If Classics be the foundation of our literary tradition, why do so few pupils get the chance to read on?
I am off to see the RSC’s performance of Twelfth Night in Stratford-upon-Avon this weekend and (as is good practice), I re-read the play again this week to ensure that the plot was clear in my head. I also read the script with my ‘Classics’ head on, to see just how frequently Shakespeare makes allusions to the Greeks and Romans. The answer is ‘quite a lot’.
I know that Shakespeare is known as a lover of Ovid (and Ovid’s influence on a few of the Bard’s plays has already been discussed on the Shakespeare page of my website), but what surprised me about the references in this play is just how subtle some of his allusions are. It is one thing for Macbeth to say ‘Neptune’ (nothing subtle about that allusion), but it is quite another challenge thrown at the audience by Count Orsino when he states, “the Egyptian thief” and for Shakespeare to think that his crowd would know that this is a reference to Heliodorus!
Just how educated were the audience in the ‘Jacobethan’ theatre? Were these Classical allusions understood by the groundlings? Or were they used as ammunition by the wealthy to demonstrate what they knew and understood when compared to the poorer spectators? Or were they just flourishes made by a genius to show how clever he was compared to everybody else?
I have to admit that it somewhat blows my mind to think that the same people who felt that it was OK to thrown their faeces out of their windows and into the streets, had enough education to know about the myths and history of 2 civilizations (the Greeks and the Romans) that had receded from the world a very long time before they were born!
There are frequent explanations in the Notes sections of Shakespeare scripts regarding these references, stating something like ‘this translation of Ovid was a very popular text at the time’, but can any text be that popular that everyone in a theatre audience could be expected to understand the reference in every performance?
When I am asked about the point of learning Classics, I often say that to fully understand our own great English literature, the reader must have a solid grounding in the ancient texts and histories of the Greeks and the Romans. To read these great English texts without a Classical grounding allows small holes to form in the writing, holes that are just big enough to allow meaning to slip through unnoticed. A little piece of the text that escapes the reader is not always fatal to the plot, but if you don’t even know that you don’t understand something, you’re not really being given the option to decide whether you care or not.
Below is a list of all of the Classical references in Twelfth Night that I could find, although I am certain that there are more. I think that it is worth looking at the breadth of these sources – this, after all, is a list for just one Shakespeare play. It is such a shame that most pupils who study Shakespeare as part of their curriculum will not also study Classics. Classics are woven into the texts of our great writers and to be illiterate in Classics is to be distanced (however slightly) from the words and meanings of our own great artists.
Twelfth Night Classical References and Allusion:
· The setting is Illyria
· “That instant was I turned into a hart, and my desires, like fell and cruel hounds, E’er since pursue me.” (Orsino)
· “And what should I do in Illyria? My brother, he is in Elysium.” (Viola)
· “Where, like Arion on the dolphin’s back, I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves” (Captain)
· “Diana’s lip is not more smooth and rubious.” (Orsino)
· “Now Mercury endue thee with leasing, for thou speak’st well of fools.” (Feste)
· “Goodnight Penthesilea” (Sir Toby)
· “By your leave, wax. Soft! and the impressure her Lucrece, with which she uses to seal.” (Malvolio)
· “To the gates of Tartar, thou most excellent devil of wit!” (Sir Toby)
· “what is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wildfowl?” (Feste)
· “Thou shalt hold the opinion of Pythagoras ere…” (Feste)
· “As black as Vulcan in the smoke of war.” (Orsino)
· “like the Egyptian thief at the point of death kill what I love…” (Orsino)