Making Shakespeare

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My recent reading has included two biographies, both of men who, like Shakespeare, did not go to university. Ben Jonson, son of a clergyman who died a month before the boy was born, and stepson of a bricklayer – a calling which Ben himself followed for some years – attended Westminster School, in London, but did not proceed to university – though both Oxford and Cambridge awarded him honorary degrees in later life. Ian Donaldson’s excellent new biography (which I was delighted to be asked to review for the New York Review of Books) is able to draw on fascinating, recently discovered material about Ben’s famous walk from London to Scotland, at the end of which he stayed for a couple of weeks with William Drummond of Hawthornden. His host’s account of their unbuttoned, probably bibulous conversations provides us with invaluable information about many of his literary contemporaries (Jonson was also rather rude about his host’s verses.)

Charles Dickens, whose admirable biography by Claire Tomalin formed, appropriately, most of my Christmas reading, left school when he was only fifteen, and was sent to work pasting labels on containers in a shoe-blacking factory – a cruelly formative experience which embittered him and is reflected in some of his novels, especially David Copperfield. It is of course far easier to find reflections of a novelist’s life in his work than in that of a dramatist, whose very art lies in hiding himself behind his characters.

But the new book that has enthralled me most is Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, subtitled How the Renaissance Began. Greenblatt is a brilliantly readable writer whose work combines wide-ranging and deep scholarship with an exceptional gift for narrative. At the centre of his book is the long, philosophical Latin poem De Rerum Natura – ‘about the nature of things‘ – by the pre-Christian Roman writer Titus Lucretius Carus – always known simply as Lucretius. Admired and influential in its day, it fell out of circulation for centuries, surviving only in manuscripts which lay unread in monastic libraries until a Florentine scholar, Poggio Bracciolini, travelling in Germany, came upon a manuscript of it, read its opening lines, realized that this was an important find, and ordered a scribe to copy it.

In telling the story of the poem’s discovery, Greenblatt uncovers fascinating information about the significance of monastic libraries, the magnitude and importance of the copying industry in the centuries before the invention of the printing press, and the intellectual dedication of scholars of the Italian Renaissance who sought to discover as much as they could of the life and thought of antiquity. ‘The act of discovery’ performed by Poggio, writes Greenblatt, ‘fulfilled the life’s passion of a brilliant book hunter. And that book hunter, without ever intending or realizing it, became a midwife to modernity.’ His discovery heralded a cultural shift, a ‘swerve’ – hence the title of the book – in the human consciousness which has had a profound impact on thought and art ever since.

Shakespeare is part of the intellectual movement that Poggio’s discovery heralded. Greenblatt sees reflections of Lucretian thought in Romeo and Juliet, and says that Shakespeare ‘shared his interest in Lucretian materialism with Spenser, Donne, Bacon, and others. Though Shakespeare had not attended either Oxford or Cambridge, his Latin was good enough to have enabled him to read Lucretius’s poem for himself.’ In any case, he ‘could have discussed Lucretius with his fellow playwright Ben Jonson, whose own copy of On the Nature of Things has survived and is today in the Houghton Library at Harvard.’ It is good, at a time when we tend to value Shakespeare primarily as an entertainer, to see this acknowledgement of his participation in the major intellectual currents of his time.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • Pc12

    So Shakespeare had more than a litle latin then? Are we surprised/  I think not!


  • Gckoch

    How could the renaissance works of Italy have any affect on Shakepeare of Stratford when he did not travel there to read them and they were definitely not in circulation near Southwark where Shakespeare of Stratford lived and worked?

  • Linda Theil

    I respectfully submit that there is no evidence that the man from Stratford knew even one word of Latin and your statement that he read Lucretius is pure speculation. The fact that Shakespeare’s plays evince deep knowledge argues against the Stratfordian attribution.

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