What the Romans did for Shakespeare: Rome and Roman values in Shakespeare's plays

Andrew Dickson discusses the influence of classical civilisation and literature on Shakespeare, and the playwright's critique of Roman values in Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Julius Caesar.

It seems ironic that of the many things we don’t know about William Shakespeare – what he did during his ‘lost years’ after his marriage and before he came to London, how exactly he worked with his actors, the true state of his marriage – we do know that he wasn’t especially good at the Classics.

That at least was the view of Ben Jonson, who in a famous poem printed in the 1623 First Folio declared that his colleague-cum-rival, by then seven years dead, had only ‘small Latin, and less Greek’. Whatever Shakespeare learned during his time at school, Jonson implied, not much of it stuck.

Shakespeare's First Folio

Shakespeare's First Folio - title page and introduction by Ben Johnson

The title page of the First Folio with Droeshout’s portrait of Shakespeare.

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As so often, however, Jonson – as canny as he was curmudgeonly about other people’s creative talents – is perhaps saying something quite different. In full, the relevant lines from this complex, 81-line-long encomium read:

And though thou hadst small Latin, and less Greek,
From thence to honour thee, I would not seek
For names; but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,
Euripides, and Sophocles to us,
Pacuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,
To life again, to hear thy buskin tread
And shake a stage; or, when thy socks were on,
Leave thee alone for the comparison
Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.[1]

‘Though’ is the crucial word. While the poem may seem to criticise Shakespeare’s gifts as a classicist – and Jonson, we should remember, was fiercely proud of his own talents in that department – it also makes it abundantly clear not only how much Shakespeare owed the classical world, but how he was conscious of standing in the ranks of Greek authors such as Sophocles and Aeschylus, as well as the Roman poets Pacuvius and Accius, and the poet-philosopher Seneca (‘him of Cordova dead’). And while Jonson might call forth these grand and ancient names to pay tribute, he also implies that his beloved friend might nonetheless excel them all.

Seneca His Ten Tragedies, 1581

Seneca His Ten Tragedies, 1581

The bloodthirsty tragedies of Seneca had an important influence on Elizabethan English drama.

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Roman holidays

Of Shakespeare’s numerous interactions with classical civilisation, his imaginary expeditions to ancient Rome are the most extensive. The city is the location for scripts including Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and sections of Antony and Cleopatra – so much so that this quartet is often simply called the ‘Roman plays’. There are Roman references in so many other scripts, too – all the way from Falstaff off-handedly quoting Julius Caesar in Henry IV Part II (‘I, came, saw, and overcame’ (4.2.41)) to Macbeth declining to ‘play the Roman fool’ and die by his own sword (5.10.1). Together they give the lie to the suggestion that the playwright didn’t do his homework.

Though the records have perished, it’s overwhelmingly likely that he attended the local grammar school a few streets from his birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, and would have been exposed there to a humanist curriculum steeped in classical literature, both in the original languages and translation. In the upper forms, boys were required to talk exclusively in Latin; by the time he left, Shakespeare is likely to have known as much of the language as a Classics graduate today, and be considerably more experienced at speaking it.[2] Had he wanted to, he was more than able to sniff out what the schoolmaster Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost calls ‘false Latin’ (5.1.75). His Greek will have been less accomplished, but it will have been greater than ‘small’.

What did Shakespeare and his schoolmates read? In addition to slogging through textbooks such as Erasmus’s De Duplici rerum ac verborum copia, full of Ciceronian phrases and rhetoric, schoolboys – girls were rarely educated to this level in the Elizabethan period, unless they were lucky enough to have a private tutor – would have encountered a number of Latin authors, notably Ovid, whose Amores Shakespeare may have encountered and whose beguiling collection of tales Metamorphoses (‘Transformations’) infuses the language and style of plays including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the poem Venus and Adonis, and a copy of which even makes its way on stage as a prop in Titus Andronicus.[3]

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

A medieval illumination of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Antony and Cleopatra: Rome away from Rome

Yet while Shakespeare may have drawn a great deal of inspiration from Roman authors, when it comes to depicting Rome itself he wishes us to be under no illusions about what life at the imperial centre might actually be like. Perhaps the greatest contrast is drawn in Antony and Cleopatra, which – following the Greek biographer Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Shakespeare’s major source for his Roman plays – depicts the tumultuous relationship between the lovers by contrasting the starkly divided and gendered worlds they come from. Egypt is repeatedly portrayed as exotic, feminised, shifting and sexily sensual, while Rome is the hardened opposite: a world of chilly, chiselled masculine certainties. As Octavius Caesar puts it, complaining that Egypt has made his rival go soft:

Leave thy lascivious wassails. When thou once
Was beaten from Modena, where thou slew’st
Hirtius and Pansa, consuls, at thy heel
Did famine follow, whom thou foughtst against –
Though daintily brought up – with patience more
Than savages could suffer. Thou didst drink
The stale of horses, and the gilded puddle
Which beasts would cough at. (1.4.55–63)

What so scandalises Octavius here is not merely that the soldier Antony has left Rome far behind, but that he has also abandoned what Octavius and his colleagues regard as the pre-eminent virtues of Romanitas – military aggression, self-sacrifice (drinking the ‘stale’ or urine of horses) and the ruthless logic and focus that forged the greatest empire the world has ever known. ‘Let his shames quickly / Drive him to Rome,’ Caesar declares; ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt’, Antony cries earlier in the play (1.4.75–76; 1.135). We might be tempted to side with Antony.

North's translation of Plutarch's Lives

North's translation of Plutarch's Lives

Plutarch’s ‘Life of Julius Caesar’, an important source for Shakespeare’s play.

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Coriolanus: inside the gates

Coriolanus, written a few years after Antony and Cleopatra yet dealing with semi-legendary events in the 5th century BC, is even more unstinting in its depiction of life at the seat of empire. What we discover inside the walls of the polis is ghastly: citizens starving through famine, and a lordly ruling class who care so little for the suffering of the people that they are accused of stockpiling food. Outside Roman territory, there is a near-Orwellian permanent war, most recently an ongoing conflict with the Volscians. Inside the gates, the city is close to revolt, with a dysfunctional political system in which an unstable and unreliable democracy struggles under the shifting demands of realpolitik, notably between the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius (supposed to represent the people but unashamedly self-interested) and the aristocratic Senate.

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

Class struggle in Coriolanus.

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Though it’s hard to deny that Coriolanus is the tragedy of its troubled antihero, a soldier unable to accommodate himself to the demands of peacetime politics, the play can also be interpreted as a stinging critique of Rome and Roman values, which have reduced a mighty civilisation to a rat’s nest of competing special interests. As ever, Shakespeare uses a great deal of creative licence when depicting historical events: the action is condensed and several incidents superimposed, and historians these days argue that Coriolanus’s story is semi-mythical.[4] But it would not have escaped the attention of those Elizabethan audiences who knew their ancient history that the events of the play preceded the sack of Rome by the Gauls in 390BC, the worst disaster of the early Roman Republic.

Julius Caesar: Rome in rhetoric

Shakespeare is often accused of playing fast and loose with reality in his depictions of Roman life – during the anxious meeting of the conspirators early in Act 2 of Julius Caesar the stage directions call for a clock to strike 3 am (the technology would not become available for hundreds of years), and his Romans have been accused of being merely ‘Elizabethans in togas’, to borrow a much-recycled phrase.[5] In the most literal sense, that description seems accurate enough: according to the evidence of the ‘Peacham drawing’, a pen-and-ink sketch attributed to the writer Henry Peacham of a scene from Titus Andronicus, Elizabethan actors wore togas, armour and carried non-Roman weapons, apparently unfussy about supposed historical exactitude.

Yet it might be fairer to say that, as with so many of his other sources, the playwright uses his awareness of Romanness, his skill at what humanist educators called imitatio (perhaps best translated as ‘creative imitation’), to translate and transform material so that it reflected the concerns of his audiences.

Nowhere is this truer than in Julius Caesar, his most thoroughly Roman text and perhaps his most tightly plotted play. Written soon after the playwright completed his two paired cycles of English histories, the drama is relentless in its focus on how power is actually wielded and how democracy (mal)functions. Courageously, it also asks a question the English histories only hint at, and which it would have been treasonous to voice about Shakespeare’s own queen: whether monarchs are even a good idea.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Brutus and the ghost of Caesar. Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3 by Richard Westall.

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Though the tragedy feels undeniably approximate in its depiction of Roman life – the wise-talking cobblers and carpenters that open the action seem to have strolled off the streets of Elizabethan London, let alone the presence of that clock – it is less a piece of historiography than a play that thinks about Rome much more deeply and quizzically, a working out of classical concepts Shakespeare first encountered behind a schooldesk. There he would have been required to engage in disputatio in utramque partem, a Ciceronian exercise that involved arguing both sides of a political-cum-philosophical point, and which honed not only lawyerly techniques but emphasised the fact that every argument has at least two sides.[6] Schoolboys were expected to act out these dialogues as if for real, drawing from famous classical precedents. It isn’t hard to see how these childhood experiments in drama fired a boy who would one day write these lines:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest –
For Brutus is an honourable man,
So are they all, all honourable men –
Come I to speak at Caesar’s funeral. (3.2.74–85)

In Julius Caesar’s most famous speech, conducted for an audience on stage as well as in the theatre, Mark Antony deploys every rhetorical trick in the textbook – repeating the words of the conspirator Brutus (‘Romans, countrymen, and lovers’) back at him, deploying techniques such as paralipsis (emphasising a point by pretending to ignore it) and asyndeton (omission of conjunctions), as well as deploying scalding irony. As the speech builds in what humanist teachers called gradatio, each clanging repetition of that adjective ‘honourable’ will be another nail in the conspirators’ coffin.

Silver coin with bust of Mark Antony

Silver coin with bust of Mark Antony

Mark Antony: the play’s most persuasive speaker.

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In Julius Caesar, perhaps the most potent drama of ideas he ever composed, Shakespeare shows rhetoric swaying the fate of entire nations, both in the ancient world and the here and now. That alone proves he was more than paying attention to the Romans – and paying attention at school, too.


[1] Ben Jonson, ‘To the memory of my beloved, the Author Master William Shakespeare, and what he hath left us’, ll. 31–40. Printed in William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. lxxi.

[2] For what Shakespeare might have learned at school, and how, the best short survey is Colin Burrow, Shakespeare and Classical Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 21–50.

[3] The fullest survey is Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[4] See the introduction to William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, ed. by Lee Bliss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 10–17.

[5] The toga phrase is quoted in many accounts. The debate is covered well by John W Velz, ‘The Ancient World in Shakespeare: Authenticity or Anachronism? A Retrospect’, in Shakespeare in the Classical World, ed. by Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare Survey 31 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 1–12. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CCOL0521220114.001>.

[6] See Russ Macdonald, Shakespeare and the Arts of Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001), pp. 48–50.

  • Andrew Dickson
  • Andrew Dickson is an author, journalist and critic. A former arts editor at the Guardian in London, he writes regularly for the paper and appears as a broadcaster for the BBC and elsewhere. His book about Shakespeare's global influence, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe, is out now in paperback. He lives in London, and his website is andrewjdickson.com.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.