Small Latin and Lesse Greek – a Theory No Longer Fit for Purpose?

by Keith Hopkins (March 2014)

And though thou hadst small Latin and lesse Greek
From thence to honour thee, I would not seeke
For names, but call forth thund’ring Aeschilus,
Euripedes, and Sophocles to us……

What did Shakespeare know? Why is that important? This is not an epistemological, or rhetorical question, far less an enquiry into the meaning of meaning, as it were, or the what and the why of things. Shakespeare raises many deep issues about who we are, or, more accurately, who we like to think we are. But he does not do this by entering the Academy to give us all a lecture. There is a home-spun quality to the nature of even the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays that will always defeat the system builders. And it’s always nice to feel at home. But the huge enigma remains. Just how did he know what he gives every appearance of knowing in the plays? Where did all this learning come from? And perhaps of equal force, how is this reconcilable, if at all, with the notion of the Stratford grammar school lad of cherished tradition? What is truly astonishing, breathtaking even, is how the Bard has assimilated all of this stuff, languages, subjects, into the plays to make them breathing, living things, places we can inhabit and walk through at any time. Diana Price (Cleveland, Ohio) has put the question neatly in Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography (2012): 'traditional scholars have to work both sides of the street, on the one side citing Shakespeare’s extensive reading and evident erudition, and on the other, rationalizing his supposedly minimal learning without seriously reducing his capacity to write.' In this review I try to do just that – work both sides of the street – in the hope that by going up and down the town, to paraphrase Falstaff a bit in Henry IV, Part Two, we might see a boy that looks a lot like Shakespeare. Also, I only touch on Shakespeare’s familiarity with Latin. What he may have known of modern languages to await another time.

There is a conventional reading of the lines quoted above attributed to Ben Jonson. It is that Jonson is saying Shakespeare is, or was, no classicist. Therefore he is an uneducated person. Uneducated, that is, in terms that Jonson would have defined an educated person and within the context of the mania for the classics that seems to have driven Elizabethan culture and society. There is a self-consciously rhetorical device at play also here. Jonson, who was proud of his own classical attainments, is looking down on the humble boy from Stratford who couldn’t cut the mustard. But then, in the best tradition of Quintilian, the Latin orator, Jonson immediately goes on to praise Shakespeare by associating his name with the greats of Greek theatre. A rough translation therefore might be:

‘We literati know you were uneducated and so can’t call you distinguished in that field (so you are not one of us) but if only the greats of the past were here today and could hear you(!).’

Dispraise and then praise. This is the standard reading, pretty much, by the Stratfordians. We can call it R1. There is also a variant reading of this text. Call it R2. This was set out by Charlton Ogburn (New York, 1984) and is a brilliant piece of analysis. He points out that ‘hadst’ is in the subjunctive and the rest of the lines the conditional. This transforms the meaning. So, what Jonson is really saying is something like this:

‘Even if, or supposing that, you had little Latin and less Greek (which is not the case) then, even in that event, I would still call on the greats to hear you.’

This reading is compelling for a number of reasons. Firstly, it would provide a better fit with Shakespeare’s contemporaries that has always seemed to me to bedevil the Stratfordians case. There is good evidence that Shakespeare was a competent classicist and this whole notion that he was some kind of unlettered yokel who somehow managed to dream up these astonishing plays needs to be trashed, finally and forever. Shakespeare was well educated and, where he was not, he was self-educated. Next, we need to enter the mind-set of the Elizabethan gentleman. To say that the classics were all the rage is an understatement. These people wrote in Latin, they spoke in Latin, they read Latin, they named things in Latin, they thought in Latin, they may well have even dreamt in Latin, they were obsessed by Latin. With Latin came an idolatry  – the word is not too strong – of all things Italian. The English loved to ape Italian fashion and clothes (displaying also a disturbing tendency to the same lethality as the Italians). The old lines capture this:

The Englishman italianate,
Is the Devil incarnate.

It is has never been plausible to think that Shakespeare did not know his books. Thirdly, with the madness for Latin came a hyper-sensitive regard for grammar. Latin is a declined language and can attain to an exquisite exactness of expression. It does this, importantly, by the use of verbs and the subjunctive (introduced by adverbs such as velut, sicut etc.) that governs the case endings of nouns, adjectives and pronouns. Latin’s exactitude, and rule-governed structure, allows an immense freedom for the creation of tropes, that is, figurative and metaphorical expressions. It’s like the never ending creation of imagined, possible and impossible, worlds. In Latin you are forever thinking, imagining, hoping. Always, if such is the case, then such might happen. If. Sound familiar? Ogburn makes a formidable case.

Shakespeare probably started school when he was seven years of age. And would have been hard at his Latin straight away. A letter in fluent Latin is quoted written by Richard Quiney, Jr, future brother-in-law of Judith Shakespeare, to his father. Junior was eleven years of age. We know that the actual school Shakespeare may well have attended had a copy of a valuable book, Bibliotheca Eliotae, Sir Thomas Elyot’s Latin-English dictionary. Latin and rhetoric were the staple diet. It was a ten hour day, thereabouts and in the words of Park Honan, Shakespeare, A Life (1998) 'memory work was endless'. What had been learned the previous day had to be repeated, word for word, on the day following. One crucial point that has not been stressed enough and which many commentators seem unaware of, is the importance of spoken Latin. With speech came oratory. This was the great and glittering prize that educated Elizabethans aspired to. To be able to speak this ancient language, immediately, naturally, fluently, everywhere and at all times. To make a dead language live again. To imbibe the noxious vapours of an alien world of the long dead. This was a power even greater than religion. According to Pico della Mirandola, the Renaissance mystic, the rebirth of Latin was but a prelude to the rebirth of man himself 'into the higher forms, which are divine'. This was the great project that lay behind the fanatical fixation on the language. If you could both think and speak in Latin in a critical sense you were an ancient Roman, a dead man brought back to life. What could be more divine in operation? Prospero in The Tempest reveals that:

graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art.

As Stephen Greenblatt notes in his essay to the ‘Norton’ Shakespeare edition of the play (USA, 1997), 'for the playwright who conjured up the ghosts of Caesar and old Hamlet, the claim does not seem extravagant.'

So, speaking like a Roman necessarily entailed thinking like one also. You couldn’t have one without the other. Otherwise, you would have to think first, in English, how to express a certain phrase in Latin  first step – and then turn the whole lot into grammatical Latin – second step  reflecting exactly what you wanted to say in the first place –  third step; a hopeless task for those still anchored in their native tongue. And then there were so many untranslatable idiomatic expressions in either language waiting to trip you up. Such facility could only be approached by the older boys but it’s worth remembering that the routes to advancement in the professions were only open to those who were accomplished Latinists, that is,  those both thinking and writing in the language. Anyone could open a dictionary and translate from Latin to English. It was the reverse that was the golden key. Thinking Latinists were forged in the furnace of open debate, wholly in the language and where there was no hiding place. Consider the following phrase about someone that failed to live up to the estimation of others:

Omnium consenu capax imperii, nisi imperasset.

A  free rendering of this is:

‘By common consent it was universally agreed he had the capability to govern, until, that is, he actually came to rule when everyone then saw how unfit he was.’

Twenty nine words for six! And Latin achieves this through a cunning use of the pluperfect subjunctive (imperasset, in the sense of him having actually ruled not just merely people thinking or imagining what it would be like if or when he did rule) and the word ‘nisi’ –  until –  that triggers the whole meaning of the clause.

As in so much else, the Romans inherited the idea of rhetoric from the Greeks. The question of how much Greek our man had, is a huge and controversial area but is of secondary importance here. What mattered was what Shakespeare learned about rhetoric which he got from the Latin books because what the Romans knew they got from the Greeks. In Greek culture there was difference between force and persuasion. Is someone forced when they give in to the blandishments and promises of others? Can we be made to believe something? Are we persuaded by rational arguments? Can consent be manufactured? Plato said because we desire something it is good, we do not desire something because it is good. It is the word that counts – the logos – and the spoken word supremely counts. The most important Greek word in rhetoric was eikos meaning likely, plausible, probable. So when you speak you have to be plausible. Who cares about the truth? This is a crude exaggeration but the point is made. In order to get people’s confidence (for your own ends) you have to run yourself down a bit. ‘Richard III’ does this to sublime effect:

But I – that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking glass, –
I – that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph –
I – that am …. Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
….. scarce half made up
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them – .

Speech becomes a kind of mirror, you reflect back other people’s deepest feelings, play to their fantasies. They will feel attraction, stirrings of eros, and you are on your way. Robert Wardy, in his chapter on Rhetoric in Greek Thought (2000,The President and Fellows of Harvard College Cambridge, Mass.) makes the astonishing claim that what the Greeks actually believed was happening here was a species of magic and that through casting spells one achieved whatever effect was being sought. Prospero seems to be doing this in reverse in his great speech in The Tempest when he abjures his ‘rough magic.’

So, rhetoric is almost indistinguishable for certain Greek thinkers from exploitation and emotional manipulation. Politicians manipulate the people but are in turn manipulated. Mark Anthony’s great speech in Julius Caesar is an example. The great orator can see both what all people have in common, love, hate, fear, jealousy, but be sensitive also to the individual psychology of particular individuals, what makes this or that man or woman tick. This is power indeed and brings every manner of worldly success. It should not be doubted that the ever-wise Shakespeare did covet these things. Are we any different? Beyond the cause and effect way of producing change in the world the Greeks believed there was a metaphysical way of getting what you want – an occult nexus beyond the causal one  and for them rhetoric was the dangerous instrument for achieving this. This knowledge flowed into Shakespeare through the conduit of Cicero the great model for rhetoric in the Elizabethan age. Where the black arts of rhetoric are concerned, the Greeks appear to have been as much psychologists as they were philosophers.

What this surely amounts to is a recognition that Shakespeare not only knew more but that he unquestionably thought more than is traditionally supposed. There is simply no gainsaying the sea- bed depth of the Bard’s thinking in the areas discussed. To put it crudely, no one has ever been able to think longer, harder and deeper about rhetoric, language and meaning, and to transform that thinking into the most sublime, poetic and yet all too human drama. As Jonson says he was ‘for all time.’ 



Keith Hopkins is an historian and lawyer (solicitor). In 2007 he won the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust award for a review of 'The History Plays.'

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