Shakespeare’s classical knowledge

The distinguished and witty English poet Alexander Pope once said, “Too little learning is a dangerous thing.” This adage is exemplified by Shakespeare himself when dealing with classical mythology. How much knowledge of the ancient writers in fact did the immortal bard possess? This question arises from a line in a poem by Ben Jonson published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. In the memorial edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, better known as the First Folio, Ben Jonson contributed a commendatory poem under the title: “To the memory of my beloved, the Author William Shakespeare: and what he hath left us”. The poem, an 80-line ode, is full of sincere admiration for the great dramatist. Jonson salutes Shakespeare in it as “soule of the age”, classifies him above all contemporary poets, and, in spite of his “small Latin and lesse Greeke” (and this is the punch line), places him in the company of “thund”ring Aeschylous, Euripides and Sophocles”. Shakespeare is the only English genius who can be classed among the classical writers of old; and with reference to his own country, Jonson, in a prophetic way, exclaims:

Triumph, my Britaine, thou hast one to show
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not for an age, but for all time!

Jonson concludes his ode envisaging Shakespeare transported to heaven to reign as a star of poets to inspire the successors. Since then the question has been posed by Shakespeare’s biographers and critics: Was Shakespeare really conversant with Latin and Greek? And, if so, to what extent? Certainly, not to the extent of Ben Jonson himself, who had a thorough training in Classics. Just how much knowledge did Shakespeare have of the Classics? How did he accumulate such a vast knowledge not only of the classical world, but also knowledge of the world in general, when, unlike his contemporary playwrights, “the university wits”, Marlowe, Green, Lodge, Peele, Nash and Jonson, Shakespeare had no university education?

If we count the number of allusions to the classical world occurring in Shakespeare’s plays, we will be amazed at the frequent usage of classical references: 56 in Troilus and Cresida, 53 in Titus Andronicus, 39 in Antony and Cleopatra, 38 in Love’s Labour Lost, 37 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 31 in Cymberline, 26 in Coriolanus, 25 in Romeo and Juliet, All’s Well that Ends Well and Pericles, 19 in Hamlet 11 in Othello, and 8 in both Macbeth and King Lear.1

More recent research has shown that Shakespeare did know some Latin but, in all probability, no Greek. All classical material used in his works derives from translations. First-hand translations in the case of Latin (with one exception: he probably read the original of Plautus’ Menaechmi on which he based his play The Comedy of Errors) and second-hand translations in the case of Greek (Plutarch’s Lives, for example, was a translation into English by Sir Thomas North in 1579 from a translation in French by Amyot in 1559).

Although we have no proof that Shakespeare attended  Stratford Grammar School, we suppose that his father, a prominent citizen and for some years the Mayor of this little agricultural town on the Avon, sent young William to this institution where learning Latin was one of the dreary tasks imposed on the schoolboys. There, as in all schools of Elizabethan England, discipline and punishment were harsh. If William was one of the pupils, this is the curriculum he had to cope with, while the schoolmaster’s rod was hung so that it could be seen: He had to memorize Livy’s Grammatica Latina and Sententiae pueriles (a collection of Latin axioms). Aesop’s Fables also had to be learned by heart in the first years. From the fourth year on, he had to read some of the Latin classical works: Vergil’s Eclogues, Cicero’s Letters and, above all, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. To this last work Shakespeare refers more often than to any other. In his first published poem “Venus and Adonis” (1593) the influence of Ovid appears in almost every line. Shakespeare used a passage from Ovid as an epigraph which reads:

Vilia miretur vulgus: mihi flavus Apollo
pocula Sactalia plena ministret aqua,
which in English means:

Let the base crowd admire what is low,
but let the golden haired Apollo
serve me cups filled from Castalia.

And here one may state with complete confidence that: as Shakespeare was sincere and free from pedantic pretence, it would be unlikely that he displayed a knowledge he did not really possess. To return to the syllabus: The pupils of the upper forms had not only to read Plautus and Terence, but, sometimes, to act too, under the direction of the Schoolmaster. Existing records show that all schoolmasters in  Stratford at the time when Shakespeare went to school were accomplished teachers, all being Oxford graduates. Acting at school must have been a fascinating experience and the first stimulation for young William. Among other Latin works read at school were Vergil’s The Georgics and The Aeneid. Rhetoric and Logic were the other subjects taught at grammar school – most useful subjects  for the future dramatist. The pupils of the upper forms were required to compose epistles in Latin as part of their education, and Erasmus’ Modus Scribendi Epistolas was the indispensable manual.

Some schools had introduced the study of Greek Grammar and if William was fortunate (or for that matter unfortunate enough) he might have had to struggle to memorize the Greek declentions and conjugations (just as  Greek High School students today are in agonies trying to memorize: hic, haec, hoc; amo, amas, amat), but to read Greek in the original would not have been  an easy matter.

Latin, however, was a more accessible subject, for we must not forget that Latin was still almost a living language amongst the educated during the Renaissance, whilst during the Middle Ages it was even spoken.

Shakespeare, however, was not a pedantic scholar to indulge in trivial details. He had a broad mind, he was a creative writer and he absorbed knowledge from every source available and, above all, from the existing translations of his time – translations either from Latin or from Greek via Latin.

To illustrate Shakespeare’s indebtedness to the Roman authors I am going to quote some passages from his work in relation to his ancient sources. Apart from the already mentioned “Venus and Adonis” which is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in The Comedy of Errors when Aegeon tells the audience of his tragic life starting with the lines:

A heavier task could not have been imposed
Than I to speak my griefs unspeakable. (1,1.32-33)

he re-echoes the famous line from Vergil’s Aenead:

Infandum, regina, jubes renovare dolorem. (II, 3)
(You command me, O queen, to renew an unspeakable grief)

In Hamlet, when the Prince in his famous soliloquy speaks of “the undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” (3.1.79), the lines re-echo Catullus’ lines:

Qui nunc it per iter tenebriosum
Illuc, unde negant redire quemquam.

The opinion widely held among Shakespeare scholars nowadays is that he probably had a rudimentary knowledge or a smattering of the Greek language but he did not base his works related to the Greek world on original Greek texts. Translations, again, were his sources and, this time, not direct translations from Greek into English but from Greek into Latin or into English via French, as is the case with Plutarch.

Sir Thomas North’s translation is the source for the following four plays: Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and, partly, for Timon of Athens. Shakespeare made use of Plutarch not only to base his plots but also quoted passages from North’s translation which, with minor alternations, were incorporated into his text. Here is an example to illustrate Shakespeare’s “creative plagiarism”: In North’s version of Julius Caesar’s story we read:

Lucilus: I dare assure thee that no enemy hath taken nor shall take Marcus Brutus alive, and I beseech God keep him from that fortune: for wheresoever he be found, alive or dead, he will be found like himself.

Shakespeare used the above passage almost verbatim in his “Julius Caesar”, putting it in blank verse:

I dare assure thee that no enemy
Shall take alive the noble Brutus:
The gods defend him from so great a shame !
When you do find him, or alive or dead,
He will be found like Brutus, like himself. (V, 4, 21-25)2

It is interesting to note that a typographical error, which occurred in Amyot and passed unobserved in North’s version, was “immortalised” in Shakespeare’s text! In Anthony and Cleopatra (III, 6, 10) Caesar, speaking of Cleopatra’s lover, says:

Unto her
He gave the ‘stablishment of Egypt; made her
Of Lower Syria, Cyprus, Lydia [sic]
Absolute queen.

Plutarch was obviously referring to Libya, not Lydia.3
Another ancient Greek text that Shakespeare probably had in mind when writing Hamlet was Isocrates’ “Letter to Demonicos”, which he must have read in a translation by John Bury published by Erasmus in Louvain in 1517.4 Polonius bidding farewell to his son, Laertes as he is about to start a journey, advises him with the following words:

Give thy thought no tongue,
Nor any unproportiond thought his act;
Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar;
The friends thou hast and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not  dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarell, but being in,
Bear it that the opposed may  beware of thee.
Give everyman thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment. (I, 3, 59-69)5

These famous lines echo the advice of Isocrates to Demonicos written over two thousand years ago:

Πάν ότι μέλλης ερείν, πρότερον επισκόπει τη γνώμη. Πολλοίς γαρ η γλώττα προτρέχει της διανοίας. Δύο ποιού καιρούς του λέγειν, ή περί ων οίσθα σαφώς, η περί ων αναγκαίον ειπείν. Εν τούτοις γάρ μόνοις ο λόγοςτης σιγής κρείττων, εν δε τοις άλλοις άμεινον σιγάν ή λέγειν … Μηδένα φίλον ποιού, πριν αν εξετάσης, πως κέχρηται πότερον φίλοις… Βραδέως μεν φίλος γίνου, γινόμενος δε πειρώ διαμένειν. Ομοίως γαρ αισχρόν μηδένα φίλον έχειν και πολλούς εταίρους μεταλάττειν. Μήτε μετά βλάβης πειρώ των φίλων μήτ’ άπειρος είναι των εταιρων θέλε.…

One of the most striking examples which some later commentators considered a real plagiarism from Anacreon (563-478 BC) is the following passage from Timon of Athens (IV, 3, lines 434-440):

The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vaste sea; the moon’s an arrant thief
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears; the earth’s a thief
That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
From general excrement ‑- each thing’s a thief.

This reminds us of Anacreon’s graceful drinking song:

Η γη μέλαινα πίνει,
πίνει δε δένδρε’ αυ γην,
πίνει θάλασσα δ’αύρας
ο δ’ήλιος θάλασαν
τον δ’ήλιον σελήνη.
Τί μοι μάχεσθ’, εταίροι,
καυτώ θέλοντι πίνειν;6

Shakespeare’s passage is, this time, a second-hand translation. The idea is Anacreon’s or of some of his imitators. It is a sylogism on a philosophical conception according to which the universe is a unity that keeps going by a constant process of interaction: the sun causes evaporation of the sea, the moon gets her reflected light from the sun and so on. The poem had been translated into French by Ronsard as early as 1550, when he had  included it in his collection of Odes, and it is probable that Shakespeare read it in French or asked some of his learned friends to translate it for him. Here is Ronsard’s first 4-line stanza:

La terre les eaux va boivant,
L’arbre la boit par sa racine,
la mer salee boit le vent,
et le soleil boit la marine.

Based on Anacreon’s song, two eminent English poets, Cowley and Shelley, tried their hands at creating new poem rather than translating or paraphrasing the original text . The main theme is there but each poet used it with a different application. Shelley, for example, in his charming poem “Love’s philosophy”, changed the last of the original and from a drinking song made a love song, concluding:

And the sunshine claps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea
What is the sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?

This shows that both Shakespeare’s and Shelley’s creative imagination, stimulated by an idea which they either changed or modified, thereby succeeding in producing  a new piece of work for us to cherish and enjoy. This is the secret of great artists.

Another Greek source for the two last sonnets of Shakespeare (Nos. 153 and 154) is the Greek Anthology, a collection of about 4500 epigrams compiled by the Byzantine scholar Contentions Cephalic in A.D. 925. This collection, known also as the Palatine Anthology (named after the Palatine Library manuscript in Heidelberg where it was discovered in the 17th century) includes poems of 320 poets from the 7th century BC. There are two epigrams by Marianos and Zenodotos respectevely of which the opening lines are:

Τάδ’ υπό πλατάνους απαλώ τετρυμένος ύπνω
εύδεν Ερως, νύμφας λαμπάδα παρθέμενος…

(Here under the plane trees overcome
with soft slumber slept Eros)

Τίς γλύφας τον Ερωτα παρά κρήνησιν έθηκεν;

(Who carved and set up Eros by the fountain?)7
Professor Dowden in his book Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1881) wrote: “How Shakespeare became acquainted with the poems we cannot tell, but they had been translated into Latin: Selecta Epigrammata and published in Basel in 1529 and again several times before the close of the sixteenth century.” Here again Shakespeare follows the original only to a certain extent but without imitating it slavishly. In both sonnets (which are variations of the same theme) Shakespeare added his personal involvement, making the sonnets more realistic and more graceful.

I, sick withal, the help of bath desired
and thither hied, a sad distempered guest,
But found no cure. The bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire – my mistress’ eyes.

In this connection one cannot help but think of the national poet of Modern Greece, Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857) who employed the same method. In his “Imitation of the Song of Desdemona” he followed the original song from Othello up to almost the end and then, by a happy stroke of his own imagination, concluded the theme in his own way, thus creating a new poem.

Allusions to classical mythology appear frequently not only in Shakespeare but also in dozens of other English dramatists and poets. In his listing of allusions to Prometheus in English Renaissance literature, Professor M. Byron Raizis of Athens University rejects the possibility that Shakespeare knew the original.8

Troilus and Cresida is another play to which Shakespeare is indebted, at least partly, to Homer. Chapman’s translation of some Books of the Iliad had appeared in print three years before Shakespeare composed his play and, although he based it mainly on Chaucer’s version of the ancient love story, it is apparent that Shakespeare used material from the translated Books I, II, V, IX and X. Shakespeare also intermingled some 15th century sources which account for the degeneration of Achilles and the Greek soldiers in Troy into an undisciplined crowd. The Greek leaders in Troy are no heroic figures. Achilles is presented as an effeminate youth and Cresida is merely a harlot. The Greeks tend to be the villains while the Trojans are the heroes. Shakespeare obviously does not follow Homer. And here one may ask: How could Shakespeare put aside his Homer and rely on less reliable sources?

During the Renaissance, translations of Latin literature were available more easily than Greek translations, and the opinion of the Roman authors about the Greeks as men was hardly favourable. Virgil’s anti-Greek attitude and hostile prejudice  is well known. In one sentence the Roman poet, whose Aeneid is so much indebted to Homer’s “Iliad”, blackened and harmed irreparably the reputation of the Greek character. Take the sentence which became a proverbial expression: Timeo Danaos et dona ferrentes, which means “I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts” or as it is freely translated, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. Virgil’s epic poem was a very popular work even before the Renaissance and it was widely read both in the original and in translations throughout Europe.

Furthermore, the opinion of the other Latin authors about the Greeks was also not favourable. According to the prevailing opinions, the Greeks were heavy drinkers (since they produced excellent wine) and their morals were loose. Rabelais wrote that the Greeks were eternal drinkers (“buveurs eternelz”).This derogatory view of the Greeks prevailed and definitely influenced the minds of several pre-Shakespearean playwrights, featuring especially in their comedies. The word Greek as a noun had a derogatory meaning both in Shakespeare and in the works of his contemporaries. In addition to the above, Achilles was not shaped by Shakespeare not according to Homer.  but according to Horace. Achilles for Horace, in his Ars Poetica was not the God-like hero but “impiger, irracundus, inexorabilis, acer”, i. e. unslothful, inclined to anger, inexorable, harsh.9

And here is how Shakespeare ridicules the hero Achilles and his friendship with Patroclus in the play where Thersites converses with Patroclus:

Thersites: “Thou are thought to be Achille’s male varlet.”
Patroclus: “Male varlet, you rogue! What’s that?”
Thersites: “Why, his masculine whore.”

Shakespeare’s source for Achille’s homosexual friend Patroclus (who lies in the tent amusing the Greek general) and for Cressida (who suffers from leprosy) was probably based on the Scottish poet Robert Henrynson’s The Testament of Cresseid, published in 1593. In more recent years the voices of two eminent classical scholars were raised in indignation at Shakespeare’s treatment of the Trojan episode. Matthew Arnold wrote: “The Greeks in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida are no longer the Greeks whom we have known in Homer.” And Gilbert Highet described the play as “a distant, ignorant and unconvincing caricature of Greece.”

The idealization of Greek civilization was a phenomenon of the Romantic age. Those who contributed to the restoration of the reputation of Modern Greece were not only the various Philhellenes who volunteered and came to Greece to help the country obtain its independence but also the English poets Shelley, Keats and Byron, who were inspired by “the glory that was Greece.” The duty of an historian is to adhere to real events while a playwright’s aim is to amuse his audience.



  1. R. K. Root, Classical Mythology in Shakespeare, London, 1903.
  2. P. Stapfer, Shakespeare’s Classical Knowledge, p.78.
  3. The Oxford Shakespeare, Complete Works. Edited by W. J. Craig, OUP, 1965, p. 844.
  4. Η. Β. Lathorp, Translations from the Classics, 1967, pp.45-46.
  5. Hamlet, The Oxford Shakespeare, ib., p.875.
  6. Gilbert Highet, The Power of Poetry, Oxford, 1960, pp.174-182.
  7. Από τα έργα του Σαξπήρου. -Μεταφραστής Νικόλαος ο Ποριώτης. Αθήνα [1945], p. 21.
  8. From Caucasus to Pittsburgh. The Prometheus Theme in British and American Poetry, Athens [n.d.], p. 45.
  9. Terence Spencer, Fair Greece, Sad Relic. Literary Philhellenism from Shakespeare to Byron, London, 1954, pp.25-33.