Shakespeare’s Classical Sources

Early modern English drama boasts many direct and indirect sources (both of plots and/or by-plots) that can be traced back to the classical ‘encyclopaedia’ of myths and historical narrations. As is well-known, Plutarch’s Lives, translated into French by Jacques Amyot (1513-1593) and then in English by Thomas North (first published 1579), inspired Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies.
However, Plutarch’s Moralia, known in Europe through a Latin translation as well as through Amyot’s French one (first published 1587), was also partially translated into English in the sixteenth century (and eventually published in London in 1603) by Philemon Holland and equally prompted situations and rhetorical pièces de résistance in early modern drama.
Early modern theatre offers the possibility of sketching out different typologies of both direct debts and derivations and more covert classical suggestions.
Our investigation aims at identifying Shakespearean ‘debts’ to ancient Greek and Latin literature, often intriguingly concealed under plural and often non-dramatic mediations.

The most apparent sources of Shakespeare’s plays have long been identified (even if occasionally inaccurately)[1], and yet much still needs to be done in the unravelling of the actual interaction between national and supranational processes of dissemination, translation, and appropriation of texts and narratives in the circulation and gradual spread of a common cultural patrimony, as well as of its actual perception as such. The research team will examine famous texts representative of individual national cultures and their transmission to the British milieu via European mediations in order to investigate the processes standing behind the construction of what has come to be perceived as an incontestable icon of European identity: Shakespeare. What needs to be pointed out though, is that, albeit the analysis will focus upon Shakespeare, the results may be safely applied to any of his contemporaries, as the practices which will be scrutinized were largely common at the time and invested the shaping of different cultural attitudes through negotiations of values and ideas adjusted to different languages and cultural contexts. The phenomena we encounter in a multilingual and supranational dimension are both intertextual and interdiscursive.


These practices of textual and narrative transmission involve not only several linguistic mediations, but also generic transformations (from narration to drama) or sub-generic translations (poetic narration vs prose narration). In other words, the authors’ choices in these processes are neither exclusively influenced by their own national language, nor do they concern only the plot structure. Within the mythopoietic process to which any author may contribute individually[2], showing  social or political conditionings as well as contextual and stylistic influences, one should also consider the translation from one discursive form to another, and all that goes with it, especially regarding the metamorphosis of characters giving voice in an apparently autonomous way to self-scrutiny and reflection upon their own personalities and destinies.
The research will include three main distinct, yet converging, lines of inquiry:

[A] As regards the study of classical sources it will be necessary to consider the following issue:
(1) Shakespeare, as well as his contemporaries, often relied upon classical sources mediated by English or French translations; they did not borrow entire plots only but drew inspiration for mythemic sequences and topics also from scattered allusions, motifs etc. in different texts. For instance, it has been demonstrated that Ovid’s narrative motif regarding Pyramus and Thisbe was adopted by Shakespeare, to different degrees and for different ends, in Romeo and JulietTitus Andronicus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream through various sources: in Romeo and Juliet he derived it from Brooke, which in turn had subsumed it from the Italian novella tradition, that had provided the main mythemic mediation; in Titus Andronicus and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare drew on Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses thus accessing the classical source through a different type of mediation (see for instance Muir 1954);
(2) that ancient texts or corpora, such as Plutarch’s Lives and Moralia, both well known in sixteenth-century England, or Sextus Empiricus’s Adversus mathematicos, known in a French translation,conveyed a tragic conception, as well as fabulistic patterns and rhetorical ideas, in a better way than what the still slow dissemination of the extant Greek dramatic texts could have done. In this scenario, the suggestions exercised not only by the contents, but also by the models, were assimilated and sometimes combined. In other terms, a deeper analysis of the ancient narrative prototypes should produce a complex framework, and suggest how each narrative pattern may be affected by several fabulistic solutions – these are sometimes borrowed from other adjacent motifs and prompted by different external stimuli, or even alternative to those privileged by traditional investigations of the sources. And precisely this kind of investigation should allow clarifying the different semiotic processes activated by the various interactions between different mythemic motifs and different plots.

[B] Alongside the collection of the primary sources, the research will focus on the study of generic and sub-generic translations. This investigation will concentrate mainly on the transformations undergone by those narrative texts which transmit mythemic motifs or narrative situations or peculiar rhetorical features in the process of being adapted to dramatic genres.

[C] The two lines of research will converge in the analysis of:
a. multilingual processes that have variously contributed to the development of Early Modern English drama through Shakespeare;
b. the specificity of various narrative elements when they have been adjusted to mimetic genres;
c. the relevance and meaning of this translation in the construction of a shared European patrimony;
d. the perception of this patrimony as precisely European.

[1] The state of the art is exemplified by the following works, which are unequal in accuracy and not always exempt from imprecisions:

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 1: Early Comedies. Poems. Romeo and Juliet. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul / New York: Columbia University Press: 1957.
Gillespie, Stuart. Shakespeare’s Books: A Dictionary of Shakespeare Sources, (2nd ed.) London and New York: The Athlone Press: 2004.
Garrison, David Lee. Gongora and the Pyramus and Thisbe Myth from Ovid to Shakespeare. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta: 1994.
Gesner, Carol.  Shakespeare and the Greek Romance. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky: 1970.
Martindale, Charles and Michelle. Shakespeare and the Uses of Antiquity. An Introductory Essay. London and New York: Routledge: 1990.
Muir, Kenneth. “Pyramus and Thisbe: A Study in Shakespeare’s Method”. Shakespeare Quarterly 5, 1954: 141-53.
Rudd, Niall. “Pyramus and Thisbe in Shakespeare and Ovid. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Metamorphosis 4. 1-166”. In Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, edited by David West and Tony Woodman, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1979: 173-93.
Sandy, Gerald N. “Ancient Prose Fiction and Minor Early English Novels”. Antike & Abendland 25, 1979: 41-55.
Sandy, Gerald N. “The Heritage of the Ancient Greek Novel in France and Britain”. In The Novel in the Ancient World, edited by Gareth Schmeling, Leiden: Brill: 1996: 735-73.

[2] “The manner of doing this was the business of the poet, and here each could show the power of his invention, and one could excel another” (J.W. Goethe, Conversations of Goethe With Eckermann and Soret, vol. 1 (1850), reprint London: Forgotten Books, 2013: 352-3, talking of Aeschylus’s, Euripides’s, and Sophocles’s Philoctetes).

The Team

Prof. Guido Avezzù, Greek Literature – Verona

Prof. Silvia Bigliazzi, English Literature – Verona (Leader)

Prof. Susan Payne, English Literature – Florence

Prof. Gherardo Ugolini, Classics – Verona

Dr Francesco Dall’Olio, PhD candidate, Classics – Verona

Dr Marco Duranti, Classics – Verona

Dr Francesco Lupi, Classics – Verona

Dr Emanuel Stelzer, English Literature – Verona

Dr. Valentina Adami, English Literature – Verona

Dr. Roberta Zanoni, English Literature –Verona