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Chapter 1: The Classical Tradition of Elizabethan England, and Shakespeare’s Classical Education

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Chapter 1: The Classical Tradition of Elizabethan England, and Shakespeare’s Classical Education
The aim of this chapter is to create an overview of the historical and socio-political Elizabethan background in relation to the ancients, comment on the view of the classical legacy in this period, and discuss the role of humanism and the relationship between Tudor authors and their ancient counterparts. The chapter will also give an account of Shakespeare’s own education in the matter of classical literature and history.

As the name itself suggests, Elizabethan era was a period of English history associated with the reign of queen Elizabeth I, dating to the second half of the 16th century, and it is regarded as a part of the European-wide cultural movement known as the Renaissance.

The Renaissance, the word itself meaning ‘rebirth’, took as its motto Ad Fontes, i.e. ‘back to the sources’, thus indicating at least a partial detachment from the medieval cultural tradition and looking back to ancient Greek and Roman civilisation. This involved a number of significant changes in the ways of thinking, including the turn of attention from god towards man, and the Protestant revolution.

Such was also the situation in England. Ancient Rome and ancient authors became a model, an ideal that was to be admired and looked up to. As Dominique Goy-Blanquet explains in her essay on Elizabethan historiography and Shakespeare’s sources (in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's History Plays, edited by Michael Hattaway), a national myth claiming that Britons were in fact descended from Trojans who fled the Trojan war was invented to increase the credibility of and respect for the monarch:

It was not enough for a conquering Richmond to inherit the Lancaster claim. His historiographers were required to trace his ascendancy back to the primitive Celtic kings, and beyond them to the first Trojan settlers. The Tudor thirst for respectability turned the quest of origins into a national pastime (60).

Thanks to this perception, the view of, and interest in, ancient Rome developed in a very specific way. As Robert S. Miola suggests in his essay on Shakespeare’s ancient Rome (in Hattaway), Rome, as depicted by Shakespeare, was described both as a very different world, on the one hand obedient to obscure traditions and full of violence, on the other culturally highly developed, and a place that was in many ways seen as similar to Elizabethan monarchy. In Protestant England the "‘matter of Rome’ was priceless to Shakespeare’s contemporaries who liked to advertise themselves as its true inheritors, whereas papist Rome had proved unworthy of its admirable forefathers" (Goy-Blanquet in Hattaway 69). This also reflected the ongoing conflict between contemporary religious groups.

The "larger humanist project of recovering antiquity" (Miola in Hattaway 212) affected virtually every part of Renaissance culture including education. Greek studies became increasingly popular, and scholars began their hunt for old manuscripts (Goy-Blanquet 58). In his book Shakespeare and the Uses of Antiquity : An Introductory Essay Charles Martindale asserts that ancient learning formed a part of the ‘national curriculum’: "pupils at Westminster had to memorize Ovid at the rate of twelve lines a week" (19). As Martindale further argues, education at that time was "remarkably adult" and "intensely rhetorical. It was an Erasmian doctrine that language was the basis of knowledge; hence the focus on words and their arrangement and on copia, rhetorical fluency" (6). Therefore, Roman oratory, admired as the ideal of verbal expression, came into focus. It was a common practice to include classical Latin texts into the process of learning the Latin language:

Lily’s Grammar, which supplies a snippet of Horace in [Shakespeare’s] Titus Andronicus (4.2.21-2), supplied basic morphology and simple sententiae. Students progressed to Caesar, Cicero, Ovid, Virgil, Sallust, Quintilian, and Renaissance Latinists like Erasmus and Susenbrotus. They mastered texts, imitated forms like epistles, declamations and controvesiae, and invented rhetorical figures (Miola in Hattaway 200).

However, it was not only Roman oratory that was influential to Renaissance learning and literature: "with the fifteenth century came the rediscovery of classical drama, [and] public theatres had been opened" (Miller 133). Furthermore, the growing interest in historiography and demand for its greater accuracy meant that Humanist scholars turned their attention to Tacitus and Livy, "whose writings reached a height of popularity in the 1590s, when full translation [...] appeared, along with a new edition of North’s Plutarch" (Goy-Blanquet in Hattaway 67). The historiographers of this time focused especially on critical rereadings of Tacitus (Hattaway 18).

As Goy-Blanquet adds, Shakespeare himself would study ancient authors rather than any of the contemporary historians to gain a better understanding of English history; the reason for this was that Elizabethan history topics were all taken from the ancients. Tudor historiography still resembled something that had centuries ago been described by Quintilian (c. A.D. 35 – 100) as something "between poetry and oratory, something like a poem in prose" (Goy-Blanquet in Hattaway 68), i.e. using unreliable sources and filling the blank spaces of history with the writers’ own inventions, even though it was Thucydides (c. 445 – 404 B.C.) already who "first required the historian to examine evidence and never trust the tales of the poets" (Goy-Blanquet in Hattaway 68), thus becoming the first historian to recognise that a scientific approach was vital.

Based on these facts, it is apparent that ancient literature served both as an inspiration and a model for imitation. As E. M. W. Tillyard suggests in his book Shakespeare's History Plays, the whole Elizabethan worldview was formed by the two "fountain-heads of general cosmic doctrines" – the Book of Genesis and Plato (18). This overreliance on such literary works and figures caused the stagnation of contemporary literature preventing further development and adoption of new ideas. According to Goy-Blanquet, this view also discouraged new writers from attempts to become equally or even more famous and admirable in the eyes of their contemporaries than the ancients.

Overall, any kind of novelty represented the danger of forgetting the past rather than an advance in thinking (Goy-Blanquet in Hattaway 58). Having been introduced by Hesiod, the myth of a Golden Age was remarkably strong and popular in Elizabethan England, thus adding to the depressing notion of the time that the world and the human race were undoubtedly moving towards the end of their existence, and that nothing good ever came from progress, only evil (59).

Therefore, virtually any writing in the age of Elizabeth’s reign would be an imitation or a variation on an ancient work, theme or topic. As Martindale explains, imitation served primarily as a way of learning to write. A young scholar or writer would copy the style of the best of authors, i.e. those classical authors who were perceived as remarkable, in order to learn to write well. Martindale argues that this procedure was still a creative process, and the result was independent of the model.

Imitation of writing certainly was not a newly discovered concept; it had been highly popular already in Middle Ages and even before that. However, as Martindale points out, there was a significant difference between medieval and Renaissance imitation of ancient works resulting from the latter one’s separation from antiquity, both in culture and time: "[Thomas Greene] argues that writers of the [Renaissance] period experienced a sense of cultural distance and loss, in connection with antiquity, and that the essential difference between medieval and Renaissance imitation is that there is no ‘strain of disjuncture’ in the former" (13).

Interestingly, in the particular case of England, as Martindale further presents, the situation was an outcome of a different development: while medieval authors drew inspiration quite freely from ancient sources, Renaissance writers paid close attention to style of those works in order to emulate them as truly as possible. Samuel Daniel applied this process when writing his History of the Civil Wars between the Houses of York and Lancaster (1594). The text was supposed to bear the form of a long epic poem, and it was based on Lucan’s Pharsalia (Tillyard 238), whereas Thomas More’s biography of Richard III serves as an excellent example of merging of the ancient and medieval approach to writing: More chose the works of Tacitus and other Roman historians as the models for the composition of his text but "his method of inquiry is typically medieval" (Goy-Blanquet in Hattaway 62): the style of his book therefore resembled the appearance of ancient works but the actual text was based on hearsay and earlier publications.

Furthermore, it is highly likely that, unlike Italian or French writers, English authors did not feel such a strong continuity in their literary tradition; and more imporantly "there was no poet writing in English as learned as Petrarch, at least before Milton [...], and no Rome and few Roman ruins to remind writers of a more glorious past" (Martindale and Martindale 13). This was further reinforced by the very geographical position of Britain – near, but still outside Europe.

Writers of the Renaissance Age often applied the acquired classical knowledge to current events. They undoubtedly presumed that their readers or audience would understand and appreciate the reference. In plays, they often used speeches of characters as a means of commenting on the familiar social, political or religious situation. This would be achieved by using metaphors or describing and referring to historical or fictional situations similar to those currently in focus.

Thus, Shakespeare’s Rome, a strange and violent world, and very dissimilar from England at first sight, actually mirrors political and religious conflics of the Bard’s time. "David Kaula has well demonstrated, for example, that Julius Caesar reflects contemporary religious disputes over popish ceremonies, papal authority, reliquary veneration, and the Eucharist" (Miola in Hattaway 198).

As Miola further suggests, "the barbarous action of Shakespeare’s Rome, its display of mutilation and murder, also evokes the contemporary culture of martyrdom" (198). There are numerous references to martyrs, torturing and martyrdom throughout Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. The phenomenon of martyrdom was an attractive topic to both Protestants and Catholics in England. (198) "The Elizabethan culture of martyrdom finds in ancient Roman barbarity its own religious practices and discourses" (Miola in Hattaway 199). As Richard Wilson in Secret Shakespeare suggests, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in England seems to be reflected throughout the play:

Titus Andronicus may well have been acted under the patronage of the Montagues, or their young heir, Southampton, and its group-portrait of the old Roman nobility at the court of the Caesars, with barbarians at the gates, seems to sum up the historical predicament of Shakespeare’s Catholic patrons in the empire of the Tudors, waiting on the Protestant ‘Goths’ (22).

The idea of Shakespeare’s Catholicism would thus explain his preoccupation with this topic.

Found again in Titus Andronicus, the number of images of "cut off tongues, heads, and hands, mimics the contemporary controversy over venerating relics" (199). In Protestantism it was prohibited to venerate religious images, in the belief that this served as an encouragement of Antichrist. (199) The contrast between Catholic and Protestant practices is depicted in the scene where Titus receives his hand cut off by Aaron, together with the heads of the two sons he had saved, and this stirs the religious zeal in him and his allies:

TITUS. [...]

Come, let me see what task I have to do.

You heavy people, circle me about,

That I may turn me to each one of you

And swear unto my soul to right your wrongs.

The vow is made. Come, brother, take a head,

And in this hand the other will I bear.

And, Lavinia, thou shalt be employ'd in this;

Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.


(Shakespeare. Titus Andronicus. Act III, Scene I.)

As Miola points out, the religious power of the body parts is recognised and appreciated; they become the symbol of faith, suffering and identity. It would not be surprising to the Elizabethan audience to see the performance of such a ritual on stage because it was one of the familiar images of the culture and conflicts of their time.

The references that Shakespeare’s Roman plays provided were not only concerned with the important socio-political or religious issues of the day but they often reflected local affairs and events:

The opening insurrection [of Julius Caesar] replays in Roman dress the Midlands uprisings of 1607-8. [...] The audience could easily have understood the First Citizen’s complaint about statutes that oppress the poor (1.1.68-9). Like the aggrieved and starving plebeians in the play, the ill-organised and ill-equipped peasants in England protested the hoarding of grain [...] (Miola in Hattaway 211).

The development and results of these protests were usually similar to their Roman counterparts – the poor were dominant for a certain period of time but the ruling authorities managed to seize control and only made small concessions to prevent future problems. In these conflicts one may recognise the underlying issue of the discord between social classes, a parallel to the struggle between Roman patricians and the plebs. The plays could serve either as an encouragement or as a consolation to the people of England who, similarly to Roman masses, had fought and failed.

The scope of classical knowledge that Shakespeare demonstrates is relatively broad, especially when considered that he did not receive any university training. As Martindale claims, Shakespeare attended ‘free-school’, i.e. grammar school (most likely in Stratford), possibly for several years before his father found himself in financial problems. That was probably the place where Shakespeare learnt his "small Latin, and less Greek" (as Ben Jonson, he himself well-read, described his contemporary’s classical education). Despite the limited possibilities, Shakespeare certainly mastered the Latin language well enough to be able to read simple texts; however, where possible, he would still prefer English translation as in the case of Plutarch’s Lives. This has to be taken into account when judging the directness of the influence of these ancient texts on Shakespeare’s writing.

The evidence that Martindale finds proves that the discrepancy between opinions concerning whether or not Shakespeare had been learned and had read the classics, came into existence shortly after his death and is present to this time. However, the choice of classical texts accessible to Shakespeare, be it originals or translations, and the similarities between these and his writings, mentioned in numerous scholarly works, assert that he read and knew various classical texts and incorporated some of the ideas found in them into his own work.

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