Shakespeare in Our Time: A Shakespeare Association of America Collectionby Dympna Callaghan

16: Classicism

16.1. The Classics as Popular Discourse

Coppélia Kahn

For months, half-consciously meditating on this essay, I assumed that Shakespeare’s classical sources meant the Latin and Greek sources of his “classical” works, from Lucrece to Cymbeline, Titus Andronicus to Timon of Athens. Then I happened to be reading Love’s Labour’s Lost one day, and a light went on: Shakespeare drew on the classics all the time, 24/7 as we say, not just in plays based on Roman or Greek history, but in all his works. The Aeneid is constantly present in The Tempest as well as in Antony and Cleopatra. Ovid’s Metamorphoses suffuse A Midsummer Night’s Dream as much as they do Titus Andronicus. As I began to realize, though, sometimes his “classical sources” weren’t “classical” at all. Sometimes they were English, contemporary, unlettered, and oral.
Generations of scholars have traced the poet’s indebtedness not only to giants such as Vergil and Ovid, but also to an array of major and minor Greek and Roman writers. As Robert Miola has noted, like other writers and educated people of his era, Shakespeare got his classics not only from the actual Latin texts he read, and read closely, but from a proliferation of commentaries, anthologies, colloquia, handbooks, florilegia, translations, abridgements, epitomes, excerpts, reference books, digests, encyclopedias in English. There were many roads to Rome, or to Athens.
In this essay I’d like to take a road less traveled: Shakespeare’s use of popular discourse about the classics: jokes, hearsay, loosely theatrical entertainments, mocking allusions, deliberate misquotations, and mistakes. Furthermore, to discuss examples of how Shakespeare drew on popular sources for his use of the classics, I will move outside the plays he sets in Roman or Greek locales, to plays whose settings are contemporary with the poet and not “classical,” specifically, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Measure for Measure.
C. L. Barber’s early, groundbreaking Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy (1959) introduced a new and mostly nonverbal kind of source material to Shakespeare studies: holiday celebrations with roots deep in folk custom. His book had no immediate descendants, however. Janet Adelman’s The Common Liar: An Essay on “Antony and Cleopatra” (1973) greatly expanded the idea of sources, treating “any tradition which shapes our attitudes toward the protagonists, or love, or politics, or any other concept in the play” as a source. She read certain images—the baited hook, the knot, the crocodile—“in the light of the appropriate traditions,” to illuminate moral judgments, political issues, and conflicts of feeling that run through the famous story that Plutarch, plainly Shakespeare’s major source, tells. Then, from the eighties on, under the influence of the New Historicism, the relatively straightforward notion of “source” as a text that Shakespeare had demonstrably read, then consciously adapted or echoed verbally, became ambiguous, broader, looser, and, I think, truer to the mystery of the poet’s creative process. We began to look at social contexts, analogues, and, more seriously than before, at folklore and popular culture. We also began to treat sources as influences over which the poet might not always have had conscious control.
The traditions whose operations Adelman so astutely discerned, however, were mainly written ones, and in this her work was typical of source study in general. As Catherine Belsey remarks in Why Shakespeare?, her book on the poet’s use of fairy tales, “When it comes to sources, scholars have generally preferred to see Shakespeare in their own image, sitting in a library diligently studying books in quest of material he could reassemble to make his case.” No wonder—as literary scholars we are, after all, trained to work with what’s written down rather than what’s heard on the street. So in what follows I’m going out on a limb. I have no training as a folklorist to imbue with authority my readings of sources that are oral, unlettered, undocumented, and casual: street talk about the Latin heritage that Shakespeare’s sharp ear picks up and puts into plays that have nothing to do with Rome. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound (to invoke a folk saying).
I focus on how Pompey, Pompeius Magnus as he was called in his day, figures in the two comedies mentioned above. Named “Magnus” in recognition of his victories in Africa on behalf of Sulla, he was entrusted by the Roman Senate with ridding the Mediterranean of pirates, which he did, and with waging war against Mithridates, king of Pontus on the Black Sea, whom he defeated. He subdued a swathe of kingdoms in the Middle East, but the Senate refused to ratify those victories, whereupon he entered into the first triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Crassus, and married Caesar’s daughter Julia. As Caesar gained power in Gaul, though, Pompey lost it in Rome, and they became enemies. Defeated by Caesar in 48 bc, Pompey was then murdered, by Caesar’s direction. Along with Caesar and Augustus, he went down in history and legend as a heroic conqueror, one of Rome’s greatest military heroes. In Parallel Lives, Plutarch pairs him with Agesilaus; Lucan’s heroic poem Pharsalia narrates the struggle between Pompey and his rival.
Most readers will recall Pompey in the first scene of Julius Caesar, where he is a strong presence without even being a character. “O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome, / Knew you not Pompey?” (1.1.37–8), says the tribune Murellus, bitterly reminding the people of how they once celebrated “great Pompey” (1.1.43), and rebuking them for making a holiday of Caesar’s triumph—Caesar, the murderer of his former ally, “That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood” (1.1.52). Murellus mentions Pompey’s name three times in fifteen lines, translating the title awarded him by the Senate into a common—perhaps too common—epithet, in “great Pompey.” Shakespeare has a fondness for that name, mentioning it almost ninety times in his works, not merely because Pompey’s son is a character in Antony and Cleopatra. I suspect that the poet appreciated the sound of the name. The anglicized version of the Latin Pompeius takes the name out of the honorific realm of “the classics,” domain of the gentry and aristocracy, to familiarize it and make it common property. That “Pompey” chimes so readily with the words “pomp” and “pompous” may be the reason that Shakespeare uses the name so often. Its very sound makes it an emblem of the transience of military glory, of Fortune’s fickleness, of the treachery of Roman politics in the last century of the republic—as it is in the first scene of Julius Caesar. “Great” Pompey wasn’t great for very long. I hazard the speculation that this idea, attractive to the powerless who felt the sting of low status, joined with a certain resentment toward those whose knowledge of Latin signified their entitlement to lord it over others, and so charged “Pompey” with meanings that were heard rather than read.
In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare goes out of his way to situate Pompey midway between humanist letters and popular culture, by making him one of the Nine Worthies. It is Holofernes the pedant who determines that the “delightful ostentation, or show, or pageant, or antic, or firework” (5.1.104–5) commanded by the King for the entertainment of the Princess shall be that of the Nine Worthies. A conventional entertainment presented throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Nine Worthies consisted of three trios of exemplary heroes—biblical, Greco-Roman, and medieval—who stepped forward in costume to describe their careers, edifying and entertaining in equal measure. In this device, humanist knowledge was reduced to sound bites, giving the many casual access to what was reserved for the few. Traditionally, Hector, Alexander, and Julius Caesar made up the classical trio, but Shakespeare changes that in this play by putting Pompey in Caesar’s place and adding Hercules. He also eliminates the medieval heroes and includes only one biblical hero, Judas Maccabeus, reducing nine to five, which suggests that Navarre, despite the pretensions of its aristocrats, is thin on the ground as far as learning goes. This shake-up of the nine heroes calls attention to Pompey and Hercules as interlopers.
Performed or perhaps deformed by Costard the clown, Pompey gets the most stage time and comes in for the most jokes. Costard announces the coming attraction as “the three Worthies” (5.2.486), declaring “I am, as they say, but to parfect one man in one poor man—Pompion the Great, sir” (5.2.500–1). His approximation of the name marks him as a country clown, a “poor man,” who assimilates the foreign word to an English one, and to what he knows best, apples and pumpkins. More tellingly, when he declares “I Pompey am, Pompey surnamed the Big” (5.2.546), he initiates a series of jokes on “the Great,” Costard mistaking the epithet to mean “large in size” like a pumpkin rather than famed for noble achievements. After the Princess compliments his performance by saying, “Great thanks, great Pompey,” he acknowledges his mistake with a malapropism: “I hope I was perfect. I made a little fault in ‘Great’” (554–5).
Like the mechanicals’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which it anticipates, the Nine Worthies serves as a class marker, setting off the noble audience onstage, who pounce on the commoners’ mistakes with clever wordplay, from the performers, who are, as Costard says, “a little o’erparted,” overwhelmed by the grandeur of their parts, lacking as they do any context for them that might come from humanistic learning. On balance, the comedy works against the lowly, who can only pretend to the sophistication of their betters. When Costard and Armado nearly come to blows over Jacquenetta’s pregnancy, and Costard takes off his shirt in preparation for the fight, Bakhtin’s “lower bodily stratum” rudely undercuts the Nine Worthies’ ceremonious nod to classical heroics.
That balance shifts a little when Shakespeare names one of the bawds in Measure for Measure Pompey. He appears in five scenes (1.2, 2.1, 3.2, 4.2, and 4.3), and in each he raises the play’s unregenerate countervoice that speaks for tolerance of and mercy toward sinners, against Angelo’s harsh, hypocritical regime. He is a wit rather than a clown. In his exchange with Mistress Overdone, his terseness downplays the crime of which Claudio is accused:
Yonder man is carried to prison.
Mistress Overdone:
Well! What has he done?
A woman.


In the course of Escalus’s vain attempt to discover “what was done to Elbow’s wife” (2.1.115–16), Pompey disarms Elbow with double entendres (“There was nothing done to her once,” 2.1.140). He cleverly thwarts the constable’s attempts to get Frost arrested by introducing a mass of irrelevant circumstantial detail into the conversation: the stewed prunes, only two of them, in a fruit dish that cost three pence, the rest having been eaten by Master Froth, “a man of fourscore pound a year; whose father died at Hallowmas” or rather, “All-hallond Eve” (2.1.122–3, 125).
It is when Escalus turns to examine Pompey himself that Shakespeare repeats the joke he made in Love’s Labour’s Lost, the joke that turns on the historical Pompey’s title, Pompeius Magnus. This Pompey’s surname being “Bum,” Escalus exclaims,

Troth, and your bum is the greatest thing about you; so that, in the beastliest sense, you are Pompey the Great.


Again, the dignity pertaining to a legendary hero of the humanistic tradition is trumped by the lower bodily stratum, the realm to which that tradition relegates common people such as Pompey, the same realm from which the common people hit back. Furthermore, Arden 2’s note cites Tilley to the effect that “Your bum is the greatest thing about you” is “a common expression.” Escalus, an educated man, can speak the language of the streets when he pleases. Pompey’s retort to Escalus’s defense of the law prohibiting fornication is one of the most resonant lines in the play, because it rephrases Angelo’s agenda in the most explicitly physical terms possible: “Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?” (2.1.227–8). Pompey voices a counterargument to the idea that sexuality is “beastly,” representing it rather as innate to the body, to be identified with life itself, ineradicable.
Escalus concludes his examination of the unrepentant Pompey with a threat: if the bawd comes before him again on any charge, he declares, “Pompey, I shall beat you to your tent, and prove a shrewd Caesar to you: in plain dealing, Pompey, I shall have you whipped. So for this time, Pompey, fare you well” (2.1.245–8). That he repeats the name three times in four lines suggests, again, the ironic demotion of the namesake’s glory to this Pompey, bawd and criminal. In the same lines, by alluding to the rivalry between Caesar and Pompey, Caesar’s deviousness in gaining the upper hand, and the circumstances of Pompey’s defeat, Shakespeare reminds us of the name’s classical provenance. In his life of Caesar, Plutarch portrays Pompey at the final battle as forgetting “that he was any more Pompey the great which he had been before, but rather … like a man … affrayde and amazed … and so retired into his tent speaking never a word.” Thus Shakespeare moves back and forth between the Pompey of common talk and the Pompey of the classics.
He keeps Pompey’s story going, as the rascal is arrested for being a bawd, and this time rebuked by the disguised Duke for making his living from “their abominable and beastly touches,” on which the bawd is “So stinkingly depending” (3.2.23, 26). Ever the relativist, Pompey replies, “Indeed it does stink in some sort, sir” (3.2.27). Lucio taunts him by recalling his namesake: “How now, noble Pompey! What, at the wheels of Caesar? Art thou led in triumph?” (3.2.42–3). The allusion is, strictly speaking, inaccurate: Caesar never led Pompey in triumph but rather defeated him on the battlefield. Shakespeare may be alluding obliquely, though, to the opening scene of his own Julius Caesar, when Murellus refers to Caesar’s triumph as coming on the heels of Pompey’s. Or he may simply be drawing on a widely recognizable Roman image of the nadir of humiliation, the leader being led, chained to the wheels of the victor’s chariot. For some forty lines, Lucio jeers at the prison-bound bawd, calling him by name twelve times, so that our ears ring with the sound. Since Pompey would probably be under some kind of restraint on the stage—his wrists bound, perhaps—the idea of a great Roman hero’s reversal of fortune is strongly present, superimposed as it were on what must also have been a frequent sight, a commoner arrested in the street. Akin to Lucio’s ironic denigration of Pompey is the custom, in British North America and in the antebellum United States, of giving Roman names to slaves. The frequency of such names meant that by the mid-nineteenth century, in print satire or onstage, a character named Caesar or Pompey was assumed to be a slave.
Once in prison, Pompey agrees to assist the hangman Abhorson; long an “unlawful bawd,” he becomes “a lawful hangman” (4.2.14–16). The difference, the Provost says to Abhorson, is arbitrary: “Go to, sir, you weigh equally: a feather will turn the scale” (4.2.28–9). The Provost echoes Pompey’s earlier remarks on prostitution being “the worser of two usuries,” alluding to a traditional association between issue and interest as the profit to be made, respectively, from prostitution and usury. By his last scene (4.3), Pompey is quite at home in prison, with a soliloquy cataloguing the kinds of gallants now resident there, whom he knew before as Mistress Overdone’s “old customers” (4.3.3–4). He concludes by lumping them all together as “great doers in our trade … now ‘for the Lord’s sake’” (4.3.19–20). Appropriately, the last phrase is language heard on the street: according to Arden 2, “the cry of poor prisoners begging from the grating or window of their prison.” After a few lines taunting Barnardine about his upcoming execution, Pompey simply drops out of the play. Shakespeare has made his point: a bawd named for a Roman hero may have something to tell us about the fickleness of fortune and the questionable morality of the law. The irony of his name resonates with the moral inversions dramatized in the play, and as I have been arguing, attests to the currency of “the classics” in popular discourse, as does Pompey of the Nine Worthies in Love’s Labour’s Lost.
There’s a powerful tendency to think of the classics as immutable, remaining the same forever, as permanent as marble, but of course, however hard and heavy it is, marble isn’t permanent. Columns fall, are shattered, and repurposed. Like Shakespeare studies, the field of classics itself has undergone great changes since the eighties, and Shakespeareans who study Shakespeare’s relations to the classics can benefit from knowing that field. Classicists today are interested in the afterlife of classical texts, not just Vergil and Ovid but compilations, collections of anecdotes, biographies. In such texts, one can sometimes hear the voice of the street. It’s that voice that I’ve tried to hear in this essay.

16.2. Shakespeare’s Classicism, Redux

Lynn Enterline

The academic study of “classical sources” brings with it assumptions deriving from twentieth-century scholarly practice that do not align well with Tudor classicism. For an ever-increasing number of male writers in the sixteenth century, humanist grammar schools ensured that classical texts were understood in distinctly rhetorical terms—and were woven into the fabric of everyday life, informing vertical as well as proximate, horizontal relationships. While we may trace Latin “sources,” Shakespeare and his contemporaries translated, memorized, and imitated ancient authors to and for one another. These scenes of address, and their authors, were judged according to the rhetorical desiderata of “wit” (ingenium), “energy” (enargeia), and “force” (vis). As one schoolboy put it in his commonplace book, masters aimed to cultivate actio, “eloquence of the body,” as much as of the tongue. Whether in public recitation “without book,” examination day declamations, school theatricals, or disciplinary meetings in which boys brought “complaints and accusations” against one another, and the “favour shewed to Boyes of extraordinarie merite” was the “honour … to begge and prevaile” on behalf of classmates for “remission” from punishment, school exercises lent the classical past a performative as well as judicial dimension (Annals of the Westminster School). Imitatio required more than collecting, memorizing, and writing: it required public performances that determined a schoolboy’s place in his social world. Given this institutional context, the texts of antiquity took on a far more vivid—and personally complex—presence than we can gauge through literary history alone, whether that history be construed as a question of allusion or intertextuality. Roland Barthes observed that Augustan Rome saw a wholesale conversion of rhetoric into poetic technique. As a consequence of humanist pedagogy, the same is true of sixteenth-century Britain—and the institutional practices that encouraged this conversion left their mark on early modern conceptions of the body, masculinity, and the passions.
The school’s habitus meant that certain Roman texts exercised a palpable force on lived experience. Tudor masters tend to personify classical authors as if they were speaking with familiar, living beings: Roger Ascham remarks in The Scholemaster, “right choice of wordes, saith Caesar, is the foundation of eloquence,” or “Tullie would have placed this worde here, not there.” In Timber, Ben Jonson construes imitatio as impersonation: poets should “make choise of one excellent man above the rest, and so to follow him, till he grow very he: or, so like him as the copy may be mistaken for the principal.” Shakespeare vivifies ancient characters with equal force. But in contrast to Ascham and Jonson, he often imagines these interlocutors to be female. As I argued in Shakespeare’s Schoolroom, he has a marked tendency to explore the school’s curriculum and practices through the voices of those it would have excluded. When Shakespeare translates rhetorical practice into poetic technique, we frequently encounter cross-voiced impersonations—a habit that is hardly consistent with the masculinist endgame of Tudor pedagogy. Indeed, his forms of classicism cast a skeptical eye on the claims schoolmasters made for a Latin education, revealing a former schoolboy keen to exploit the school’s contradictions and unintended consequences.
In the past fifteen years, scholars generally have read early modern ideas of embodiment and the passions alongside medical discourse and humoral theory. But given the grammar school’s disciplinary regime, there is good reason to read these representations in light of early modern classicism. This is especially true because a schoolboy’s experience of Latin occurred during the transitions of puberty: just as a student was beginning to decipher what counted as “male” and what “female,” there were two languages and cultures to contend with, not one. In addition, while humanist theories about training in oratory aimed to produce embodied, gendered identity in its Latin-speaking “gentleman,” their methods may well have kept such identity at a distance. In one sentence set for translation, for example, a Tudor vulgaria cites a “master” telling his student to learn to “play the mans part and not the boyes.” Though dedicated to the social reproduction of eloquent masculinity, school exercises sent signals indicating that the social identities masters encouraged were not essential, but rather “parts” one “played” in an elaborate social script.
Early rhetorical training was shot through with impersonation—whether under the rubric of imitation (as in Timber) or that of prosopopoeia, the Roman rhetorical practice of inventing voices for literary, historical, and mythological characters. An implicit demand for impersonation informs preliminary as well as advanced exercises. Vulgaria required boys to translate sentences into Latin by adopting a series of familiar voices; Corderius’s Dialogues trained them to imitate imaginary conversations about daily life; Erasmus’s exercises in letter writing proposed a series of hypothetical circumstances and personae. In the case of the most widely used rhetorical manual in England, Aphthonius’s Progymnasmata, a lesson in ethopoeia (“character making”) required students to invent speeches according to such propositions as “the words Hecuba would say at the fall of Troy,” or “what Niobe would say over the scattered bodies of her children.” And, of course, boys performed both male and female parts in school theatricals and interludes. Such training laid the groundwork not only for cross-dressing, but also for what Elizabeth Harvey aptly called “cross-voicing” (Ventriloquized Voices, 1992).
Grammar school training promulgated a culturally significant distinction between English and Latin, the “mother” and the “father” tongue. But Shakespeare’s cross-voiced impersonations—Lucrece, Philomela, Hecuba, Venus, Ariadne, Beatrice (among others)—give Latin training an epicene twist. As Lily’s Grammar puts it, the epicene is an “indiscriminate” case (promiscuum) because “both sexes are embraced” (complectimur) under “the sign of one gender.” This “common” case has particular purchase on Tudor literature for well-known reasons: transvestite theatrical performance and Galen’s influential “one sex” model of anatomy. More important here: from the point of view of humanist Latinity, English was not an inflected language—which posed a problem for those who acquired the cultural capital of a Latin education and so struggled under Rome’s shadow to define vernacular eloquence. “English nouns,” as Jenny Mann observes in Outlaw Rhetoric, “are nearly all de facto epicene terms.” Ancient theorists used physical metaphors to capture oratory’s aim and function, terms that tended to produce decidedly gendered figures for verbal power: a speaker’s goal is to “move” an audience (movere)—hence the appeal of moving statues—and words acquired the ability to move by exercising vis, a noun that covers a wide terrain in English: “force,” “power,” “might,” “violence.” Clearly such metaphors inform the humanist habit of equating weapons with pens—an analogy captured succinctly, for instance, in Gascoigne’s self-portrait on the frontispiece of The Steel Glass. And Shakespeare’s humanist tendency to think about persuasion as a “force” can lead to phallic figures for words-as-weapons—for instance, Titus’s arrow wrapped in “a verse in Horace” read “in the grammar long ago” (4.2.22–3). But his female characters are quite capable of doing battle with verbal “poniards” and “stings” (Beatrice, Katharina) and of winning competitions in persuasion (Hermione). And many of them—Lavinia, Bianca, Lucrece, Venus—display considerable classical learning; in Bianca’s case, she’s a better Latinist than her would-be tutor.
Shakespeare’s habit of revisiting ancient texts and grammar school habits as if in the voices of women tends to unleash powerful epicene fantasies. For example, when his satire on schoolmasters turns Venus into an obtuse, Ovidian praeceptor amoris conducting a failed lesson in classical desire—“O, learn to love; the lesson is but plain” (407)—Shakespeare indulges in famously promiscuous gender trouble: Venus would imitate the boar’s tusk by penetrating Adonis with her kiss; and Adonis, “the field’s chief flower” (8), is destined to be castrated, then cropped. Venus and Adonis also engages a series of schoolroom exercises (in utramque partem arguments; “themes”; ekphrases; prosopopoeiae; Ovidian imitatio), but the poem shifts from mocking Venus to adopting her perspective, her sorrow—a shift that occurs when the narrator imagines her “as one on shore” like Ariadne, calling after her vanishing lover (817–18). In The Rape of Lucrece, similarly, a lesson in Tarquin’s “school for lust” leads Lucrece to compare herself to Philomela. Lending Ovid’s character a voice becomes a virtuoso performance and a “burden.” The duet allows Lucrece a glimpse of Orphic power; but that power “strains” the speaker, wounds like a thorn at the singer’s breast. The plot of rape relies on a violent instantiation of gender difference; but Lucrece’s imaginary duet with Philomela repeats the narrator’s inaugural act. And it is in their shared attempt to lend a tongue to ancient female suffering that the narrator and Lucrece most resemble one another.
The intimate, disconcerting link between rhetoric and violence in his Ovidian epyllia may be an index not only of ancient metaphors for verbal energy and force, but also of the schoolroom, where the Latin master’s rod loomed. But that rod may not have worked as efficiently as expected: the epicene energy of Shakespeare’s impersonations indicates that Latin training could unleash emotions and voices that hardly corresponded with the kind of “masculine” identity that masters claimed their Latin training would produce.

16.3. Time, Verisimilitude, and the Counter-Classical Ovid

Heather James

I begin with an admission: when writing on classicism in Shakespeare’s age, I find myself juggling terms. Some are matters of conviction: I spell Vergil’s name roughly as he did rather than use the symmetrical, postclassical, and ideological “Virgil.” I waffle on others. Do I go with the forward-looking “early modern”—which has the added benefit of hedging the question of the “medieval” period—or do I stick with “Renaissance”? For many Shakespeareans, the question seems moot in relation to classical transmission, which aims to recover the past for present but not obviously “modern” uses. In matters classical, it is counterintuitive to buck the older trend. But how are we to characterize an object or text unearthed from antiquity and adapted to new forms that is already a classical antibody? I refer to Ovid, the “classically unclassical” poet, who inaugurated a “counter-classical sensibility” and wrote the “counter-epic” (W. R. Johnson) Metamorphoses. These oxymoronic terms refer to a powerful strand of dissidence that Ovid introduced to Augustan poetry: in his hands, poetry defied the decorum and mores that were shaped by Horace and Vergil and defined by an ultimate reader, Augustus Caesar.
In Shakespeare’s England, Ovid inspired the cultivation of letters from the rise of lyric eroticism in the sixteenth century to the rise of libertinism in the seventeenth century. The delicious boldness of his verse persisted, I suggest, because it was tied to a fundamentally political concern for the liberty of bold and open speech: Ovid’s poetic iconoclasm recalls parrhesia in Greek and, in Latin, licentia, which may refer to licentious abuse or the liberty of speech, the hallmark virtue of republicanism. Ovid fascinated bold thinkers, writers, and readers of Shakespeare’s day and inspired them to test the scope and limits of imaginative expression that seemed both “classical” and “counter-classical” even to them. One feature of this kind of verse is a perplexing relationship to time and ethics that makes the term “early modern” seem as hidebound as “Renaissance.”
Why did English poets and readers go for Ovid? Any number of answers is imaginable, from the moral alchemy of allegorical reading (the Ovide moralisé) to the sensual compulsion of Petrarch and a Marlovian penchant for fusing formal invention with ideological rule-breaking. I take up the latter response to Ovid, who shook things up and broke them down, disordered proprieties and orthodoxies, and unleashed novel forms of expression in abundance. He had an enviable supply of wit, especially in response to political times that restricted poetic expression.
Two techniques belonging to the counter-classical sensibility seem opposed, not conjoined: the fantastic and the verisimilar. In Ovid’s verse, they are phenomenally aesthetic, animated by enargeia, and broadly political. Shakespeare’s contemporaries recognized that Ovid borrowed and repurposed a poetic technique central to Horace’s Ars Poetica. Memorably, Horace’s speaker implores poets to give up the fantastic for the verisimilitude associated with Augustan Rome. Horace also presents a dissenter, who asserts that “poets have always had the right to dare whatever representations they please.” Elizabeth I translated “right” as a “lien,” or right to retain possession of property. But Horace is usually conflated with his main speaker and so Ovid sides with his dissenting interlocutor. In the Metamorphoses, Ovid devotes himself to the fantastic transformation of bodies and a reworking of the concept of verisimilitude, which he re-creates in his own—not the prince’s—inalienable image. In his hands, verisimilitude fails to naturalize ideals of Augustan decorum: it instead depicts scenes of violence in light of the readers who are caught up—intensely—in the moment of perception and judgment.
Shakespeare understood Ovidian verisimilitude as an assault on decorum that pitted aesthetic allure against ethical functions. An example appears in the scenarios presented to Christopher Sly by the Lord and his servants in the Induction to Taming of the Shrew:
2 Servant:

Dost thou love pictures? We will fetch thee straight
Adonis painted by a running brook
And Cytherea all in sedges hid,
Which seem to move and wanton with her breath
Even as the waving sedges play with wind.

We’ll show thee Io as she was a maid,
And how she was beguiled and surprised,
As lively painted as the deed was done.
3 Servant:

Or Daphne roaming through a thorny wood,
Scratching her legs that one shall swear she bleeds,
And at that sight shall sad Apollo weep,
So workmanly the blood and tears are drawn.

(Induction, 2.47–58)

These scenarios have at first glance an uncomfortably transparent agenda. The audience seems meant to be caught up in the here and now of erotic solicitation: there is no easy escape from the message that desire is as predatory as it is intensely visual. Verbal suggestions that our sympathies might lie with the objects of rapacious desire are present, but they seem dragged into play to suggest that even sympathy is a predator’s passion: the god Apollo is sad that Daphne heedlessly mars her own beauty as she flees from him. Yet Shakespeare’s readers are not fully Apollo: his Ovidian scenarios solicit both assent to erotic invitations and ethical resistance to scenes in which there is no consent. Are readers to position themselves as desiring subjects, vulnerable objects of desire, or bystanders, blindsided by the passions of voyeurism (the side of the gods) and solicitude for the victims? Readers may well respond in this order: yes, no, probably.
Shakespeare follows Ovid, who formally makes his case for an ethics of verisimilitude in his story of the inventive and insolent weaver, Arachne, who refuses to cede credit for her talent to a goddess, Pallas, and instead weaves a powerful complaint about the gods’ abuse of mortal women in a vivid, engaging, and sensuous tapestry that epitomizes Ovid’s own stories of divine passion, deceit, and rape. In contrast to the goddess’s classical tapestry—ordered, hierarchical, iconographic, and triumphal—Arachne weaves a phantasmagorical image of the rapes of nineteen women by five gods who often assume the shape of beasts to accomplish their ends. To back up Arachne’s theme of rape as crime (caelestia crimina), Ovid furnishes a specific artistic quality: verisimilitude. Each story of rape is set out with accurate representations of “the face” of all persons, beasts, elements, and places of the story (Met., 6.121), and each story speaks to the reader as if from the violent moment of experience. In Golding’s 1567 translation:

The Lydian maiden [Arachne] in hir web did portray to the full
How Europe was by royall Jove beguiled in shape of Bull.
That Bull and Sea in very deed ye might them well have thought… .
The Ladie seemed looking back to landwarde and to crie
Upon hir women, and to feare the water sprinkling hie,
And shrinking up hir fearfull feete.
… Of all these things she missed not their proper shapes, nor yit
The full and just resemblance of their places for to hit.

(6.126–32, 150–1)

This passage redirects the art of verisimilitude from an ethic of decorum to one of witnessing and truth telling.
In this scene, verisimilitude, ekphrasis, and enargeia create a speaking picture that engrosses readers in the here and now and does nothing to speed up the process of reading. The picture tells us to do something, since both gods and men have failed to address the abuses perpetrated by the powerful on the comparatively powerless. In Ovid’s verse, verisimilitude generates strong and immediate feeling in readers and directs it, as if in slow motion, towards ethical action in the world. For the poetic justice anticipated is just that: anticipated and imminent in the reader’s experience but not in historical time. Justice comes in the future perfect tense—“it will have happened”—and this is a problem of art that Ovid and Arachne acknowledge. Art is a counter and parallel to the punishment of Tantalus: the here and now of desire is enlarged in the act of reading while justice is just out of reach. In this context, Ovidian allusions link imaginative fables from the classical past (Theseus’s antique / antic fables) to the here and now of readerly acts absorbed in the present while leaning into a future tense of action. As Golding suggests, the Ovidian form of verisimilitude inaugurates a literary tradition of historical witness.
For Shakespeare, Ovid’s poetry created a productive tradition of poets thinking furiously about the future of justice and the form of writing that may help it come about. Shakespeare’s Ovid cultivated a boldness, force, and audacity in poetic invention and expression that addressed and ameliorated a void in public discourse: poetry allows for bold thought even as it leaves open the question of how and when readers will be moved to action. Ovid inspired a boldness of imagination and form that tested the capacity of poets to engage and enlarge the liberty of speech through poetic rather than topical allusion. Holofernes got it right: “Ovidius Naso was the man,” so named for his skills in “smelling out the odoriferous flowers of fancy, the jerks of invention. Imitari is nothing” (Love’s Labour’s Lost, 4.2.123–5).
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