He Who Has Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear
by William Poulos
Princeton University Press 376pp ISBN 9780691161600 £22.00
In The Scholemaster, Elizabeth I’s classics tutor Roger Ascham records Master Haddon’s opinion that ‘the best Scholemaster of our time, was the greatest beater’. Although Ascham himself wanted schoolboys to learn Latin ‘with small paines’, for the next 400 years or so schoolmasters thought beating necessary for instilling the required discipline to read Latin and Greek.
At Stratford Grammar School, Shakespeare probably spoke nothing but Latin and probably would have been beaten for speaking English. I’m not sure if this helped his studies – although Bate thinks he would have known more Latin than today’s classics graduates – but I can’t deny his discipline: he probably wrote Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet in one year.
I also can’t deny the learning and discipline of Jonathan Bate, a professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College. The author of one important book about Ovid’s influence on Shakespeare, Shakespeare and Ovid, and editor of another, the Arden edition of Titus Andronicus, Bate has done his homework. Judging from the impressive range of erudition in this book, I sometimes wonder if he’s done my homework. This book has its origins in the EH Gombrich Lectures Bate gave at the Warburg Institute, and, like Gombrich, Bate believes that one can and should present academic work so that it’s accessible to everyone. This admirable goal Bate has achieved: his book is mostly free from academic jargon and theoretical flim-flam. It’s also mostly free from Latin and Greek, presumably to prevent the intended undergraduate audience interested in Shakespeare accidentally learning something about the languages of the literary tradition that ‘made’ him. It’s a shame Bate couldn’t include more from the original languages, considering, as he rightly points out, we live in a world in which ‘the classical tradition . . . is in danger of burial beneath the avalanche of the information revolution, and where its spirit of dialogue between different languages and cultures is ebbing rapidly away’.
Trying to retrieve this spirit of dialogue, Bate presents the thesis that Shakespeare helped create an English Protestant culture which took its inspiration from ancient Rome while separating itself from modern Rome and the Catholic Church. Although interesting, this thesis isn’t exactly new. Bate’s novelty is in his attempt to link Shakespeare’s plays to ideas and idioms found in Plautus, Terence, Virgil, Horace, and Cicero: authors who were extremely influential but aren’t compared to Shakespeare as often as Ovid and Plutarch are. These parts of the book are disappointing. Bate gathers a great amount of evidence from many sources to support bland conclusions: Plautus and Terence included taverns, drunks, and whores in their comedies, and so did Shakespeare. Horace wrote about male friendship and a retirement to the country, and so did Shakespeare. Cicero wrote about civil war, and so did Shakespeare.
Bate points out that Cicero was the ‘principal defender of the values of the republic’ and gave English writers a vocabulary and an idiom with which to discuss civil war, a subject that animates many of Shakespeare’s plays. Cicero’s ideas were models for Shakespeare’s English contemporaries who wrote about civil wars and Bate insightfully analyses the character of Cicero in Julius Caesar, a play which has a civil war in it. But Bate’s conclusion that ‘Shakespeare was the Cicero of his age’ because he warned Englishmen about the dangers of civil war is unjust. Shakespeare was far from the only Elizabethan to do this. English authors, whom Bate quotes, borrowed Cicero’s vocabulary and ideas while analysing the Wars of the Roses while including the role of God and the monarchy in preserving civil society, a role Bate refuses to examine. He makes Shakespeare sound like an Elizabethan Cicero — a Cicero who was only a mouthpiece for a republic with no reverence for God or monarchy.
But Shakespeare and Cicero were more than that. Far from being hyperbolic, saying that Shakespeare was the Cicero of his age because he warned Englishmen about civil wars diminishes both writers. Shakespeare had an omnipotent command of English that could be compared to Cicero’s command of Latin. Cicero wrote poetry but almost nobody knows about it because he wrote poems not even an academic could love. But he is rightly acknowledged as a master of prose and oratory. He admired and imitated the actor Roscius and his speeches are full of theatrical vividness. Variously elliptical and expansive, concrete and abstract, humble and heroic, Cicero and Shakespeare could conjure rhetorical flourishes and control the undulating rhythms of their writing the way a magician controls the waves. Hundreds of political writers have disappeared from view, but Cicero and Shakespeare are still popular because they entertain. And they entertain through language. Anyone searching for how the classics ‘made’ Shakespeare should look to literary and rhetorical techniques.
Unfortunately, Bate goes out of his way to ignore them. Dismissing the value of tropes and schemes while asserting their importance in the endnotes, Bate devotes a chapter to deliberative rhetoric, whereby a speaker illustrates an argument with examples from the past. Aristotle’s word for these examples was paradeigmata, and Bate’s chapter about them illustrates his book’s main fault. He quotes Lady Macbeth’s horrifying speech to her husband, who is chickening out of his plan to kill King Duncan:
‘. . . I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked the nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.’
Bate notes that the precedent of this speech is Seneca’s Medea. He doesn’t note another precedent: Psalm 137:9, which anticipates the destruction of Babylon: ‘Blessed shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy children against the stones.’ The reason he doesn’t tell you this is because he’s a graduate of the Richard Dawkins School of Theology: he uses the terms ‘Christian’, ‘Protestant’, and ‘Puritan’ interchangeably. Whoever they are, they oppose everything good in the world: love, poetry, individual thought. The professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College becomes the Reader Clairvoyant of Historical Psychology when he speculates about what inspired Measure for Measure: Shakespeare probably got the idea as he ‘sat or knelt, probably bored, one Sunday in St Helen’s church during his years of residence in the parish’. In a chapter called ‘The Defence of Phantasms’, Bate opposes sensual, poetic, pagan writing with frigid, authoritarian, Christian writing. The most important inheritance from the classical tradition, he claims, is the defence of ‘phantasms’ or the imagination, which Christians stubbornly oppose, presumably while wearing hair-shirts and chastity belts. About one hundred and fifty pages later, in the endnotes, Bate writes ‘it must be acknowledged that recent scholarship has broken down the duality between “religious” and “secular” styles in the sixteenth century.’ Note the use of the academic passive: ‘it must be acknowledged.’ Acknowledged by whom? Certainly not Bate: why would a professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and Gresham Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College acknowledge scholarship?
Bate goes from ignoring scholarship and analysing Shakespeare’s plays to misrepresenting them when he claims that a reference to Judith and Holofernes in Edward III is ‘one of the rare occasions when Shakespeare makes an allusion to a Biblical story rather than a myth in a classical source’. Either ‘rare’ means ‘many’, or Bate’s anti-Christian tinnitus prevents him from hearing anything Biblical. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Biblical references abound in Shakespeare’s plays: a good place to start might be the one based on the Feast of the Epiphany and the end of Christmas revels, Twelfth Night. Near the end of Act Two, Malvolio is tricked into thinking his boss Olivia loves him. Malvolio convinces himself that this isn’t so strange. There’s a precedent for it: ‘the Lady of the Strachey married the yeoman of the wardrobe.’ In the next line Sir Andrew rebukes Malvolio’s arrogance while alluding to the proud wife of Ahab: ‘Fie on him, Jezebel.’ Within two lines there is an Aristotelian paradeigma from Malvolio, whom Bate calls a ‘Puritan’ and a ‘killjoy’, and then a Biblical allusion from Sir Andrew.
If Bate doesn’t want to acknowledge the Christianity in Shakespeare, he could at least acknowledge that classicism would be impossible without it: every Greek and Latin text we have was carefully preserved and sedulously copied over thousands of years by Christian monks. I don’t know if they were beaten. Maybe they beat themselves. Either way, every classicist is indebted to them and their discipline. Many classicists and Shakespeareans are indebted to Bate and his discipline. How The Classics Made Shakespeare is disappointing only because of its author’s previous achievements and current knowledge. Reading it is like being in one of those restaurants where the waiter gives a long speech about the origin of your meal’s ingredients: ‘the potatoes grew in India and were sprinkled daily with water from the Ganges; the beef came from a cow in Japan which spent its life eating grass even the emperor is unqualified to walk on; the vegetables grew in soil so rich and fertile it has been known to produce fully-grown human beings — all these, sir, were marinated overnight in a dragon’s stomach and extracted by a team of highly-trained handlers, two of whom died in the process.’ You sit there thinking ‘oh man, this is going to be good.’ You salivate in anticipation. You see the waiter. He places your meal in front of you: a matchbox of meat, a couple of leaves, and some sauce drizzled on your neighbour’s plate.