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SHAKESPEARE

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CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY:

INTRODUCTORY.

SHAKESPEARE is justly considered to be the most perfect representative of the modern or romantic Drama as distinguished from ancient or classical tragedy on the one hand, and from neo-classic tragedy on the other; but the question arises how he came to give this character to his plays—whether it was from indifference or from choice. The point to be considered is whether he simply followed the traditions handed down to him, without any knowledge of classical antiquity, and with no classical books or even imitations of classical authors within his reach; or whether, on the contrary, his learning gave him access to the originals, and whether classical imitations and lectures on the doctrines of Greek and Latin authors were familiar to him. In order thoroughly to answer the question whether it was with full knowledge of the subject and well-considered determination that he struck out into new paths of his

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own, it will be necessary to inquire how far England participated in the great European movement of the Renaissance, and what the average level of classical learning was in Shakespeare's time. We shall also have especially to examine into the state of the Drama, with regard to plays written in imitation of Greek and Latin writers, and to learn whether classical theories were expounded and commended by professors of the poetic art. An attempt must further be made, by means of such authentic information as we possess of Shakespeare's life, and above all, by the help of the indications his works themselves furnish us with, to measure the extent of his literary knowledge, and in some sort to form his library anew, to follow him into the circles where he might hear classical works discussed, and penetrate into his solitude when deep in the perusal of his favourite authors ;-but here we are treading simply on conjecture, and returning to more solid ground, must endeavour, wherever it is possible to discover any trace or expression of it, to sound his real feeling with regard to the ancients and their modern partisans.

In the multiform and varied world of his plays, Shakespeare introduces many of the names and personages belonging to antiquity—a subject which occupied his attention from the beginning of his literary activity, and indeed especially at the beginning, as is shown by his descriptive poems of “Venus and Adonis," and "Lucrece," which, at least in their title and motive, are respectively Greek and Latin, and belong, as do also the sonnets, to the Italian school of poetry, the influence of which was so widely felt in the sixteenth century. And, in fact, the first dramas attributed to him are so laden with classical reminiscences and traditions of the schools, that we should have to look upon Shakespeare as rather over-cumbered with learning, not to say pedantic, if they are to be accepted as his work and his only.

From the dawn of Shakespeare's poetical career to the close, classical antiquity is more or less present in all his works, either in a direct quotation or in a mere coincidence which recalls some well-known passage, here by some expression or allusion, and there by a proper name. In the “ Midsummer Night's Dream,” for instance, we meet with Theseus, Duke of Athens; in the * Tempest” the fantastic spirits are called Iris, Ceres, and Juno; King Lear is a descendant of Æneas; Cymbeline belongs to the same dynasty, and makes war upon the Romans, who march against him under a general named Caius Lucius. But details such as these are insufficient to stamp the plays in which they occur with the seal of antiquity, and only the following dramas can really be said to be classical : the “ Comedy of Errors," the story of which is furnished by the “Menachmi" of Plautus; " Troilus and Cressida," in which the personages are those of Homer in the “Iliad ;" “ Timon of Athens;" "Coriolanus;” “Julius Cæsar;” and “ Antony and Cleopatra."

But even these six plays bear but a very doubtful resemblance in character and tone to ancient classical works, and bring us face to face with the question as to how Shakespeare obtained his knowledge of classical subjects, whether he did so straight from ancient authors -either in their own tongue or in translations,—or rather, through mediæval traditions, or even perhaps from those handed down by the stage.

Of the different plays to be examined, bearing this question in mind, the first in date, though not in importance, is the “Comedy of Errors,” which charming as it is to read, must be regarded more in the light of a recreation than of a study. It has comparatively little to teach us with regard to Shakespeare's relations with antiquity, but it may afford an opportunity of re-reading the “Menachmi,” and of comparing the works of Rotrou

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