Brutus and Caesar’s ghost; illustration by William Blake


Brutus and Caesar’s ghost; illustration by William Blake for an edition of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, 1808

At some point in antiquity, perhaps the second or third century AD, a Greek author whose name is now lost wrote a novel, conventionally known as the History of Apollonius of Tyre. The original Greek text is lost, but in late antiquity another unknown party translated it into Latin. Somewhere along the way the text was abbreviated, producing various loose ends and illogicalities. It was also Christianized, though not very thoroughly; in the extant version, a temple of Diana coexists cheerfully with references to a singular deity. The work has features characteristic of other surviving Greek novels (separated lovers, shipwrecks, a wicked stepmother, pirates, apparent death and false burial, a happy ending), along with a more distinctive interest in riddles and incest.

The History of Apollonius was widely read in the Middle Ages, both in its Latin form and in vernacular adaptations. Chaucer’s contemporary John Gower included a version of it in his long poem Confessio amantis (“A Lover’s Confession”). Another retelling appears in the late-medieval collection of Latin tales known as the Gesta Romanorum. The Gesta’s version was later translated into French, and in that form it underlies an English novel, The Patterne of Painefull Aduentures, published in 1576 by one Lawrence Twine.

In the early 1600s a version of the story was staged in London. The script was a collaboration between at least two playwrights. The authors worked not from the Latin novel but from Twine and (mainly) Gower, whom they repaid by summoning him from the shades to serve as a chorus figure. They also renamed many of the characters. The hero, Apollonius, became Pericles. Nothing about the character suggests the Athenian statesman, so the authors may have been recalling Sidney’s Arcadia or Spenser’s Faerie Queene, both of which feature a character named Pyrocles. One of the play’s authors, probably responsible for the first two acts, is now generally identified as George Wilkins. The other seems to have been William Shakespeare.

The circuitous route that leads from the History of Apollonius to Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a case study in a process that fascinated Aby Warburg (1866–1929). Born to the great European banking family, Warburg early renounced his claim on the family businesses (on the understanding that his brother would pay for any books he wanted to acquire) and devoted himself to research on the transmission and reception of the classical heritage. His library, initially housed in Hamburg, gradually developed into a research institute. With the coming of the Nazis the Warburg Institute moved to England and still forms part—with university restructuring, lately a precarious part—of the University of London. Its influence is felt in countless scholarly studies. Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory is a Warburg book; so is Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology.

In 1986 the annual Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes published an article by a young scholar named Jonathan Bate on Shakespeare and English caricaturists. In the intervening years, Bate has grown into one of the great modern Shakespeare scholars. His new study of Shakespeare and the classics is another Warburg book, portions of it having been delivered at the institute in 2013 as the E.H. Gombrich Lectures in the Classical Tradition.

One of the things everyone knows about Shakespeare is that he had small Latin and less Greek. Some people also know that it was Ben Jonson who said this, and it has always been tempting to contrast Jonson, the austere author of Catiline and Sejanus, with the unlearned Shakespeare, so indifferent to historical authenticity that he famously had a clock strike in a play about Julius Caesar.

The reality is more complicated. Jonson’s phrase is part of a subordinate clause: “Though thou hadst small Latine and lesse Greeke,” he tells the dead Shakespeare (italics mine), yet he would not hesitate to call up the ancient writers from the shades to pay him tribute. As well they might have. Shakespeare based works on Livy’s history of early Rome, Plutarch’s biographies, and the comic plays of Plautus. He wrote plays set in Rome, Troy, and Athens, in Tyre and Antioch, in a nightmare version of the later Roman empire, and a dream version of late Roman Britain. Antiquity was as central to him as pre-Tudor England or his imaginary Italy.

Bate’s study is not restricted to the plays set in antiquity. Nor is it merely a catalog of classical borrowings and allusions. T.W. Baldwin’s 1944 study William Shakspere’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke established what ancient works Shakespeare is likely to have known, at least from direct reading. (It’s unlikely that Shakespeare read Lucretius, for example, but Montaigne did, and Shakespeare had read Montaigne.) Baldwin did his work thoroughly, and it is only in the last thirty years that scholars have begun to revisit the subject, now with rather different questions in mind: not what did Shakespeare read, but what did he do with what he knew or read? This is the approach of Charles and Michelle Martindale’s Shakespeare and the Uses of Antiquity (1990) and of Colin Burrow’s Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity (2013), to which Bate pays graceful tribute.


Bate organizes his book neither by ancient authors nor by individual plays. Instead he offers fourteen more-or-less self-contained essays. Some are built around an ancient author (Cicero, Virgil, Horace); others explore a particular formal tool (ekphrasis, exemplum), a larger concept (rhetoric, genre), or a theme (love, fiction, ghosts, fame). Bate has previously published biographies of John Clare and Ted Hughes, as well as Shakespeare, and one can discern a biographical thread here too. Education is brought in early, as is Shakespeare’s first big hit, Venus and Adonis. Middle chapters introduce political subjects, followed by Horatian themes of philosophical retirement. Two final chapters address Shakespearean ghost scenes and Shakespeare’s later reception—death and the afterlife, as it were. But an individual chapter can go in almost any direction. Chapter 12, for example, is built around the figure of Hercules. It includes discussion of Love’s Labor’s Lost and Antony and Cleopatra, the two tragedies on Hercules attributed to Seneca, and the role of anger in Shakespeare.

In looking for classical influence, Bate does not restrict himself to direct knowledge—the stories Shakespeare found in Arthur Golding’s Metamorphoses or anecdotes drawn from his well-thumbed copy of Thomas North’s Plutarch. What matters is the classical grounding a contemporary viewer (or reader) might have brought to the plays. As Bate asserts of one author:

The importance of Cicero in Shakespeare’s classical imagination is not dependent on his breadth and depth of reading in the actual sources…. This was an influence transmitted by osmosis as well as by education.

For Shakespeare, the classics fall into Italo Calvino’s category of “books that everybody’s read so it’s as if you had read them, too.” In some ways the book could as well have been called How the Classics Made Elizabethan (and Early Jacobean) Culture and Society.

To take one example, tax records put Shakespeare in Bishopsgate, London, in the later 1590s. During these years he must at least occasionally have attended his local church, St. Helen’s (there were fines for nonattendance). There, Bate speculates, during yet another endless Elizabethan sermon, his eyes might have drifted to the epitaph of a London merchant, William Bond. In Latin hexameters that echo the Aeneid, Bond is praised as “the flower of merchants,” a new Jason who brought not one but “many” golden fleeces home to London. This is the period when Shakespeare was writing The Merchant of Venice, which several times invokes Jason and the fleece, and Bate notes how the word “bond” reverberates through the play (“I will have my bond…”). But here we take a cautious step back:

I am intrigued by the thought of Shakespeare reading this inscription on Bond’s monument. Or, if not Shakespeare himself, then certain members of the theatre audience…or indeed readers of the scripts of Shakespeare’s plays that were available from the booksellers a fifteen-minute walk away in St. Paul’s churchyard [italics mine].

Did Shakespeare really read Bond’s epitaph? Maybe, maybe not. What matters for Bate’s purposes is that Shakespeare and the epitaph’s author “share a frame of mind.”

This expansion of focus from the artist to his public is reminiscent of yet another Warburg book, Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (1972). Baxandall argued that the interest of Renaissance painters and their public in shape and perspective can be traced in part to commercial training in “gauging”—the skill of estimating how much a barrel or other container holds. His concept of the “cognitive style” of an era, its “period eye,” seems relevant to Bate’s study. Shakespeare’s audience made classical comparisons as naturally as Baxandall’s Florentines and Venetians gauged barrels. Baxandall speaks of a Bellini painting as “the relic of a cooperation between Bellini and his public.” Bate shows us how Shakespeare’s ancient Rome was a collective construction, both an aspirational model for an emerging empire and a Protestant counterweight to contemporary, papist Rome.

This way of reading necessarily puts a heavy load on what educated Elizabethans might have thought, or could conceivably have felt, what they could hardly have avoided recognizing, or what it is tempting to imagine them recalling. Sometimes the load is too great. Horace’s second epode begins with praise of rustic life: “Blessed is he who far from trade and toil/as men did once/ploughs his paternal field with his own team.” The poem was famous and the opening exclamation Beatus ille virtually proverbial. It seems plausible that it underlies the king’s exclamation in Henry VI Part 3: “O God! methinks it were a happy life,/To be no better than a homely swain.”


But Bate discerns it in less obvious passages too: when Titus Andronicus calls his exiled son “happy” (because he has escaped threats at Rome), or when Imogen in Cymbeline refers to “blessed” Milford Haven. This seems less probable. Milford Haven is a port, and Imogen is surely thinking of the blessed haven that greets travelers after a long voyage. That image hardly needs a classical warrant. If any ancient text inspired “blessed” here, it is as likely to have been a line from the Catalepton, a set of poems alleged to be Virgil’s juvenilia and regularly printed in early modern editions: “Now I set my sails for the blessed haven” (“ad beatosportus”). Of course, the “port” there is a metaphor for Epicurean philosophy, so perhaps Bate is not altogether wrong to be reminded of the Epicurean Horace.

Bate’s Bard is not the troubled crypto-Catholic of some recent studies. But he is still a writer anchored in a particular historical setting—of an age, not just for all time. He is an ambitious literary artist, but equally a man of the theater, often called on to collaborate or do some script-doctoring—a Shakespeare who wrote parts of Arden of Faversham and Edward III, but not all of Titus Andronicus or Timon of Athens and perhaps not very much of Henry VI Part 1. As coeditor of William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, Bate knows this territory well, and he picks his way easily through the lumber room of Elizabethan literature. Francis Meres, whose 1598 commonplace book Palladis Tamia has plaudits for Shakespeare, crops up repeatedly. And we meet other less familiar names: Elizabeth Jane Weston, “the early seventeenth century’s most famous English poet in Europe” (because she wrote in Latin), or the theologian Lewis Lavater, with his treatise Of Ghostes and Spirites Walking by Nyght, and Of Strange Noyses, Crackes, and Sundry Forewarnynges.

The Elizabethans’ classical canon differed in some important ways from ours. It lacked various texts not yet rediscovered (the letters of Fronto, for instance, or much of Petronius), and included some that are now less read, like the late-antique panegyrist Claudian. It also found room for more recent Latin authors, like Erasmus or the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives. Many grammar school boys would have read the eclogues of the “Christian Virgil,” Baptista Spagnuoli, better known as Mantuan. The Ethiopian Tale of the Greek novelist Heliodorus was as widely read as Homer, if not more so; Bate notes its affinity with Shakespeare’s late romances. Most readers would have encountered Heliodorus in translation: Jacques Amyot’s French or the English version by Thomas Underdown, done from an earlier Latin rendering. For everybody had “lesse Greeke” than Latin, including Jonson; George Chapman’s Homer, which would later speak out loud and bold to Keats, was based partly on a Latin trot.

The acquisition of classical culture was rooted in the twin disciplines of grammar and rhetoric. Grammar was the first stage, in the Renaissance as in antiquity. Shakespeare’s most direct testimonies to the process are in a comic vein. Holofernes in Love’s Labor’s Lost is an affectionately devastating portrait of the Elizabethan schoolmaster (“Ah, good old Mantuan!”). In The Merry Wives of Windsor, another teacher interrogates a schoolboy named Will on Latin demonstrative pronouns (“singulariter, nominativo…”).

After such drilling, students were marched through some basic authors. One was the comic poet Terence, as familiar to Elizabethan students as Harper Lee is to their American descendants (though it was Terence’s predecessor Plautus, with his gift for parody and double-entendres, who would inspire The Comedy of Errors). Another staple was Virgil’s Aeneid, especially the Troy and Dido books (2 and 4). The former has left its mark on the player-king in Hamlet with his declamatory speech on Pyrrhus (of which even Polonius observes, “This is too long”).

Having mastered grammar, the student graduated to rhetoric. This means not (or not primarily) the ostentatious verbosity mocked in Hamlet’s responses to Osric (“to make true diction of him, his semblable is his mirror, and who else would trace him, his umbrage”). Rather, it was what we would now think of as composition, and specifically the composition of speeches.

The ancients distinguished three types of rhetoric. One is epideictic, or display oratory, whose preeminent mode is the encomium or speech of praise. Antony’s funeral oration is a brilliant example of the form even as it explicitly disclaims it (“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”). The aspiring orator might also praise a profession (happy the farmer’s lot…), or a city or country, as in John of Gaunt’s speech in Richard II (“This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle…”). Ancient teachers amused themselves by assigning praise of unlikely topics: encomia of mud, hair, or dust. The Sicilian rhetorician Gorgias wrote an encomium of antiquity’s most hated woman, Helen of Troy. Such exercises inspired Erasmus’s famous Praise of Folly.

Encomium inverted becomes invective. John of Gaunt’s “sceptered isle” lines are often quoted in isolation, but they lead up to an indictment of the feckless monarch now running things. The Bard’s talents in a lower register are attested by the Shakespearean insult generators available on the Web (“cream-faced loon,” “painted maypole,” “base football player,” “cullionly barbermonger”).

The two other branches of rhetoric are defined by their settings. One locale is the council or Senate House, where speakers urge their listeners to a course of action or try to dissuade them from it. This is deliberative rhetoric. The other setting is the Forum, where Roman trials took place; there we find judicial or “forensic” rhetoric.

Forensic oratory has its place in Shakespeare, in the great courtroom scenes in The Merchant of Venice, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure. But his real bent is for deliberative rhetoric; Bate sees it as “his essential compositional technique.” His plays are a vast debating society, in which characters are constantly posing questions to themselves and others. “To be or not to be; that is the question,” says Hamlet. “To both these sisters have I sworn my love,” says Lear’s Edmund: “Which of them shall I take?” “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” demands Henry V. “Shall I put him into the basket again?” ponders Mistress Ford. Other characters are bent on persuasion, not always for good ends. Lady Macbeth talks her husband into killing Duncan. Iago convinces Othello that his wife has been unfaithful, as Cymbeline’s Iachimo does Posthumus. (Leontes in The Winter’s Tale persuades himself.) Richard III successfully woos Lady Anne Neville, whose husband and father-in-law he has murdered.

Ancient and early modern students labored to produce such speeches as their modern counterparts do their five-paragraph essays. To teach forensic oratory, teachers devised an exercise, the controversia, in which the student pleads one side in a fictitious court case. Many revolve around the same conventional situations, framed to create conflict and ambiguity. A war hero can name his own reward and demands the execution of a rival. A rape survivor can demand her rapist’s execution or his hand in marriage—but what if he is already married? An unchaste Vestal Virgin has been hurled from the Tarpeian rock but survives: Should the authorities get another try?

Photograph of a production of Pericles by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon, 1947

Angus McBean/RSC

Diana Mahony as Diana in a production of Pericles by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon, 1947

The deliberative counterpart of the controversia was the suasoria, in which the student gave advice to a historical character—urging Alexander to turn back at the Indus, or convincing Cicero to reject Antony’s offered pardon. As a student, the poet Ovid is said to have been brilliant at this assignment. His Heroides, a set text of the Elizabethan grammar school, transports the exercise to a mythological context, as famous heroines—Dido, Ariadne, Medea—plead their cases to the lovers who have abandoned them. (“What shall I do to win my lord again?” as Desdemona asks Iago.)

Sample speeches provided a useful model for students. Some traveled under the name of the great first-century Roman rhetorician Quintilian, author of the Institutes of Oratory; a collection of brief ones may really be his. A set of nineteen longer speeches probably dates from the second century, around the time the Apollonius romance was being composed. These “major” declamations were often printed together with the Institutes, and to the Elizabethans they would have been as much “Quintilian” as the famous textbook. They are set in an imaginary world not unlike that of Apollonius, well stocked with tyrants, astrologers, shipwrecks, rich men, poor men, and evil stepmothers. Some read like treatments for Elizabethan plays no one got around to writing. In one, a mother has been visited nightly by the ghost of her dead son. Her husband calls in a professional to lay the ghost; she sues for alienation of spectral affection. In another, identical twins fall ill; a doctor undertakes to cure one by vivisecting the other. Their father agrees; their mother sues.

If Shakespeare himself read these pieces (which is perhaps unlikely), he must have done it in Latin; the first English translation, by John Warr, dates to 1686. But indirectly, via Bate’s “osmosis,” they may have helped create the artificial world of a play like Measure for Measure, where tyrants argue with virgins about mortality and mercy and a decapitated pirate unexpectedly saves the day.

Bate himself has only a little to say of Quintilian (and nothing of the declamations). He lays out his own classical canon early on:

Shakespeare was almost always Ovidian, more often than is usually supposed Horatian, sometimes Ciceronian, occasionally Tacitean, an interesting mix of Senecan and anti-Senecan, and…strikingly anti-Virgilian—insofar as Virgilian meant “epic” or “heroic.”

The idea of Shakespeare as an English Ovid was first expressed in the playwright’s own lifetime, by Francis Meres. Entire books have since been written on the Bard’s Ovidian borrowings (one, notably, by Bate himself). Shakespeare went to Ovid for stories, most famously the rude mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe. Ovidian works even make their way into his plays as texts: Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew makes time with Bianca while pretending to read the Heroides with her. In Titus Andronicus, Lavinia details her rape and mutilation by hauling out a copy of Ovid and pointing at the tale of Philomela. But the resemblance goes much deeper. Like Shakespeare, Ovid is a poet in love with love and in love with words, sometimes serious but never wholly in earnest. As Samuel Johnson said of Shakespeare, “A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it.”

A Ciceronian Shakespeare is more unexpected. Cicero, like Horace, is generally associated with Jonson, though his treatise On Duties (“Tully’s Offices”) was a foundational text of Elizabethan moral instruction. Bate makes as much as he can of Cicero’s role in Julius Caesar, but the four meager speeches assigned him offer little to work with. And on one point, at least, Bate’s exposition runs afoul of facts. He calls Cicero’s De Re Publica “the key precedent for Thomas Smith’s De Republica Anglorum,” and by extension for Elizabethan views of the mixed constitution. But Smith mentions Cicero only twice in passing, and the De Re Publica not at all. This isn’t surprising. Early modern readers knew the closing passage of Cicero’s work, the mystical Dream of Scipio, which survives because the late-antique author Macrobius wrote a commentary on it. But most of the extant text (including the chapter Bate cites) was only recovered from a palimpsest manuscript in the nineteenth century: no Elizabethan could have known it.

Bate also credits Cicero for “the…idea of the peculiarly heinous nature of civil war” as it appears in the history plays. Here I think he overrates the influence of Cicero and underrates that of Lucan. Though Bate mentions it only briefly, Lucan’s baroque, unfinished epic on the Roman civil war between Caesar and Pompey was vastly popular with Elizabethan readers (Christopher Marlowe produced a dazzling translation of its first book), and it constantly stresses the horror of internecine violence.

Along with the tragedies of his uncle, Seneca, Lucan is also one of the primary sources of Elizabethan Gothic. His glorious witch Erictho anticipates Macbeth’s Weird Sisters, and his declamatory and sometimes grotesque style can be heard in Hamlet:

In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun, and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse…

With this compare Marlowe’s rendering of the great catalog of portents in Lucan:

Great store of strange and unknown stars were seen
Wandering about the north, and rings of fire
Fly in the air, and dreadful bearded stars,
And comets that presage the fall of kingdoms….
Crowns fell from holy statues, ominous birds
Defiled the day, and wild beasts were seen
Leaving the woods, lodge in the streets of Rome….
Clashing of arms was heard; in untrod woods
Shrill voices shright, and ghosts encounter men.

To Shakespeare and his contemporaries Lucan must have seemed a seductive model: a master rhetorician, a brash foil to the Augustan Virgil, a poet who chronicled a civil conflict as near, and as perilously relevant, to his own times as Bosworth Field was to theirs. But a dangerous model, too. A marvelous boy dead in his twenties after running afoul of the authorities, the author of an epic with no gods, he bore more than a passing resemblance to his English translator, the alleged atheist Marlowe. Lucan’s transparent sympathy for the old Republic against the new Caesarian state would have had uncomfortable implications in the age of Elizabeth and James. Yet he too is one of the classics who made Shakespeare.