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Latin and less Greek,” has been generally taken as meaning a mere smattering of the first, and nothing at all of the second ; but without sufficient reason, in my opinion. So does Edward Bathurst, B. D., in his memoir of his friend Arthur Wilson, the author of The Inconstant Ladie, written before 1646, say that “He had little skill in the Latin tongue and less in the Greek, a good readiness in the French and some smattering in the Dutch"; and yet, according to the same authority, Wilson had been a fellow-commoner of Trinity College, Oxford, where he had been regular and studious; and by his own account he could, at a pinch, speak Latin.f Little and much are comparative terms, the value of which can be determined only when we know the standard according to which they are used. Jonson's scholarship, though not profound or various, seems to have been somewhat thorough and exact, and Bathurst was probably a man entirely given up to study. Both, we may be sure, would speak very lightly of the Latin and Greek of many men now-a-days who have well earned their degree of Master of Arts, and who can make good use of their academical acquirements. From report and from the evidence of his works we may reasonably conclude that William Shakespeare read, as boys
* “Character of Wilson,” &c., in the Appendix to The Inconstant Ladie. Ed. 1814, p. 156.
† “ Observations of God's Providence in the Tract of my Life.” Ibid., p. 128.
read, the easier classical Latin authors at Stratford Grammar School, and added to them the favorite of that day, old Baptista Mantuan, whom he quotes in Love's Labor's Lost, and that he retained enough of what he learned to have thereby a finer insight and more thorough mastery of English, if not to enjoy Virgil and Terence in the original. It is true, as Farmer has shown, that his works furnish evidence undeniable that in preparing himself to write upon Greek and Roman subjects he used the existing translations of the classics. But how many who for years have spent a part of every day in the study of Greek and Latin do the same, when college exercises are driven out of mind by the duties and labors for which college studies are but discipline, and turn laboriously from translation to original only when they wish to examine some particular passage closely. When, in The Taming of the Shrew, Tranio quotes a passage from Terence, he is inaccurate, and gives it not as it appears in the text of the Latin dramatist, but as it is misquoted in the Latin Grammar of William Lilly, whose accidence was in common use among our forefathers when Shakespeare was a boy, and held its place indeed much longer.* But, even if this showed that
“Quid agas ? nisi ut te redimas captum quam queas
Eunuchus, Act I. Sc. 1. “Redime te captum quam queas minimo."
The Taming of the Shrew, Act I. Sc. 1.
Shakespeare had not read Terence, which it does not, it surely does show that he had studied Master Lilly's book, which, be it remembered, is itself not in English, but in Latin, after the strange, pedantic fashion of the times when it was written. The scene between Sir Hugh and William, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, is as surely evidence of the writer's knowledge of the Latin grammar. “Singulariter, nominativo, hic, hæc, hoc," does not lie very far beyond the threshold of that elementary book; but the question which elicits the declension, "What is he, William, that does lend articles ?” by which the pragmatic parson tries to trip the poor boy up, although borrowed from Lilly, shows an intelligent acquaintance with the rudiments of the Latin language.
Italian and French, we may be sure, were not taught at Stratford Grammar School; but this is the most convenient occasion on which to say that Shakespeare appears to have learned something of them before he became too busy a man to study. It was probably in his earlier London years. Both these languages, and especially the former, were much in vogue among the cultivated people of that period. Shakespeare was likely to be thrown into the society of those who taught them; and their instructions he might well requite, if he were sparing of money, by orders of admission to the theatre, which have been held to pay many a larger debt in later times. He
has left several traces of a knowledge of Italian, which might be great or small, scattered through his plays; but in two passages there are indications of an acquaintance with two Italian poets, which, though hitherto passed by, cannot, I think, be mistaken. When Othello, in the dawning of his jealousy, chides Desdemona for being without the handkerchief, his first love-token, he tells her:
“There's magic in the web of it.
In her prophetic fury, sew'd the work." The phrase “prophetic fury” is so striking, so picturesque, and so peculiar, that in itself it excites remark, and remains upon the memory as the key-note of the passage ; but when we regard it as applied to mood in which a web was woven or embroidered, all these characteristics are much enhanced. Now in the Orlando Furioso there is the following passage about a tent which Cassandra gave to Hector, and which descended through Cleopatra to Constantine, who gave it to Melissa :
“Eran de gli anni appresso che duo milia
Canto XLVI. St. 80.
Since this fair work was fasioned by the lore
Here we have the identical thought, and, in their Italian form, the identical words, furor profetico, used in the description of a woman, sibyl-like, if not a sibyl, weaving a cloth of magic virtues. There is, too, in both passages, the idea of a great lapse of time, though in one it is applied to the weaver and in the other to the thing woven. It would seem impossible that this striking coincidence of thought, of incident, and of language could be merely accidental; and there was no other translation of the Orlando Furioso into English in Shakespeare's time than Sir John Harrington's, published in 1591, and in that the phrase "prophetic fury,” or any one like it, does not occur.*
Again, when Iago, distilling his poison into Othello's ears, utters the often quoted lines, “Who steals my purse, steals trash; 't is something, nothing ; 'T was mine, 't is his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed,”. he but repeats with little variation this stanza of Berni's Orlando Innamorato, of which poem, to this day, there is no English version :
Of Trojan maid, warmed with prophetic heat;
Who 'mid long labor, and ’mid vigil sore,
Of the pavilion had embroidered o'er." * See Harrington's Orlando Furioso in English, Canto XLVI. St. 64, ed. 1591.