For the past 400 years William Shakespeare has held a position in English-language literature roughly analogous to that of the major authors of Latin antiquity during the Renaissance. His plays and their characters, as well as myriad lines of unforgettable poetry, have suffused and shaped our art and culture. By himself, Shakespeare represents to us what Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Plutarch and Seneca meant to educated people during the age of the first Queen Elizabeth.
In “How the Classics Made Shakespeare,” Jonathan Bate — provost of Worcester College, Oxford, as well as a scholar of remarkable industry — probes what one might call the Ovidian, Virgilian, Horatian, Ciceronian, Plutarchan and Senecan undergirdings to the many Shakespearean works with strong classical associations. In particular, he returns again and again to “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” “Titus Andronicus,” “The Comedy of Errors,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Julius Caesar,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “A Winter’s Tale” and “Hamlet,” as well as the narrative poems “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece.”
Now, any study of classical influences can readily come across as either daunting or soporific, but Bate eschews jargon, writes a forceful, clear prose, provides translations of Latin quotations and makes sure that his arguments are easy to follow. As a result “How the Classics Made Shakespeare” stands as a model of sensitively marshaled humanist learning and thoughtful appreciation. Not incidentally does Bate admire such elegant and magisterial examples of historical criticism as E.R. Curtius’s “European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages” and the art-scholarship associated with London’s Warburg Institute.
Bate begins with a simple premise: “Storytelling was Shakespeare’s method of making sense of the world, and no stories gripped him more fully than those of classical antiquity.” Ovid, especially, taught him that “what makes great literary art is extreme human passion.” The “Metamorphoses,” after all, celebrates eros, movement and energy: Change is the only constant in life. Moreover, just as the Roman arts of rhetoric stressed the power of comparisons and illustrations drawn from the past, so too does Shakespeare. In just one speech Hamlet compares his father to the titan Hyperion, his uncle to a satyr and his mother to weeping Niobe, while contrasting his waffling, contemplative self with the forceful Hercules. Such classical retrospection wholly pervades the Renaissance zeitgeist: If you wish to praise a merchant adventurer, notes Bate, you liken him to Jason, leader of the Argonauts.
Erotic obsession, madness, pagan “fame” vs. Christian salvation, the horrors of civil war, the stage as a secondary world, the symbolic import of magic, dreams and ghosts — Bate brilliantly delineates their classical origins and redeployment in Shakespeare’s work. In just one small tour de force of interpretation, he argues that the ghost in “Hamlet” evolves from an armored revenant observed by several people into a purely imaginary phantasm: There is, Bates concludes, “a progression from a Senecan ghost calling for revenge and an equally classical ghost-as-harbinger to a Catholic ghost coming from Purgatory to, in the third act, a Protestant ghost-imagining that is a mental state, the coinage of the brain.”
While Shakespeare drew strength from literary tradition, Bate emphasizes that the playwright’s fundamental view of life was irreverent, even — to use a current vogue word — disruptive. His women are usually smarter than his men and he values friendship, Falstaffian gusto, rural pleasures and kindness over duty, religion, politics and martial heroism. People, in all their troubled, moral complexity, matter more than laws and abstract principles do. If forced to choose, Shakespeare would side with Dido, not Aeneas, and he honors the incandescent passion between Antony and Cleopatra as worth more than all of eternal Rome. In the words of Egypt’s queen: “Eternity was in our lips and eyes.”
“How the Classics Made Shakespeare” deserves an accolade too seldom awarded to academic works: Besides being eminently readable, it proffers illuminating observations and facts on every page. Still, Jonathan Bate does worry about our greatest writer: Can Shakespeare “continue to be a living classic in a future where attention spans are short and the long view of the past is flattened by the simultaneity of data derived from the digital world?”
He is obviously right to feel uneasy. Still, we will almost certainly continue to be fascinated, perplexed and maddened by the “authorship” question, what Stuart Kells grandiosely calls, in the subtitle to “Shakespeare’s Library,” the “greatest mystery in literature.” Did a glover’s son from Stratford actually write these immortal plays? Or might their true author be Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, the 17th Earl of Oxford or Sir Henry Neville, to list only the most popular candidates?
Kells — author of “The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders” — takes up this fraught subject by exploring one simple question: What happened to Shakespeare’s books and manuscripts? Why have none ever surfaced? From this starting point, he surveys the history of Shakespearean flummery and biographical fantasy, examines the work of the playwright’s “frenemy” Ben Jonson, considers the neglected discoveries of 19th-century scholar John Fry and tracks the careers of forgers William-Henry Ireland and Thomas J. Wise. He also reveals his native Australia as the red-hot center of support for claims that Sir Henry Neville was the real author.
“Shakespeare’s Library” is unquestionably a lively, even sprightly book, nearly as entertaining as S. Schoenbaum’s capacious “Shakespeare’s Lives,” to which it is a kind of pendant. At one point, Kells neatly compares George Steevens’s intense sense of rivalry with fellow 18th-century scholar Edmond Malone to “the kind of competitive jealousy normally seen only in ice-skating.” In the end, Kells decides that the genius of Shakespeare — whoever he was — lay in his flair for “appropriation, revision and synthesis.” Of course, he also had something of a way with words.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By Jonathan Bate
Princeton. 361 pp. $24.95
By Stuart Kells
Counterpoint. 322 pp. $26