Shakespeare, Bacon and the Great Unknown, by Andrew Lang

Chapter iv

Mr. Collins on Shakespeare’s Learning

That Shakspere, whether “scholar” or not, had a very wide and deep knowledge both of Roman literature and, still more, of the whole field of the tragic literature of Athens, is a theory which Mr. Greenwood seems to admire in that “violent Stratfordian,” Mr. Churton Collins. 57 I think that Mr. Collins did not persuade classical scholars who have never given a thought to the Baconian belief, but who consider on their merits the questions: Does Shakespeare show wide classical knowledge? Does he use his knowledge as a scholar would use it?

My friend, Mr. Collins, as I may have to say again, was a very wide reader of poetry, with a memory like Macaulay’s. It was his native tendency to find coincidences in poetic passages (which, to some, to me for example, did not often seem coincidental); and to explain coincidences by conscious or subconscious borrowing. One remarked in him these tendencies long before he wrote on the classical acquirements of Shakespeare.

While Mr. Collins tended to account for similarities in the work of authors by borrowing, my tendency was to explain them as undesigned coincidences. The question is of the widest range. Some inquirers explain the often minute coincidences in myths, popular tales, proverbs, and riddles, found all over the world, by diffusion from a single centre (usually India). Others, like myself, do not deny cases of transmission, but in other cases see spontaneous and independent, though coincident invention. I do not believe that the Arunta of Central Australia borrowed from Plutarch the central feature of the myth of Isis and Osiris.

It is not on Shakespeare’s use, now and then, of Greek and Latin models and sources, but on coincidences detected by Mr. Collins himself, and not earlier remarked, that he bases his belief in the saturation of Shakespeare’s mind with Roman and Athenian literature. Consequently we can only do justice to Mr. Collins’s system, if we compare example after example of his supposed instances of Shakespeare’s borrowing. This is a long and irksome task; and the only fair plan is for the reader to peruse Mr. Collins’s Studies in Shakespeare, compare the Greek and Roman texts, and weigh each example of supposed borrowing for himself. Baconians must delight in this labour.

I shall waive the question whether it were not possible for Shakespeare to obtain a view of the manuscript translation of plays of Plautus made by Warner for his unlearned friends, and so to use the Menaechmi as the model of The Comedy of Errors. He does not borrow phrases from it, as he does from North’s Plutarch.

Venus and Adonis owes to Ovid, at most, but ideas for three purple patches, scattered in different parts of the Metamorphoses. Lucrece is based on the then untranslated Fasti of Ovid. I do not think Shakespeare incapable of reading such easy Latin for himself; or too proud to ask help from a friend, or buy it from some poor young University man in London. That is a simple and natural means by which he could help himself when in search of a subject for a play or poem; and ought not to be overlooked.

Mr. Collins, in his rapturous account of Shakespeare’s wide and profound knowledge of the classics, opens with the remark: “Nothing which Shakespeare has left us warrants us in pronouncing with certainty that he read the Greek classics in the original, or even that he possessed enough Greek to follow the Latin versions of those classics in the Greek text.” 58 In that case, how did Shakespeare’s English become contaminated, as Mr. Collins says it did, with Greek idioms, while he only knew the Greek plays through Latin translations?

However this is to be answered, Mr. Collins proceeds to prove Shakespeare’s close familiarity with Latin and with Greek dramatic literature by a method of which he knows the perils —“it is always perilous to infer direct imitation from parallel passages which may be mere coincidences.” 59 Yet this method is what he practises throughout; with what amount of success every reader must judge for himself.

He thinks it “surely not unlikely” that Polonius’s

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be: For loan oft loses both itself and friend,”

may be a terse reminiscence of seven lines in Plautus (Trinummus, iv. 3). Why, Polonius is a coiner of commonplaces, and if ever there were a well-known reflection from experience it is this of the borrowers and lenders.

Next, take this of Plautus (Pseudolus, I, iv. 7–10), “But just as the poet when he has taken up his tablets seeks what exists nowhere among men, and yet finds it, and makes that like truth which is mere fiction.” We are to take this as the possible germ of Theseus’s theory of the origin of the belief in fairies:

“And as imagination bodies forth The FORMS of things unknown, the poet’s pen Turns them to SHAPES, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name.”

The reasoning is odd; imagination bodies forth FORMS, and the poet’s pen turns them to SHAPES. But to suppose that Shakespeare here borrowed from Plautus appears highly superfluous.

These are samples of Mr. Collins’s methods throughout.

Of Terence there were translations — first in part; later, in 1598, of the whole. Of Seneca there was an English version (1581). Mr. Collins labours to show that one passage “almost certainly” implies Shakespeare’s use of the Latin; but it was used “by an inexact scholar,”— a terribly inexact scholar, if he thought that “alienus” (“what belongs to another”) meant “slippery”!

Most of the passages are from plays (Titus Andronicus and Henry VI, i., ii., iii.), which Mr. Greenwood denies (usually) to HIS author, the Great Unknown. Throughout these early plays Mr. Collins takes Shakespeare’s to resemble Seneca’s LATIN style: Shakespeare, then, took up Greek tragedy in later life; after the early period when he dealt with Seneca. Here is a sample of borrowing from Horace, “Persicos odi puer apparatus” (Odes. I, xxxviii. I). Mr. Collins quotes Lear (III, vi. 85) thus, “You will say they are PERSIAN ATTIRE.” Really, Lear in his wild way says to Edgar, “I do not like the fashion of your garments: you will say they are Persian; but let them be changed.” Mr. Collins changes this into “you will say they are PERSIAN ATTIRE,” a phrase “which could only have occurred to a classical scholar.” The phrase is not in Shakespeare, and Lear’s wandering mind might as easily select “Persian” as any other absurdity.

So it is throughout. Two great poets write on the fear of death, on the cries of new-born children, on dissolution and recombination in nature, on old age; they have ideas in common, obvious ideas, glorified by poetry — and Shakespeare, we are told, is borrowing from Lucretius or Juvenal; while the critic leaves his reader to find out and study the Latin passages which he does not quote. So arbitrary is taste in these matters that Mr. Collins, like Mr. Grant White, but independently, finds Shakespeare putting a thought from the Alcibiades I of Plato into the mouth of Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, while Mr. J. M. Robertson suggests that the borrowing is from Seneca — where Mr. Collins does not find “the smallest parallel.” Mr. Collins is certainly right; the author of Troilus makes Ulysses quote Plato as “the author” of a remark, and makes Achilles take up the quotation, which Ulysses goes on to criticise.

Thus, in this play, not only Aristotle (as Hector says) but Plato are taken to have lived before the Trojan war, and to have been read by the Achaeans!

There were Latin translations of Plato; the Alcibiades I was published apart, from Ficinus’ version, in 1560, with the sub-title, Concerning the Nature of Man. Who had read it? — Shakespeare, or one of the two authors (Dekker and Chettle) of another Troilus and Cressida (now lost), or Bacon, or Mr. Greenwood’s Unknown? Which of these Platonists chose to say that Plato and Aristotle lived long before Homer? Which of them followed the Ionic and mediaeval anti~Achaean view of Homer’s heroes, as given in the Troy Books of the Middle Ages, and yet knew Iliad, Book VII, and admired Odysseus, whom the Ionian tradition abhors? Troilus and Cressida is indeed a mystery, but Somebody concerned in it had read Ficinus’ version of the Alcibiades; 60 and yet made the monstrous anachronism of dating Aristotle and Plato before the Trojan war. “That was his fun,” as Charles Lamb said in another connection.

Mr. Collins, it is plain, goes much further than the “small Latin” with which his age (like myself) credited Shakespeare. He could read Latin, Mr. Collins thinks, as easily as an educated Briton reads French — that is, as easily as he reads English. Still further, Shakespeare, through Latin translations, was so saturated with the Greek drama “that the characteristics which differentiate his work from the work of his contemporaries and recall in essentials the work of the Greek dramatists are actually attributable to these dramatists.”

Ben Jonson, and all the more or less well-taught University wits, as far as I remember, like Greene, Marlowe, and Lyly, do not show much acquaintance with Euripides, AEschylus, Sophocles, and do not often remind us of these masters. Shakespeare does remind us of them — the only question is, do the resemblances arise from his possession of a genius akin to that of Greece, or was his memory so stored with all the treasures of their art that the waters of Helicon kept bubbling up through the wells of Avon?

But does Mr. Collins prove (what, as he admits, CANNOT be demonstrated) that Shakespeare was familiar with the Attic tragedians? He begins by saying that he will not bottom his case “on the ground of parallels in sentiment and reflection, which, as they express commonplaces, are likely to be” (fortuitous) “coincidences.” Three pages of such parallels, all from Sophocles, therefore follow. “Curiously close similarities of expression” are also barred. Four pages of examples therefore follow, from Sophocles and AEschylus, plays and fragments, Euripides, and Homer too (once!). Again, “identities of sentiment under similar circumstances” are not to be cited; two pages ARE cited; and “similarities, however striking they may be in metaphorical expression,” cannot safely be used; several pages of them follow.

Finally, Mr. Collins chooses a single play, the Aias of Sophocles, and tests Shakespeare by that, unluckily in part from Titus Andronicus, which Mr. Greenwood regards (usually) as non~Shakespearean, or not by his unknown great author. Troilus and Cressida, whatever part Shakespeare may have had in it, does suggest to me that the author or authors knew of Homer no more than the few books of the Iliad, first translated by Chapman and published in 1598. But he or they did know the Aias of Sophocles, according to Mr. Collins: so did the author of Romeo and Juliet.

Now all these sorts of parallels between Shakespeare and the Greeks are, Mr. Collins tells us, not to count as proofs that Shakespeare knew the Greek tragedians. “We have obviously to be on our guard” 61 against three kinds of such parallels, which “may be mere coincidences,” 62 fortuitous coincidences. But these coincidences against which “we must be on our guard” fill sixteen pages (pp. 46~63). These pages must necessarily produce a considerable effect in the way of persuading the reader that Shakespeare knew the Greek tragedians as intimately as Mr. Collins did. Mr. Greenwood is obliged to leave these parallels to readers of Mr. Collins’s essay. Indeed, what more can we do? Who would read through a criticism of each instance? Two or three may be given. The Queen in Hamlet reminds that prince, grieving for his father’s death, that “all that live must die”:

“That loss is common to the race, And common is the common-place.”

The Greek Chorus offers the commonplace to Electra — and here is a parallel! Again, two Greeks agree with Shakespeare that anxious expectation of evil is worse than actual experience thereof. Greece agrees with Shakespeare that ill-gotten gains do not thrive, or that it is not lucky to be “a corby messenger” of bad news; or that all goes ill when a man acts against his better nature; or that we suffer most from the harm which we bring on ourselves; or that there is strength in a righteous cause; or that blood calls for blood (an idea common to Semites, Greeks, and English readers of the Bible); or that, having lost a very good man, you will not soon see his like again — and so on as long as you please. Of such wisdom are proverbs made, and savages and Europeans have many parallel proverbs. Vestigia nulla retrorsum is as well known to Bushmen as to Latinists. Manifestly nothing in this kind proves, or even suggests, that Shakespeare was saturated in Greek tragedy. But page on page of such facts as that both Shakespeare and Sophocles talk, one of “the belly~pinched wolf,” the other of “the empty-bellied wolf,” are apt to impress the reader — and verily both Shakespeare and AEschylus talk of “the heart dancing for joy.” Mr. Collins repeats that such things are no proof, but he keeps on piling them up. It was a theory of Shakespeare’s time that the apparent ghost of a dead man might be an impersonation of him by the devil. Hamlet knows this —

“The spirit that I have seen may be the devil.”

Orestes (Electra, Euripides) asks whether it may not be an avenging daemon (alastor) in the shape of a god, that bids him avenge his father. Is Shakespeare borrowing from Euripides, or from a sermon, or any contemporary work on ghosts, such as that of Lavater?

A girl dies or is sacrificed before her marriage, and characters in Romeo and Juliet, and in Euripides, both say that Death is her bridegroom. Anyone might say that, anywhere, as in the Greek Anthology —

“For Death not for Love hast thou loosened thy zone.”

One needs the space of a book wherein to consider such parallels. But confessedly, though a parade is made of them, they do not prove that Shakespeare constantly read Greek tragedies in Latin translations.

To let the truth out, the resemblances are mainly found in such commonplaces: as when both Aias and Antony address the Sun of their latest day in life; or when John of Gaunt and Aias both pun on their own names.

The situations, in Hamlet and the Choephorae and Electra, are so close that resemblances in some passages must and do occur, and Mr. Collins does not comment specially upon the closest resemblance of all: the English case is here the murder of Duncan, the Greek is the murder of Agamemnon.

Now it would be easy for me to bring forward many close parallels between Homer and the old Irish epic story of Cuchulainn, between Homer and Beowulf and the Njal’s saga, yet Norsemen and the early Irish were not students of Homer! The parallel passages in Homer, on one side, and the Old Irish Tain Bo Cualgne, and the Anglo–Saxon epics, are so numerous and close that the theory of borrowing from Homer has actually occurred to a distinguished Greek scholar. But no student of Irish and Anglo–Saxon heroic poetry has been found, I think, to suggest that Early Irish and Anglo–Saxon Court minstrels knew Greek. The curious may consult Mr. Munro Chadwick’s The Heroic Age (1912), especially Chapter XV, “The Common Characteristics of Teutonic and Greek Heroic Poetry,” and to what Mr. Chadwick says much might be added.

But, to be short, Mr. Collins’s case can only be judged by readers of his most interesting Studies in Shakespeare. To me, Hamlet’s soliloquy on death resembles a fragment from the Phoenix of Euripides no more closely than two sets of reflections by great poets on the text that “of death we know nothing” are bound to do — though Shakespeare’s are infinitely the richer. For Shakespeare’s reflections on death, save where Christians die in a Christian spirit, are as agnostic as those of the post-AEschylean Greek and early Anglo–Saxon poets. In many respects, as Mr. Collins proves, Shakespeare’s highest and deepest musings are Greek in tone. But of all English poets he who came nearest to Greece in his art was Keats, who of Greek knew nothing. In the same way, a peculiar vein of Anglo–Saxon thought, in relation to Destiny and Death, is purely Homeric, though necessarily unborrowed; nor were a native Fijian poet’s lines on old age, sine amore jocisque, borrowed from Mimnermus! There is such a thing as congruity of genius. Mr. Collins states the hypothesis — not his own —“that BY A CERTAIN NATURAL AFFINITY Shakespeare caught also the accent and tone as well as some of the most striking characteristics of Greek tragedy.”

Though far from accepting most of Mr. Collins’s long array of Greek parallels, I do hold that by “natural affinity,” by congruity of genius, Shakespeare approached and resembled the great Athenians.

One thing seems certain to me. If Shakspere read and borrowed from Greek poetry, he knew it as well (except Homer) as Mr. Collins knew it; and remembered what he knew with Mr. Collins’s extraordinary tenacity of memory.

Now if “Shakespeare” did all that, he was not the actor. The author, on Mr. Collins’s showing, must have been a very sedulous and diligent student of Greek poetry, above all of the drama, down to its fragments. The Baconians assuredly ought to try to prove, from Bacon’s works, that he was such a student.

Mr. Collins, “a violent Stratfordian,” overproved his case. If his proofs be accepted, Shakspere the actor knew the Greek tragedians as well as did Mr. Swinburne. If the author of the plays were so learned, the actor was not the author, in my opinion — he WAS, in the opinion of Mr. Collins.

If Shakespeare’s spirit and those of Sophocles and AEschylus meet, it is because they move on the same heights, and thence survey with “the poet’s sad lucidity” the same “pageant of men’s miseries.” But how dissimilar in expression Shakespeare can be, how luxuriant and apart from the austerity of Greece, we observe in one of Mr. Collins’s parallels.

Polynices, in the Phoenissae of Euripides (504–506), exclaims:

“To the stars’ risings, and the sun’s I’d go, And dive ‘neath earth — if I could do this thing, — Possess Heaven’s highest boon of sovereignty.”

Then compare Hotspur:

“By Heaven, methinks it were an easy leap To pluck bright honour from the pale faced moon, Or dive into the bottom of the deep, Where fathom-line could never touch the ground, And pluck up drowned honour by the locks, So he that doth redeem her thence, might wear Without corrival all her dignities.”

What a hurrying crowd of pictures rush through Hotspur’s mind! Is Shakespeare thinking of the Phoenissae, or is he speaking only on the promptings of his genius?

57 So he seems to me to do; but in Vindicators of Shakespeare, p. 135, he shows great caution: “I refer the reader to Mr. Collin’s essay, and ask him to judge for himself.”

58 Studies in Shakespeare, p. 15.

59 Studies in Shakespeare, p. 21.

60 Alcibiades, I, pp. 132, 133; Troilus, III, scene 3.

61 Studies in Shakespeare, p. 46.

62 Iliad, p. 63.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03