literature, reveal that in learning the Aeneid, boys studied and empathized with the feelings of female characters; that the unfinished Achilleid was restructured into a complete narrative showing young Achilles mirroring his mentors, including his mother, Thetis; and that the Ilias latina offered boys a condensed version of the Iliad focusing on the deaths of young men. Manuscript evidence even indicates how specific passages could be performed.

The result is a groundbreaking study that provides a surprising new picture of medieval education and writes a new chapter in the reception history of classical literature.

First published in 1948, this book may be described as Dame Edith Sitwell's personal notebook. It consists of essays on the subject of the general aspect of the plays-those great hymns to the principle and the glory of life, in which there are the same differences in nature, in matter, in light, in darkness, in movement, that we find in the universe, and in which the characters are so vast they seem each an element (Water, Hamlet; Air, Romeo and Juliet; Fire, King Lear) and which yet bear the stamp of our common humanity, made greater and more universal.

There are long essays on King Lear, Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet. Dame Edith believes, with all humility, that she has discovered new sources of the inspiration of King Lear, throwing a new light on the whole play, and giving new meanings to the mad scenes, of an unsurpassable grandeur, depth, and terror. There are shorter essays also on other of the tragedies. The keynotes of many of the plays are examined (not all the plays are discussed), a phrase is studied and will be found to hold the whole meaning of the play.

There are essays on many of the comedies, and long passages about the Fools and Clowns. Connecting levels are traced between the philosophies of the plays. There are, too, running commentaries on Shakespeare as that ' common-kissing Titan ', and, since the book is a personal notebook, the author makes copious quotations from the writings of Shakespearean scholars who have thrown light on the various aspects of which she treats, and from works on other subjects which also serve to illumine his mighty and many-sided genius.

"Her reading is deep and personal; possibly nobody has ever read Shakespeare with an ear more sensitive to every sound and cadence." -Chicago Daily Tribune
Saint Augustine famously “wept for Dido, who killed herself by the sword,” and many later medieval schoolboys were taught to respond in similarly emotional ways to the pain of female characters in Virgil’s Aeneid and other classical texts. In Weeping for Dido, Marjorie Curry Woods takes readers into the medieval classroom, where boys identified with Dido, where teachers turned an unfinished classical poem into a bildungsroman about young Achilles, and where students not only studied but performed classical works.

Woods opens the classroom door by examining teachers’ notes and marginal commentary in manuscripts of the Aeneid and two short verse narratives: the Achilleid of Statius and the Ilias latina, a Latin epitome of Homer’s Iliad. She focuses on interlinear glosses—individual words and short phrases written above lines of text that elucidate grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, but that also indicate how students engaged with the feelings and motivations of characters. Interlinear and marginal glosses, which were the foundation of the medieval classroom study of classical literature, reveal that in learning the Aeneid, boys studied and empathized with the feelings of female characters; that the unfinished Achilleid was restructured into a complete narrative showing young Achilles mirroring his mentors, including his mother, Thetis; and that the Ilias latina offered boys a condensed version of the Iliad focusing on the deaths of young men. Manuscript evidence even indicates how specific passages could be performed.

The result is a groundbreaking study that provides a surprising new picture of medieval education and writes a new chapter in the reception history of classical literature.

“One man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”

In this illuminating, innovative biography, Jonathan Bate, one of today’s most accomplished Shakespearean scholars, has found a fascinating new way to tell the story of the great dramatist. Using the Bard’s own immortal list of a man’s seven ages in As You Like It, Bate deduces the crucial events of Shakespeare’s life and connects them to his world and work as never before.

Here is the author as an infant, born into a world of plague and syphillis, diseases with which he became closely familiar; as a schoolboy, a position he portrayed in The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which a clever, cheeky lad named William learns Latin grammar; as a lover, married at eighteen to an older woman already pregnant, perhaps presaging Bassanio, who in The Merchant of Venice won a wife who could save him from financial ruin. Here, too, is Shakespeare as a soldier, writing Henry the Fifth’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, with a nod to his own monarch Elizabeth I’s passionate addresses; as a justice, revealing his possible legal training in his precise use of the law in plays from Hamlet to Macbeth; and as a pantaloon, an early retiree because of, Bate postulates, either illness or a scandal. Finally, Shakespeare enters oblivion, with sonnets that suggest he actively sought immortality through his art and secretly helped shape his posthumous image more than anyone ever knew.

Equal parts masterly detective story, brilliant literary analysis, and insightful world history, Soul of the Age is more than a superb new recounting of Shakespeare’s experiences; it is a bold and entertaining work of scholarship and speculation, one that shifts from past to present, reality to the imagination, to reveal how this unsurpassed artist came to be.
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