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Shakespeare's Reading

( Originally Published 1918 )



WE have called the present chapter "Shakespeare's Reading" rather than "The Learning of Shakespeare," because, apart from the famous line in which Ben Jonson stated that the poet had "small Latin and less Greek," it is evident from the allusions throughout the plays that Shakespeare was a reader rather than a scholar. In other words, he used books for what interested him ; he did not study them for complete mastery ; and many and varied as are the traces of his literary interests, they have the air of being detached fragments that have stuck in a plastic and retentive mind, not pieces of systematic erudition. It is true that many books have been written to show that Shakespeare had the knowledge of a professional in law, medicine, navigation, theology, conveyancing, hunting and hawking, horsemanship, politics, and other fields ; but such works are usually the products of enthusiasts in single subjects, who are apt to forget how much a man of acute mind and keen observation can pick up of a technical matter that interests him for the time, and how intelligently he can use it. The cross-examination of an expert witness by an able lawyer is an everyday illustration ; and in the literature of our own day this kind of versatility is strikingly exemplified in the work of such a writer as Mr. Kipling.

How Shakespeare learned to read and write his own tongue we do not know ; that he did learn hardly needs to be argued. The free grammar school at Stratford-on-Avon, like other schools of its type, was named from its function of teaching Latin grammar ; and we may make what is known of the curricula of such schools in the sixteenth century the basis for our inferences as to what Shakespeare learned there.

The accidence, with which the course began, was studied in Lily 's Grammar, and clear echoes of this well-known work are heard in the conversation between Sir Hugh Evans and William Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor, IV. i, in 1 Henry IV, II. i. 104, in Much Ado, IV. i. 22, in Love's Labour's Lost, IV. ii. 82 (and perhaps, V. i. 10 and 84), in Twelfth Night, II. iii. 2, in The Taming of the Shrew, I. i. 167, a line of Terence altered by Lily, and in Titus Andronicus, IV. ii. 20-23, where Demetrius reads two lines from Horace, and Chiron says,

0, 'tis a verse in Horace; I know it well. I read it in the grammar long ago.

Such fragments of Latin as we find in the dialogue between Holofernes and Nathaniel in Love's Labour's Lost, IV. ii, and V. i, are probably due to some elementary phrase-book no longer to be identified. It is to be noted how prominently this early comedy figures in the list of evidences of his school-day memories.

Among the first pieces of connected Latin prose read in the Elizabethan schools was AEsop's Fables, a collection which, after centuries of rewriting and recompiling for adults, had come in the sixteenth century to be regarded chiefly as a school-book, but allusions to which are everywhere to be found in the literature of the day. In 2 Henry VI, III. i. 343, and Richard II, III. ii. 129, we find references to the fable of "The Countryman and a Snake" ; in 2 Henry VI, III. i. 69, and Timon of Athens, II. i. 28, to " The Crow in Borrowed Feathers"; in 2 Henry VI, III. i. 77, to " The Wolf in the Sheep's Skin " ; in King John, II. i. 139, to " The Ass in the Lion's Skin " ; in Henry V, IV. iii. 91, to " The Hunter and the Bear " ; in As You Like It, I. i. 87, to " The Dog that Lost his Teeth " ; in All's Well, II. i. 71, to " The Fox and the Grapes " ; besides a number of slighter and less definite allusions. The most detailed fable in Shakespeare, that of " The Belly and the Members," in Coriolanus, I. i. 99, is de-rived, not from AEsop, but from Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus.

The traces of the well-known collection of say from various writers called Sententiae Pueriles, and of the so-called Distichs of Cato, both of which were commonly read in the second and third years, are only slight. Battista Spagnuoli Mantuanus, whose Eclogues, written about 1500, had become a text-book, is honored with explicit mention as well as quotation in Love's Labour's Lost, IV. ii. 95. Cicero, who was read from the fourth-year, has left his mark on only a phrase or two, in spite of his importance in Renaissance culture ; but Ovid is much more important. The motto on the title page of Venus and Adonis is from the Amores, and the matter of the poem is from Metamorphoses, X. 519 if., with features from the stories of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis (Meta. IV. 285 ff.), and the hunting in Calydon (Meta. VIII. 270 ff.). Ovid is quoted in Latin in three early plays ; and even where a translation was available, the phrasing of Shakespeare's allusions sometimes shows knowledge of the original. Most of Ovid had been translated into English before Shakespeare began to write, and Golding's version of the Metamorphoses (1567) was used for the references to the Actaeon myth in A Midsummer-Night's Dream, IV. i. 107 if., and for a famous passage in The Tempest, V. i. 33. &ivy, who had been translated in 1545 according to Malone, seems to have been the chief source of Lucrece, with some aid from Ovid's Fasti, II. 721 if. Among other Ovidian allusions are those to the story of Philomela, so pervasive in Titus Andronicus; to the Medea myth in four or five passages ; to Narcissus and Echo, Phaeton, Niobe, Hercules, and a score more of the familiar names of classical mythology. Pyramus and Thisbe Shakespeare may have read about in Chaucer as well as in Ovid, but Bottom's treatment of this story in A Midsummer-Night's Dream gives but a slight basis for proving literary relations.

Virgil followed Ovid in the fifth year, and with Virgil, Terence. Of direct knowledge of the latter the plays bear no trace, but of the former there seems to be an influence in the description of the painting of Troy in Lucrece, 1366 ff., and in two short Latin sentences in 2 Henry VI, H. i. 24, and IV. i. 117. Horace, Plautus, Juvenal, Persius, and Seneca were the new authors taken up in the last years in school. All the Horace in the plays may have been taken from other works, like the passage already quoted from Lily's Grammar. Juvenal and Persius have left no mark. The Mencechmi and Amphitruo of Plautus furnish the basis for The Comedy of Errors, and no English translation of either of these is known before that of the Mencechmi in 1595, which some critics think Shakespeare may have seen in manuscript. But no verbal similarities confirm this conjecture, and there is no reason why the dramatist should not have known both plays at first hand.

The influence of Seneca is dramatically the most important among the classical authors. All the plays that go by his name had been translated into English in the first part of Elizabeth's reign; he was the main channel through which the forms of classical tragedy reached the Renaissance ; and when Shakespeare began to write he was the dominant force in the field of tragedy. This makes it hard to say whether the Senecan features in Titus Andronicus, Richard Ill, and even Hamlet, are due to Seneca directly, or to the tradition already well established among Shakespeare's earlier contemporaries.

The impression which the evidence from the text-books as a whole leaves on one is that Shakespeare took from school enough Latin to handle an occasional quotation and to extract the plot of a play, but that he probably preferred to use a translation when one was to be had. The slight acquaintance shown with authors not always read at school, Caesar, Livy, Lucan, and Pliny, does not materially alter this impression. Much more conclusive as to the effect of his Latin training than the literary allusions are the numerous words of Latin origin either coined by Shakespeare, or used in such a way as to imply a knowledge of their derivation. The discovery of a lost translation may modify our views as to whether a particular author was used by him in the original, but the evidence from his use of Romance words gives clear proof that his schooling was no unimportant element in his mastery of speech.

Greek was occasionally begun in the Elizabethan grammar school, but we do not know whether this was the case in Stratford. Certainly we have no reason to believe that Shakespeare could read Greek, as all his knowledge of Greek authors could have been obtained from translations, and only two Greek words, misanthropos and threnos, occur in his writings. Yet no single author was so important in providing material for the plays as the Greek Plutarch. His Lives of Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus, Marcus Antonius, and Caius Martius Coriolanus, in Sir Thomas North's translation, are the direct sources of the great Roman tragedies, and in a less important way the Lives of Antonius and Alcibiades were used in Timon of Athens. Homeric elements are discoverable in Troilus and Cressida, which derives mainly from the medieval tradition. As the Trojan story was already familiar on the stage, these need not have come from Chap-man's Homer. The knowledge of Lucian which seems implied in Timon was probably not gained from the Greek original. The late Greek romances, which were popular in translation, may have been read by Shakespeare, since the reference to the "Egyptian thief" in Twelfth Night, V. i. 120, is from the AEthiopica of Heliodorus, translated in 1569. Attempts have been made by the assembling of parallel passages to prove a knowledge of Greek tragedy on the part of Shakespeare, but such parallelisms are more naturally explained as coincidences arising from the treatment of analogous themes and situations.

Of modern languages, French was the easiest for an Elizabethan Englishman to acquire, and the French passages and scenes in Henry V make it fairly certain that Shakespeare had a working knowledge of this tongue. Yet, as in the case of Latin, he seems to have preferred a translation to an original when he could find it. Montaigne, whose influence some have found pervasive in Shakespeare, he certainly used in Gonzalo's account of his ideal commonwealth in The Tempest, II. i. 143 if., but it seems that he employed Florio's translation here. Rabelais's Gargantua is explicitly mentioned in As You Like It, III, ii. 238, and the great humorist is possibly the inspirer of some of Sir Andrew's nonsense in Twelfth Night, II. iii. 23. Many of the Sonnets contain reminiscences of the French sonneteers of the sixteenth century, and it is thought that in some cases Shakespeare shows direct acquaintance with Ronsard. He was thus acquainted with the three greatest French writers of his century, and French may well have been the medium through which he reached authors in other languages.

The class of Italian literature with which Shakespeare shows most acquaintance is that of the novelle, though proof that he could read the language. The Decameron of Boccaccio contains the love-story of Cymbeline, though there may have been an intermediary ; the plot of All's Well came from the same collection, but had been translated by Painter in his Palace of Pleasure; and the story of the caskets in The Merchant of Venice is found in a form closer to Shakespeare's in the English translation of the Gesta Romanorum than in the Decameron. Thus we cannot conclude that the poet knew this work as a whole. Similarly with Bandello and Cinthio. The plot of Much Ado is found in the former, and is translated by Belleforest into French, but at least one detail seems to come from Ariosto, and here again an intermediary is commonly conjectured. The novel from Cinthio's Hecatommithi which formed the basis of Othello existed in a French translation ; and his form of the plot of Measure for Measure came to Shakespeare through the English dramatic version of George Whetstone. The version of the bond story in The Merchant of Venice closest to the play is in Il Pecorone of Sir Giovanni Fiorentino, but the tale is widespread. Incidents in The Merry Wives have sources or parallels in the same work, in Straparola's Piacevoli Notti, and in Bandello, but in both cases English versions were available. A mass of Italian and French prototypes lies behind the plot of Twelfth Night, but most of the details are to be found in the English Apolonius and Silla of Barnabe Riche, and there is reason to conjecture a lost English play on the subject. The Taming of the Shrew, based on an extant older play, draws also on Gascoigne's version of Ariosto's I Suppositi; and the echoes of Petrarch in the Sonnets may well have come through French and English imitators. The introduction of stock types from the Italian drama, such as the pedant and the braggart-soldier, can be accounted for by the previous knowledge of these in England, and does not imply a first-hand reading of Italian literature. The negative position is still stronger in the case of Spanish, where the use of episodes from George of Montemayor's Diana in The Two Gentlemen, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer-Night's Dream, can be supposed to be due to the author's having access to Yonge's translation in manuscript, especially since there is no other trace of Spanish influence.

The conclusion with regard to Italian and Spanish, then, seems to be that Shakespeare in his search for plots was aware of the riches of the novelle, but that he found what he wanted as a rule in English or French versions; and that we have no evidence of his knowledge of anything but fiction from these literatures.

Turning now to English, we find Shakespeare's knowledge of books in his own tongue beginning after the Conquest. The romances of the Middle Ages were in the Elizabethan time rapidly undergoing the process of degradation that was soon to end in the chap-books, but the material was still widely known. The particular versions read by the dramatist can rarely be determined on account of the slight nature of most of the references, but we find allusions to the Arthurian romances, to Guy of Warwick, Bevis of Hampton, The Squire of Low Degree, Roland and Oliver, and to Huon of Bordeaux, from which last came the name of Oberon as king of the fairies. Among popular ballads, those of Robin Hood are frequently alluded to ; the story of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid appears in no fewer than five plays ; Hamlet knew a ballad on Jephtha's daughter, and Sir Toby one on the chaste Susanna. A large number of popular songs appear in fragments ; and rimes and spells, current jests and anecdotes, combine with the fairy-lore of A Midsummer-Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merry Wives to assure us that Shakespeare was thoroughly versed in the literature and traditions of the people.

His acquaintance with more formal letters begins with Chaucer whose Knight's Tale contributed some details to A Midsummer-Night's Dream, and the main plot of The Two Noble Kinsmen, in which Shakespeare is now usually supposed to have had a hand. This story had, however, been already dramatized by Richard Edwardes. More certainly direct is his knowledge of Chaucer's Troilus, which, with Caxton's Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, is the main source of Troilus and Cressida. The references to the leprosy of Cressida are due to Henryson's Testament of Creseide, a Scots sequel to Chaucer's poem, printed in the sixteenth century editions of the older poet's works. In the Legend of Good Women he may have found the story of Pyramus, and a version of the tragedy of Lucrece, to supplement his main sources in Livy and Ovid Chaucer's con-temporary Gower contributed to his stock the story of Florent (Taming of the Shrew, I. ii. 69) from the Confessio Amantis, and from the same collection a version of the tale of Apollonius of Tyre, dramatized by Shakespeare and another in Pericles.

With the non-dramatic literature produced by Shakespeare's contemporaries, we naturally find most evidence of his acquaintance in the case of those books which provided material for his plays. Thus the otherwise obscure Arthur Brooke, whose poem Romeus and Juliet is the chief source of the tragedy, is much more prominent in such an enumeration as the present than he probably was in Shakespeare's view of the literature of the day. Painter, whose version of the same story in his Palace of Pleasure cannot be shown to have been used much, if at all, by the dramatist, seems nevertheless to have been known to him ; and we hardly need evidence that Shakespeare must have kept a watchful eye on similar collections of stories, such as Whetstone's, Riche's, and Pettie's. Of the greater writers of imaginative literature there is none missing from the list of those he knew, though, as has been implied, the evidence is not always proportionate to the greatness ; and some prominent figures in other fields, such as Hooker and Bacon, do not appear.. Spenser, who is supposed to have alluded to Shakespeare in Colin Clout's come home again and, less probably, in The Teares of the Muses, is in turn alluded to in A Midsummer-Night's Dream, V. i. 52 ; and his version of the story of Lear in The Faerie Queene, II. x, is believed to have given Shakespeare his form of the name Cordelia. Evidence is more abundant in the case of Sir Philip Sidney. The under-plot of King Lear is based on the story of the blind king of Paphlagonia in the Arcadia, and Sidney's sonnets, along with those of Daniel Drayton, Constable, Watson, and Barnes, formed the main channel through which the French and Italian influences reached Shakespeare's. However we may estimate the original element in his sonnets, and in our opinion it is very great, there is no question of the author's' having had a thorough familiarity with contemporary sonnetteers.

Similarly we can be certain that he had read many of the elaborate narrative poems then in vogue, a class to which he contributed Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, and A Lover's Complaint. Daniel's Rosamond and Marlowe's Hero and Leander especially have left many traces, and Daniel's Barons' Wars is intimately related to Richard II and Henry IV. The longer prose fictions of the time he also watched, and Lyly's Euphues contributed the germ of a number of passages, as Lodge's Rosalynde and Greene's Pandosto supplied the plots of As You Like It and The Winter's Tale respectively.

Reference has already been made to his knowledge of folk beliefs about fairies. To this should be added other supernatural beliefs, especially as to ghosts, devils, and witches, evidence of his familiarity with which will occur to every one. Matters of this sort were much discussed in his time, the frequency of ghosts in Senecan plays having made them conspicuous in Elizabethan imitations, and religious controversy having stimulated interest in demonology. Several important books appeared on the subject, and one of these at least Shakespeare read, Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, for from it Edgar, as Poor Tom in King Lear, derived many of the names and phrases which occur in his pretended ravings.

The most useful book in all his reading, if we judge by the amount of his work that is based on it, was the second edition of the Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, compiled by Raphael Holinshed. With it he used the work by Hall on The Union o an-caster and York, the Chronicles of Grafton and of Fabyan, and the Annals of John Stowe. On these were based the greater number of the historical plays, Macbeth, and the political part of Cymbeline. In the case of Henry VIII there should be added the Acts and Monuments, better known as the Book of Martyrs, of John Foxe.

To deal adequately with Shakespeare's reading in the plays of his time would be to write a history of the Elizabethan drama. Older dramatists, like Preston, Gascoigne, and Whetstone, he knew, for he quotes Cambyses, and from the two last he derives material for the plots of The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure. Anonymous writers supplied the older plays on which he based King John, King Lear, and Hamlet, parts of Henry V and VI, and of Richard III, and probably others. Allusions prove a familiarity with all of Marlowe's dramas ; Hamlet is indebted to the tradition of which Kyd was one of the founders ; Lyly taught him much in the and he quotes lines from Peele. Greene's contribution is less specifically marked ; but Shakespeare's profession of acting, as well as ,that of play-writing, of necessity made him acquainted with the whole dramatic production of the time. Thus, as has been stated in a previous chapter, he acted in several of Jonson' plays, and a good case has been made out for his modelling his last comedies on the new successes of Beaumont and Fletcher.

No Englishman of that day was insensible to what was going on in exploration and conquest of the Western World ; and in The Tempest, Othello, and other plays we have clear ground for stating that Shakespeare shared this interest, and read books like Eden's History of Travayle in the West and East Indies, Raleigh's Discoverie of Guiana, and such pamphlets as were used in the vast compilation of Richard Hakluyt. The scientific knowledge implied in the plays reflects current beliefs, and must have been derived from such works as Pliny, Batman uppon Bartholome his Booke De Proprietatibus Rerum, and from conversation.

Finally, Shakespeare knew his Bible. Several volumes have been written to exhibit the extent of this knowledge, and it has been shown by Anders that he knew both the Genevan and the Great Bible, as well as the Prayer Book.

Taken all together, the amount of literature indicated by this summary account of the evidences in the plays and poems abundantly proves the statement that Shakespeare, if not a scholar, was a man of wide and varied reading. When it is further considered that only a fraction of what any author reads leaves a mark that can be identified on what he writes, we shall readily allow that in the matter of study Shakespeare showed an activity and receptivity of mind that harmonizes with the impression received from his creative work.

It agrees with our impressions of him derived from other sources also, that his reading reflects not so much idiosyncrasies of taste as the prevealent literary intrests of the day. Thus in Latin literature the most conspicuous author among general readers, as distinguished from scholars, was Ovid, whose romantic narratives appealed to a time which reveled in tales gathered from all quarters ; and this same prominence of Ovid has been shown to exist among the classical authors known to the dramatist. Similarly his use of chronicles like that of Holinshed merely reflects a widespread interest in nation history ; and Shakespeare shared the popular interest in the translations of novelle and the like that poured in from the Continent. The age of Elizabeth was an age of great expansion in reading especially in the literature of entertainment. For the first time since the introduction of printing the people were free to indulge in books as a recreation, and the enormous growth of publishing in this era indicates the response to the new demand. In all this Shakespeare took part, and the evidences appear in his works so far as the nature of their themes permitted it. But the drama gave no opportunity for anything but passing allusions to scientific, philosophical, and religious matters, so that direct evidence is lacking as to how far Shakespeare was acquainted with what was being written in these fields. On the other hand, the profundity of his insight into human motive and behavior, the evidences of prolonged and severe meditation on human life and the ways of the world, and the richness of the philosophical generalizations that lie just below the surface of his greater plays, make it difficult to believe that in these fields also he did not join in the intellectual activity of his day.



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