- Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity by Colin Burrow
Dogma, doctrine, received opinion, but worst of all common knowledge comprise an obstacle asking to be overcome. It is common knowledge, for example, that Shakespeare (of “smalle Latine and lesse Greek”) wrote his tragedies with no direct and little indirect knowledge of the original Greek genre, though scholars with more open minds and ears, from G. E. Lessing to Robert Fagles, have felt otherwise. “The rest is silence” is Fagles’s rendering of a line fudged in other translations of Aeschylus’s Oresteia so as not to suggest that Shakespeare might have been translating from Greek or improving on someone else’s English translation. The first word of his play Measure for Measure is a Greek proper noun—Escalus—requiring no translation. A Prince Escalus, moreover, represents justice in Romeo and Juliet’s Verona (and, by the way, the Escalus of Verona has a kinsman named Count Paris, who, in someone else’s poem, ran off with Helen of Lakedaimon, sister of the Oresteia’s queen, Clytemnestra).
Colin Burrow, in his excellent overview, transmits the received opinion succinctly: “Shakespeare almost certainly never read Sophocles or Euripides (let alone the much more difficult Aeschylus) in Greek, and yet he managed to write tragedies which invite comparison with those authors.” In a letter to the TLS, however, published June 23, 2006 (page 17), Michael Wood reported directly to readers, without the mediation of peer review and press advisory boards, that
in 1599, at the Rose on Bankside, the Admiral’s Men put on two plays called Agamemnon and Orestes’ Furies, written by Thomas Dekker and Henry Chettle, perhaps working on a script left to the company by Ben Jonson and Chapman, the translator of Homer. These titles match the edition published by Henri Estienne with a Latin crib. Theatrical borrowing, rather than “archetypal patterns,” would surely account better for the obvious similarities that have been noted between the Oresteia and Hamlet, which it is thought was also written in 1599–1600. Shakespeare was working then with Jonson, who had a fine library of Classical texts and certainly knew “thundering” Aeschylus: [Shakespeare] could have borrowed the book—but maybe he saw it on stage?
I should add (a) that the Elizabethan Club of Yale University acquired in 2011 the manuscript of “A tragedie called Oedipus,” available for inspection online at www.yale.edu/elizabethanclub/oedipus.html, and (b) that Burrow, who has examined Jonson’s library, reports that, while his copies of Latin classics are heavily soiled from overuse, his copies of Greek texts are “in suspiciously good condition.” Shakespeare may well have been as capable as anyone, Jonson and George Chapman included, of reading a Latin crib for Aeschylus and, no doubt, of profiting more profoundly by the experience. I argued many years ago that [End Page 105] Hamlet is an intentionally counter-Aristotelian play, that Shakespeare dissented radically from the received humanist interpretation of the Poetics. Permit me to use this space retrospectively to add that Hamlet, if Cook’s hypothesis is right, may be proto-Nietzschean as well. Shakespeare by 1599 may have rejected not only Castelvetro, Scaliger, and Sidney’s reading of the Poetics but also Aristotle’s own inadequate (though, in its anti-Platonism, salutary) analysis of Greek tragedy. So much of our common knowledge begins with the wholesome misreading of archaic Greece contained in that scrap of prose.
Jeffrey M. Perl, the founder of Common Knowledge and its editor since 1992, is the author of Skepticism and Modern Enmity: Before and after Eliot and The Tradition of Return: The Implicit History of Modern Literature, as well as the editor of Peace and Mind: Civilian Scholarship from “Common Knowledge.” He is professor of English literature at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and a member, at Durham University in England, of the Center for Humanities Innovation.