Did Shakespeare know Greek?

Ben Jonson says he didn’t, or at least, not much.  The famous, or infamous, phrase––depending on where one stands on the issue––from Jonson’s dedicatory Ode to the First Folio––“though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”––has led to two centuries of regarding Shakespeare as  “Fancy’s child, warbling woodnotes wild” (John Milton).  Finally in the 19th century, when his erudition began to be grasped by a reading audience which was itself educated to a level in Greek and Latin that was capable of recognizing what he shared with them, the question of how William of Stratford could have acquired such knowledge added its portion to the questions being raised by lawyers and doctors regarding his amazing knowledge of the Law and Medicine.

Why did it take so long?

First, following the twenty years of the Puritan Interregnum when the London Stage was virtually dead, and all publishing of plays at a standstill, the only versions that most saw for the next two centuries were the corruptions of Colly Cibber and Thomas Bowdler, which made it impossible for anyone but the few who had access to the original folios to form a reliable opinion.  It was only following the  return to performing the plays as Shakespeare wrote them, that critics and audiences gradually became aware of his true nature, and began his rise to his present iconic status.  By then the prestige of the Stratford Birthplace as a tourist attraction and focus of Shakespeare studies had become too central to British culture to allow for any threats to what they’d been told was the Bard’s identity.

Second, what we call Shakespeare are the versions of the plays as he revised them in the 1590s for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to perform for the public.  True, many of the plays had escaped from the Court and Inns of Court audiences to the public stages from the very beginning, and that this is so can be seen from traces of his knowledge of Greek myths and works as located within recent years by authorship scholars Andy Werth and Earl Showerman.  But the audience that knew the works as by someone named Shakespeare was the public, and that audience knew nothing of Greek literature.  A playwright’s job is to communicate with his/her audience in language it can understand.  So it may be that what remained of the author’s Greek references during the revising in the 1590s were those bits that couldn’t be cut or altered without damaging the text.

Then at the turn of the 20th century, when Oxford graduate John Churton Collins had the bad faith to publish the evidence he’d found for Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek literature in his Studies in Shakespeare (1904), the furious response from the newborn English departments in England and America compelled the so-called New Bibliographers to sidestep the arguments surrounding Shakespeare’s  knowledge of Greek to the provenance of the early quartos, where they spent decades wrestling with monumental issues surrounding the early quartos that sound so much like Shakespeare juvenilia, condemning these to the actions of piratical printers and peevish actors with bad memories, notions that continue to this day to block the path to any real connections of Shakespeare to the history of the Elizabethan era.

Irritated by his fellow academics who continued to treat Shakespeare as illiterate, it was Jonson’s “less Greek” that spurred Professor T.W. Baldwin, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana, to produce in 1940 his great heap of data on the educational system of the Elizabethans and as much as he could find on the Stratford grammar school.  Ignoring the primary issue of whether or not William actually attended the Stratford school, the Academy breathed a sigh of relief and settled comfortably into the notion that he must have learned enough Greek at the Stratford school that he was then able to continue to learn more on his own.  Fancy’s child was now free to warble his woodnotes wild after seven years of classical Latin and some Greek.

The issue then became, how much was there available in the 1570s and early 1580s for William to learn in this way?  After 300 years, the answer remains: not much.  Unless there was a Greek scholar in Stratford at the time who owned the rare and expensive books he would have needed to absorb the texts that he has been shown to have read and understood, there was little then that would have been available to a youth like William.  During what would have been his years of study, the 1570s into the 1580s, the books he would have needed were being published on the Continent in small runs of very expensive editions and sold at book fairs in Lyon and Frankfurt. Doubtless some made their way to England, but how many to Stratford?  This is the kind of thing for which we need hard evidence, which is what we do not have, and after 400 years of searching, are not likely ever to have.

A recent article by Kirsty Milne of Magdalen College Cambridge defies the “common  perception”of England as devoid of Greek publications, listing 21 titles published during Elizabeth’s 40-year reign, yet of these, all but nine were published during the 1590s when Shakespeare was already being performed and published.  During the period when William would have been learning his Greek, from the 1570s to the mid-1580s, there were only four, and though it’s possible that he might have had an opportunity to borrow these from somebody’s library, they couldn’t possibly explain the erudition exposed by Collins, Werth and Showerman.

We’re stuck again with misperceptions based on misinterpreting the size and nature of these early audiences.  The reading audience was a fraction of the audience for the London Stage.  Of that reading audience, those interested in Greek philosophy, much less those capable of reading it in Greek, were, again, a miniscule fraction.  Scholars of Greek literature, of myths, of the rise of the European Renaissance, as based on the rediscovery of Greek texts, speak of a swell of interest, forgetting to note that was appears to them to be a swell is but a ripple on the surface of the general history of the time.  In fact, the only people who found it necessary to study Greek in the sixteenth century were Reformation theologians in search of God’s meaning in the original languages in which the Bible had first been written, or as close as they could come, and a handful of poets who found inspiration and beauty in the Greek poets.  That Shakespeare’s interest in Greek would naturally have been the ancient plays is explained as reading them in Latin translation, but as Henry Burrowes Lathrop explains in Translations from the Classics into English from Caxton to Chapman (1933), what few there were were badly done and generally translated from French, since it was so difficult to translate Greek directly into English.

Yes, Greek thought, meaning Plato, had a mighty effect over time on the English culture and on all European culture, through his 14th-15th-century Latin interpreters, the Florentine neoplatonists Marsilio Ficino (1485), Pico della Mirandola, and Angelo Poliziano, and publications of the original texts in Greek by Aldus Manutius from 1513.  But this change was in the nature of a deep undercurrent, transforming thinking gradually over a very long period of time.  It was certainly never a “groundswell,” not even in 15th-century Italy, where it had to fight much the same ideological battles as it would have faced in 16th-century England, where doctrines like soul evolution and reincarnation were atheistic heresy to a culture that embraced doctrines like purgatory, original sin, and infant damnation.

Sir Thomas Smith the Greek scholar

With the acceptance of Oxford as Shakespeare, and of his eight years with the Greek scholar and statesman Sir Thomas Smith, all this becomes moot.  Details on what exactly he had available to him though Smith are available through Smith’s library list of 1566.  That Smith had 43 titles in Greek, and an even greater number of Latin, French and Italian translations of Greek works, reinforces his reputation among his contemporaries as a leading Greek scholar.  Termed by his biography John Strype as “a great Platonist,” his passion for the Greek classics was common knowledge among his fellow scholars.  That he probably began teaching de Vere at age four is supported by pedagogues like Juan Vives and Sir Thomas Elyot, who urged beginning noble boys at such an early age with works by Aesop and Appulius so that by their early teens they would be capable of reading the works that would teach them the basics of good government.  As Elyot puts it in his Boke of the Gouvernor:

Some old authors hold [the] opinion that, before the age of seven years, a child should not be instructed in letters; but those writers were either Greeks or Latins, among whom all doctrines and sciences were in their maternal tongues, by reason whereof they saved all that long time which at this day is spent in understanding perfectly the Greek or Latin [languages], wherefore it requireth now a longer time to the understanding of both. Therefore that infelicity of our time and country compelleth us to encroach somewhat upon the years of children, and especially of noblemen, that they may sooner attain to wisdom and gravity than private persons, considering, as I have said, their charge and example, which, above all things, is most to be esteemed.

Elyot’s book was published in 1531, at which time Smith was teaching Greek and Civil Law to undergraduates at Queens’ College Cambridge.  Smith would have a few years of teaching younger boys at Eton in the early 1550s, but with the arrival of the four-year-old de Vere in 1554, he had a golden opportunity to start a boy on Greek from the age recommended by Elyot.  That Smith was a bold and inventive teacher is clear from quotes in Dewar’s biography.  It’s more likely than not that either Nathaniel or Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost was a satire of Smith at his most pedagogical.

As I researched Oxford’s education, I began to get the feeling that there was some reason for his unique style that went beyond the sources traditionally ascribed to him.  I now believe that it’s because he began his language studies with Greek, learning it first, not by memorizing vocab and reciting declensions and conjugations, as did most boys, nor by translating it out of Latin or French, but by listening to Smith’s reciting Homer and Pindar, and so to imitating and memorizing what Gerard Manley Hopkins has so perfectly called, “the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,” of great literature.

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