The Vanilla of Magical Thinking

By Rhodri LewisApril 29, 2019

The Vanilla of Magical Thinking

How the Classics Made Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate

OVER THE YEARS, Shakespeare’s art has been praised for many things. But to the best of my knowledge, it has never been singled out for its classicism. In the famous judgment of Shakespeare’s rival and occasional drinking partner, Ben Jonson, the Stratford man had “small Latin and less Greek.” For Jonson, Shakespeare’s accomplishments were of a different order: the gift, not of painstaking study, but of natural talent and the determination to represent the experience of the world in all its complexity. As such, he was a true original — one who, moreover, showcased the confidence, flexibility, and newfound dignity of the English language. In the later 17th century, John Dryden saw in Jonson’s vision not only a vindication of modern literature as against that of the ancients, but an elevation of English drama above the heavily classicizing French canon of Molière, Corneille, and Racine. It was precisely Shakespeare’s lack of interest in decorous formality that set him apart. Like Homer before him, he might occasionally nod or go a bit far, but like Homer he had embarked on a voyage of poetic discovery. The Romantics were irresistibly drawn both to Shakespeare’s works and to the idea of their author as a prodigy of imaginative freedom, and as Bardolatry became a global religion over the course of the long 19th century, the popular image of Shakespeare as a genius of transcendently natural creativity took hold.

In truth, Jonson had a point. Relative to many of his contemporary poets, dramatists, and historians — the showily erudite Jonson foremost among them — Shakespeare can by no means be thought of as learned. The rub is that what could be described as having “small Latin and less Greek” in the early 17th century would, translated to the 20th or 21st centuries, look saturated in antiquity. Shakespeare had probably read and digested more Greek and Roman literature than most present-day Classics graduates.

“Probably” is not reviewerly equivocation: even if we accept the existence of Shakespeare’s borrowings from the classical canon as a given, excavating them is no easy task. Shakespeare wore his learning lightly, seldom stooping to draw his audience’s attention to the materials that fired his imagination. We can talk with reasonable certainty about the sources on which he drew for a number of his plays, just as we can vouch for the ancient texts and authors to whom he and other 16th-century grammar school pupils were introduced in the course of their educations. Beyond this, however, we’re constrained to inference and conjecture. Does that allusion to Virgil come from the original, from a translation, from its use by another poet, from its presence in a textbook of rhetoric or grammar, or from one of the printed compendia or commonplace books compiled for the convenience of students — and many older writers — in a hurry? More often than not, we just don’t know. To paraphrase the great Janet Malcolm, it follows that any Shakespearean who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that to write about what Shakespeare read, to say nothing of the ways in which he might have read it, is to try to sell conclusions of whose validity he can never completely be sure.

How the Classics Made Shakespeare wastes no time with such handwringing. In the book’s opening chapter, Jonathan Bate affirms Shakespeare’s principal debts to classical literature, confidently introducing us to the two most outstanding examples of the kind. The first of these is Plutarch, above whom sits Ovid, “the author in whose work [Shakespeare] found the things that made him a poet and a dramatist […] the master who taught Shakespeare that what makes great literary art is extreme human passion.” We might, I suppose, feel moved to reflect that “extreme human passion” was no better for the artistic ambitions of Shakespeare’s Orlando than it was for those of Florence Foster Jenkins, but such quibbles risk missing the point: Bate’s goal is to establish his own authorial voice. In this, he succeeds entirely.

His book began life as the inaugural series of E. H. Gombrich Lectures in the Classical Tradition, delivered at the Warburg Institute, London, in October 2013. Aby Warburg was a German-Jewish art historian and cultural theorist who was also the scion of a wealthy banking dynasty. Frustrated by the impressionistic connoisseurship that he took to have blighted the study of art history, he used his family money to found the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg in Hamburg. After a long gestation, this conjoined library and research institute opened its doors in 1926. It was dedicated to the rigorously intensive interdisciplinary and intercultural study of Renaissance art and culture, particularly emphasizing the role played by the survival and transmission of classical antiquity. Warburg died in 1929. In 1933, the institute that bears his name got out while it could, and relocated to London. The list of creatively learned scholars who have worked at the Warburg Institute since then is as impressive as it is diverse. What all have had in common is a commitment to Warburg’s twin beliefs that “we [should] seek out our ignorance and attack it wherever we can find it,” and that “God is in the details [Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail].”

Bate pays due tribute to the Warburgian approach, albeit through the medium of Ernst Robert Curtius’s not very Warburgian 1948 study European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Bate also prefers Nachleben to afterlife, and doffs his cap here and there to individual studies by Warburg luminaries. The fact remains that How the Classics Made Shakespeare stands in no more than vestigial relation to the Warburgian project, however construed. In Bate’s own formulation, “It is always easier for a scholar to be ‘original’ by positing a ‘hitherto unknown source’ than by remaining focused on the common currency of the canonical figures who shaped a tradition — in our case, most notably Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and Seneca.” This “common currency” method may look old-fashioned, but it has several advantages, not the least of which is the freedom it confers. If x can plausibly be shown to have been in the air in the years around 1600, then Shakespeare is likely to have inhaled it:

By considering the diversity of Shakespeare’s direct and indirect encounters with the classics, this book attempts not only to fill some of the gaps in the existing scholarship but also to demonstrate more broadly that his imagination and his sympathies were shaped above all by forms of thinking derived from what the character of Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream calls “antique” (or “antic”) “fables.”

I don’t understand why “and indirect” has been italicized, and I also wonder how we are supposed to identify indirect sources when direct ones already give us so many headaches. Probably, Bate just means to draw a distinction between sources and analogues or intertexts — writings that may or may not have entered Shakespeare’s ken but that enable us to discern features of his works that would otherwise remain hidden from view. There is, even so, something winningly paradoxical about an argument that promises to demonstrate how the powers of sympathetic imagination that appealed so much to the Romantics have their origins not in untutored native genius, but in Shakespeare’s dependence on cultural and literary tradition.

It is also cheering to read of Bate’s conviction that “Shakespearean questions are only ever resolved dramatically, never philosophically. […] [M]etaphysical generalization on stage is always liable to be subverted by [dramatic] context.” The experience of the play as a whole, not the doctrines espoused by particular characters within it, is the thing. Likewise, Bate’s declaration that “Shakespeare was a thinker who always made it new, adapted his source materials, and put his own spin on them” offers a measure of reassurance to anyone troubled by his book’s ill-chosen title. If the classics made Shakespeare, they also made countless hacks and mediocrities; if we are to identify the most distinctive features of Shakespeare’s art, we need to look beyond his ease with the basic literacy of his age.


Turning to the meat of Bate’s book, the first thing to observe is that he has “sought to retain the feel of a speaking voice and a tone that is sometimes informal.” Despite the fact that How the Classics Made Shakespeare is a lot longer than the lectures on which it is based, this decision is surely the right one. Moreover, when Bate’s oratorical style works well, it works very well: the diversionary gambit with which he opens his final substantive chapter comes off brilliantly. Elsewhere, Bate gives himself license to imagine Shakespeare, “probably bored,” at prayer in St Helen’s Church in Bishopsgate, plausibly finding in the scene the germ of Measure for Measure. Not even remotely academic, but it’s excellent stuff.

Unfortunately, the retention of Bate’s speaking voice cannot always be said to succeed. There is the repetition of epithets as if one were reading Dickens or a mock-Homeric poem (how many times do we need to be told that Michael Drayton was Shakespeare’s Warwickshire contemporary?), the repetition of material and phrases over only a few pages (e.g., the murder of Cinna the Poet in Julius Caesar), solecisms that might pass unnoticed if heard rather than read (honey is not distilled), recurrent ambiguity about the antecedents of particular pronouns (spoken delivery would presumably make these clearer), outbreaks of purple breathlessness (“Shakespeare passionately penned an apostrophe”), and some clunking attempts at humor (in a lecture hall, I can imagine smiling at “Love’s Labour’s Lost might just as well have been called ‘rhetoric’s labours lost’,” but on the page I’m mainly grateful that no trace of Love’s Labour’s Won appears to survive).

One of the least agreeable things about revising lectures for publication is having to research and insert references after the fact. Bate attacks the problem with gusto: his notes are a compendious guide to the great, the good, and the otherwise eye-catching in the past several decades of Shakespeare studies. If the works cited don’t always support the point under discussion, and if the notes — especially in the first half of the book — are wildly over-discursive, their presentation in endnote form at least prevents the reader from getting too distracted. The frequent errors of fact are harder to ignore. To take five examples of different kinds from different parts of the book, Shakespeare was not the first person to fuse the “ages of man” with the idea that all the world’s a stage (as Bate himself, if his 2008 intellectual biography of Shakespeare is anything to go by, once knew); Milton’s 16 lines of rhyming couplets “On Shakespeare” are in no sense a sonnet; the Latin honestus (“honorable”) is not a noun; the Greek goddess Atë is neither the “spirit of chaos” nor the “spirit of havoc”; Giordano Bruno was nobody’s “English disciple.” We might also note that if Bate has evidence to support his contention that the historian and philosopher Ioan Petru Culianu “was assassinated by the Romanian security forces,” he really should pass it on to the FBI.

Suffice it to say that this would have been a better book if Bate had taken more pains in readying it for publication. The real problem, to which I now want to turn, is that careless writing is among the least of the flaws that make How the Classics Made Shakespeare so disappointing.

Take the Warburgian question of transmission. Given the challenge of pinning down most of Shakespeare’s sources with any exactitude — a difficulty that is particularly acute with classical ideas and topoi that had become early modern commonplaces — Bate’s concentration on “indirect” sources (or analogues, or intertexts) might seem fair enough. But he also evinces no awareness of or concern with the ways in which the classical heritage survived into the 16th century, a topic about which very much can and should be said. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were not in dialogue with ancient Rome directly but with a Rome mediated through the many centuries of cultural production (and destruction) that distanced the deposition of Romulus Augustus from the accession of James I. Periodization may be arbitrary, but history is not: Bate pays the scantiest heed to the “medieval” diffusion of the classics, and he shows no interest whatsoever in the early modern editions (regularly printed with commentaries and glosses) through which Shakespeare engaged with Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Seneca, and the rest. Bate prints an appendix detailing English translations of Virgil in the 16th century, but this is beside the point. Shakespeare, like everyone else who attended an Elizabethan grammar school, encountered Virgil in the original. Although there’s no space to discuss the subject here, the decision to stint on the transmission and reception of classical ideas gets Bate into particular difficulty when it comes to questions of religion.

Like many critics with an argument to make, Bate’s preferred mode of engagement with the text is assertion rather than exegesis. Nothing wrong with this: literary criticism is a house with many mansions, and there are innumerable ways of writing well about any work or author or moment. All that is required for Bate’s approach to succeed is that his assertions be accurate enough and that the argument they serve be in some sense illuminating.

Accuracy first. It is genuinely difficult to know what to make of a close Shakespearean reader who appears, as Bate does, to believe that the “Amazonian chin” of the 16-year-old Coriolanus (slaying all before him on the battlefield in a precocious display of martial valor) shows simply that he was “perceived as feminine.” Or consider Antony readying himself for suicide with the thought that he will join Cleopatra in the Elysian Fields — where, “hand in hand,” they will outshine “Dido and her Aeneas.” For Bate, as for Antony, this is about the apotheosis of love. For Shakespeare and his classically literate audience members, it is about the power of wishful thinking: one of the key moments in Book Six of Virgil’s Aeneid features Dido, disconsolate, refusing even to acknowledge Aeneas as, full of histrionic self-reproach, he reaches out to her in the underworld. Antony needs a grand gesture to redeem his disgrace and demise, and he doesn’t trouble himself with the details; a student of Antony and Cleopatra needs to do better. Bate’s readings are not always this heedless, but it is bewildering to find “one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare” (to borrow a line of Bate’s own blurb) so persistently shutting his eyes to the nuances of writing in which difficulty, and with it ambiguity, are deliberate artistic strategies.

Moving on to illumination, How the Classics Made Shakespeare adopts two main interpretative postures, roughly half the book being devoted to each. The first of these holds 1) that the classical heritage is a key but neglected aspect of Shakespeare’s works, and 2) that Shakespeare’s works are a key but neglected medium through which to appreciate the pervasive classicism of the Elizabethan and early Jacobean ages. Yes, there’s a deep circularity here. And yes, there’s more than a hint of the Pooterishly over-enthusiastic classics master, insisting on the primacy both of his subject and of his place as its explicator. But there are good things too. For instance, the emphasis on the place of demonstrative rhetoric in Shakespeare’s dramatic imagination is a welcome contribution to a field of inquiry recently reinvigorated by Quentin Skinner, offering a plausible vantage from which to reconsider some famous lines by Lady Macbeth. Too often, however, Bate’s chapters consist of glorified lists: the occasions on which Shakespeare mentions Horace or Ovid or Cicero by name; the occasions on which a particular figure from the classical tradition is mentioned by name; the occasions on which various English authors imagined England or Britain or London as a new Rome; and so on. Bate is aware that vanishingly little of this qualifies as news. His lists are therefore livened up with biographical and historical hand-waving: Shakespeare found in Horace’s “movement between competitive Rome and the rural peace of his farm at Tivoli” the model for his own “commute” between London and Stratford-upon-Avon; “Shakespeare was the Cicero of his age”; by giving birth to “a national literature,” Shakespeare “enabled his nation to stand apart from the rest of Europe.”

Bate’s second interpretative posture, which gives every impression of being deeply felt, turns to the status of Shakespeare’s art as art. Its thesis is that the classics as Shakespeare read them freed him from Christian-Puritan dogma, and drew him to the inter-relationships between “the magical, the erotic, and the imaginative” that, on Bate’s account, animate Shakespeare’s dramatic-poetic practice. Reading these chapters, it is tempting to suppose that Ted Hughes’s biographer has been captured by the goddess of complete being. Alas, the reality is less grandiose — and far less coherent. It is as if the Werther of the Romantic imagination survived into respectably bürgerlich middle age, only to find himself possessed by the id of Alfred Kinsey.

At the center of all this are some comments made toward the end of “Shakespeare’s most magical play,” A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the company of his wife, Hippolyta, the Athenian ruler Theseus reviews the story of the young lovers in the woods. He is impressed by neither “[t]hese antique fables, nor these fairy toys.” The authors of such fictions (“poets”) are no better than “lovers” or “madmen,” whose apprehensions of the world are dominated by “shaping fantasies” — delusional imaginations. For his part, the poet glances up to the heavens, and as his “imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown,” so his “pen” gives to “airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.” When Theseus finally stops talking, Hippolyta counters that the “story” of the lovers in the woods is more than a fanciful distraction, and that it “grows to something of great constancy; / But howsoever, strange and admirable.” Taken as a whole, the exchange between Theseus and Hippolyta offers a defense of poetics and of drama consonant with those of early modern convention. In Bate’s version, by contrast, Hippolyta’s lines are ignored: “The poet can apprehend the joy of love, or for that matter the joy of sex. […] Through the voice of Theseus, Shakespeare describes exactly what he does in the play, exactly how his art works. In so doing, he implicitly acknowledges that theatre is a conjuring trick, a piece of magic.” Bate’s “implicitly” carries a heavy burden here. His introductory declaration that, because “Shakespearean questions are only ever resolved dramatically” there is “always another side to the question,” begins to look like cant.

I don’t happen to believe that Bate’s emphasis on the playwright as magician can survive either the degree of heuristic agency that Shakespeare gives his audiences or the accounts of the psychology of illusion given by, for one, E. H. Gombrich. But poetic-dramatic magic is not, in fact, a topic to which Bate devotes much attention. He only gets into his stride when talking about sexual desire. Here he is on love as presented in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

We no longer imagine falling in love as a transformation precipitated by an external agency — Cupid’s dart or the juice of love-in-idleness — but the underlying model of the psychology of the process is not so very different from our own. It is just the language that is different: the Elizabethans’ mythological narrative of desire has been replaced by our neurochemical one, which goes roughly as follows. We are programmed with a biological imperative to reproduce. The hypothalamus therefore stimulates the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. But reproduce with whom? This is where the laws of chemical attraction come into play: the dopamine rush, the release of a related hormone, norepinephrine, which makes us giddy, energetic, euphoric, obsessive, wide-eyed, even unable to eat or sleep. Sooner or later, probably sooner, some pharmacologist will distil the essence of testosterone, dopamine, and norepinephrine into a drug that will have precisely the same effect as Puck’s love-in-idleness, and we will say, as we so often do, that Shakespeare got there four hundred years before us.

However, the sexual arousal that comes with these hormones has a downside: they appear to shut down those parts of the prefrontal cortex that regulate critical thinking, self-awareness, and rational behavior. It is presumably out of an instinctive understanding of this, along with the experiential knowledge that being madly in love is usually a state that lasts for a maximum of about eighteen months, that most cultures for most of human history have taken the view that “romantic love” is not a good basis for marriage and parenthood.

Has ever purblind heteronormativity seemed less charming than this? Bate’s “experiential knowledge” cannot be second-guessed, but we can surmise that he has never been an attentive reader of Bataille or Kierkegaard. Or, say, Alan Hollinghurst. There are those who believe that trying to parse something as probingly humane as Shakespeare’s writing with the language of sciences as young as evolutionary biology or cognitive psychology is doomed to failure — a little like trying to recreate the Mona Lisa with a yellow crayon, a purple crayon, and the draftsmanship of a hyperactive toddler. Be that as it may, what is most striking about Bate’s distillation of love in the Dream is not that it is crude or desperate to seem meaningfully current (though it is both of those things), but that its engagement with the play’s account of sexuality is so stunted. It is easy to imagine the kinds of fun that Shakespeare might have had with the belief that sex is a matter of the “biological imperative to reproduce” — except that we don’t have to because on this occasion he really did get there ahead of us. In Much Ado About Nothing, we are presented with the spectacle of Benedick, a young rationalist trying at once to make sense of and to deny his growing attraction to Beatrice. Well, he shrugs in high-minded ignorance of himself, “the world must be peopled.” Bate elsewhere writes of Shakespeare’s “bisexual imagination” (I don’t know what this is supposed to mean, but even so), and goes as far as to gesture to the male homosexuality of Plato’s Symposium alongside Shakespeare’s Sonnets. He knows, and knows that Shakespeare knows, that babies are not the only fruit, and yet he cannot bring himself to integrate this knowledge into his argument.

As befits a book on Shakespeare and the classics, Bate more generally spares us displays of rhetorical scientism. Here he is reflecting on rape and Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece:

[I]n the context of Shakespeare and eros, the point that needs to be made about The Rape of Lucrece is that it offers an astonishingly powerful account of the animal force of raging male desire. Furious at Lucrece’s steadfast refusal to submit to his advances, Tarquin sets his foot on the light, muffles her cries by wrapping the bed linen around her face, and stains her bed with his “prone lust.” Rape is the extreme consequence of desire as a disease that overcomes reason and restraint. In the absence of consent, rape is masculinity’s way of purging the “infirmity named hereos.” It is as much a form of derangement as the jealousy that turns a man to madness when he is tormented by the mental image of his beloved in bed with another man: Troilus seeing Cressida with Diomed, Othello thinking of Cassio lying on Desdemona, Posthumus imagining Iachimo mounting chaste Imogen “like a full-acorned boar,” Leontes watching Hermione and Polixenes “paddling palms” and convincing himself that the child full in her womb is not his own.

It is hard to know where to start. The weird redundancy of “full” in the final line? The implication that sexual jealousy is a particularly male trait? The conviction that rape (a verb) and jealousy (a noun that might lead to a verb) are equivalent or even comparable forms of “derangement”? The concomitant notion that rape is “the extreme consequence of desire” rather than something to do with the assertion of power, the urge to compensate for feelings of impotence or insignificance, or any of the other grimly quotidian pathologies of sex crime? The unsuitability of the comparisons to other Shakespearean males, none of whom are moved to so much as contemplate rape by their jealousies or suspicions?

I am opting for the interpretative violence that Bate permits himself in bending Lucrece to his discursive ends. Unquestionably, Lucrece gives us a powerful account of what we might call toxic masculinity. But it is crassly unobservant to pretend that Shakespeare’s focus is on “the animal force of raging male desire.” His Tarquin is terrifying because he is not just an appetitive brute, but is torn by his urge to possess and thereby defile the wife of a friend and comrade-in-arms — to possess and defile her precisely because her husband has, with justice but to his own self-aggrandizing ends, extolled her as a paragon of modestly feminine piety. Tarquin knows that what he wants to do is both dishonorable and cruel, but he goes ahead and does it anyway: “My heart [i.e., conscience] shall never countermand mine eye.” Tarquin realizes that Lucrece’s piety will almost certainly lead her to reject his advances, but this knowledge only serves further to enflame his desire. As Shakespeare makes clear in giving us Tarquin’s internal dialogue as he creeps up and into Lucrece’s bedchamber (and as becomes yet clearer in his exchanges with Lucrece herself), his decision to rape if he cannot seduce is not thus the product of “fury.” It is, rather, carefully premeditated. In Lucrece, Shakespeare doesn’t tell us anything new about male sexuality, but urges us to consider the shortcomings of a moral order in which the fraternally competitive performance of piety or virtue or honor or friendship is the only good, in which a crime is only a crime if seen as such, and in which a woman like Lucrece would prefer to die rather than be publicly regarded with pity or disdain. Exactly the order represented in the foundation of the Roman Republic and which, on Bate’s account, exerted through Cicero’s mediation a defining influence on Shakespeare and on “the [British] ruling class from Shakespeare’s time until the mid-twentieth century.” Bate is shrewd about Shakespeare’s impatience (in Lucrece and elsewhere) with the self-regardingly heroic valor of the Virgilian tradition. It’s too bad that his insight does not extend to thinking about sex and the politics of Ciceronianism.


Finally, How the Classics Made Shakespeare does not put the case that Shakespeare offers us a transformative-transcendent vision of human sexuality of the kind sketched by D. H. Lawrence, Anaïs Nin, or even a Judith Krantz. We are instead asked to swallow sex as the lowest common denominator, joining together Roman antiquity, the Shakespearean imagination, present-day science, and everyday lived experience.

I don’t have anything against the middlebrow as such: comfort food has its place. With all the usual professionally nitpicky caveats, I am also all for anything that helps to disseminate the important truths that 1) Shakespeare was imbued with the classical learning of his humanist education and era, and 2) there was nothing exceptional about his classical learning, other than the intelligently creative uses to which he put it. My problems only begin when Shakespeare gets the middlebrow makeover that may simply be the price of his status as, in Bate’s closing estimation, “our singular classic.”

However great the temptation to sanitize in the name of taste or profitability or habit, the truth is that Shakespeare is never middlebrow, never safe, never conventional, never reassuring, never clear-cut. He is a joyously uninhibited lowbrow with a fine line in bawdy who just as readily turns brain-twistingly elevated; and of course, he is often both at the same time. His clear-eyed depictions of sexual desire and its consequences are fine cases in point. It is just that, for Shakespeare, the vicissitudes of neither sex nor romantic love are enough of a basis on which to fashion the kind of dramatic and poetic “dreams” in which he was interested, and whose limitations he understood only too well. Rather, he wrote to explore and ultimately to escape the vanilla of magical thinking — the self-same confection into which Bate would have us plunge him back.


Rhodri Lewis teaches English and Comparative Literature at Princeton University.

LARB Contributor

Rhodri Lewis teaches English and Comparative Literature at Princeton, and has interests in the literature and history of early modern England and Europe. His most recent book, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, was published in 2017.


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