Book and Article Reviews: Burrow

Colin Burrow. Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.


“The clichéd opposition of a learned Jonson and a happy-go-lucky Shakespeare” (p. 27) is deconstructed in Colin Burrow’s perceptive, humorous, at times provocative study of Shakespeare’s central engagement with classical literature. Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity is primarily aimed at students and beginners in classical literature and focuses principally on Latin sources and culture. The book offers definitions, information on cited plots and works, as well as felicitous insights into the perception, teaching and reception of Latin literature in Shakespeare’s time. Burrow’s discussion of Shakespeare’s classical affiliations is both a contribution to historical criticism and a literary discussion of imitatio in the sixteenth century.

Building on earlier hallmarks of classical research (a useful “Further reading” section appended to each chapter guides the beginner through the massive bibliography while endnotes are kept handily concise), Burrow states two hypotheses: how, and to what effects, Shakespeare’s personal voice tends to hybridize sources and styles; and how the anachronistic notion of “antiquity” may be discussed in terms of the Renaissance and in terms of Shakespearean imitative writing.

If the classics are misremembered and reconceived by Renaissance authors, it is because the approach to the teaching and learning of the classics was, as Burrow shows, fruitfully anachronistic, while “classical allusion [became] part of the texture of conversation”. Burrow insists on the way “the weave of [Shakespeare’s] language” (p. 5) maintains this conversation with, and between, the classics. “Shakespeare was trained at school … about the processes by which classical authors composed texts. He learnt to imitate those processes … and as a result could think of classical authors not as a static body of texts but as a set of practices and potentialities” (p. 144), a “changing and theatrically inflected resource” (p. 30). Examples include the combined influences of Terence and Plautus, re-readings of Virgil through Ovid, the accretion of shipwrecks and seascapes of Greek prose romances to Plautine elements of comedy…. Chapter 5 discusses how Shakespeare reworks, in a sustained conversation, Seneca’s Hippolytus, by imitation (Titus Andronicus), parody (Macbeth) or by an act of voluntary erasure or partial amnesia (King Lear). This enlightening analysis is sustained by a close reading of various translations (always historically contextualised).

Burrow’s arguments in favour of hybridization—“A single classical text will never provide a road map for the interpretation of a whole play” (p. 90)—are somewhat weakened by the structure of his volume, which discusses authors and genres in successive chapters, in a sense following the Martindales’Shakespeare and the Uses of Antiquity (1990) and echoing Jonathan Bate’s overarching view inShakespeare and Ovid (1993): Virgil (chapter 2), Ovid (chapter 3), Roman comedy (chapter 4: Plautus, Terence, The Comedy of errors, Tragicomedy), Seneca (chapter 5), Plutarch (chapter 6).


The limitations this imposes on Burrow may be illustrated by his chapter on Ovid, where he discusses the play-within in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and recalls the Ovidian context: “as so often in Ovid, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe has a fictional frame which interacts with the content of the tale” (p.119). Bottom is a weaver—like the Minyads who weave as they tell the tale: the dramatist does not simply extract a story from Ovid, he “responds to the way it is told in the Metamorphoses” (p. 120). Burrow, however, tends to overlook the medieval mediation of classical texts, which enriched this ongoing conversation. Where he comments that A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems “to reveal a potential antique truth, learned from Ovid” (my emphasis, p. 120), that young people should not disobey their parents, I would suggest that (as, indeed, this website illustrates), such “truths” were not so much antique as medieval, reaching the Renaissance via the Ovide Moralisé, moralisations and the visual arts (such as cassoni). The fruitful contribution of the Middle Ages is merely touched upon by Burrow, whose readings of Shakespeare mainly focus on his and his contemporaries’ reception of the classical past, which tends to appear as unmediated other than by Renaissance editions and translations. When Burrow notes that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is “haunted by dark myths” (p. 121, 184), the Ovidian/non-Ovidian divide does not do justice to the way other sources, such as Plutarch’s Lives or Chaucer’s Theseus (from The Knight’s Tale) supplement the Ovidian influences [N]. Yet, as he himself stressed in his introductory chapter: “A version of a classical myth in Chaucer or Spenser could colour [Shakespeare’s] view of the same story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and become an inseparable part of what [he] ‘knew’ about that classical work” (p. 24).


Burrow does, however, reopen the discussion on cross-influences in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in his chapter on Seneca (p. 184-85): “Seneca was himself strongly influenced in theme and style by Ovid” (p. 165) and this may have filtered through to the Renaissance, indirectly influencing Shakespeare himself, to the extent that “it is often impossible, and probably undesirable, to try to unpick a Senecan thread from a radial web of other influences” (p. 165). The example of Titus Andronicus (a blend of Seneca’sThyestes and Ovid’s fabula of Philomela) classically illustrates how “Ovid and Seneca are all part of an intertextual concoction” (p. 165). This leads Burrow to pitch a strong case for Shakespeare’s melting of sources, and shows how it is “undesirable to distil his fusion into single elements” (p. 166).


Tracing the fruitful tension between “antiquity” and “modernity” offers valuable insights. Burrow “seeks to position Shakespeare within a larger narrative about changing understandings of classical Antiquity in the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods and within a larger story about Renaissance attitudes to the classical past” (p. 3). Burrow insists on what he calls Shakespeare’s “practical humanism” (p. 5), as opposed to the way the texts were read by “un-poetical souls” (historians who studied the Latin texts to learn things about the past).


Antiquity could mean a distant past, “in which Romans display distinctively Roman valiantness” (p. 241); it could endow staged episodes with a gloss of morality and offer a pattern on which to model one’s imitative writing to influence audience’s responses (p. 241). A relationship of fascination that is almost erotic at times seems to emerge from this study of the way antiquity was perceived, not quite as a separate “ancient” world but rather as an imaginary vision.


Burrow does not endorse the theory that a mature Shakespeare no longer needs to show off his classical knowledge and resorts to covert, rather than hitherto overt allusions. He suggests that Shakespeare might have been seeking an effect of “distanciation”—though Burrow never uses this Brechtian concept—or what he calls a conspicuous “framing” effect of “quotation marks” to throw into relief the “antiquated” material used in the play.


Shakespeare’s framing of classical moments “does not mean that he had a ‘humanistic’ awareness of historical anachronism … it rather means that he had a pragmatic sense of the emotional and the theatrical power that he could generate by creating the effect of distinct temporal and stylistic layers within his own works” (p. 70-71). Burrow returns to this complex notion of “a layered and multiple awareness of antiquity” (when discussing Julius Caesar, p. 217); this notion is not theorised as such but explores several aspects of tension between past and present (that are further complexified when, say, Shakespeare’s present is set in an exemplary ancient Rome discussing its own models as in Julius Caesar).


Addressing the issue of “conversation” is fruitful in terms of reception. The process of literary creation does not signify an imperfect knowledge of antiquity, it evolves as a meta-reflection on classical models in a context of emulative imitation (p. 26) or, to put it differently, a response to the way Shakespeare’s “favourite books must have seemed … to be in conversation with each other” (p. 206). Anachronism—a major issue for today’s readers and audiences—is not relevant here: for Tudor grammar school boys, learning Greek was subsequent to learning Latin; this, historically speaking, is the wrong way round, since Greek literature predated its Latin imitations; Seneca imitated Euripides’ tragedies, Virgil imitated Homer. This may have some oblique influence on Shakespeare, providing “a creatively confused sense of literary chronology” (p. 38). This aspect is expanded in Chapter 6 which discusses Plutarch’s Lives and more attention might have been paid to the circuits through which Greek texts also reached early modern England and indirect channels down which Classical Antiquity travelled.



Seneca’s Letter to Lucilius (84) (quoted p. 165) uses the metaphor of the bee, known to have had a tremendous impact on Renaissance authors, to explain the theory of imitation. The bee-like imitator is said to metamorphose his material by a digestive process, achieved through the mingling of various sources and through a recreation which does not match any of them exactly. Mixing and reforming (contaminatio) thus erase the traces of the source-texts. This text could have reached Shakespeare directly, or indirectly, via someone like Montaigne, or his translator, Florio:


Les abeilles pillotent deçà delà les fleurs ; mais elles en font aprez le miel, qui est tout leur ; ce n'est plus thym ny marjolaine: ainsi les pieces rapportées d’autruy, il les transformera et confondra pour faire un ouvrage tout sien, à savoir son jugement.” (Essais, I, ch. 25)

 “The bees do here and there sucke this, and cull that flower, but afterward they produce the hony, which is peculiarly their owne, then is it no more Thyme or Marjoram. So peeces borrowed of others, he may lawfully alter, transforme, and confound them, to shape out of them a perfect peece of worke, altogether his owne.” (Florio, 1603)


I’d like to suggest that one may read Burrow’s stimulating, extremely well written and richly documented book all the way through, or choose to flit leisurely, from flower to flower, culling information on Shakespeare’s antiquity to produce one’s own honey.


[N] See for instance Yves Peyré, “Les Mythes effacés du Songe d’une nuit d’été”, Autour Du Songe d’une nuit d’été de William Shakespeare, ed. Claire Gheeraert‐Grafeuille et Nathalie Vienne‐Guerrin. Rouen, Publications de l’université de Rouen, 2003, p.199‐209. And Agnès Lafont, “Thésée au carrefour des influences mythologiques dans l’œuvre de Shakespeare”, in Mythe de Thésée de la période hellénique à la Renaissance anglaise, Cahiers du GITA, Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 20, 2014.


How to cite

Colin Burrow. Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.  Reviewed by Agnès Lafont. 2014.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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