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.

9 Responses to Shakespearean Mythbusting II: The Fantasy of Astonishing Erudition

  1. William Ray says:

    Very interesting, your report that the Shakespeare canon was influenced by 70 foreign language sources, not the 200 as traditionally estimated, using Bullough and Muir for research documentation. Hence the author of the canon was not of vast erudition as previously attributed. Since the following thirty or so references are found in fifteen plays, does that mean the other forty references are to be found in the remaining twenty-two plays, two epic poems, and collected poetry?
    Francois de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, Ser Giovanni Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone, Giovanni Batista Giraldi’s Epitia, Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, Luigi da Porto’s Romeus and Juliet, Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana– (R&J)
    Amleth, Saxo Grammaticus, Belleforest, Nowell’s Codex -Beowulf– (Hamlet)
    Bernardo Accolti, La Virginia– (All’s Well That Ends Well)
    Matteo Bandello, Le Novelle I.22– (Much Ado about Nothing, A Winter’s Tale)
    Matteo Bandello, Le Novelle II.36– (Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night)
    Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, III.3– (Measure for Measure)
    Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, II.9 –(Cymbeline)
    Giordano Bruno, Il Candelaio– (Love’s Labours Lost)
    Giraldi Cinthio, Gli Hecatommithi, III.7– (Othello)
    Giraldi Cinthio, Gli Hecatommithi, V.8; Piccolomini, The Deceived –(Twelfth Night)
    Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, Il Pecorone IV.1 –(The Merchant of Venice)
    Giovanni Francesco Straparola, Le piacevoli nocci –(Taming of the Shrew)
    Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, Euripides, Alcestis –(A Winter’s Tale)
    10th c. Scottish Codex, Leslie’s De Origine, Moribus, et Rebus Gestis Scotorum; Seneca, Agamemnon, Hercules Furens, Medea, Hippolytus; Le Loier, Treatise of Specters; Persius Flaccus Aulus–(Macbeth)
    Incidental influences from: Petrarch, Salluste, di Batas, Pierre de Ronsard, de Montaigne, and Don Juan Manuel

    This discovery takes on great importance if Shakespeare of Stratford was a linguist. However, I did not know that Shakespeare of Stratford is documented as knowing classical Latin and Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian, with very clear indications of Hebrew punning in Merchant of Venice. With either seventy or two-hundred sources to read, he had to learn and know those several languages.

    Would you venture to guess when he learned those languages and how he got those volumes yet to be published in English? Weren’t they scarce even among those Elizabethan readers who could afford and read them? Shakespeare had so much education to achieve and books to send for. At what point did this occur?

    Regarding your slimmed-down interpretation of Shakespearean word-smithing, which correspondingly requires a background of the above languages, I had another question. Since Craig calculates that Dekker and others had larger working vocabularies, would you or he provide a listing of the words in use today that these other playwrights invented in the course of their careers? There are extensive websites referring to Shakespeare’s continuing influence on modern speech and phrasing. It appears that perhaps the lesser talent got his vocabulary adopted by the ages. There must be some mistake. Or else somebody is trying to bring Shakespeare of Stratford within planetary distance of the Shakespeare canon by means of reducing the canon to midget proportions. If defensible with documentation, it will be an absolute triumph of Lilliputian scholarship and reasoning.

    William Ray

  2. […] don’t survive: note “exsufflicate” (Othello 3.3.186), or two words in the line this my hand will rather / the multitudinous seas incarnadine (Macbeth 2.2.59-60). He also mocked pretension in characters such as Dogberry in Much Ado About […]

  3. Ian Munro says:

    “the sea as a multitude seems to be his idea”

    Not to take away from your excellent post, but I don’t think we can give him this–think of FQ 4.12: “O What an endlesse worke haue I in hand, / To count the seas abundant progeny, / Whose fruitfull seede farre passeth those in land, / And also those which wonne in th’azure sky? / For much more eath to tell the starres on hy, / Albe they endlesse seeme in estimation, / Then to recount the Seas posterity: / So fertile be the flouds in generation, / So huge their numbers, and so numberlesse their nation.”

  4. William says:

    I think the moment in 1 Henry 4 when Hal tells Poins about the brace of drawers, that “they call drinking deep ‘dyeing scarlet'”, says a lot about Shakespeare’s magpie delight in any turn of phrase he heard.

  5. Bob Grumman says:

    Excellent piece. I always find something to argue about in another writer’s work. In this case, it’s your suggestion that Shakespeare methodically hunted through books for things to use in his works. A trivial point, but I believe grabbed odds and ends that caught his attention in the varied kinds of books he read (because of his larger-than-average intellectual curiosity), and unconsciously let many more items stick to places in his mind where they might break off later into his works. Or so my intuition about how the literary creative process works tells me.

    Note: one Oxfordian I know believes a man of Shakespeare’s background could not have known any words as large as “incarnadine.”

  6. Mark Strath says:

    I love your blog posts! And I’m glad to read your point about “his skill at using ordinary language in extraordinary ways”. As an aside, this is quite a useful point for school teaching as well – it helps de-scare students who think they can’t understand Shakespeare. It’s nice to point out that the famous quotes are often dominated by monosyllables and notable for condensing something very complicated rather than being full of flowery words that they don’t know the meaning of. (There’s one especially famous quote that normally helps to start this off).

  7. Emily Butler says:

    I am too far behind on professional tasks to feel that I can take the time to think carefully enough to have anything to contribute, but I am enjoying all of these posts very much. I grew up with a LOT of Shakespeare around the house and with an almost embarrassingly early interest in the history of the language. When I’m teaching the early modern period in HEL, I sometimes struggle to find a manageable set of small, specific ways to help students understand not only the influence of Shakespeare, the KJV, and printing, but also the limitations of that influence and the need to complicate many of our assumptions about it. So, it’s nice to be able to file away some concrete sound bites for future HEL courses.

  8. […] Shakespearean Mythbusting II: The Fantasy of Astonishing Erudition | dispositio […]

  9. Chris Brooke says:

    “The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
    Making the green one red.”

    Yes–this is one of my favourite examples of Shakespeare-at-work: but thanks also for the “multitudinous” point about crowds & seas, which I don’t think I’d noticed before.

    (By the way, Holger: even though I don’t comment much, or, possibly even, at all, I hugely enjoy pretty much everything you write here.)

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