Charles Martindale and A.B. Taylor, eds. Shakespeare and the Classics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. xiv+319pp. ISBN 0 5218 2345 5.

Nicholas Moschovakis
Reed College

Moschovakis, Nicholas. "Review of Charles Martindale and A.B. Taylor, eds. Shakespeare and the Classics." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.2 (September, 2006) 15.1-11<URL:>.

  1. In our critical endeavours to interpret Shakespeare's plays with respect to literary materials that resonate and reverberate through them -- such as classical texts -- innovative approaches are at present sorely required. Work in this area has not kept pace with historicist criticism's redefinition of Shakespeare studies: a failure that may be attributed to certain limitations of historicism, at least as it has mostly been practiced for the past two decades or so. The essays in Shakespeare and the Classics will be of great assistance to us as we try to renew our grip on this complex and formidable subject.

  2. Traditionally, studies of the relationship between Shakespearean poetic texts and their intertexts, classical and otherwise, have fallen into two categories: 'source studies' and 'studies of allusion.' Both kinds of scholarship must, almost inevitably, invoke one or another model of authorial intention. This fact -- together with a prejudice against studies of the literary canon as aesthetic or 'elitist' in bent -- made intertextual study uncongenial to many New Historicists working on Shakespeare during the 1980s and 1990s, when if 'the author' existed at all, it seemed that s/he could do so only under erasure. This is not to say that the study of Shakespeare's intentions ever quite died away. Biographical criticism was an important, if unacknowledged, undercurrent in historicist and even materialist criticism. That current is now resurfacing, as more critics become better versed in actual history (as opposed to Foucault), and we have begun reaffirming our need to understand authors as agents -- albeit agents that are positioned in certain ways by their societies. Nonetheless, the insurrectionary political claims made by many New Historicists and Cultural Materialists have generally inhibited the study of Shakespeare's relationship to 'high cultural' institutions and poetic traditions, and especially to a canon of texts that we would now call 'classical.'

  3. Throughout the 1990s, a handful of Shakespeareans did make courageous motions toward the recuperation of Shakespeare's 'classical' allusiveness for our understanding of his work; they included Charles Martindale, who co-edited this volume, and Heather James, whose recent work is also represented here. (Some other figures in this movement, who do not appear in the volume but whose names cannot be left out in this context, are Jonathan Bate, Donna B. Hamilton, and Robert S. Miola.) However, it is only very lately that a few critics have begun attracting much wider attention in the field for their efforts to revive a sense of 'literary' history, and even of the importance of early modern literary canons and conceptions of canonicity, as a desideratum in studies of Shakespeare. (One thinks right away of Douglas S. Bruster, Patrick Cheney, and Lukas Erne.) At present, the terms of this inquiry remain open to debate and to adjustment, even reinvention -- but only to critics who are willing to acquire a particular kind of erudition, while also being ready and able to enlist this specialized knowledge in the service of readings that accommodate the different sensibilities of their Shakespearean peers, who may be less classically inclined.

  4. What, then, is Shakespeare and the Classics all about? First of all, it cannot be said that the essays collected here succeed in transcending, or even refnining, traditional 'source studies and studies of allusion', though many of the pieces supply excellent examples of one or both methodologies at their best. A few even offer intelligent reflections on the problems and opportunities that will be inherited by any Shakespearean who is hoping to employ these paradigms today, or to improve them. For someone answering to the latter description, the only absolutely required reading here is Colin Burrow's programmatic essay on Shakespeare's reception of the 'classics,' which opens the volume.

  5. Burrow nimbly deploys a historicized view of some of the pedagogical and material practices that shaped early modern 'classical' literacy (such as double translation exercises and the keeping of commonplace-books) to support his general argument, which is that whenever 'classical texts' are alluded to by Shakespeare's characters, their " determined by what they mean to whom at particular moments." (22) An intertext does not, that is, constitute a secretly embedded or encoded master-text "to which [Shakespeare] alludes in order to give his audience a single authoritative commentary on the events"(22). This premise, being grounded in a historical view of humanistic culture as well as displaying a sense of proportion that is not always evident in studies of allusion, should be adopted widely. It is indeed unfortunate that some scholars have, at times, tried to bring classical (and other) intertexts to bear on Shakespearean texts as if they gave us ready access to the author's comprehensive artistic or ideological aims. (Shakespeare and the Classics itself is almost, though not entirely free of such ham-fistedly cryptological interpretations.)

  6. Among the fifteen essays that follow, ten relate Shakespeare to particular Latin authors, including Ovid (three chapters), Plautus, Seneca, and Plutarch (two chapters apiece), and Vergil (one chapter). Three chapters follow on the Greeks; one of these juxtaposes Shakespeare's late plays with some generic characteristics of Greek romance; and finally, two share a concern with how some 'classical' Greek authors and genres may seem to beg comparison with Shakespeare, even though he cannot be said strictly to have imitated them. (I set aside two further essays that close the volume, and which I am saving for discussion near the end of this review, since their concerns are not those of the book as a whole; see below.) It should be kept in mind that several previous reviewers of Shakespeare and the Classics, whose accounts appear both online and in print, have summarized and discussed some aspects of these highly diverse essays.[1] To avoid redundancy here, and to save space, I will confine my observations to a few topics that seem to me peculiarly pressing.

  7. First, and most crucially, which essays here are most likely to succeed in building bridges between specialists in 'the classical tradition' and other subsets of Shakespeareans? As I have already indicated, Burrow's piece is one, thanks to its cogency and its measured articulation of the problem of method in the study of allusions. Among the pieces which follow Burrow's, and which deal with Shakespeare's use of particular sources or with his allusions to particular classical texts, I would recommend those of Vanda Zajko ("Petruchio is 'Kated': The Taming of the Shrew and Ovid") and Heather James ("Shakespeare's learned heroines in Ovid's schoolroom"). Both essays deal with Ovidian discourses and values in Shakespearean comedy. Whereas James offers an especially bold (and feminist) challenge to prevailing paradigms, Zajko opens with some welcome remarks on methodological issues (moreover, her writing shows a rare and admirable willingness to acknowledge the contingency and partiality of her own critical readings - a gesture far too riskily generous for many more prominent scholars to consider making). Also noteworthy is a piece by Raphael Lyne, who analyzes Shakespeare's comedic experiments with neo-Aristotelian 'unities' with an eye to their implications for poetic and theatrical space, so linking metadramatic themes to the culture of neoclassicism.

  8. To my mind, these will make for the best reading from the standpoint of a reader new to the field of 'Shakespeare and the classics.' They combine critical originality and verve with a certain degree of theoretical sophistication (an unfortunately underdeveloped quality in most existing work on this subject). But other pieces here may prove equally valuable for prospective entrants into the field, simply because they will serve to introduce them to the scope of traditional source studies and (in some cases) help them to orient themselves with respect to recent work. Worth mentioning here is Gordon Braden's contribution ("Plutarch, Shakespeare, and the alpha males"), which begins by helpfully surveying relevant source studies and summarizing arguments made by other critics (e.g., Cynthia Marshall, Paul Cantor, Geoffrey Miles).

  9. Of course, in each one of the pieces mentioned, there is something to be found that will impress and instruct a reader of Shakespeare with a serious interest in his connections with the 'classical' tradition; I will not attempt to enumerate these individual virtues. But it is a bit disappointing to find so few serious or concerted efforts to grapple with the challenge of methodology in a theoretically explicit or rigorous manner. (As an example of what I mean, I might point to Craig Kallendorf's revealing essay on Vergil and Milton, which has recently appeared in another volume that Charles Martindale co-edited with Richard F. Thomas.) Most contributors to this book, including those singled out for praise above, rely implicitly on well-established conceptions of the nature of authorial agency as it functions within an intertextual exchange. That is, either Shakespeare finds something he wants in an old text and incorporates it into a new text that bears his imprint (traditional source study), [2] or else Shakespeare employs verbal quotation and/or some other technique of imitatio to activate his audience's recollection of an old text, with the intention that this memory should colour the reception of his new text (the traditional study of allusion).[3] I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with either of these venerable hermeneutic frameworks per se. In fact, the few contributors to this book who venture to stray significantly from these familiar interpretive scripts seem to have a difficult time justifying their decisions to do so.[4] In the end, even though Brown and Zajko began this volume by usefully posing some major methodological questions, it is perhaps too much to ask that this pitch of theoretical self-awareness should have been maintained throughout the volume.

  10. Last but not least, two exemplary concluding pieces address the reception of Shakespeare (in English) by classically educated critics and poets. David Hopkins makes a decisive scholarly intervention, tracing the influence of the Longinian critical revival upon evaluations of Shakespeare during the 'Augustan' period, and thereby expanding our sense of what "neoclassical" might mean for Shakespeareans. And Sarah Annes Brown offers a scintillating essay in appreciative criticism (in the best sense of this grossly maligned term), in her chapter on "The later reception of Shakespeare's classicism." I will make no attempt to summarize Brown's piece, which has been described and justly praised by previous reviewers; I will only join them in commending it strongly to all Shakespeareans who are interested in classical allusion and 'the canon' (especially the poetic canon).

  11. Shakespeare and the Classics is not designed as a comprehensive overview. Still, the lack of attention to some areas is regrettable. Historicists may wonder why there is no chapter on Latin historiography, given the significance of Livy and Tacitus to Shakespeare's contemporaries (there is not one mention of either author in any of the pieces). If it was possible to include three chapters on Shakespeare's notional response to Greek texts that he probably did not read, why not find room for something on his place relative to the Roman historians who loomed so large in many Elizabethan and Jacobean literary minds? Similarly, why is it exactly that Apuleius was allowed to fall outside this project's scope? In a "Select bibliography" that follows the essays, Joanna Paul has done much, if not to close these gaps, then at least to encourage other critics who may wish to enter the fray. The bibliography contains special sections on works of "Reference," on works of "General" interest, on "Shakespeare and Rome," "Individual Ancient Poets" (meaning writers in all genres, verse and prose), and "Individual Plays" by Shakespeare (meaning both plays and poems).


See Douglas Bruster, "Shakespeare and the Classics (review)," American Journal of Philology, 126 (2005): 633-36; Sander M. Goldberg, "Shakespeare and the Classics (review)", Bryn Mawr Classical Review (10/14/2005), online at; Owen Williams, "Shakespeare and the Classics (review)," Shakespeare Quarterly, 56 (2005): 481-84.

[2] Yves Peyré, "'Confusion now hath made his masterpiece': Senecan resonances in Macbeth," and John Roe, "'Character' in Plutarch and Shakespeare: Brutus, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony" fall most squarely and exclusively in this camp; both are instructive (though Roe disappoints by mostly ignoring Cleopatra). Wolfgang Riehle, in "Shakespeare's reception of Plautus reconsidered," is so determined to prove Shakespeare's extensive use of elements found in his Plautine sources that he will only grudgingly admit the importance of other features in The Comedy of Errors. Erica Sheen's "'These are the only men': Seneca and monopoly in Hamlet 2.2" ends by identifying a new source for the Player's Speech in Jasper Heywood's sixteenth-century translation of Seneca's Troades, though the claim that Heywood's text influenced Shakespeare's is in itself less new than Sheen thinks it is. Others have linked the rising of the Ghost with Heywood's scene of Achilles's ghost rising before his son Pyrrhus, which Heywood had interpolated into his English version of the play. It is not in Seneca's text, and it is the only extant scene in pre-Shakespearean English revenge tragedy to feature a risen ghost confronting a living character and demanding revenge. See Thomas Warton, The History of English Poetry, vol. 4 (London, 1824), 212; also noted in Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 31.

[3] Zajko's, James's, and even Burrow's stances are arguably reducible to this formula ; so is Charles Martindale, "Shakespeare and Virgil" (which notably foregrounds its author's concern to make distinctions between textually supportable claims about specific allusions, and what he sees as misguided efforts to read allusions into texts that do not explicitly or verbally advertise their relationships with particular intertexts). A.B. Taylor, in "Ovid's myths and the unsmooth course of love in A Midsummer Night's Dream," hypothesizes Ovidian allusions that have not been noted previously.

[4] Tendentious, and for the most part unargued theoretical assumptions seem to me to underlie the claims made in A.D. Nuttall's "Action at a distance: Shakespeare and the Greeks" - which flaunts its willful independence from rational canons of argument without, however, embracing any of the available post-structuralist theoretical alternatives - as well as an intrepid but somewhat befuddling foray by the classicist, Michael Silk, entitled "Shakespeare and Greek tragedy: strange relationship," in which an empiricist's caution mates with a comparatist's fecklessness. Also, Erica Sheen, though for the most part dedicated to identifying a new source for Hamlet (see note 3, above), begins by making an intellectually adventurous, if sketchy, proposal to reorient the study of Shakespeare's textual borrowings along highly specific historicist lines; some readers may find her appeal to the history of property law suggestive, though it ultimately reverts to the early New Historicist tactic of making 'Shakespeare' a metonym for modernization.

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