How the Classics Made Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate


Reviewed by Ian Lipke

I plead guilty to more than a little disquiet when Jonathan Bate’s latest book crosses my desk. However, I know Bate’s work very well and I admit that he is not the person to waste his time on something that is unoriginal. He has never simply re-worded some other scholar’s work and presented it as his own. But Shakespeare again! The mind fills with names of writers who have trodden this well-worn path. Stanley Wells, Margreta de Grazia, Frank Kermode and the inimitable Helen Vendler come easily to mind.

Jonathan Bate does not disappoint. It is not some new unearthing of knowledge hitherto unknown to scholars that this researcher goes after. He begins, after a bit of messing about, with the issue of what fired Shakespeare’s imagination. From this comes the question of Shakespeare’s “distinctive valuation of the imagination which…owed a huge debt to pagan antiquity” (7). His thesis is established immediately. To develop this idea Bate emphasizes the grammar school education of Shakespeare’s time, which he considers to be more than an adequate preparation for the life subsequently followed.

His memory, knowledge, and skilfulness were honed by classical ways of thinking: the art of rhetoric, the recourse to mythological exemplars, the desire to improvise within the constraints of literary genre, the ethical and patriotic imperatives, the consciousness of an economy of artistic patronage, the love of debate, the delight in images (7).

Bate argues that certain aspects of Shakespeare’s classical inheritance have until now been neglected, “perhaps because they are hiding in plain sight” (12). The common currency of the canonical figures that shaped a tradition has not been investigated fully. Shakespeare’s periodic adoption of an Horatian tone has rarely been discussed. The exemplary force of Cicero has not been researched especially given the centrality of Ciceronian ideas to modern humanist political thought. The significance of the neo-Latin pastoral poet, Mantua, whose name Shakespeare evokes in Love’s Labour’s Lost remains unearthed.

Bate, quite legitimately I accept, extends his sources on Shakespeare beyond the realm of direct contact. Not having read Justus Lipsius, Shakespeare yet provides traces of neo-Stoicism in his plays which he must have absorbed from elsewhere. In like manner Tacitus appears in various guises. The Epicurean tradition was probably absorbed from his reading of many of the essays of Montaigne, for Shakespeare would hardly have had access to the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius. Bate continues to pile on the evidence. Horace and Juvenal exemplified satirical writing to the Elizabethans. Further, “readers in the 1590s would have been familiar with the idea of Cicero as a model of prose style” (13), would have known that ‘Ovidian’ meant the language of seduction. Shakespeare’s writing, not to forget his acting – could have an Ovidian, Horatian, or Ciceronian bias and he could expect his audience to recognise the different classical styles. Bate recognises that Shakespeare was “equally steeped in ‘parallels’ between ‘precedent times’ and the ‘government’ of the ‘present state’. In this sense, Shakespeare was a Cremutius Cordus to [Ben] Jonson’s Tacitus” (15).

So, what is Bate up to? One answer is that by considering what Shakespeare, directly or indirectly, took from the classics, Bate can fill in some of the gaps in our current knowledge of the Elizabethans. More broadly, Bate hopes to show that Shakespeare’s imagination and his sympathies were shaped by classical schools of thought. In other words he wants to contextualise Shakespeare within the wider ‘intelligence of antiquity’ in England in the sixteenth century, including the political and cultural imperatives that drove the urge to imitate classical exemplars.

Shakespeare was almost always Ovidian, more often than is usually supposed Horatian, sometimes Ciceronian, occasionally Tacitean, an interesting mix of Sencan and anti-Senecan, and, I suggest, strikingly anti-Virgilian – insofar as Virgilian meant meant ‘epic’ or ‘heroic’ (15).

Shakespeare’s form of “classical fabling” (15) was closely attuned to sexual desire and was, therefore, profoundly antiheroic. His imagination was “magnetically drawn to dreams and visions, nightmares and ghostly apparitions, to the magic of theatre and desire, and thence to intimations of immortality” (16). Thus “the arc of the book curves from Shakespeare and the classical tradition to Shakespeare becoming the classical tradition – precisely at the moment when, paradoxically, he was being praised for not being overlearned in the classics” (16).

What Jonathan Bate has set out to do in his series of E.H. Gombrich lectures, from which this book derives, has taken up a lengthy part of this review. That was deliberate on my part. No necessity exists to ask if Bate’s book is a scholarly tome, if he has presented his material fairly, expanded his material to properly explain the significant areas of argument, and so on. The answers are ‘yes’ in every case. The man is a balanced, highly respected authority, and my perusal of the remaining chapters of his book shows me exactly what I expected I would read.

In Chapter 2 the troublesome word ‘divine’ in Shakespeare is seen as “an animating intelligence, a spirit of freedom and especially of continuall motion” (35). Thus the poet’s eye may keep alive the dreams and visions that delighted the past and “offer ways of seeing that take us beyond the constraints of our present” (5). In another chapter Bate examines the vicissitudes of Classical Age politics in shaping those of Shakespeare’s Age, while in Chapter 4 Bate reveals that “by trumping the ancients, Shakespeare enabled his nation to stand apart from the rest of Europe. A national literature had been born, and he was at the centre of it” (63).

Chapter 7 is an absorbing foray into a Ciceronian world played out in the era of Leicester and Burghley, Essex and Cecil. Shakespeare demonstrates a neutrality on the stage that keeps his plays below the interest level of powerful rulers. In Chapter 10 comes the intricate, but delightful, place of poetry in the Elizabethan consciousness. This is best described by Bate himself:

A principal source of the imaginative power of the literature of the period is the paradox whereby the Renaissance delight in feigning was exercised and celebrated by writers who were at the same time ideologically committed to the building of a reformed English nation” (167).

He instances the nation builder-poet Edmund Spenser who wrote with intensity in delivering his fanciful Bower of Bliss, and, of course, Shakespeare. Again and again, at pressure points in the plays, we find Shakespeare defending the power of mental images, or phantasms (174).

The message in Chapter 11 is that the stage becomes a new public arena for the open exploration of love, sex and marriage (187), while in a piece of whimsy that I’ve discovered appeals to me, Bates’s discussion of Timon of Athens reveals that “the two sex-workers Timandra and Phrynia are the only female characters in the play. They speak just seven lines between them. In a world without eros, woman is silenced” (209).

Bates next reveals that Seneca provided Shakespeare with three different models for the climax of a tragedy (230), before proceeding to a discussion of that ‘undiscovered country from which no traveller returns,” the world that was of such interest to Hamlet. We are reminded of Macbeth’s meditation on life as a ‘poor player’, one full of sound and fury (“like an old-fashioned Senecan ghost” (251) signifying nothing. “One day we will all be shadows” (251) is a reminder I could have done without.

Chapter 14, called In the House of Fame, has the most delightful introductory paragraph that I will comment on no further. It begins a chapter dealing, of course, with Shakespeare’s much delayed fame, and makes the point that fame, for writers, is never assured. However, not many who love the English language, would deny that:

It is the ultimate mark of his fame that he is to us what those ancient Roman authors were to him: the basis of a liberal education, the core of studia humanitas. He is our singular classic” (276).

Prepare yourselves for a thorough work of scholarship, with clear explanations and comprehensive referencing in a series of Notes on each chapter, an Appendix, and an index. An absolute tour de force, a scholar non pareil, in every regard.


How the Classics Made Shakespeare


By Jonathan Bate

Princeton UP

ISBN:  978-0-691-16160-0

$US24.95; 384pp

Scroll to Top