Home / Reviews / Earl Showerman reviews Shakespeare & Classical Antiquity by Colin Burrow

Earl Showerman reviews Shakespeare & Classical Antiquity by Colin Burrow

Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity (Oxford Shakespeare Topics) by Colin Burrow
Oxford Shakespeare Topics, Oxford University Press, 2013, 281 pp.

Reviewed by Earl Showerman

Review first published in the Fall 2015 issue of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter

Colin Burrow, Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, has written widely on the relationship between Renaissance literature and the classics. In his most extended study of this subject, Shakespeare & Classical Antiquity, he argues that “Shakespeare knew—from his grammar school education and from his general reading—at least as much classical literature as many classics graduates today. He also knew enough to make his contemporaries think, just for a moment, that he might be a British equivalent to Euripides or Aeschylus, or, as Francis Meres described him in 1598, a reincarnation of the ‘sweet witty soul of Ovid.’”[i]

Shakespeare & Classical Antiquity was praised by Robert S. Miola as a “fitting homage to the distinguished dedicatee Emrys Jones” in a review in Renaissance Quarterly Vol 67, No. 3 (Fall 2014).  Miola notes that Burrow posits that Shakespeare demonstrated an “evolving relation” with Greek and Roman authors, and that Burrow’s work “deserves a place of honor” alongside those of Edmond Malone, T. W. Baldwin, Gordon Braden, Charles Martindale, and Jonathan Bate. Miola interprets Burrow’s achievement as twofold in that he “freshly explores Shakespeare’s many uses of classical texts and his representations of antiquity; and he convincingly sets these encounters, for the first time, in specific literary, political, and cultural contexts.”

These effects, Burrow argues, create the appearance of “anachronism” and an effect of “ancientness,” which makes Shakespeare’s response to classical literature unique and fascinating.

Burrow’s introductory chapter underlines how Shakespeare and his contemporaries read and imitated classical literature with the reverence of a “trans-temporal longing.” He maintains that Shakespeare’s employment of classical learning frequently embodied stylistic and literary effects that distinguished it from the surrounding text, as in the First Player’s speech about Hecuba in Hamlet, or the Pyramus and Thisbe adaptation of Ovid performed by the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These effects, Burrow argues, create the appearance of “anachronism” and an effect of “ancientness,” which makes Shakespeare’s response to classical literature unique and fascinating. While translations of classical texts, including Golding’s Ovid, Phaer’s Virgil, Newton’s Seneca, and others expanded the horizons of English poetry and dramatic narrative, Burrow notes that, unlike many others of that period, Shakespeare showed little interest in Latin elegy, classical metrics, or epigrams. Burrow defers to a sense of “possibility” in reviewing what classical texts he believes Shakespeare actually “knew”:

[S]ay, the first four books of Virgil’s Aeneid pretty well, a number of comedies of Plautus and probably some by Terence, as well as a good number of Seneca’s tragedies, probably a dash of Homer, probably in translation, quite a lot of Ovid (the Metamorphoses and some of the Fasti, perhaps some Tristia, the Heroides, and the Ars Amatoria), possibly some plays by Euripides in Latin translation, maybe an ode or two of  Horace, perhaps some of the satires of Juvenal and maybe a little Persius too, passages from Lucan’s historical epic on the Roman civil wars, and quite a bit of Plutarch via Sir Thomas North’s translation, as well as prose works by Cicero (the De Officiis in particular) and Seneca.[ii]

In his review, Miola praises Burrow for casting his net more widely than previous commentators to capture the “multiple significances of specific allusions, imitations, and refashionings: humanists such as Johannes Sturm, Thomas Cooper, Desiderius Erasmus, and Philip Melanchthon; the War of the Theaters; Shakespeare’s rivalry with University Wits; his acting in Sejanus; the imposing presence of Ben Jonson; the publications of classical editions and translations.” Burrow describes the several modes of classical textual transmission, including comments in private libraries, booksellers, publishers, printers, and the fragmentation of ancient literature into commonplace books and anthologies. He speculates that Shakespeare’s “early encounters with antiquity betray a nervous self-consciousness expressed in various strategies of framing.”

Of particular interest to Oxfordians is Burrow’s argument that Johannes Sturm’s Nobilitas Literata (1549), translated by Thomas Browne of Lincoln’s Inn in 1570 as A Rich Storehouse or Treasure of Nobility and Gentlemen, was the kind of “aspirational work which Shakespeare might have read.” It served as a guide to “acquiring gentility through the imitation of classical texts.”

In his discussion of the imitation of texts from classical antiquity, Sturm writes: “Therefore, as Aristotle did exclude young boys from his Ethics, so I will remove from this artificial practice [of imitation] not only children and boys, but also those men which know not the precepts of rhetoric.”[iii]

Burrow describes the several modes of classical textual transmission, including comments in private libraries, booksellers, publishers, printers, and the fragmentation of ancient literature into commonplace books and anthologies.

Noteworthy in this regard is the documentary evidence that in the spring of 1575 the Earl of Oxford visited Sturm in Strasbourg en route to Venice. Mark Anderson reports that: “As a rhetorician and classist, Sturmius was one of the giants of his age. Ascham has noted that of all the modern scholars who could be imitated, only Sturmius was one ‘out of whom the true survey and whole workmanship [of antiquity] is specially to be learned.’”[iv]  Further, Anderson reports that it was from Sturmius that Ascham developed his philosophy of drama, the doctrine that comedies and tragedies were ideally a perfect imitation of the life of “every degree of man.” Finally, Anderson notes that de Vere claimed to have “read the rhetoric lecture publicly in sermons preached in Strasbourg.”

Discussing the absence of books in Shakspere’s will, Burrow maintains that this does not necessarily prove that Shakespeare was in any way less a reader of classics than Ben Jonson, further postulating that many early-modern writers had access to libraries belonging to nobility, and that writers frequently would spend time visiting bookstalls at St. Paul’s, “picking up snippets of information about new styles and fashions.” Burrow’s remarks here are reminiscent of those made by fellow Oxford University Professor Laurie Maguire, who contextualized the problem over Shakespeare’s debt to Euripides in her book, Shakespeare’s Names (2007):

Reluctant to argue that Shakespeare’s grammar-school Greek could read Euripides, critics resort to social supposition to argue their case. Charles and Michelle Martindale suggest that “five minutes conversation with a friend could have given Shakespeare all he needed to know” as does Nutall: “If we suppose what is simply probable, that he (Shakespeare) talked in pubs to Ben Jonson and others….” I agree with these suppositions, as it happens, but invoking the Mermaid tavern is not a methodology likely to convince skeptics that Shakespeare knew Greek drama.[v]

Although Burrow includes extended chapters on Shakespeare’s familiarity with Virgil, Ovid, Roman comedy, Seneca and Plutarch, he falls far short of offering a fresh assessment of classical influences on the playwright by categorically dismissing the notion that Shakespeare owed any direct debt to the dramatic literature of 5th century (BCE) Athens:

Shakespeare almost certainly never read Sophocles or Euripides (let alone the much more difficult Aeschylus) in Greek, and yet he managed to write tragedies which invite comparison with those authors. He did so despite the limitations of his classical knowledge, and perhaps in part because of them. He read Plutarch in North’s translation rather than reading Sophocles in Greek. This means that he read a direct clear statement about the relationship between divine promptings and human actions rather than plays in which complex thoughts about the interrelationship between human and divine agency were buried implicitly within a drama. Having “less Greek” could therefore have enabled him to appear to understand more about Greek tragedy, and its complex mingling of voluntary actions and divine promptings, than he would have done if he had actually been able to work his way through Aeschylus and Euripides in the first place.[vi]

Here Burrow seems to have fallen back on the argument originally put forward by J.A.K. Thompson in Shakespeare and the Classics (1952), but without providing an appropriate citation. Thompson, to his credit, admits that the argument is speculative at best:

I will venture on a statement that may surprise some of my readers. I believe that it was from Plutarch that Shakespeare learned how to make a tragedy of the kind exemplified in Hamlet and Othello, Macbeth and Lear…. But Plutarch himself—and here lies the extreme interest and importance of the matter—was only the channel or medium of the Greek tragic spirit. This, as we all know, received its highest expression in the great Attic poets Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.[vii]

The call for greater interest in Greek sources proposed by the few scholars who have seriously investigated the question runs counter to the arbitrary limits accepted by Burrow and most modern Shakespeare critics who turn away from the Greek dramatists as possible sources because of Shakespeare’s apparent lack of education and limited access to continental Greek or Latin editions. The authorship claim of the Earl of Oxford, who throughout his life was surrounded by scholars versed in the Greek canon, may have paradoxically limited the intellectual vigor of Shakespeare studies simply by the fact that Oxford represents a far superior candidate for the creation of dramas based on 5th century Greek tragedies and comedies.

Of particular interest to Oxfordians is Burrow’s argument that Johannes Sturm’s Nobilitas Literata (1549)… was the kind of “aspirational work which Shakespeare might have read.”

The recent colloquium at the University of York, “Greek Texts and the Early Modern Stage,” may be a healthy sign that the times are changing. The Center for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies sponsored the day-long event to explore the impact of the Greek canon on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Given the reluctance of many scholars to accept the influence of Greek drama on Shakespeare, this represents a radical cultural shift.  According to the colloquium website, “Greek provokes strong associations for a number of reasons: its controversial associations with Erasmus, Protestantism, and heresy; the specter of democratic governance; the rebirth of interest in Galenic medicine; the pervasive influence of Greek culture on Latin literature; and the identification of Greece with the origins of theatre.”

While Colin Burrow is an accomplished writer and is admirably well versed in the classical canon, his failure to consider seriously the influence of Greek dramatic literature in Shakespeare & Classical Antiquity limits the scope of his book and adds little to our understanding of Shakespeare’s debt to classical literature.  In Shakespeare and Ovid (1993), Jonathon Bate adopted a similarly convoluted view of how Shakespeare acquired his knowledge of Greek drama: “Despite the resemblances between The Winter’s Tale and Alcestis, Titus Andronicus and Hecuba, it cannot be proved that Shakespeare knew any of the plays of Euripides.  But there is no doubt he derived a Euripidean spirit from Ovid.  Euripides taught Ovid what Ovid taught Shakespeare . . . .[viii]  That two such eminent scholars should be so loath to entertain the idea of a “Shakespeare” who had direct knowledge of the revolutionary conventions and texts of the first golden age of theatre in 5th century Athens, is another sad testament to the blind spots placed on Shakespeare studies by the limitations of the traditional biography.


[i] Colin Burrow, Shakespeare & Classical Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 2.

[ii] Id., 22.

[iii] Id., 26.

[iv] Mark Anderson, Shakespeare By Another Name (New York: Gotham Books, 2005), 79.

[v] Laurie Maguire, Shakespeare’s Names (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 98.

[vi] Burrow, 247.

[vii] J.A.K. Thompson, Shakespeare and the Classics (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1952), 241-243.

[viii] Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (London: Clarendon Books, 1994), 239.

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