Fiction » Literary Figures

Robert S Miola on Shakespeare’s Sources

Interview by Charles J. Styles

William Shakespeare has a strong claim to be the most influential writer of all time. But whose works influenced him? And how? Robert S Miola discusses the breadth of Shakespeare’s reading, the vexed question of how we can reconstruct what he read, and the staggeringly innovative ways that Shakespeare shaped his sources

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Robert S Miola

Robert S Miola is the Gerard Manley Hopkins Professor of English at Loyola University Maryland, as well as a professor of classics. He has published widely on Shakespeare's classical sources and is the editor of the Norton Critical Editions of Macbeth and Hamlet.

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How many of Shakespeare’s plays can we say are wholly original to him and not based on a pre-existing work?

Two, I think. In the first case, we haven’t found a source for the main plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of course, Pyramus and Thisbe derive from Ovid; you can find precedents for certain scenes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And he’d done lovers crossed before—say, in Venus and Adonis or Two Gentlemen of Verona. But we haven’t found a source for Midsummer’s mixing of the love plot, the fairy plot, and the rude mechanicals plot. That seems totally original.

The other one is The Tempest. While there are narratives of loss in romance and of shipwreck everywhere from the Greek romances through to the Roman and the Italian, we haven’t found any one book that we can run through and tabulate where Shakespeare wanted this, didn’t want that, and contradicted this—like we can with Julius Caesar and Plutarch’s Lives, for instance. These two plays are wholly original.

We need to keep in mind that the Elizabethans didn’t really have the same notions of invention, originality, and plagiarism that we have. For them, originality lay in the inventiveness of the imitation, not in inventiveness ab ovo (from the very beginning). It was all about how you managed existing material—that’s how you showed how ‘original’ you were.

There were no laws about plagiarism or copyright—that’s a later English thing. The ruling aesthetic concerned the artist imitating antiquity, or, for a theatrical artist, whatever the prevailing fashion was.

And there are 38 Shakespeare plays, is that right?

It depends on how you count them. In the first edition of the Oxford Shakespeare there are 38, but in the newest Oxford edition, 44. That’s because they’ve redefined authorship as collaboration. A play in which Shakespeare may have had a hand is now listed as a ‘Shakespeare play’. But I think we can go with 38.

Since we’re talking about Shakespeare’s sources as texts themselves, could you tell us about the emergence of print culture and reading practices in Elizabethan England?

That’s a great topic. One thing we’re coming to appreciate is how print culture existed side by side with a vibrant and flourishing manuscript culture. Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, were passed around in manuscript, from what we can gather, as were most of John Donne’s poems. Many have pointed to the importance of print because at that time, schools had texts that people could study. And, more importantly, individuals could collect libraries.

This leads to one of the great mysteries: where did Shakespeare find these books? Whose libraries did he raid? John Florio was known to have a big library, as did Ben Jonson, who famously wrote a poem about its burning. And there were collectors, too. Yet we still haven’t discerned from the available clues where Shakespeare got access to his books.

“This is one of the great mysteries: where did Shakespeare find these books? Whose libraries did he raid?”

But the print culture also published texts with commentaries. The editions of classical writers that Shakespeare would have known had notes that would steer the reading. For example, they would make a bawdy scene safe for Elizabethan schoolboys by explaining that the scene shows us the dangers of lust. So, the texts were recontextualised and brought into a package.

It was a very aggressive kind of reading management. They thought books were so precious that they made books out of selections: you could have anthologies, chrestomathies, the florilegia (that is, flowers) of the great authors. These recontextualised snippets had nuggets of commonplace wisdom. This is the reading practice that is so important and so hard for us moderns to grasp: just as we might have favourite websites, they had favourite passages that they’d re-read regularly.

When you get a passage in Shakespeare—or any Elizabethan—you can’t really assume that the author knows the whole text. He or she might just have 12 lines from Virgil. The reading practice was that knowing lines might help you in another situation in your life. Scholars get upset because they can’t be sure that someone really knows Virgil; the lines might have been taken out of context from Virgil’s Georgics on beekeeping or gardening, for any reason whatsoever.

That’s one way to look at it. But the other is to say that they believed in Virgil so much that they took him as a guide for daily life. And that is the way they saw it. It takes an imaginative leap to understand just how much they valued books, and just how much they read.

You’ve gestured to a problem there—the circulation of snippets taken out of context. Can you outline the other issues in reconstructing what Shakespeare read and absorbed?

I think the main one is: how do you identify a source? For many years, the answer was verbal echo. So, if there were three words in the source connected together—maybe two adjectives and a noun—and enough occurrences of something like that in the text, you could write a scholarly article and say ‘Aha! Shakespeare was clearly reading X.’

This, however, was a magpie age. One scholar’s verbal echo is another scholar’s sheer coincidence. Take biblical phrases, for example. If he talks about the “thorn in his flesh” or “finishing the race”, does it mean that Shakespeare read St Paul? Was he even thinking of St Paul? Or did he hear it in a sermon? Did he hear it at a play? Did someone use that phrase in a tavern and he liked it?

“One scholar’s verbal echo is another scholar’s sheer coincidence”

So, the aetiology that is suggested by the journey of the text—that is suggested by verbal echo—is always questionable. I’m in a seminar in the Shakespeare Association of America where there is a philosopher claiming that Shakespeare read Plato, that there are allusions to Plato’s Statesman in Hamlet. This philosopher sees nonverbal similarities in thought. I’m going to ask: was the dialogue even available in Latin or Greek at that time? Or had these ideas passed into the culture such that one can’t really point a finger at a specific affiliation?

One illustrative example of this kind of non-specific cultural assimilation is this. There is no modern in this century untouched by Freud and Marx; we simply think differently because of Freud and Marx. But how many of us have read Freud and Marx in the original German? We may talk about the ‘unconscious’ or religion as ‘the opiate of the masses’, but that doesn’t mean we know anything about Freud or Marx!

It’s the same with Shakespeare and his sources. What we do know is he had a retentive and unpredictable memory. Tracing that is the fun of it, but also the difficulty.

Just before we look at the books, can we identify general patterns in the way that Shakespeare handles his sources? Or are they different in each case?

I think there are constants. He reads unpredictably and eclectically; he combines sources in a way that you couldn’t really have predicted. He reads against the text—he likes to contradict and contest—but he’s not unusual in that respect. That aesthetic of imitatio also said that one’s originality, one’s contribution, all lay in the freedom with which one changed the source text or contradicted it.

Another constant is that Shakespeare reads morally. He’s always attuned to moral issues. He is always interested in ethics and the complexity of decisions. Measure for Measure is a brilliant example of that—about how hard it is to do the right thing in a fallen world.

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Shakespeare also follows the example of the Italians in expanding the role of women. This isn’t in the tragedies so much—although you do have some fantastic examples in Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth—but in the comedies, women take centre stage. Those are some constants in Shakespeare as a reader.

Your first book choice is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Can you say a bit about the book and how Shakespeare made use of it?

The Metamorphoses is a collection of stories of transformation. Some are straight up mythological, and some are aetiological (how mulberries came to be purple, for example: by being stained with blood). And in the final books, there’s a very sophisticated and ironical retelling of the Trojan War.

These are stories of humans caught in extremis—in extreme emotion and extreme situations—and stories of the gods interacting with them, whereby the humans get turned into something else. Daphne turns into a laurel; Tereus, Procne and Philomel are turned into birds. Humans in extreme situations and transformation—those are the things I think Shakespeare loved about Ovid.

I think that the Metamorphoses was his favourite classical work. Ovid is like Shakespeare as a poet; both possess extremely rapid wit and move magically and unpredictably on the surface of the text, from image to image and metaphor to metaphor. They defy expectation. Reading them is always surprising. Here, you have a great contrast with Virgil. I think Shakespeare read and liked Virgil, but Virgil is stately, imperial, and marvellously well-wrought, whereas Ovid is quick, shifting, and interested in surface and glitter.

“Humans in extreme situations and transformation—those are the things I think Shakespeare loved about Ovid”

For example, in the midst of Pyramus and Thisbe (Met. 4.119–24), he uses that famous metaphor of blood spurting out like a broken pipe. The broken pipe has a split (fistula), and the water pressure streams out (eiaculatur) and beats the air (ictibus aera rumpit). It’s just a shocking shift from this dead lover to plumbing. This is what Shakespeare will do. When King Lear is dying, Kent says: “He hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer” (5.3.359–61). He makes a pun on being stretched longer on the rack and on living further. It’s shocking in its daring quickness. As Samuel Johnson said, “A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.” There’s Ovidian playfulness and rapidity and surprise.

And Ovid’s works are directly referenced in some of Shakespeare’s plays.

Yes, Ovid is named a couple of times and appears on stage as a book. Shakespeare even makes a pun about Ovid’s name and the word for nose in Loves Labours Lost: “Ovidius Naso was the man: and why, indeed, Naso, but for smelling out the odoriferous flowers of fancy.” Ovid is also named as a text in Cymbeline when Iachimo comes in to do his note-taking and Imogen was reading the Metamorphoses. And in Titus Andronicus: there the Metamorphoses appears on stage and Lavinia uses the book to reveal her rape. You get a sense of the characters seeing the Metamorphoses all the time.

There was even a book in 1910 by Robert Kilburn Root, who went through every single mythological reference in Shakespeare and tallied them up. It’s tremendously valuable. He noted all the references to Ovid throughout the canon. Jonathan Bate also did a very good book on Shakespeare and Ovid about 25 years ago. We really can find Ovid in plenty of places in Shakespeare.

With Bottom’s transformation into an ass and the ‘performance’ of Pyramus and Thisbe, would you say that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the most Ovidian of Shakespeare’s plays?

The most overtly Ovidian, yes. You have Shakespeare taking this beautiful, poignant story of Pyramus and Thisbe which has a stunning ending where Pyramus just opens his eyes and looks at Thisbe just as he dies, simultaneously recognising he’s killed himself for nothing. In the Latin, this recognition and death occur in the same breath:

“ad nomen Thisbes oculos a morte gravatos
Pyramus erexit visaque recondidit illa” 

“At the name of Thisbe, Pyramus lifted his eyes, already heavy with death, and having seen her closed them again.” (4.145–6)

Shakespeare sees that and responds by parodying it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Bottom: “Now die, die, die, die, die.” It always gets great laughs and can be fabulously done, but the root of it is this beautifully poignant moment in Ovid.

Then, Shakespeare comes to Romeo and Juliet and doesn’t forget Ovid. Though Ovid is not traditionally named as a source for Romeo and Juliet, it’s the same deal: a guy killing himself and then his beloved finding him. They reunite briefly, and then he dies. We don’t have any stage directions for it—Romeo has no lines at this point—but many productions and many films have Romeo do exactly what Pyramus does. In the Baz Luhrmann film, the eyes of Leonardo DiCaprio open and lock on those of Claire Danes before he dies. Both texts, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, both reach back to that seminal moment in Ovid. We don’t know if it was staged that way, but there’s certainly the possibility he was thinking of it.

But Ovid is everywhere—even less obviously in The Tempest. In that strange scene, you have these spirits becoming dogs and barking, chasing Stefano, Trinculo, and Caliban. As in all the last plays, Shakespeare is interested in internal transformation—on changes within and motions of forgiveness. Here, the classical mixes with the romantic and the Christian. You have this beautiful internalised drama of metamorphosis. In this case, you have Prospero becoming Prospero—abjuring “this rough magic”. Each character comes to a new self—a new understanding of the self. Ovid is there, inescapably.

Let’s move on to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Tell me about this one.

This is a series of Greek and Roman lives. Plutarch (c.AD 46–AD 120), a Greek, is writing this sequence of Greek and Roman lives for didactic and political purposes. He wants to talk about how great men serve their country, and he also wants to talk about how evil is punished. It has a didactic aim, and several books have argued that it even has a providential aim. You can see why this would carry nicely with Christian apologetics and historiography: that God is behind the workings of human history and you can see this in the rise and fall of kingdoms and the rise and fall of men and women.

Usefully for a dramatist, it focuses on lives, rather than events, reigns, and chronology. It’s about people. Sometimes Plutarch is really quite shrewd: he talks about how Mark Antony’s ancestry mattered to him. He wanted to be a Hercules figure. He believed himself descended from Hercules. And Shakespeare looks at this. It’s not said specifically in the text, but two or three times in Antony and Cleopatra, there is an allusion to Hercules that is marvellously powerful and ironic about this middle-aged voluptuary Antony.

The Lives is a big folio book with a lot of close type. I don’t know where Shakespeare got it, but he seems to have had it early in his career. Some people think that episodes in an early play like Titus Andronicus may borrow from it, but he uses Plutarch all the way through his Roman plays—Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra—through to Timon of Athens, which comes out of a small story in the Lives. So, Plutarch’s Lives was a great fund of Roman and Greek history for Elizabethan dramatists.

You mention that Shakespeare would have specifically known Sir Thomas North’s English translation of Plutarch. How do we know this?

Because of the exact replication in many places of phrases and lines. For a classic example, Enobarbus’ famous description of Cleopatra on the barge comes right out of North, marvellously transformed in details. This is also a great question because we know now that Sir Thomas North translated it not from the Greek, but from the Frenchfrom Jacques Amyot. Amyot gave his own Christian providential tilt to readings in Plutarch, and then North amplified this from the French.

Here’s an example. Plutarch will use the word daimon, which is a Greek untranslatable word meaning something like god, guiding spirit, destiny, or fate, depending on how you look at it. Along comes Amyot and he translates it to ange—angel. North picks that up and he uses “angel” or sometimes “destiny”. Shakespeare then reads North and picks this up. He will talk in one point in Julius Caesar, for example, of “Caesar’s angel”. North’s Plutarch contextualised and transformed him for a later Christian audience. And later, Shakespeare will convert the daimon that appears to Brutus into a recognizable stage figure, Caesar’s ghost.

When we look at Plutarch as a source, we see how Shakespeare can take a character merely mentioned in passing and flesh them out in an incredibly three-dimensional way. With Plutarch in particular, I’m thinking of Enobarbus. He is mentioned in maybe two lines in the Lives, but then we see what Shakespeare creates of him in Antony and Cleopatra.

That’s another great example. Enobarbus is a stand in for the audience in some ways, particularly when he sees how Antony is destroying himself and says that he’ll “seek some way to leave him.” And then, at the end, he uses him to direct the audience to a new understanding. Enobarbus dies of a broken heart—he dies intellectually disapproving of Antony, but feeling great loyalty, understanding, and love for him. It’s as if Shakespeare is saying, ‘This is where I want the audience to go. Follow this journey with Enobarbus, because I’m going to give you something in the fifth act that Plutarch couldn’t even have imagined.’

Plutarch describes Cleopatra as charming men “with her conversation.” Shakespeare creates this paradoxical queen, quicksilver in her temperament, who is constantly defying expectations. Plutarch describes her suicide rather quickly, saying she was withered and sunken from the poison, but then just moves on. Shakespeare says ‘Oh, no. I’m going to stage a suicide like nothing anybody has ever seen.’ He gives her “My desolation does begin to make /A better life” and the whole scene with the asp. He gives her absolute magic—like nothing he’s ever written before or after, in my view. He makes this scene almost an operatic aria.

“Shakespeare gives Cleopatra absolute magic—like nothing he’s ever written before or after, in my view”

Speaking of the way that he remembers unpredictably, it’s possible he’s thinking of Virgil’s Dido in Book IV of the Aeneid. She does wear her regal clothes and commit suicide in a display. But he has certainly left Plutarch far behind. That’s an example of going against and expanding beyond the source—with Enobarbus and Cleopatra herself.

We’ve said that the Lives are not straightforward biographies; rather, they have a sustained concern with moral character. When Shakespeare is using Plutarch, does he always follow the moral assessment found in the source, or does he give a fresh moral appraisal?

He almost always goes against the grain. Brutus in Julius Caesar becomes a much more complex character than the one you’ll find in Plutarch. Take the assassination of Caesar and its consequences: Plutarch moralises this as showing that the conspirators have been punished for destroying Caesar, but Shakespeare doesn’t leave it quite so simply. The actions of the gods in Julius Caesar are very hard to read. You have a series of ambivalent signals. What does the storm mean? You can read it as an incitement to the assassination or you could read it as portents against the killing of the ‘first man’ in Rome.

Shakespeare is not going to content himself with an easy moral reading. Sometimes he puts them in the plays, but they’re always undercut and always placed in a context that renders them just suspicious or ironic.

It’s also interesting to consider what Shakespeare excludes from Plutarch’s accounts.

Yes. If you go to Julius Caesar, he leaves out the first three quarters of Plutarch’s life of Caesar. He has nothing about Caesar’s rise to power, nothing about the pirates, and nothing about the wars in Gaul. The central character of the play speaks about 150 lines and then reappears as a ghost. Everyone who came to this play was interested in this central figure—for Elizabethans, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great were towering figures of great men. But Shakespeare does what you wouldn’t expect: he puts him in a very small role. The whole play is obsessed with Caesar—every line of it—but the actual character is behind the curtain.

Then, after Caesar is assassinated in the middle of the play, he becomes an even greater figure through the appearance of the ghost, and then in the references to him: as Brutus dies, he says “Caesar, now be still / I killed not thee with half / So good a will.” Caesar is still stalking the play, and many productions add scenes with the ghost. The strategy of giving the main character 150 lines actually amplifies his presence in a curious way.

One final point on Plutarch. Shakespeare never uses or refers in Julius Caesar to that fascinating episode in Plutarch of Caesar and the pirates. But when he gets to Hamlet—which is soaked in Caesar references—he remembers it; he has Hamlet’s incident with the pirates which, in effect, mimics Caesar’s. He remembers this titbit in a wholly different play to a wholly new effect. When I say Shakespeare reads unpredictably, no one would imagine that he’d stick that little Plutarchan bit in Hamlet. So, Plutarch remains a fertile source, even where Shakespeare departs from him.

Plautus (c.254–184 BC) is your third choice. Can you tell me about his comedies and about the style of ‘New Comedy’?

New Comedy—which we’re still calling it after two thousand years—essentially means that it isn’t like Greek ‘Old Comedy’, which was Aristophanes. Greek Old Comedy was satirical, fantastic, bawdy, and utterly freewheeling. Think of Aristophanes’ Frogs or Birds or Lysistrata. They are mythologically irreverent. New Comedy was situation comedy, consisting of several stock characters. You have the old man (senex), the young woman (virgo), the pimp (leno), the courtesan (meretrix). You take these characters and shuffle them around. Then you present another play with another cast, but keep the same recognisable types.

The stage had two doors in the background and an altar in the front. The scenes are often in the street, with doors behind. You have doors opening and closing, with people going in and out of houses. So, you have an opposed dramaturgy, with a house on the left and a house on the right. Dramaturgically, stage left goes to the harbour and to freedom, whereas stage right goes to the forum and the place of work. It becomes symbolic topography. This may well have been picked up by Shakespeare in the way he contrasts locations. You have Venice and Belmont in The Merchant of Venice, Egypt and Rome in Antony and Cleopatra, Athens and the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Denmark and England in Hamlet.

We have 27 of Plautus’s plays. If you read all 27, what you realise is that they’re very varied. All of the generalisations about Plautus that we were so comfortable with really have to be taken with a grain of salt. You’ve got a mythological fantasy like Amphitruo; you’ve got a mistaken identity play like Menaechmi, which is the genesis of Comedy of Errors; and you’ve got a deception play like Pseudolus.

What’s interesting about Plautus in terms of reading practices is that in Shakespeare’s day, Terence (c.195–159? BC) was considered the playwright to read. Six of his plays survive. He’s less rambunctious, less freewheeling with his vocabulary, and his are parallel plots with discussion of complicated ethical issues. He’s a different kind of playwright. You don’t exactly roll around laughing in the audience with Terence. Still, it’s New Comedy; you have stock situations and stock characters.

The schoolmasters all loved Terence because he had elegant Latin. Terence’s work was read in Westminster School and elsewhere; Shakespeare would have been reading him in school in Stratford. But the playwrights all preferred Plautus! Ben Jonson—as pedantic as one can be—takes two Plautus plays and puts them together to create one of his earliest plays The Case is Altered (p. 1609).

“The schoolmasters all loved Terence because he had elegant Latin… But, the playwrights all preferred Plautus!”

With Shakespeare’s early Comedy of Errors—the only play with ‘comedy’ in the title—he goes right to Plautus. He decides he’s really going to have some fun with these identical twins in Menaechmi. So, he gives you two sets of identical twins instead of one: you have the Antipholus brothers and the Dromio brothers. The second thing he does is to say, ‘I’m going to write up the wife and write down the courtesan’. In Plautus, the courtesan—the meretrix—is a great figure. She basically runs the show. She’s named Erotium, is very funny, and really takes over the play. But in Shakespeare’s play, she comes in late and doesn’t have that many lines. What he’s really interested in is taking the wife Adriana and making her a big character.

The whole idea of identity is at the heart of the play. You’re being somebody else by being yourself, because someone is confusing you for your identical twin. Shakespeare explores that mystery from another angle with Adriana: in marriage, the two are supposed to become one. (Adriana actually echoes those lines from the Church of England wedding service.) He wants to talk about identity in marriage, as well as biological and socially constructed identity.

The third and final big change is that he takes material from a wholly different tradition—the romance tradition—from Apollonius of Tyre, which he uses again in Pericles at the end of his career. He uses that to wrap the play. You have the father, who is searching for his kid and is now captured and has to come up with a thousand marks or he’s going to die. That kicks off the action and concludes it at the very end of the play.

Throughout the mistaken identity play, the audience in both Plautus and Shakespeare are superior to the characters because we know that the main characters are identical twins: ‘Haha, they’ve got the wrong one!’ But at the end, we don’t know that the abbess is actually the long-lost wife of the Egeon who is in prison. We don’t expect that. So, Shakespeare has a big laugh on the audience. It’s not in Plautus—he just decides he’s going to outdo this guy. And so he does. It’s a wonderful play.

Can you give an example of the imaginative way Shakespeare plays around with the Plautine stock characters?

Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well is a clear example of the braggart soldier (Miles Gloriosus) who suffers comic exposure and then ridicule. It’s right out of Plautus. The bragging soldier who’s really a coward is a really old type; it comes actually before Plautus, but he’s the one to give the DNA of this character to the west.

And this is the marvellous thing: what does Shakespeare do with this stock type? It underlies Falstaff. Shakespeare takes the idea of a bragging soldier and turns it into a comic creation who is also the ‘vice figure’ from medieval drama, who could also maybe have been someone he knew at the tavern. He’s so many different things. The Gads Hill robbery scene in 1 Henry IV is all about the bragging soldier being exposed. But here’s the glory of it. When Parolles gets exposed in All’s Well, he’s done, he exits the stage and it’s over. With the exposure of Pyrgopolynices in Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus, the same thing happens: the whole thing leads up to the exposure of the soldier who is ridiculed.

But then there’s Falstaff. Shakespeare gives him the big exposure—the second Gads Hill robbery was really the Prince Hal and Ned Poins in disguise. But it doesn’t faze Falstaff at all! In fact, he says “By the Lord, I knew thee as well as he that made ye . . . was it for me to kill the heir apparent?” And he forgives everyone and orders drinks all around.

Shakespeare is saying, ‘I see the braggart soldier, but I can really do something that’s never been done.’ Then, marvellously, it’s the character of Falstaff that makes us question the entire ethos of the play:

“Can honor set to a leg? no. Or an arm? no. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor?”

We begin to wonder: what is honour? Is Prince Hal really the braggart soldier? There’s a destabilisation of the play’s values by this incredible deconstruction of a Plautine character. This is taken to an even greater height in Henry V, where you have all the magnificent ambivalences of the play. You can have it as a great patriotic epic or as quite the reverse, an exposure of all pretences to honor in politics.

“There’s a destabilisation of the values of the play by this incredible deconstruction of a Plautine character”

But Plautus is also there in the character configurations in the plays. If you take the triangle of the angry old man (senex iratus), the nubile girl (virgo), and the young man (adulescens). You see that this runs through many of Plautus’ plays. It’s a stock character conflict. Shakespeare takes this, and he uses it in a pure form in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Egeus, Hermia, and Lysander. And then the daughter rebels against the father. You see that all throughout Shakespeare. But a spectacular example is in Hamlet: Polonius is not simply angry but foolish, and Ophelia is the only virgo who actually listens to her father. She’s the only one who listens to her father and perhaps because of that she ends up tragically.

Shakespeare never tired of the angry old man, which he has in so many plays—spectacularly in King Lear. There the senex starts the play by arranging, or disarranging, Cordelia’s marriage with all the tragic consequences that shape the play until, finally, he comes beyond anger and then loses her forever. And there’s Prospero and Miranda in The Tempest.

People are always surprised that Prospero feigns anger at Ferdinand (the suitor) and pretends to block the marriage. But this is Shakespeare finally finishing with this configuration, saying that it has now moved to the level of artifice. Prospero is only playing the role of the senex; he says, “But this swift business / I must uneasy make lest too light winning / Make the prize light”. He’s letting these two lovers—who have just met—actually earn each other and be tested a bit. What starts as the archetypal plot device in Roman comedy becomes Prospero’s own plot device. The father stages a little New Comedy for his daughter’s benefit. So, there you have another gift from Plautus.

Let’s look at Seneca’s Tragedies.

Seneca (c.4 BC–AD 65) is easy to depreciate for moderns, the reason being that we all love Greek tragedy. Classical Greek tragedy is one of the great achievements of humanity. Seneca is an heir to those traditions, but he does something very different with them, for very different audiences. He creates nine plays which have been unkindly described as all in the colour purple—there are all sorts of big speeches and horrible passions.

If you think Hitchcock or Tarantino go beyond what can be explored with the terrible or the unthinkable, they are all mere acolytes: it is Seneca who does that for the stage. He portrays people saying the unsayable, thinking the unthinkable, and doing the unspeakable. And the Elizabethans couldn’t get enough of it. It’s really much more fun in sonorous, mouth- and ear-filling Latin.

“Seneca portrays people saying the unsayable, thinking the unthinkable, and doing the unspeakable. And the Elizabethans couldn’t get enough of it”

For many, Elizabethan tragedy was about pathos and the rendering of suffering on stage. That’s what Seneca’s characters do in agonised soliloquies. There are conventions like the ghost and the five-act play, but the agonised soliloquy of a character contemplating or actually performing nefas—unspeakable crime—is Seneca’s biggest gift to Shakespeare. This is what a character does before she kills her children (Medea). Or this is what a character does before he has his brother eat the remains of his own kids (Atreus in Thyestes). Or this is what a character does before she kills her husband (Clytemnestra in Agamemnon). Or this is what a character does when he goes mad and slays his family (Hercules in Hercules furens).

Seneca gave the Elizabethans a register or vocabulary to depict a range of tragic emotions and actions. First, he or she has to waver about it; then they have a conversation with a confidant who tries to dissuade; then they talk about the universe; then they have to make the decision—which is a terrifying act of self-creation. That’s how Seneca does it.

Take Hamlet’s soliloquy where he’s thinking about killing the king who is also his uncle: it’s modelled on Atreus’ soliloquies in Thyestes. That whole soliloquy echoes the nervous interrogative rhythms, the disgust at delay, and the self-loathing in Seneca: “Am I a coward? / Who calls me ‘villain’? / Breaks my pate across?” And of course, in that play, Polonius says, “Seneca can not be too heavy or Plautus too light”, which indicates who the two great models for tragedy and comedy are for Shakespeare.

And there is the whole agonised crisis of identity. “Medea non est”—“I am not Medea”—and after she resolves to kill her children she says “Medea nunc sum”: “Now I am Medea”. She has realised a terrible kind of selfhood by the nefas, the unspeakable deed. Think of “This is I! Hamlet the Dane!” or “That’s he that was Othello”, or “Does any here know me? Why, this is not Lear.”

“The agonised soliloquy of a character contemplating or actually performing nefas—unspeakable crime—is Seneca’s biggest gift to Shakespeare”

None of those tragic figures would have spoken like that if Shakespeare had not gone to school with Seneca. He learnt that what was at stake in tragic action is this whole notion of identity and relationship to the world and to the gods. That’s Seneca’s contribution: a whole rhetoric of selfhood and tragedy. Gordon Braden, among others, has written brilliantly on this.

When we talk about these interior preparation acts of nefas, you could compare Medea’s invocation to Hecate in Seneca with Lady Macbeth’s “come you spirits . . . fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty!”

Absolutely. And people have made that comparison. With Lady Macbeth, you have the terrifying image of her threatening to dash her child’s brains out. It is infanticide—which is given its most powerful expression in the figure of Medea. But Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth collapse.

The Senecan heroes can recreate and disorder the universe; at the end of the play, Medea will ride off in a chariot. She has become a new thing—she is not human; she is something else. She was always a witch from Colchis, but she becomes something else. She rides off into the sky and looks like a goddess. But Lady Macbeth says “hell is murky” and breaks down in the sleepwalking scene. What Shakespeare’s saying, I think, is that this isn’t that kind of a world—you can’t dislocate the stars, you can’t become a god, you are going to come crashing down. The moral order of the universe simply will not permit it. That is a Christian view of the world. I think Macbeth is a profoundly Christian play.

Macbeth can’t get away with it either, for two reasons. The first reason is this moral order in the universe: before Duncan’s murder, the skies are unruly. An unnatural darkness falls during the day; horses eat each other; the universe protests against the coming crime. The second reason is his own conscience. Macbeth’s eloquence registers his own misery and the failure of his attempt to recreate himself and to recreate the universe. He says, “I’ll jump the life to come”—he does not care about the next life. But just in saying that, he’s evoking a whole different world of sin and punishment. Nobody in Macbeth rides off in a chariot. Shakespeare is taking ideas from Seneca but then relocating them to a very different world, where you just can’t get away from it.

Just lastly on these tragedies, can you say a little about the theme of Senecan revenge and its relevance to Shakespeare?

You have that wonderfully in the early play Titus Andronicus. You have a villain like Aaron who speaks the Senecan book. It’s what I call the ‘rhetoric of insatiation’, how you simply can’t do enough bad to satisfy yourself:

“Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.”

In Seneca, Atreus has not only killed his nephews but fed them to his brother in the Thyestean banquet. And it’s still not enough. He says: “Even this is too little for me.”

But then Shakespeare comes to Hamlet. The character models himself on Atreus, who has those moments of speaking the Senecan rhetoric for parts of the play, shouting “Oh vengeance!” and so on. But then, at the end of the play—and this is why Hamlet is the most interesting version of Seneca ever written, and the most interesting revenge play—Shakespeare varies the formula at every turn.

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The revenger himself who would normally culminate the action in a grand gesture of bloodletting accompanied by the rhetoric of insatiation, that figure is absent from the play. In the fifth act, Hamlet comes back and starts speaking like a priest. He says that “there is providence in the fall of a sparrow” and all of a sudden, he’s not doing anything. In a stunning reversal of tradition, it is not the revenger who plans the final atrocity: he is the victim. It is Claudius and Laertes who plan the banquet, who have the poisoned cup, and who poison the swords. Hamlet just shows up! He apologises; he seeks forgiveness from Laertes.

“In a stunning reversal of the tradition, it is not the revenger who plans the final atrocity in Hamlet

Shakespeare is brilliantly original with what he had done in the past with Aaron and with Titus—who does stage the Thyestean banquet and kills his own daughter Lavinia. But then look at how he comes back to the revenge play in Hamlet. And, by the way, this innovation goes against Shakespeare’s source. In Saxo Grammaticus as mediated through Belleforest, Amleth actually plans the entire revenge. He nails the swords in the scabbards of his enemies; he pulls down the curtain; he burns them. He’s the revenger. But not Hamlet. He becomes something else at the end of the play. You just have to see the power of the examples Shakespeare uses to appreciate how he changes them as he moves through his career.

Your final choice is Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. This is a sixteenth-century historical chronicle comprising some 3.5 million words.

The Chronicles are a large compendium of fact and narration that Shakespeare used for over a third of his plays—the English histories (both tetralogies) as well as King Lear and Macbeth. The Chronicles are a collection of other writers that Holinshed put together; there are other chronicles from Hall and other people included, so they are not even all factually coherent. It’s not always a univocal text. And Shakespeare’s got a problem here: he’s got a lot of material—way more material than you can use in all of these plays. He’s also got way more time than you can accommodate in a drama in the whole reign of a king.

With Henry IV, Prince Hal and Hotspur, Shakespeare builds the drama out of the collision of young men. This really isn’t in Holinshed. I think Hal wasn’t even at the Battle of Shrewsbury—he was a boy at the time—but Shakespeare brings him in and has him do that great final battle scene with Hotspur. It’s great stuff, but it never happened. It wasn’t even close to happening.

And then you have Shakespeare taking a number of stories to create Macbeth. Macbeth actually reigned very well for ten years; he wasn’t a tyrant. It was Duncan who was morally compromised. Whereas Shakespeare created Duncan as a saintly figure who is purely the victim. And there’s no real Lady Macbeth to speak of there. There’s a weak prototype, but there’s nothing like the woman we get in Shakespeare. And Holinshed’s providential reading of history—that it’s all the working out of God’s plan—is highly questionable at the end of Macbeth, when we’ve had the witches and seen the way the politics works.

It’s also highly questionable in Henry V, where you have the church people of Canterbury and Ely backing the war in France for entirely selfish political reasons, which is another scene that Shakespeare invents. The whole war in France—the whole patriotic endeavour—is seen in this ironic light. Maybe the whole thing is another kind of Gads Hill robbery: if you rob people, you go to prison; but if you rob kingdoms, then you become an epic national hero like Henry V. Shakespeare creates this ironic perspective, which is not in Holinshed, on the action. He’s always telescoping events, going against the grain, and focussing on complex human beings, and questioning the morality of the great movements and players in history.

Moreover, Shakespeare gives Richard III a voice unlike anything in Holinshed. All those wild declamatory soliloquies and the theatrical wooing of Lady Anne, the preening partial performance motivated by his deformity—all of that wonderful stuff is all Shakespeare asking, ‘How can I create a tyrant who is compelling on stage?’ Shakespeare is also interested in the great intellectual debates of the day. And the great political question of the day is tyrannicide. Can you kill an anointed king? Can you knock off a tyrant? And the answer for some people is if he or she is a tyrant then you can, but that wasn’t the official line in England. The official line was that even if the bad king or queen is a tyrant, you have to simply suffer the reign. Shakespeare, unlike Holinshed, is really interested in these questions.

In Richard II, he sets it up so that you can see Richard is a bad king and perhaps deserves deposition—but he laces it with these ambivalences. Richard himself becomes something else in the last two acts of the play, with that eloquent voice that on stage makes your heart go against your head and creates that magical confusion. You won’t find that sort of complexity in Holinshed. It’s in Julius Caesar, too. One construction of the play is that it is about what constitutes a tyrant. Is Caesar a tyrant in entrance—somebody who comes to power illegally? Or in practice—somebody who rules for himself rather than for the good of the commonwealth? Those are the classic definitions of tyranny. Shakespeare takes both and plays with them throughout Julius Caesar.

Is Caesar a tyrant or isn’t he? There’s plenty of evidence on both sides. Who has the right to decide? These were the hottest questions in Europe. The Catholics in England were arguing for the justice of tyrannicide, and in France it was the Protestants. One of the great ironies is that the Protestant treatises in France and the Catholic treatises in England all used the same arguments and the same examples to slay or not to a slay a king, even though they’re from opposite sides.

This debate informs the drama of Macbeth: we’re supposed to be horrified at the killing of King Duncan but also supposed to celebrate the killing of the second king, Macbeth. That’s really what the play asks us to do. But the only reason that works is that Shakespeare scants the coronation scene—Macbeth just comes in with the crown and we see him as a usurper—and in the second half of the play he’s called a tyrant about eight times and acts like one, especially in ordering the killing of Macduff’s wife and children. There’s also all that animal imagery—that he is really not a human being but a dog, and so on. The same thing happens in Richard III, when we’re supposed to accept the killing of that king; he’s described as a “boar”, as an animal.

But you won’t find these complex ethical issues in Holinshed. It’s simply not that kind of chronicle. There are dates, a sense that this happened, then this happened. But to make it into drama, Shakespeare thinks about emotional reactions as well as intellectual issues.

Whilst not one of your five choices, you wanted to give Petrarch’s Canzoniere a special mention.

Petrarch (1304–1374) is a figure like Marx and Freud: he is inescapable. This posture of the lover who longs for a beloved underlies the Canzoniere, his set of sonnets. What’s fascinating about that is that he can’t quite get to the place where Dante is. Dante writes the purest example of a sequence wherein it’s not earthly love versus heavenly love, as Augustine put it. For Dante, earthly love leads to love of God; they are on a continuum. Beatrice becomes the one who brings him to Paradise in the Divine Comedy. But Petrarch never gets there.

He talks about how he can’t get there; how love is a sin—“errore.” Love is a great cheat, a delusion. Finally, at the end of his career, he writes a renunciation of earthly love to the Virgin Mary. But that’s not the way the West went. Petrarch has his Laura, whilst Pierre de Ronsard has Cassandra, Marie, and Helen. It’s a very French variation to have three mistresses. But the West takes up Petrarch’s struggles: the idea of earthly desire, doubt, disappointment, unrequited eros coming from the beloved’s eye, the idea of lover experiencing contrary passions—“I burn, I freeze”—the idea of love as an obsession, as a stumbling block, as the only thing one would die for. All of that is Petrarch. He gives this intensely complicated legacy of anguish and legacy.

“Petrarch gives this intensely complicated legacy of anguish and legacy”

We see this in Shakespeare as well. We have “Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth” in Sonnet 146. You also see it in Romeo and Juliet. You have that wonderful sonnet by Petrarch on the lover as a ship (189, Passa la nave mia) which is then taken up by Sir Thomas Wyatt with his line “My galley, chargèd with forgetfulness.”

And what does Romeo say at the end? When he’s about to commit suicide, he’s the ship at sea but he wants not to come to port but shipwreck:

“Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide.
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on,
The dashing rocks thy seasick, weary bark.”

All of that would never have happened without Petrarch. Shakespeare seems to allude to Petrarch and the Petrarchan tradition in Sonnet 130: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” He’s playing with all the Petrarchan images and turning them on their head.

But did Shakespeare actually read Petrarch, or did he just know of him through the writings of countless other sonneteers? It’s very hard to answer. We don’t have evidence of Shakespeare reading Petrarch in anything like the detail of his reading North’s Plutarch or Seneca and Plautus. We just don’t know. But we can see the power of the poetic tradition and the reception of these things in the power of his love poetry and his plays.

At the start of our discussion, you mentioned his contemporaries didn’t have concepts of copyright or plagiarism. Could Shakespeare still have been Shakespeare if he had been subjected to modern ideas of of copyright?

I think so. T S Eliot borrowed from Shakespeare and borrowed from all over and said “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.” Eliot is a good example—he is someone who weaves a complicated fabric from Dante and medieval literature in his poetry, in the Four Quartets especially. I think it still would have worked for Shakespeare.

And, of course, we also always have the editor’s great salvation and means of escape: the footnote! [Laughs]. “See Seneca, p. 32.” Fortunately, when we’re in the theatre, we just don’t care where the reference comes from.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

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Robert S Miola

Robert S Miola is the Gerard Manley Hopkins Professor of English at Loyola University Maryland, as well as a professor of classics. He has published widely on Shakespeare's classical sources and is the editor of the Norton Critical Editions of Macbeth and Hamlet.