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Institute of Classical Studies and HARL Library on Shakespeare

‘But, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.’

  • Casca, Julius Caesar Act 1 Scene 2.

Everyone knows Shakespeare. He pervades our culture with such ferocity; his work is constantly referenced in films, theatre, music, tourist attractions, even the naming of pubs. But one place you would perhaps believe to be out of his clutches would be a library focussed on the study of the ancient world. After all, our years of specialisation fall centuries before his birth, let alone the writing of his plays. However, even within these corridors we are unable to escape the influence of that bard, that ‘upstart crow,’ as Robert Greene called him.

When I was first asked to write this article, my mind immediately leapt to our special collections where we have multiple different works surviving from the time in which Shakespeare lived (1564-1616). Our oldest book is a copy of Livy from 1501, published when Shakespeare’s grandfather was only eleven years old and before he had even moved to Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Shakespeare did, of course, use ancient texts as sources. Of these sources, we have a few publications contemporary to his time of writing on our shelves. These are mostly in Latin. The major Greek source used by Shakespeare is Plutarch’s Lives (though we only have post-Shakespearean volumes in our collection). However, there is no evidence that Shakespeare knew how to read Greek and it is likely that he used a translation into English by Sir Thomas North, written in 1579. Indeed, how much of the ‘classics’ Shakespeare actually knew is something that has been debated for centuries. Although boys at urban schools such as St Paul’s would have had an extensive education in both Greek and Latin texts, provincial schools such as the one attended by Shakespeare were almost certainly less rigorous. A guide to teaching in these provincial schools, written by Brimsley in 1612, suggests that students should at least be well versed in the ‘purest authors… Tully [Cicero] for prose, so Ouid [sic] and Virgil for verse’. The latter two are certainly true for Shakespeare. His first published poem was, after all, Venus and Adonis, published in 1593 and heavily influenced by Ovid.

Virgil's Aeneid, from 1596

Shakespeare’s links to Virgil can be seen in the play Troilus and Cressida. Within this play, the character of Aeneas appears, acting as a friendly messenger between Hector and the Greeks. It is also Aeneas who tells Troilus the news that Cressida is to be given to the Greeks, a deal her father made in exchange for a Trojan captive’s return. Aeneas is later captured by Ajax but escapes, going on to found Lavinium after the play ends. Although his appearance is small, it shows that Shakespeare was familiar with The Aeneid and the writings of Virgil. WIthin our collection we have a copy of The Aeneid from 1596, just five years before Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida. It is also likely that Shakespeare had read a translation of Homer’s Iliad, or was at the very least familiar with its story.

Plautus' Manaechmi, from M. Accius Plautus Ex Fide, Atque Auctoritate. Expensis Guilelmi Hertman, Lyons 1577
Plautus' Amphytrio, from M. Accius Plautus Ex Fide, Atque Auctoritate. Expensis Guilelmi Hertman, Lyons 1577

Another book in our collection is a copy of Plautus from 1577 (as well as an earlier one from 1522). Plautus was a great influence on the works of Shakespeare. Most notably this can be seen within The Comedy of Errors, which draws heavily on The Menaechmi. However, as he did with all texts that he drew on, Shakespeare also greatly changed the plot. He changes the location of the play to Ephesus and adds a whole range of characters including a sister, mother and father. This play also draws on Plautus’ The Amphrituo through the addition of a second pair of twins.

Caesar's Gallic War, from C.Iulii Caesaris Commen. Basileae per Nicolaum Bry, 1539
Map of Central Europe, from C.Iulii Caesaris Commen. Basileae per Nicolaum Bry, 1539

We also have a 1539 copy of Caesar’s account of the Gallic war, a slim volume with gorgeous illustrations. Caesar is, of course, the eponymous character from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, although he dies at the start of act three. Indeed, the main plot of the play appears to derive from Plutarch’s Life of Antony. Marc Antony appears throughout the play and delivers the great speech ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’. As previously mentioned, it is unlikely Shakespeare could read Greek, but North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives was almost certainly the basis for many of Shakespeare’s histories.

Henry VI Part 1, Act 3 Scene 3 as translated into Greek by C.J.R.C. in 1846 from Flosculi Cheltonienses: A Selection from the Ch

The final book within our collection that I would like to mention is not to be found among our rare books, but instead on the shelves in the main library. It is this book that excites me the most due to its unique charm. It is Flosculi Cheltonienses, a book published by Rivingtons of London and containing a selection of Cheltenham College prize poems. These poems are all in ancient Greek or Latin and most are translations into these languages of the works of famous English poets, such as Ulysses by Tennyson and The Faerie Queen by Spenser. Within its pages there are also twelve translations of Shakespeare, three of which come from Romeo and Juliet (and to my disappointment, none from Hamlet). There is a unique charm to being able to read ‘speak on, but be not over tedious’ as ‘Δοκοῦντα σοὶ λὲγοις ἂν, οὐδὲ χρὴ μαϰκράν’ (Henry VI, Part 1; Act 3 Scene 3). Taking heed of this piece of wisdom I shall end my writing here. I hope to have enlightened those that chose to read this far on two topics close to my heart, that of the classics and the bard.

Jasmine Newton-Rae, Trainee Library Assistant The Institute of Classical Studies and the Roman and Hellenic Societies Library

First Folios at 400

The First Folio was first entered into the Stationers’ Register on this day (8th November) in 1623. To celebrate 400 years since this historic publication, the School of Advanced Study and Senate House Library are hosting an exciting programme of events and activity including a major new exhibition, Shakespeare’s First Folios: A 400-year journey which opens on the 21 November.

To view the full programme, visit: