- Shakespeare and the Classics
Until now, Shakespeare and the Uses of Antiquity, coauthored by Charles and Michelle Martindale, has been the only extensive study of Shakespeare and the classics. Charles Martindale and A. B. Taylor's Shakespeare in the Classics, an impressive collection of sixteen essays exploring the diverse influences of the literature of antiquity on Shakespeare's work, therefore comes as a welcome addition to a rich and relatively understudied topic. Delving beyond the source studies that until now have taken center stage in this area, Martindale and Taylor make clear in their brief introduction that the collection as a whole will leap past the habitual and nonchalant presumption that the classics were no more influential to Shakespeare's work than any other genre of literature. Taken together, the essays successfully argue an opposite claim: that the classics were of central and unique significance, especially in the structure of the playwright's imagination. For the editors, "[i]nvestigating Shakespeare's classicism is thus not simply a matter of locating 'sources' . . . but of showing how he was enabled by a variety of classical books to explore such crucial areas of human experience as love, politics, ethics, and history" (2).
The multiauthor arrangement presents the reader with an unusual variety of disciplinary approaches, from the poetics of space and New Historicism to reception theory, among others. While Shakespeare scholars continue the venerable, if somewhat stale, debate over the academic quality of Shakespeare's training in the classics, Martindale and Taylor wisely reject the Bard's canonical correctness as a central query. They remind us, instead, that whether he was reading, rereading, or even deliberately misreading, his classical sources, Shakespeare's use of those sources has profoundly influenced the way every generation to follow him, including our own, has imagined both antiquity — and Shakespeare himself — in its own literature, criticism, and culture. The relationship between Shakespeare and the classics, as they note, "has been created as much as simply discovered by later writers" (4). Martindale and Taylor are quite right that these questions, and not whether Shakespeare finished every chapter of Homer (or even Chapman's Homer, for that matter), are where things really get interesting.
The collection tackles the "small Latine & lesse Greek" attributed to Shakespeare by his contemporary Ben Jonson, as well as the reception of Shakespeare's use of the classics. It is divided into four main parts: "An Initial [End Page 299] Perspective"; "'Small Latine,'" which includes essays on Shakespeare's treatment of Ovid, Virgil, Plautus, Terence, and Seneca; "'Lesse Greek,'" which includes essays on Plutarch, the Greek romances, and Greek tragedy; and "The Reception of Shakespeare's Classicism." The four parts are then further broken down into subsections, half of which contain only one essay each. This ultimately renders the organization of the collection somewhat confusing, an odd editorial oversight that, fortunately, does not detract from the substance of the volume as a whole.
In the first essay, "Shakespeare and Humanistic Culture," Colin Burrow concisely argues that the failings within humanist methods of responding to the classics carried for Shakespeare as much weight as (if not more than) their successes. Vanda Zajko's essay in part 2, "Petruchio is 'Kated': The Taming of the Shrew and Ovid," also stands out as a remarkably insightful study that considers not only how Ovid's Metamorphoses informs Shakespeare's play, but also the "kind of Ovid that Shakespeare himself creates" (33); skillfully negotiating the sexual politics of the play and focusing specifically on the transformation of Kate, Zajko shows us Shakespeare using Ovid's poem to investigate the dynamic potential of relationship. She left this reader decidedly intrigued. Michael Silk's essay, "Shakespeare and Greek Tragedy: Strange Relationship," incisively examines the differences between classical Greek tragedy and Shakespeare's "modern" tragedy and posits that both types of tragedy converge into one common point, that tragic suffering operates on the basis of three elements: compulsion, excess, and identity.
For students and teachers looking for an "early...