From Hercules to Hamlet

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…

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