Neoclassical Influence on Shakespeare

Shannon Saymaz

Scattered throughout Shakespeare’s plays are references to the classical myths. This has raised the questions what were the influences on Shakespeare and how much of his schooling in Neoclassicism enriched his writing. There is growing evidence that he was not only a great observer of human folly but a learned author.

Shakespeare is thought to have attended the King’s Free Grammar School at Stratford, yet there are no records to prove he actually attended. He would have been a student of the Tudor humanist classroom. “Humanism is the revival of classical learning, including literature, philosophy, and the sciences.” (Johanyak 203) Humanist during the Renaissance time encouraged the reexamination of classic forms and ideals from Latin and Greek texts. Another focus of humanism is the nature and limitations of humanity. There is no surviving curriculum for Kings Free Grammar School but we can get an idea of what was taught by looking at what we know of other schools during that time. It was common for Students to learn to speak Latin, Greek, and mathematics. It is believed that Shakespeare received Latin rhetorical training by the practice of double translation. Pupils had to read over a classical text and then were given a limited time to copy from memory what they read word for word. (Borrow 10) This was a source of frustration for students with limited memory. The aim was to inspire students to emulate the masters in their own writing.

A possible text he might have studied in grammar school was Andria. In Andria the Terentian formula for comic plots is discussed in detail. “The Terentian formula is five parted and serves as model for a multitude of variations, and the battle of the sexes, which constitutes the underlying motivation of the variegated romantic-courtship stories” (Nevo 3). The two identities and plot- doubling is seen when Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew disguises himself as Bianca’s tutor. “The figures we depend on to bring about comedy’s happy endings are the disguisers who take on a second identity, the magicians who call up an alternative reality.” (Snyder 33)

Even though Shakespeare did not attend Schools of higher learning he continued to self educate himself. There is evidence to substantiate that Shakespeare was well acquainted with the works of Ovid. Ovid was born in 43 B.C. during Rome’s Golden Age. Ovid wrote the Metamorphoses, an epic poem about change both physical and figurative. Gods and men are physically transformed to animals or things in nature. When he writes about the fall of Troy and the rise of Rome he comments on the changing status of man’s power in the world. The many possibilities of love are also present in Ovid’s work. (“Metamorphosis Book Notes Summary by Ovid: Author/Context”) It is easy to find references to Ovid in comedies like A Midsummer Nights Dream where we see the physical transformation of Nick Bottom into an Ass but in The Taming of The Shrew it is not a physical manifestation but rather a psychological change that takes place in Kate.

The two couples in the play Katharine / Petruchio and Bianca/ Lucentio present us with different options on how a relationship is meant to endure. Bianca and Lucentio are the model courtship in comparison with the brutality of Petruchio’s wooing of Kate. Lucentio transforms himself into a classics instructor named Cambio to get closer to Bianca. Like Orlando in “As you like it” he is infatuated with the notion of romantic love. But unlike Orlando he can’t seem to move on into mature love. He relies on poetic and classic definitions of love and doesn’t create an authentic relationship with Bianca. In 1.1 169-171 he compares himself to the mythological story of Jove. In the myth Jove takes on the form of a bull to abduct Europa daughter of Agenor. Lucentio may be able to quote lines from classical texts but is unable to act upon their meanings. In Shakespeare’s comedies the heroines are not only capable of quoting Ovid’s work but applying his notions of love in their lives. It is their suitors who most be schooled. (James 70) His heroines resent being compared to Goddess and are annoyed with being portrayed as a physical manifestation of their ideal fantasy of love. They want to experience the sexual and social freedom expressed in Ovid not being ignorant of the disappoint that comes with pleasure. Lucentio has to contend with two other suitors Hortensio and the older gentlemen suitor Gremio. The plot of the older suitor rival called senex amator comes from Roman New Comedy and Italian commedia. (James 69).

At first read it would seem odd to compare Ovid with the institution of marriage because he is more associated with “sexual desire and the processes and pitfalls of seduction.”(James 69) Yet every relationship has some element of Ovid, which I argue is natural in a maturing relationship. You chose to date someone not only because you find their qualities admirable but you find them sexually attractive. When you begin dating you put on the best image of your self. You mask your flaws and insecurities only revealing your whole self when you decide you are less venerable to manipulation.

Kate’s transformation from shrew to obedient housewife seems as dramatic as Jove taking the form of a bull because it is so contradictor to what we perceive is her nature. We see two extremes of behavior. In the beginning she is hitting her tutors over the head with lutes but by the end she is submitting as a slave to her husband’s commands. Petruchio appears to have successful broken her spirit. But critics believe there are different ways to interpret this transformation. The first is the suspicion that deep down she wasn’t a shrew but an insecure girl jealous of her sister’s marriage proposals. Her father makes no secret that he favors Bianca which must likely fuel her outbursts. In 2.1 254-255 Katharine is pestering Bianca to confide in her which suitor she loves the best. And she is low key during the wedding ceremony putting up a weak protest to Petruchio’s embarrassing conduct possible because like every woman she dreams of her wedding day. The second theory is through Petruchio’s cruel and inhuman treatment she is humbled into the model housewife. He acts like an animal trainer taming a wild cat. He begins the training with reverse psychology. He calls her bonny Kate and lies that her mildness has been praised in every town. (2:1 185-191) His false praises takes her off guard and lowers her defenses. Later on he employs physical means of behavioral corrections locking her in a room refusing her food and water. The third theory is that she has not been transformed at all but is playing out a role a married woman during the Renaissance must act out to have an enduring relationship. The institute of marriage is not impermeable to Ovid’s theme of power struggle. But we prefer Petruchio and Kate as a couple over the traditional pairing of Bianca and Lucentio because they are evenly matched. They are stalemates in the battle of wits. Critics believe Shakespeare ideal image of marriage was based on “mutuality rather than subjugation.” (Zajko 40) During the time Queen Elizabeth the “emblem for the miracle of marriage was the hermaphrodite a joined male and female.” (Zajko 40) Unfortunately, by the end of the play we don’t see them as equal. Readers may feel betrayed by Kate’s willingness to abandon her equality to Petruchio. It is not entirely impossible that Kate is only playing the game and inside the fiery Kate readers expect. It is more uncomfortable to see her disciplined than it was to see her shrewish behavior. The reader doesn’t believe her conduct justified Petruchios harsh treatment.

The relationship of Kate and Petruchio is similar to Ovid’s telling of the myth of Apollo and Daphne. In the myth Cupid is playing with Apollo’s arrows using it to infuse love in whomever he shoots. Apollo chides him and says his arrows are best used for his purpose. Cupid is insulted and seeks revenge by shooting him with an arrow causing him to fall madly in love with Daphne, daughter of the river Peneus. He then shoots her with a lead pointed arrow that repels love making her run away from his advances. She runs through the forest her skin scratched by branches. Desperately she calls out to her father Peneus to change her shape and to destroy her beauty so she will no longer be chased by Apollo. He yields to her wish and turns her into a laurel tree. Apollo unable to make her his wife makes the laurel tree sacred. He wrapped his bow and lyre in laurel wreaths and wears laurel in his hair. (“Metamorphosis Book Notes Summary by Ovid: Author/Context”) In the opening acts of The Taming of the Shrew Petruchio is relentlessly pursing Kate and refuses no for an answer, “I must and will have Katharine to my wife.” (2:1 138) Petruchio is unwilling to have Kate his equal so she is transformed into a submissive wife, bent to his wishes and commands.

The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy about the many possibilities of love. Ovid’s theme of metamorphosis can take place not only physically but psychological as in the case of Katherine. Shakespeare used his knowledge of the Classics to give depth to the couples in his comedies. Critics can accuse him of relying to heavily on already established themes and plots but they don’t see the genius he had in making them fresh and relatable to Renaissance and modern audiences. It is uncertain exactly his influences were but it is evident he had a working knowledge of the classics and molded it to his own imagination.

Works Cited

Burrow, Colin. “Shakespeare and humanistic culture.” Shakespeare and the Classics. Ed. Martindale Charles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 10-14.

James, Heather. “Shakespeare’s learned heroines in Ovid’s schoolroom.” Shakespeare and the Classics. Ed. Martindale Charles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 68-72.

Johanyak, D.L. Shakespeare’s World. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004. 203.

“Metamorphosis Book Notes Summary by Ovid: Author/ Context.” 4 Nov. 2007 <

Nevo, Ruth. “Shakespeare’s Comic Remedies.” Shakespeare Comedy. Ed. Maurice Charney. New York: New York Literary Forum, 1980. 3-5.

Shakespeare, William. “The Taming of the Shrew.” The Necessary Shakespeare Second Edition. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005. 5-41.

Snyder, Susan. “Wise Saws and Modern Instances: The Relevance of Donatus.” Shakespeare Comedy. Ed. Maurice Charney. New York: New York Literary Forum 1980. 29- 34.

Zajko, Vanda. “The Taming of the Shrew and Ovid.” Shakespeare and the Classics. Ed. Martindale Charles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 33-44.