Wilderness of Tigers

Michael Neill

  • Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity by Colin Burrow
    Oxford, 281 pp, £16.99, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 968479 3

I must needs acknowledge, that the Greeke and Latine tongues, are great ornaments in a Gentleman, but they are purchased at over-high rate.

Montaigne, Essays

I grew up in postwar Northern Ireland and at the age of eight, when it was time for proper education to begin, I was loaded onto a train at Belfast Central and shunted across the border to Aravon, a dismal institution in Co. Wicklow where Latin was a new and frighteningly important part of what we had to learn. It was taught, as befitted his station, by the headmaster. A tall, gaunt figure, with a lividly scarred cheekbone and glittering, oddly skewed eyes, A.B. Craig bore a disconcerting resemblance to the bird of prey that punningly adorned the school coat of arms. Along with his twin brother, whose name we could see high up on the roll of honour, Craig had fought at the Somme: according to school legend a shell had landed on their platoon, killing his twin and blowing the right side of Craig’s own face away. By the grace of God, an ingenious surgeon had managed to patch this wound with the dead brother’s cheek. The prosthesis, however, was said to be held in place with a metal plate which would heat up when the old man became annoyed, causing him excruciating pain – hence the rage triggered by the most trivial error in Latin grammar. Craig would begin his classes in congenial mood, often tempting us to relax with a jokey mnemonic (‘Every family has its little soror’); but it would not be long before the scar would redden dangerously; a bungled ablative would excite roars of outrage; the strings of the piano beside his desk would begin to vibrate in horrified sympathy; and the blows would start to fall. ‘Stupid, stupid boys!’

Violence, as well as being the principal agent of order in such establishments, was a time-honoured instrument for training young minds, hence the disquieting ambiguity of ‘discipline’, a word that in Shakespeare’s day could even denote the principal weapon of instruction: the whip. In his essay ‘Of the Institution and Education of Children’, Montaigne, who grew up speaking Latin as his first language, fondly remembered how he and his tutor, the Scottish humanist George Buchanan, ‘did tosse our declinations, and conjugations to and fro … by way of a certaine game’, and inveighed against the majority of schoolmasters, who ‘in liew of gently bidding children to the banquet of letters, present them with nothing but horror and crueltie’. In The Scholemaster (1570), Roger Ascham argued that ‘yong children [are] soner allured by loue, then driuen by beating, to attayne good learning.’ But he could do little to shake the general assumption that ‘the best Scholemaster of our time, was the greatest beater.’ As a grammar school pupil and (if Aubrey is to be believed) a sometime teacher himself, Shakespeare must have been familiar with both sides of this disciplinary regime; and his references to schoolboys, as Colin Burrow observes, ‘tend to go along with sighing, crying or peevishness’, suggesting that ‘the acquisition of learning [was] a painful business.’ In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Parson Evans attempts to show off William Page’s learning to his mother; but when the boy admits he’s forgotten the declension of his pronouns, the schoolmaster at once threatens him with an educative thrashing: ‘If you forget your “qui”s, your “que”s, and your “quod”s, you must be preeches.’

At the heart of the ‘good learning’ that beating strove to instil – in 20th-century Wicklow as in 16th-century Warwickshire – was a knowledge of Latin. It never occurred to me to ask why mastery of this dead language should have been considered so necessary a preparation for life. Part of the answer, of course, is implicit in Burrow’s book: the deeply entrenched idea that the classics must form the core of liberal humanist education was essentially an inheritance from the curriculum of Tudor grammar schools; after more than four centuries it came to seem part of the natural order of things – an ornament of gentlemanly education which served to mark and reinforce class privilege. In Shakespeare’s day, however, study of the classics was a pragmatic requirement. ‘Reading and imitating classical literature were not activities only to be undertaken with reverence and awe … It was just what you did … an engagement … driven by need and use.’ In a culture that valued the creative mastery of imitation above any notion of originality, teachers sought to introduce their pupils to the universally acknowledged models of literary excellence; and, as Shakespeare shows us, they did so with remarkable thoroughness.

The curriculum of Elizabethan grammar schools was designed for boys whose future lay in the church, the law and other forms of public life. For them, what mattered most were the rhetorical arts of writing and speaking, of argument, ornament and persuasion; and these you could master only by studying the great examples of the past. Coincidentally, however, such study also proved invaluable training for the handful of talented young men who would turn to careers in London’s newly established professional theatres. It taught them how to craft and deliver passionate language that could sway the emotions of an audience, and it instilled habits of dialectic and debate that would be essential to dramatic invention. By contrast with university-educated rivals like Christopher Marlowe and John Marston, or the erudite autodidact Ben Jonson, Shakespeare owed most of his classical knowledge to his education in a provincial grammar school; but, in spite of Jonson’s condescending reference to his ‘small Latin and less Greek’, Shakespeare was better read in Latin writers than the vast majority of undergraduates today, and although his knowledge of Greek literature seems to have been mediated through Latin and English translations, he knew Plutarch well through Sir Thomas North’s version of the Parallel Lives, and is likely to have kept up with the publication of Chapman’s Homer.

Successive chapters of Burrow’s book explore Shakespeare’s engagement with Ovid, Virgil, Plautus and Terence, Seneca and Plutarch, as well as his not inconsiderable acquaintance with the major works of Cicero, Horace, Juvenal and Lucan, among others. This is hardly virgin territory, but Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity doesn’t pretend to be a work of original scholarship: it belongs to the introductory series Oxford Shakespeare Topics. That provenance helps to account for a few minor flaws, but also for much of the book’s persuasive energy, since it is intended to excite the interest of an audience with little grounding in classical literature. It can sometimes seem a little too self-consciously pitched at a student market (it’s a surprise to find Burrow declaring that ‘Shakespeare was a sceptical kind of guy, and Montaigne was a sceptical kind of guy’), and occasionally the compression necessary for a volume of this sort can make him a little cavalier with the facts: noting that Shakespeare’s plays show ‘almost no interest in Latin lyric’, Burrow suggests that this was because ‘it’s more or less impossible to register or represent lyric poetic structures … in a way that makes sense for a theatrical audience,’ seemingly forgetting that Romeo and Juliet incorporates both whole and partial sonnets in a way that alert playgoers were clearly expected to notice.

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[*] Oxford, 356 pp., £20, October 2014, 978 0 19 955824 7.