Whilst other wrote good words (2)


The second in a (very) occasional series on the sources for Shakespeare’s work. Part one – on the “histories” he consulted – is here

We didn’t study Horace much at school, but my Latin teachers made sure we were at least aware of one his most famous lines – the beginning of Ode XXX.

Exegi monumentum aere perenniu

I have made a monument more lasting than bronze

Why am I mentioning it? Because every time I read the first lines of Sonnet 55, I am sure that Shakespeare had read Horace too…

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme

It’s not the only clue we have that Shakespeare knew his classical (and especially his Roman) authors. They crop up a great deal as the basis for characters, for plots and for literary allusions.

Troilus and Cressida is based on the work of the father of drama, Homer, who I am assuming needs no further introduction to you. Although much of the detailed plot comes from medieval sources (including Chaucer, of whom more in a future article!) the characters of Agamemnon, Achilles, Priam, Hector (and others) come straight from the Iliad.

Following the narrative – many people draw parallels between Antony and Cleopatra and Virgil’s Aeneid* – not least because Antony himself refers to them in those terms. He isn’t the only one – characters in Hamlet, in Henry VI, in Julius Caesar, in The Tempest, in Titus Andronicus, in Romeo and Juliet and in The Merchant of Venice, all refer to Dido and Aeneas. So this was clearly popular long before Purcell wrote his famous opera.

Titus Andronicus is largely based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the most influential books of the Western world which tells many famous stories from Greek myths like Perseus, and Daedalus and Icarus to more recent Roman history (including the fall of Julius Caesar). It includes the tale of the rape of Philomela by her sister, Procne’s husband. In Ovid’s version, Philomela weaves a tapestry of the events and sends it to Procne and the two sisters get their revenge by baking the husband’s son in a pie** and feeding it to him. Delightful.



It’s not the only story Shakespeare cribbed from Ovid***. The play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the “tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisby” also comes straight from the Metamorphoses – and may have helped inspire Romeo and Juliet, although some features of that play (particularly the Friar’s magic potion) may come from other classical sources. Prospero’s magnificent speech in Act 5 of The Tempest clearly borrows from one of Medea’s speeches in the Metamorphoses too.

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves1,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun2
, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war3
: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak4
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake5
and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth6

By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book

Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid**** reads as follows

Ye Ayres and windes: 1ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone,
Of standing Lakes,
and of the Night approche ye everychone.
Through helpe of whom (the crooked bankes much wondring at the thing)
I have compelled streames to run clean e backward to their spring.
3By charmes I make the calme Seas rough, and make y rough Seas plaine
And cover all the Skie with Cloudes, and chase them thence againe
By charmes I rayse and lay the windes, and burst the Vipers jaw,
And from the bowels of the Earth both stones and trees doe drawe.
4Whole woods and Forestes I remove: 5I make the Mountaines shake,
And even the Earth it selfe to grone and fearfully to quake
6I call up dead men from their graves: and thee O lightsome Moone
I darken oft, though beaten brasse abate thy perill soone.
Our Sorcerie dimmes the Morning faire, and 2darkes y Sun at Noone.

A lot of people think the connections between Ovid and Shakespeare go even deeper. Ovid has been described as Shakespeare’s favourite author, and as well as peppering other plays with allusions to Ovid’s stories, there’s a general belief that Shakespeare takes stylistic notes from the man. If you really want more information the Cambridge University Press can apparently provide a whole book on the subject.

The Roman plays (and yes, the clue is in the title) collectively show the depth of Shakespeare’s classical knowledge.  Both Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus prove he was familiar with on Livy’s  Ab Urbe Condita Libri (the history of Rome from the fall of Troy to the reign of Augustus), even though he uses that knowledge indirectly.

Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus all use Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans***** as a primary source. Also known as the Parallel Lives, this was both biography and homily – a set of paired histories (one Greek and one Roman) were presented with Plutarch writing a description of their common moral failings at the end of each pairing.  Shakespeare extracted his own stories and was not afraid to adapt the source (as elsewhere). For example, according to Plutarch, Julius Caesar said nothing at his death, but pulled his toga over his head when he saw Brutus amongst his assassins. Shakespeare gives him the famous “Et tu, Brute?” which was in common use at the time he wrote the play.  Timon of Athens is also derived in part from some of the Lives although Shakespeare mixes up several of the lives to make the story.



It’s not clear what other of the classical greats Shakespeare knew of. There’s nothing directly to prove Shakespeare knew the works of Plato or Sophocles, or Herodotus******, or great Greek tragedians like Aeschylus or Euripides*******. That ties in with what we believe we know about his education. Grammar schools, such as the King’s New School in Stratford which we suppose Shakespeare attended, focussed heavily on Latin, especially in pupil’s early years. While Greek was taught in later years, it may have been too late for Shakespeare who was likely forced to leave school early when his father withdrew from public life in the 1570s. Still, he didn’t do badly for someone described by his own biographer and admirer as having “small Latin and less Greek”…

* Which, in case you don’t know, is the story of how Aeneas escapes the fall of Troy and founds Rome, via the odd diversion in Carthage and the Underworld…

** This seems a bit unfair on the (presumably innocent) son in question – at least in Titus Andronicus it’s the malefactors who get cooked… And all this eating people is very “Doomed House of Atreus” isn’t it?

*** Ovid https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ovid along with Horace https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace and Virgil https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virgil who were his contemporaries, are often viewed as the three greatest Roman poets. It must have been a strange time being alive when they were all writing…

**** This isn’t to say that Shakespeare got his knowledge of Ovid purely from translations – there’s some erudite discussion out there about how some of the phrases used later show he had knowledge of the exact Latin phrases – and their meanings.

***** Available at the time as a translation by Sir Thomas North from a French translation of the Latin, first published in 1579. We know that Shakespeare used this translation because some speeches, especially Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra’s barge, tally very closely (although Shakespeare gussied up the language).

****** And wouldn’t you love to see Shakespeare’s takes on Xerxes or on Thermopylae?

******* Likewise, a pretty please for Shakespeare’s Medea…


4 thoughts on “Whilst other wrote good words (2)

  1. May I put in a bid for Catullus (Virgil and Horace are almost intolerably worthy though Ovid was more fun). He has been described as the greatest of the Roman lyric poets (though as my divinity master once said of a similar sweeping judgement “This sounds like the generalisation of a cheap encyclopedia from which I suspect it came”). More importantly he was around in translation by the 1550’s and one of his sonnets was translated by Ben Johnson. I cannot point to any specific borrowings but I suspect it might be worth looking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anything which prompts me to pick up Catullus again is very well received – he’s a favourite of mine too! I remember him as being more splendidly silly and informal than Ovid (poems about napkin-stealers and his girlfriend’s perfume spring to mind) – perhaps he appeared less in the school curriculum?


  2. I suspect Elizabethan schools (or more precisely Elizabethan school masters) were as ambivalent about the suitability of Catullus for tender minds as later generations – I don’t for example remember King teaching Catullus to Stalky and Co. and my own teachers stuck rather boringly to De Bello Gallico.

    Liked by 1 person

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