His works

French Renaissance found its best voice through Montaigne and the Essay. In England the man and medium would be different. Montaigne was quiet introspection with occasional publishing. Shakespeare would have his work erupt on stage with great rapidity and consistency. He may not be as well read in the classics as Montaigne, but he was equally indebted to them. It is to this debt we now turn.

His work comes to forty large works, including two long narrative poems and the sonnet sequence. Breaking down the subject-matter, we find:

  • 6 deal with Roman history
  • 6 with Greek background
  • 12 deal with British history
  • 14 play out across Renaissance Europe
  • 1 play and the sonnets in contemporary England

Three great interests stimulated his imagination more than anything else:

  1. The Renaissance culture of Western Europe
  2. England, her monarchy and nobility
  3. The history and legends of Greece and Rome

Discussions of Shakespeare’s classical influences stretch back as far as 1767 with the publication of Richard Farmer’s Learning of Shakespeare. It is in this long tradition we now follow.

His style

Intertwined with inherent Englishness of Shakespeare’s characters is a silken strand of Italian charm and subtlety. The intricate villain, omni-present throughout much of Shakespeare’s works, stems largely from characterisation that flourished in Renaissance Italy – think Othello’s Iago, Sebastian and Antonio in The Tempest and Iachimo in Cymbeline. It is clear Shakespeare had a deep attachment to the art of the Italian peninsula and was keen to share in Renaissance Italy’s love of the Graeco-Roman. He would use its imagery to a rich descriptive device. In The Winter’s Tale, Perdita has a garland

Sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes

Or Cytherea’s breath

And in Hamlet, our prince’s father’s ghost is seated with

Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself

Shakespeare: Rome gave him examples of Greats


An eye like Mars, to threaten and command,

A station like the herald Mercury

New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill

 The great writers of the Renaissance can fall into two schools: those who were still spiritually connected to the Middle Ages as well as the Graeco-Roman. These would invoke the middle ages with knights and ladies and enchanters and magical animals and strange quests and impossible beliefs, and tinge it with Graeco-Roman myth and art. Such, for example, were Ariosto, Rabelais and Spenser. Not so Shakespeare. Like Milton, he rejects and practically ignores the world of the Middle Ages. Even his historical dramas are contemporary in tone. The only medieval lingering in Shakespeare is the supernatural – the fairies, the witches, the spells – though even here there are Hellenic touches.

His Knowledge of the Classics

Shakespeare knew far more about Rome than Greece, his Coriolanus, his Julius Caesar – these are an immersive and relatively accurate Rome. Timon of Athens is less so of Greece, as is Troilus and Cressida, though in it he does borrow some lines from the Iliad. The anachronisms of his Greek world are somewhat flawed – Hector quotes Aristotle, Pandarus talks of Friday and Sunday. His worst crime of such anachronisms in his Roman plays can be said that he treats the plebeians of Coriolanus much the same as the same rabble seen in Julius Caesar. The excitable degeneracy of the latter makes more sense in the setting of the last days of the Republic, but early Republican plebeians would have been stronger, more law-abiding, and patriotic, though this can be credited to Shakespeare’s loathing of the mob more than a mischaracterisation of history.

Shakespeare’s love for the complex characters of aristocratic Rome are plain – so why do we not have an Alcibiades to match his Coriolanus? The Greek appears in Timon in a dampened and confused form. It is without much doubt that Shakespeare simply did not know enough about him. You have to understand the Greeks to portray them properly.

Shakespeare was not a bookman, though he was fond of Seneca as a source for the sombre furies of his tragedies. His main inspirations for his metaphors and similes were daily life, nature, domestic life, bodily actions, and animals. Only after this did he find time for learning. He knew more about mythology than about ancient history – he knew the classical myths far better than the Bible – though he had far fewer classical symbols present to his mind than Marlowe. In fact, Shakespeare was fond of making a point of pedants – Polonius in Hamlet, Touchstone in As You Like It – as weak beings void of much of life’s genuine vitality.

In language, as Ben Jonson states, Shakespeare had ‘small Latin and less Greek’. Jonson was the greatest scholar of the dramatists in Renaissance England, a busy borrower and sedulous translator. Whereas Jonson’s style was in the tradition of adding beauty and authority by close reference, Shakespeare was about decoration by verbal embellishment. His mind worked more as a cauldron than a manuscript.

So how harsh were Jonson’s words, and just how little of the classics did Shakespeare know? He was indeed part Ariel, but he is also Prospero, with volumes that he prized above a dukedom. Some of Shakespeare’s ability was a natural genius. We know he had not read Aeschylus – though strangely enough Aeschylean themes and styles shine. This can only be attributed to that great poets in times and countries far from each other often have similar thoughts, expressed differently. For others it is difficult to say whether Shakespeare had read them directly or simply heard them being discussed. In a period of great intellectual activity a man with a lively imagination and a retentive memory often picks up great ideas not from the books which contain them but from the conversation of his friends and from adaptations of them in the work of his contemporaries.

An example of Shakespeare’s mutation of overheard themes we find Plato’s idea contained in The Republic. The physical universe is a group of eight concentric spheres, each of which sings a note as it turns. Each of the notes blend into a divine harmony, which we can hear only after death, and our escape from the prison of the flesh. Here is Shakespeare’s interpretation as laid out in the Merchant of Venice:

There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st

But in his motion like an angel sings,

Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;

Such harmony is in immortal souls;

But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay

Doth grossly close us in, we cannot hear it.

Shakespeare’s Classical Authors

Three classical authors were known well to Shakespeare, and a fourth partially. These are Ovid, Seneca, Plutarch, and Plautus (who gave him material for one play and trained him for others).

  1. Ovid

His favourite was Ovid. In a survey of contemporary literature in 1598, Shakespeare’s friend Francis Meres claimed the playwright was Ovid reincarnate. The first book Shakespeare published was blending and elaboration of two Greek myths found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, prefaced with a couplet from Ovid’s Loves:

Vilia miretur vulgus; mihi flavus Apollo

Pocula Castalia plena minister aqua


Let cheap things please the mob; may bright Apollo

Serve me full draughts from the Castalian spring

Titania and Oberon from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The setting is mythical Greece, the characters purely Ovidian

Ovid gave Shakespeare his world of fable and mysticism. Further evidence of the Metamorphoses’ inspiration can be seen by his naming of the fairy queen in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, one Titania, meaning daughter of Titan. It was used by Ovid five times, not least in his passage of Diana and Circe. In the late sixteenth century there was extant a crude translation from Arthur Golding, but as TS Eliot remarked, Shakespeare ‘had that ability, which is not native to everyone, to extract the utmost possible from translations. Like Chaucer, Shakespeare knew even of Ovid’s lesser known Heroides, using the Roman’s depiction of Dido as a muse for his Cleopatra.

For tales of magic and sorcery, Ovid’s telling of Medea in Book 7 of the Metamorphoses thrilled Shakespeare. Golding’s translation read of the fierce woman:

Call up dead men from their graves; and thee O Lightsome Moone…

The whole spirit of the spell is invoked in Prospero’s chant in Act 5 Scene I of The Tempest. Then there is the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth – one feels the Ovidian Medea and her pharmacopeia played a helping hand in the imagination.

  1. Seneca

For English playwrights of the Renaissance Seneca was the master of tragedy. Though only quoted in the doubtful Titus Andronica, Shakespeare’s great tragedies are dominated by a hopeless fatalism which is far more pessimistic than the purifying agonies of Greek tragedy and are almost utterly godless – this is the Stoical pessimism of Seneca. Seneca’s philosophy’s were filled that emotionless obedience to an irresistible fate. When Shakespeare’s characters go against this fate, they are portrayed as entering something akin to madness. This reaction against Stoicism is Laertes and Hamlet grieve in Ophelia’s grave, in Hotspur boasts in Henry IV Part I, in Timon’s curses.

The most prominent parallel is between Seneca’s tragic character Hercules and that of Macbeth. In the recovery from his murderous frenzy Seneca gives Hercules the following lines:

Why this my soul should linger in the world

There’s now no reason. Lost are all my goods-

Mind, weapons, glory, wife, children, strength,

Even my madness

Macbeth mirrors this upon musing his crimes:

I have lived long enough: my way of life

Is fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf;

And that which should accompany old age,

As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,

I must not look to have

And in the same passage Hercules cries:

A mind polluted

No one can cure

Just as Macbeth says:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?

Some Greek devices did reach Shakespeare through Seneca – think of the stichomythia, the quick one-line repartees, a philosophical fencing match.

Macbeth encounters the Witches: His polluted carries remnants of Seneca’s Hercules
  1. Plutarch

Plutarch had entered western culture in 1559 through the Jacques Amyot translation, turned to English by Thomas North in 1579. The timing was crucial for Shakespeare. North’s was all plain prose, full with interesting but straightforward facts. Shakespeare turned this to music. As Plato says, poets are not copyists but seers and creators. Shakespeare was such a poet, North was not. Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, and Timon of Athens all come from the Lives. Julius Caesar was the first of Shakespeare’s Plutarchan plays, and crucially it was his entrance into tragedy.

Particular scenes that were embellished from Plutarch include the omen of the sacrificial victim in Julius Caesar, the glowing description of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra.

  1. Plautus & Others

Plautus was not as influential as the other three classical figures hitherto discussed, but the Roman comic did have a strong impact on Shakespeare’s early work. The Comedy of Errors maps its plot from The Brothers Menaechmus of Plautus – identical twins separated at birth, each ignorant of the other’s existence, begin to share the same world again. One has a wife and children, the other is a complete stranger.  Confusion and comedy reign. Shakespeare also added elements from other classical texts in his sculpting of his Comedy of Errors – the shipwreck is from Apollonius of Tyre, the creation of the twin servants is taken from another work of Plautus, his Amphitryon.

It is interesting to note that no known translation of these Roman comedies were available in the time of Shakespeare’s writing, which leads us to the conclusion that he read Plautus in the original Latin. As such we may forgive Shakespeare for failing to master Plautus’ verbal skill in the Comedy of Errors, though we may commend him on a mastery of plotting and characterisation that surpasses the Roman. If Shakespeare were Ovid reincarnate, he was also Plautus romanticised.

Elsewhere in the Roman world of influence, we do know that Shakespeare had read Virgil at school, and though there are instances of inspiration, it does not seem to have made a lasting impression. There are also echoes of Lucan’s Pharsalia in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The playwright has Brutus, facing his doom, shout

O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!

Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords

In our own proper entrails

Lucan’s poem read:

A mighty nation

Its conquering against its vitals turned

We must not get too entrenched,though, in where this or that quote may have found its classical beginnings. Shakespeare pointedly reserves the task of quoting for his pedants. The rest of his characters speak from the fullness of their own heart, and by doing so, his. He was an Englishman of the Renaissance – his mind elevated by myth and his ears pricked by the talks of classically learned men that abounded the country during his time. In his works, Graeco-Roman glory filtered through into an already budding brain. True, Marlowe, Jonson, Spenser, and Milton all possessed greater classical learning. Shakespeare’s power came from his passion, keen to use the Classics as a demonstrative, as opposed to distracting, element of his works. Hence his flourishing legacy in the English-speaking world.