I have just finished reading Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity by Colin Burrow. I ordered it from our local bookstore after reading in the London Review of Books an essay by Burrow, a review of a book on philology, that was knowledgeable and witty – an irresistible combination.
Here is Burrow’s brief history of philology, from that LRB essay:
Philology, according to the OED, was first used in English by John Skelton in the 1520s of ‘the branch of knowledge that deals with the historical, linguistic, interpretative and critical aspects of literature’. The earliest usages of the word philologist in the 17th century are often qualified by an adjective of praise – ‘great’ or ‘learned’ – or by a suggestion that the philologist has an excess of discriminatory power (that he can be ‘nice’, in the sense of ‘over-precise’). Philology was indeed to become exceptionally nice in this refined sense. By the 1830s people were calling each other ‘mere philologists’. By the later 20th century someone who styled himself a philologist (it’s a distinctly blokeish role) would be an austere kind of a person. He might be an expert in tenth-century monastic cartularies whose chief expertise lay in Tibetan languages, about which he knew all that could be known and for which he would have long lost any enthusiasm. Anyone who wondered where the philia in his -ology had gone would discover the answer when they witnessed the sadistic gleam in his eye as he denounced someone else as an ignorant ass. In professional environments his misanthropy would be declared by sardonic resistance to change, particularly if it meant the softening of things that he believed should be ‘hard’. When I was younger a philologist was the kind of person who insisted at departmental meetings that compulsory elements should remain in the curriculum, and who did so with a zeal that was inversely proportionate to the popularity of those elements among undergraduates. Usually it was Anglo-Saxon, but any skill that required large-scale acts of memorisation and grammatical categorisation would do. He would snort at the word ‘postcolonial’ and regard novels as things chaps read on trains.
Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity has its witty moments, but Burrow was obviously on a roll (or on something) when he wrote the philology article. Still, it is a very good book – recommended reading.
While I’ve read plenty of essays on one or another of Shakespeare’s plays, this is the first time I’ve read an entire book on Shakespeare. That’s not a lapse; it was deliberate avoidance. Shakespeare is among a few things – and Shakespeare, being more than just another human being who happened to write well, can be, to my mind, classified as a thing – which I consider so sacred that I take care to ensure they are not marred or degraded or reduced in any way. Freudian analyses of Prince Hamlet can absorb me, just as following a chess game – another exercise in futility – can. (Will Freud or Ernest Jones be successful in keeping the exhilarating irruptions of the drama at Elsinore from flying off the strict eight-by-eight alternating squares of ego and super-ego?) But a Freudian analysis of Shakespeare, himself, would not amuse me any more than would one of the Virgin Mary amuse even the most fun-loving Pope.
After reading Burrow’s article on philology, however, I knew that Shakespeare, via Burrow, would be in good hands. Burrow obviously is more interested in language (the expression of meaning) than plot (the impression of meaning) – in form more than content – so anything he had to say could only burnish the thing that is Shakespeare, not diminish it.
I got the impression from Burrow’s book that if I were familiar with other general works about Shakespeare, the revelations I found in it would not have been revelations at all, simply various facts and theories which Shakespeare aficionados and scholars have been tossing back and forth for ages, and about which Burrow was expressing his opinion. But they were revelations to me.
The broad subject of Burrow’s book is Shakespeare’s intellect. Evidently there is an academic question – the kind of thing that conferences are convened about – concerning the degree to which Shakespeare made use of the works of classical (that is, Greek and Roman) authors. A lot more than most other academics think, is Burrow’s position.
He starts right off with Ben Jonson’s line in his Elegy to Shakespeare, “thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”. Burrow argues that it is a mistake to treat this evaluation of Shakespeare’s classical learning as a sort of factual account from an expert eye-witness. He points out that Jonson was something of a show-off when it came to the classics and, therefore, would naturally dismiss whatever familiarity with them that Shakespeare – a friend, yes, but also a rival poet and playwright – had as nothing much.
Burrow doesn’t leave it at that, however. The full verse of Jonson’s is
And, though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek
From thence [presumably, the ancient world] to honour thee I would. . .
. . . call forth thundering Aeschylus
Euripides and Sophocles
“A lot hangs on the single word, ‘though,’” says Burrow. The orthodox reading, he says, is “‘despite the fact that you had only a smattering of Latin and less Greek’”. But it also could mean “‘even supposing (counterfactually) that you had a little bit of Latin and even less Greek, the major classical dramatists would still admire you’”.
“There is no way of knowing which of these alternatives Jonson meant,” concludes Burrow, “and probably he was praising Shakespeare in a double-edged way – he does manage, after all, to make clear that it is he and not Shakespeare who is bringing the Greeks back to life.”
How juicy, how delicious, are literary exegeses of this depth and simplicity.
News to me was Burrow’s characterization of the grammar school education received by Shakespeare and other English boys of a similar middle-class station at that time. Its goal was not simply for the boys to be able to understand and translate Latin, but to be able to write their own original texts in Latin, using classical authors as a model. Schoolboys would be required to write “themes” (the word was still used for writing projects when I was in grade school) on various subjects. A typical, and not uncommon assignment, for example, would be to write a theme on an open ended question (the kind of thing Erasmus wrote), for example, ‘whether it is better to marry or remain single’.
Take a look at the early Sonnets, Burrows reminds the reader, for some of Shakespeare’s thoughts on that particular subject. But then look at the most famous of Shakespeare’s soliloquys.
To be or not to be – that is the question:
The quandary is couched in terms of a schoolboy’s academic exercise.
To me, that’s a revelation – my personal definition of which is “an idea so obviously true that I should have seen it myself and should not have needed someone else to point it out to me.”
The greatest revelation (using the definition above) in Burrow’s book, which he mentions almost off-handedly in his discussion of the parallels between Shakespeare’s plots and those of classical drama, is that Shakespeare’s characters tend to act not on facts, not on the reality they encounter, but on conjecture. “The notion that people live and act on the basis of conjecture rather than certainty was crucial to Shakespeare, to Shakespearian comedy, to Shakespearian tragedy, and in particular to Shakespeare’s ability to move through a realm between tragedy and comedy,” says Burrows.
Here is the key to why the world of Shakespeare’s plays reflects not the big world as we know it (or as Marlowe or Wilde or Arthur Miller knew it), but the little world inside us, the world of our minds and hearts. People – by and large – do not act on the basis of conjecture. Conjecture is the cause of our anxieties and our hopes, conjecture keeps us up at night and makes us moody and careless during the day. But seldom does a sane and sober person make an important, irrevocable decision to act based on conjecture.
So I disagree with Burrow. I do not think that Shakespeare could have believed “that people live and act on the basis of conjecture rather than certainty.” I don’t think that the behavior of the Elizabethans was that different from ours. One doesn’t see any evidence of a special propensity for conjecture as a spur to action in the history of that time. Take the fraught relationship between Elizabeth and Essex. Elizabeth adored Essex, but was suspicious of him as well. She was furious on his return from Ireland where he had made an unauthorized truce with the rebels, and she had him imprisoned. Then she called for an inquiry. A Shakespearian Elizabeth would have had Essex poisoned in prison and then justified it to herself in a psychologically astute and multifaceted, heartrendingly beautiful soliloquy.
No, I believe that having characters act on the basis of conjecture was used by Shakespeare as a kind of dramatic engine. It is because Shakespeare’s characters jump the gun into farce, tragedy, or their combination, based on emotions, on thought processes, that we recognize in ourselves yet ordinarily would not act on, that the world of Shakespeare’s plays seems not superhuman, but sur-human, more human than human.
(Hamlet is the interesting exception. To put it facetiously, Hamlet knows he is in a play by Shakespeare and, as such, knows how he should behave, yet he cannot get beyond being just a normal guy. Some critics call him “modern” in his ambivalence and inability to act. Instead, he is an alien, a human visitor in the Shakespearian world. He does not seem mad to us, he seems mad to the play’s other characters.)
Burrow later points out that acting on conjecture was an element of classical comedy (as it has continued to be, through Feydeau, Charlie Chapman, and up to Woody Allen and Hollywood’s current effluvia of sophomoric humor). Shakespeare’s genius recognized that element and then applied it to all his dramas. So, while Shakespearian comedy resembles classical comedy, Shakespearian tragedy does not resemble classical tragedy, in which it usually is the discovery of facts, not conjectures from rumors and innuendos, which precipitate the denouements. It does not follow, however, that Shakespeare thought that was the way people behave in real life.
There is much more in Burrow’s book which I found illuminating. I’d never been sure, for example, whether Seneca the playwright was the same guy as Seneca the philosopher. Now I know.
I had assumed Plutarch was a Roman because he wrote in Latin. I had not realized that he was a Greek. “This means,” says Burrow, “that he tends to explain Rome’s customs and institutions as though they belonged to a slightly foreign country – which they did, so far as he was concerned. . . Christopher Pelling [a colleague of Burrow who has edited Plutarch] notes ‘a detachment in the way Plutarch approaches Rome’, and that detachment can resemble the position of an ethnographer who is describing an alien culture.” Good, yes? Incisive, yes? Maybe makes you want to read Plutarch again, yes?
But Burrow goes on: “Plutarch’s Rome would consequently have seemed to a sixteenth-century reader more like ‘antiquity’ than his Greece because it was more thickly described as a place with its own distinct and distant customs – and this was probably one of the major reasons why Shakespeare was drawn more to [Plutarch’s] Roman ‘Lives’ than [Plutarch’s] Greek [‘Lives’]. They seem to describe not just a life, but a world.”
Complex, yet cohesive thinking expressed with clarity, and the subject is Shakespeare – that is a rare pleasure.