Two weeks ago, I wrote an op-ed arguing, among other things, that Shakespeare was not a notably erudite writer, and was not considered especially learned by his contemporaries or by his admirers for a long time after his death. Some of the responses to the piece took me on a guided tour down the rabbit hole of Oxfordian thinking. There, I learned that I had apparently claimed Shakespeare was “dumb,” “wasn’t very well educated, read only a few books,” “did not know what he was talking about,” and “that he was too badly educated to have anything intelligent to say to us.” Needless to say, I never wrote or even implied any of those things. The bizarre notion that a lack of Ben-Jonson-like levels of learning equals stupidity and artistic stuntedness is the Oxfordians’, not mine.
What I actually wrote, in the very limited space the Montreal Gazette allowed me, was that one of the things I considered most remarkable about Shakespeare was how shockingly straightforward he can be — his ability to capture the extraordinary in extraordinarily simple terms, or his skill at using ordinary language in extraordinary ways. That’s not all he does, obviously, but it’s the feature of Shakespeare’s style that to my mind is more striking than the learnedness or erudition of his frame of reference. In a similar vein, I’m generally far more taken with Shakespearean coinages that use a familiar word in unfamiliar ways than with those that import a foreign term into English (though “relume” is a personal favourite).
The best example of Shakespeare’s facility at playing those aspects of his art off against one another is a really obvious one — Macbeth’s
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No — this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red. (2.2.59-62)
Shakespeare didn’t “invent” either of the polysyllabic Latinate words in line 61, but he seems to have used them unlike any of his predecessors (and tellingly, unlike other writers for decades after him). “Incarnadine” was an adjective before he verbed it; and the sea as a multitude seems to be his idea — reversing the trite and common metaphor that casts a crowd as a sea, turning the sea into a crowd. Both verbal operations are characteristically Shakespearean, but neither is exactly a hallmark of great learning: they show him wielding great creative authority, indulging a willingness to wrest language into an unfamiliar shape, but they don’t demonstrate Shakespeare’s profound erudition (if anything, turning “incarnadine” into a verb displays a writerly creativity largely free of the shackles of etymological expertise).
Now, to be clear: saying that Shakespeare wasn’t immensely erudite (unlike, say, Jonson — or Thomas Heywood, for that matter!) is emphatically not the same as saying he was ignorant. I would have thought that’s obvious, but apparently it’s not. Putting the question in such binary terms is a favourite anti-Stratfordian strategy, though. Witness Diana Price, in Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: “Was Shakespeare learned, or an untutored natural wit?” (242). The obvious answer is “neither.” By the same token, anti-Stratfordians seem to think that Shakespeareans who point out that an Elizabethan grammar school education provided a thorough grounding in Latin literature and rhetoric therefore necessarily believe that this was all the knowledge Shakespeare ever acquired, making things like “Shakespeare’s evident command of languages not taught at the grammar school” (247) a “complete mystery” (250).
It’s not a mystery at all, of course. In fact, it’s no more or less a mystery than if Shakespeare had gone on to university: neither schools nor colleges offered foreign language instruction as part of their curricula (though that changed in the 17th century, as Mordechai Feingold has shown). To the extent that Shakespeare could read Italian and French texts, he picked up those languages on his own at some point after finishing his schooling. Which is exactly what most of his contemporaries would have done, using a familiar book (often the Bible), a dictionary, and a grammar — or a primer written for precisely this purpose. For French, he may have used his countryman John Eliot’s Ortho-pedia Gallica; traces of it, including the unusual French word “asture,” make it into some of his plays.
Exactly what kind of “command” he may have acquired this way may be questionable; but it’s equally doubtful that he needed much more than a rudimentary understanding of French or Italian to follow the plots of the handful of foreign-languages sources we can trace in his texts. There is very little evidence of any kind of “sophisticated command of foreign languages” (Price 250) in Shakespeare. Unlike many of his fellow playwrights — unlike Chapman, unlike Jonson, unlike Munday, etc. — he never translated anything; his engagement with texts in languages other than English and Latin was fairly minimal, restricted largely to the adoption of narrative sequences and the odd phrase.
Again (since I apparently need to state these things explicitly): that’s not to say Shakespeare was unsophisticated either in his reading or his writing. But his primary interest in reading texts, especially those in foreign languages, seems to have been that of a writerly hunter and gatherer. A voracious reader he may have been, but I don’t see any reason to believe that he devoured every book he came across. On the contrary, all the evidence we have suggests, to me at least, that he preferred returning to the same books over and over again for second, third, or twelfth helpings. North’s translation of Plutarch, Ovid’s Metamorphoses (both in Latin and, better yet, in Golding’s translation), Yong’s translation of Montemayor’s Diana Enamorada (finished by 1583), and Holinshed’s and Hall’s chronicles — these were the volumes to which Shakespeare kept coming back, from early in his career to the final plays he wrote.
Overall, Geoffrey Bullough identified no more than 70 volumes as clear or probable sources in his still-authoritative Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (click here for a list). To those, we can add another 30 or so texts Bullough describes as “possible” sources (another list here) — and then some books that fall outside the scope of his compilation: the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the metrical psalms, Montaigne’s Essays (probably in translation, possibly in French), Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It’s a respectable list. And it’s certainly incomplete: undoubtedly Shakespeare read things that influenced him in more diffuse ways (scholars are sometimes puzzled, for instance, by the near-absence of echoes of Drayton in Shakespeare). But in no way can the extant evidence justify claims such as this one: “The dramatist’s reading list had to have amounted to many hundreds, if not thousands of books” (Price 128).
Dismayingly, it’s in this hyperbolic characterization of Shakespeare’s reading habits that anti-Stratfordians sound an awful lot like mainstream Shakespeareans. James Shapiro, who really should know better, thinks that Shakespeare must have been a “familiar sight” in Paul’s Churchyard, “browsing through titles — for he could not possibly have owned all the books that echo through his plays. Nobody could or did own that many books, no bibliophile, no aristocrat, not even the Queen of England, with her sumptuous library housed at Whitehall Palace” (Contested Will, 224). That’s just silly. There is nothing to suggest that Shakespeare drew on more books than those contained in John Dee’s or Robert Cotton’s collection. What still survives of Ben Jonson’s library now is more impressive than the hypothetical Shakespearean library we can reconstruct through source study.
Even more dismayingly, both skeptics and Shakespeareans alike tend to think of the acquisition of knowledge as a text-based operation — Shakespeare learned by reading. That strikes me as a hugely anachronistic assumption. The alternative is often lampooned as the “Shakespeare in the pub” scenario (“Say, Ben, what’s this Montaigne fellow all about? Have a pint.”). But it’s just as implausible to posit that no knowledge was passed on orally at all. In fact, we know that the opposite was true on all levels of society and of learning. The eminent jurist Sir Edward Coke, for instance, recorded hundreds of legal maxims, precedents, and case notes as he heard them — while casually chatting to colleagues, while walking to court, or in intense and learned conversation with more senior figures. Sometimes he followed up by doing archival research or checking the books; but at least as often, the oral information he recorded seemed good enough — good enough to cite in court, that is. And Coke’s practice of gathering knowledge was widely shared across London, by antiquarians, natural historians and philosophers, by businesspeople and tradespeople. If London was a real-life early modern version of the Internet, as I have argued recently, its data was transported by word of mouth at least as much as in written form.
And Shakespeare, navigating those rich data streams, hunted, like many of his fellow dramatists, less for fully developed systems of thought or knowledge than for snippets: catchy plot lines, anecdotes, half-fragmentary ideas, and, more than anything, words. The sorts of things one could note down in one’s table-book, transfer into a commonplace book or a miscellany, and later recycle, rearrange, reuse in often unpredictable and, yes, breathtakingly creative ways. None of this required access to a huge library, nor was the process helped by massive erudition: there’s probably a reason Shakespeare produced on average two plays a year while Ben Jonson laboured endlessly over his works. But it also required more than “natural genius” (whatever that may be), and the verbal art it created was far from simple or unsophisticated. It was an ongoing, endless process fuelled by what young Will had learned in grammar school: a technique of gathering and recombining words that stayed with him throughout his writing life.
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