Lunatics, Lovers, and Poets

How the Classics Made Shakespeare | Jonathan Bate | Princeton University Press

In his latest book, How The Classics Made Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate, Provost of Worcester College and professor of English literature at Oxford, explores a much neglected area of scholarship. We know that Shakespeare had a liberal arts education, but very little attention has been paid to how Shakespeare draws on classical writers in crafting his own works. Bate’s accessible and lively book opens a window into this question, inviting us to consider The Bard in a new light. He expertly weaves close readings with broad thematic analysis, continuously blurring the lines between literary and historical criticism.

Bate confesses that “the wonder of Shakespeare is that [he] continue[s] to find unseen depths in him even after forty years of studying, teaching, editing, watching, and writing about him.” And Bate is also drawn to these plays because they are grounded in the particular and concrete. He notes that “Shakespearean questions are only ever resolved dramatically, never philosophically. Because drama is action unfolding in time, metaphysical generalization on stage is always liable to be subverted by context. And because drama involves characters in conflict, there is always another side to the question.” 

We often speak about canonical texts as forming a Great Conversation passed down from generation to generation; Shakespeare’s plays participate in these Conversations, but his plays also stage great conversations, allowing us to consider themes like love, honor, and revenge from a variety of vantage points. The very rhetorical forms in which these conversations transpire are comprehensive: “from the razor-sharp banter of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing to the formal orations of Brutus and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar to Hamlet’s restless asking of the ‘infinite’ questions.” Bate suggests that Shakespeare’s plays “were exercises in deliberative rhetoric, in which the audience was [and is] invited to make up their own minds on matters of morality and politics.”


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Given the multidunal perspectives in Shakespeare’s works, and his reticence to assert himself as author (in contrast to Chaucer, for example), the question of what Shakespeare actually believed is notoriously hard to answer. Bate therefore suggests two fruitful questions to ask instead: “What kind of thinker was Shakespeare?” and “What fired Shakespeare’s imagination?”

These questions both lead us to the classical sources that shaped the playwright, such as the writings of Plutarch and Cicero. But Bate also wants us to see that Shakespeare was “absorbed by classical thought, but was not enslaved to it.” Bate demonstrates throughout his work that “Shakespeare was a thinker who always made it new, adapted his source materials, and put his own spin on them.”

Regarding Shakespeare’s influences, Bate carefully and persuasively argues that “Shakespeare was almost always Ovidian, more often than is usually supposed Horatian, sometimes Ciceronian, occasionally Tacitean, an interesting mix of Senecan and anti-Senencan, and, I suggest, strikingly anti-Virgilian - insofar as Virgilian meant ‘epic’ or ‘heroic.’ ” Bate further describes the heartbeat of the book as “an intimate relationship between the magical, the erotic, and the imaginative, or, in the terms of Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘the lunatic, the lover, and the poet.’ ”

And indeed, it is this elevation of the magical, erotic, and imaginative that puts Shakespeare on the side of Dido against the imperial Aeneas, and that leads Shakspeare to celebrate the gender-bending, class-transgressing, sexual-mores-transcending antics so typical of his pastoral scenes. Here, the influence of Ovid looms large. Bates argues that it was in Ovid’s work that Shakespeare found “the things that made him a poet and a dramatist; magic, myth, metamorphosis, rendered with playfulness, verbal dexterity, and generic promiscuity.” He adds that “Ovid gave him the theme that is the driving force of all his comedies and several of his tragedies: erotic desire.”

Of course, eros can lead to both comedy and tragedy; it culminates in happy marriages in plays like Much Ado About Nothing, but ends in tragedy in plays like Othello. But there is no denying that erotic desire is pivotal to almost every single Shakespearen play, regardless of genre. And that emphasis, drawn as it is from the classical world, can sometimes sit uneasily with Puritan norms and manners.

While I think Bate wrongly downplays the religious impulse in Shakespeare, opting instead to emphasize how Shakespeare appears at odds with the Puritan influences of churched England, I think he is right to suggest that Shakespeare, like so many Christian humanists, gives full force to pagan thought in a way that creates tensions with church morality, if not Christian faith. This very tension, I would argue, generates some of the best artistic works in the Christian humanist tradition. I see this tension most potently in my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, The Winter’s Tale, which features the Ovidian magical metamorphosis and the bawdy pastoral scene, but also vividly presents a redemptive arc where repentance and mediated grace lead to moral growth. It is understanding this tension that gives me a ready answer to Bate’s rhetorical question, “what is the place of the classics of literature, what hope is there for the future of humanist traditions, in a world dominated by anxieties” such as the threat of nuclear war? My answer, which I think Bate shares, is that these are regenerative sources that can form our imagination and shape our reason more powerfully than any mere textbook or tract ever could.

Ultimately as compelling as it is to see individual instances of clear classical allusion in Shakespearean plays, I think the greater joy is the implication of Shakespeare’s classicism. Shakespeare as a classist completes a beautiful circle: Shakespeare was shaped in the study of the classics as a grammar student, and today, Shakepeare’s own works are canon, an indispensable part of the syllabus for a multitude of students. As Bate writes, “it is the ultimate mark of his fame that he is to us what those ancient Roman authors were to him: the basis of a liberal education, the core of studia humanitas. He is our singular classic.”

Nevertheless, Bates has two lingering concerns. The first is “how much longer will his [Shakespeare’s] own classicism be recognizable to playgoers and students, who are no longer versed in the stories of Virgil and Ovid, or a knowledge of Roman history?” And the second, “will he [Shakespeare] continue to be a living classic in a future where attention spans are short and the long view of the past is flattened by the simultaneity of data derived from the digital world?” These are both weighty concerns that I share. And while I am thrilled to watch the continued growth of liberal arts education on both the K-12 and collegiate levels, it pains me to realize how small a percentage of today’s students have access to this education.

Still, I maintain hope that the classical heritage will continue to be preserved. Bates notes that “there is nothing like acting in a play, committing a part to heart, for gaining an intimate knowledge of its words and its world.” If we believe this, and I definitely do, perhaps our very first step should be to stage a Shakespearean play.


Anthony Barr is a graduate of Templeton Honors College at Eastern University where he studied History, Literature, and Orthodox Thought and Culture. He writes for Ethika Politika, University Bookman, and the CiRCE Institute.