Monday, 2 May 2016

Small Latin and Less Greek

While watching one of the many recent television programmes about the Bard of Avon, I was amused to hear a historian mention how the BBC had celebrated the “tercentenary” of Shakespeare’s birth.  The BBC is a venerable institution, but would have to be a lot older than it is to have been able to do that, since the tercentenary occurred in 1864.  What she was talking about was the “quatercentenary”, which I remember quite well myself, purely because I found the word rather troubling; surely, I thought, it should have another “r” in it?  I was only eight years old then, and had not learned any Latin.

The historian’s inability to cope with long words that are virtually never used nowadays reflected her youth.  She presumably did not study Latin at school, or she would certainly have been able to make an educated guess at the meaning of “tercentenary”, even if she had never come across the word before.  Shakespeare himself would, of course, have learned Latin at grammar school, and we even know the name of his teacher – Thomas Jenkins, a Welshman. 

It seems, though, that Shakespeare was not much of a Latin scholar.  He certainly used Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives as the basis of his play Julius Caesar.   Latin was not essential for reading most of the works from which he drew the plots of his plays.  His friend Ben Jonson wrote that he had “small Latin and less Greek”, and in Julius Caesar we find the first-ever published use of the phrase “it was Greek to me”. Had he been a more accomplished classical scholar, Shakespeare might have been drawn into using classical dramatic conventions in the manner of a Racine or Corneille long before he finally observed the unities of time and place in one of his last plays, The Tempest.  

Shakespeare belongs firmly in the world of the Elizabethan actor, an itinerant worker with no practical skills to his name. His companions were men like Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert, John Heminges and Will Kempe. They came from lower and middle-class backgrounds and would have been moderately well-educated but had not been to university.  They were usually well-travelled. If they were in the service of the monarch or another important person, they might also be well-paid.  Some of the playwrights of the age were better educated: Christopher Marlowe was a Cambridge graduate (though it did not mean quite the same as it does now) and Ben Jonson himself, though from humble beginnings, won a scholarship to the prestigious Westminster School. 

Shakespeare’s lack of Latin, as evinced by his preference for alternative sources for the plays he wrote, indicates that he did not belong to the nobility, but I will avoid getting into the Shakespeare authorship “question” (if there really is a question).  Latin continued to be the language of choice for serious writers for centuries to come, Isaac Newton famously using it for his scientific treatises.  Others who wrote mainly in Latin included the philosophers RenĂ© Descartes and Thomas Hobbes. Even poetry and drama continued to be written in Latin, partly with the intention of it reaching an international audience.

By the early twentieth century, most public schoolboys and even grammar school boys had a good grounding in the Classics and it influenced their writing.  We've discussed this before, so we need not go into the details here. What is interesting about Siegfried Sassoon is that he, like Shakespeare, wrote his most effective poetry when he found the level of the average person, like the soldiers he found under his command in the First World War.  You could almost say that he "dumbed down" his writing to suit them.  In the sixteenth century, that would be considered no bad thing.  Medieval writers had a duty to appeal to the lowest common denominator because this enabled them to spread their work amongst the largest possible number of people, in the days before printing found its way to Britain and when illiteracy was still commonplace.  It did not do Shakespeare's work any harm. His "universality" is the thing we most admire about him, and I think that is also true of Sassoon.

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