Did Shakespeare know Pindar?

Long before Plato, it was the poet Pindar who set the standard for poetry for the ancient Greeks.  Both Shakespeare and Pindar are seen as the great poets of their nations and both were located at similar points in their nation’s histories.  Both wrote during times of great national stress, Pindar during the threat to Greece from the Persian Empire (502-452 BC); Shakespeare during a similar threat to England from the south, Spain, and from the East, the Ottoman Empire.  Much of Pindar’s work can be seen as an effort to broaden narrow local sentiments into a panhellenic awareness of what was good and beautiful in all of life; similarly Shakespeare worked, through his histories, to raise English awareness of themselves as citizens of a great and unique national culture rather than parishioners of a particular faith or servants of a particular lord.

The careers of both took place at the very beginning of the supernovae of culture that would blaze their times forever in the hearts and minds of artists, scientists, and philosophers though subsequent ages.  Both lived at the moment when their cultures first began to experiment with democracy, and neither were particularly happy with the prospect.  Both loved Nature, their works are suffused with their experience of Nature.  Speaking, or rather singing, a chorus, Pindar gave his audiences the grand view, the opportunity to see life and events from the highest pitch, as did Shakespeare, speaking through his protagonists.

In reading (online) what Charles Fennell, Fellow of Jesus College Cambridge and author of the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica article on Pindar, has to say about the ancient poet, his descriptions match so closely with what we know of Shakespeare that it seems worthwhile to quote him.  Of Pindar’s style, Fennell quotes another scholar’s comment on his “‘pre-eminent rapidity of thought’ as “of an eagle’s flight or of very lightening.” And that his works everywhere show “impassioned animation and marvelous reserve of power.”  He continues:

They show traces of humor and tenderness, of the latter to a surprising extent, considering the nature of his themes.  Several passages suggest forcibly that the poet was fond of festivity and good cheer. . . .  His vividness of conception and appreciation of delicate touches of character are, I venture to say, unrivaled in the whole range of Greek and Latin authors. . . .  He seems to have cherished a deeper love of Nature, especially of trees and flowers, than is generally to be discerned in Greek literature.  He is a most effective word-painter, producing his pictures by a few bold strokes. (xiii)

Fennell’s comments on Pindar include: “the simplicity of his structure, the grace and freedom of his forms of expression, the impetuous, elastic movement of his verse.” He comments on his use of proverbs and his “rich” use of metaphor.

In elaborate embellishment of an idea and in brief statement he was equally a master [as was his] extraordinary skill in transition . . . and his occasional abruptness.  One of the most conspicuous features of his poetry is its manifold variety both of form and tone.  He thoroughly appreciated the effectiveness of contrast, passing from solemn [to] almost jovial, from jubliant strains of triumph to impressive warning or tranquil narrative, with diction now exuberant and luscious, now severely plain.  We generally find a continuous flow of . . . lightly connected clauses and sentences, but sometimes emphasis is gained by abrupt disconnected utterances.  Our appreciation of the ease and spontaneity of Pindar’s style must not blind us to the fact that, besides genius, he exhibits and glories in consummate art.  When most discursive and impetuous, his thoughts are thoroughly under control.  (xiv-xv)

All this was just as true of Shakespeare, and just as unusual at his time, in fact, it may be that no one writing in English has ever surpassed him in any of these qualities, certainly not in all of them.  “No doubt the compounds and derivatives found only in Pindar, or of which his use seems to be the earliest, were coined by him . . . .” Shakespeare is thought to have coined between 3,000 and 6,000 words, most still in use today.  There also seem to be many similarities in syntax.  Fennell continues:

Though not a bigoted oligarch, he was a thorough aristocrat, insofar that he believed in the superiority of the well-born in physical and moral capabilities, but he had a clear view of the rights of the commonalty, and the responsibliities of nobles and rulers.  On such points he spoke out boldly though gracefully, even to the most absolute of those whom he addressed. (xvi)

Difficulties with understanding Pindar have mostly to do with the rapid stream of thoughts and images that he force-fit into the poetic forms he used, many of them so fleeting that translators must do a lot of guessing.  As Fennell put it, “He deals in divers kinds of abbreviations, fresh combinations of words, inversions, and extensions of meaning . . . .”  We see much the same situation with Shakespeare, in some cases where his syntax simply cannot contain the fullness of his thought at the speed with which he wishes to impart it; in others because the beauty of certain sounds takes precedence over precise meaning.

As with Shakespeare (and Homer), the authorship of Pindar has been the subject of argument, but the fact that the voice heard in the odes remains the same and uniquely his has quieted most disputes, as should the same qualities in Shakespeare.  As for the actual name itself, so many ancient writers were given names that varied from the names given them at birth, changed either by themselves for some reason, or more often by those who came after, many of whom spoke and wrote in different languages, a shape-shifting that would have been obvious to Oxford from his first ventures into Greek and Latin.

Written Greek poetry begins with Pindar, possibly only as he was nearing the end of his life.  Just so Shakespeare’s works, that had initiated the English literary Renaissance, were published only towards the end of his (Oxford’s) life, and only published in full after he was gone.

Most interesting to those who seek among Shakespeare’s works for clues to his own beliefs is Pindar’s obvious belief in the life after death, his acknowledgement of a destiny that lies outside Time, and so may be involved in the unfolding of events.  Is it this, or something like it, that Shakespeare refers to when in Sonnet 59 he says

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whe’r better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O! sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

Pindar saw great events, the victory at Marathon, Shakespeare saw the defeat of the Spanish Armada.  Pindar’s poetry was written to be sung, whether by a single singer or a chorus.  Shakespeare is full of song lyrics and breaks for music.  Ovid, beloved of Shakespeare, showed his reverence for Pindar by naming the muse of his Ars Amatoria Corinna, the female poet who (it is believed) taught Pindar to write.

Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, had Pindar in Greek on his 1566 library list.

2 responses to “Did Shakespeare know Pindar?

  1. Mildred Cecil also had Pindar in Greek amongst her own library of books at Cecil House, where Oxford lived from 1562 to 1571. It is listed as Pindar: Olympoia, Pythia, Nemea, Isthmia (in Greek), published in quarto at Rome, 1515. These are clearly the Odes in praise of victors at the four main Greek games. Mildred (feted as an excellent Greek scholar in her own time) donated the Pindar volume to Westminster Abbey Library, where presumably it still remains.

    Regards, Jan

  2. Thanks, Jan. Yes indeed. Mildred Cecil had a sizable Greek library. Her father, Sir Anthony Cooke, was a colleague of Smith’s at Cambridge and at Court during Edward’s reign. This is a very small community. But Oxford’s training in Greek would have begun during his childhood with Smith, and it may well be that Smith actually began him with Greek, rather than Latin, as per the advice of Sir Thomas Elyot. Thanks again.

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