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Tudor Humanism and the Roman Past: A Background to Shakespeare

  • Paul Dean (a1)


One of the intellectual advances achieved by what has been called “the Renaissance discovery of Time” was the realisation that the most interesting thing about the past is what makes it the past. A secularised historiography—involving recognition of anachronism, historical development and the relativity of truth—marks a decisive break with medieval thought. This paper seeks to explore one limited aspect of a vast topic, namely the effect of this revolution of thought on men's concept of the Roman past, which, I shall argue, was closely bound up with their perception of the English past. One result of the exploration will be to suggest a new perspective from which to consider Shakespeare's creative relationship with Roman, and also with English, history.



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1 Quinones, Ricardo J., The Renaissance Discovery of Time (Cambridge, Mass., 1972); Burke, Peter, The Renaissance Sense of the Past (London, 1969).

2 Ullmann, Walter, Medieval Foundations of Renaissance Humanism (London, 1977).

3 See e.g. F. Haverfield, “Tacitus During the Late Roman Period and the Middle Ages,” Journal of Roman Studies (1916); Rand, E. K., “The Classics in the Thirteenth Century,” Speculum, 4 (1929): 249-69; Lockwood, D. P. , “Plutarch in the Fourteenth Century,” Transactions of the American Philological Association, 64 (1933); Sanford, Eva M. , “The Study of Ancient History During the Middle Ages,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 5 (1944): 21-43; Beryl Smalley, “Sallust in the Middle Ages,” in R. R. Bolgar, ed., Classical Influences on European Culture, A.D. 500 to 1500 (Cambridge, 1971) 165- 76; R. Pfeiffer, The History of Classical Scholarship from 1300 to 1850 (Oxford, 1976).

4 R. Milburn, L. P., Early Christian Interpretations of History (London, 1954); Gerald Press, A., The Development of the Idea of History in Antiquity (Montreal, 1982). For a concise survey see Markus, R. A., “The Roman Empire in Early Christian Historiography,” Downside Review, 81 (1963): 340-54, revised and expanded in his Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge, 1970) 47-71, and on the relation between church and state in Eusebius's writing see ibid, and Markus’ “Church History and the Early Church Historians,” in Baker, D., ed., The Materials, Sources and Methods of Ecclesiastical Historiography, Studies in Church History, n (Oxford, 1975): 1-17.

5 J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (London, 1924; Pelican, 1955) 70-71.

6 Sanford, “The Study of Ancient History,” 40-41.

7 Haskins, C. H., The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, Mass., 1927), who however remarks (224) that the historiography of the period, in marked contrast to other literary forms, shows hardly any traces of classical influence; cf. H. Bloch, “The New Fascination with Ancient Rome,” in R. L. Benson and Constable, G., ed., Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, Mass., 1982) 634. Examples of the use of Roman history in the period, in several other essays in this collection (e.g. those of R. L. Benson, P. Classen and E. Kitzinger) confirm the judgment that we cannot reasonably speak of a “medieval humanism.”

8 For a sketch of this see Miola, R. S., Shakespeare's Rome (Cambridge, 1983) 910 , who however overstates the case in concluding that Renaissance classicists were “little concerned with understanding the past on its own terms.”

9 L. D. Reynolds and Wilson, N. G., Scribes and Scholars (Oxford, 1968) 9495 . For a contrary view see Liebeschutz, H., Medieval Humanism in the Life and Writings of John of Salisbury (London, 1950).

10 Smalley, Beryl, English Friars and Antiquity in the Early Fourteenth Century (Oxford, 1960) 63.

11 See Dean, Ruth J., “The Earliest Known Commentary on Livy is by Nicholas Trevet,” Medievalia et Humanistica, 3 (1945): 86-98, and her “Nicholas Trevet, Historian, ” in J. J. G. Alexander and Gibson, M. T., ed., Medieval Learning and Literature. Essays Presented to R. W. Hunt (Oxford, 1976) 328-52.

12 “Renaissance Chaucer” and “Father Chaucer,” English, 34 (1985): 1-38, expanded in his book Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry (Cambridge, Eng., 1986). Minnis, A. J., Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity (Cambridge, 1982), emphasizes the modernity of Chaucer's historical sense (13-30).

13 Bourne, E., “Classical Elements in the Gesta Romanorum,” in C. F. Fiske, ed., Vassar Medieval Studies (New Haven, 1923) 345-78; Marchalonis, Shirley, “Medieval Symbols in the Gesta Romanorum,” Chaucer Review, 8 (1973): 311-19.

14 On Walsingham, Galbraith, V. H., ed., The St. Alban's Chronicle 1406 to 14.20 (Oxford, 1937) xli-xlv; on Whethamstede, R. Weiss, Humanism in England During the Fifteenth Century (Oxford, 1941; 3rded. 1967) 36-37.

15 Weiss 12. His standard work may be supplemented by Denys Hay, “England and the Humanities in the Fifteenth Century,” in H. A. Obermanand Bradyjr, T. A.., ed., Itinerarum Italicum: the Profile of the Italian Renaissance in the Mirror of its European Transformations (Leiden, 1975) 305-367.

16 Pearsall, , John Lydgate (London, 1970); Schirmer, John Lydgate: a Study in the Culture of the Fifteenth Century, trans. A. E. Keep (London, 1961).

17 R. A. Markus, Saeculum 58.

18 Jones, Emrys, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1977) 124 .

19 Ed. H. N. McCracken (London, 1911), who is quite mistaken in complaining of the work's “formlessness and incoherence” and in describing it as “in all essentials a pieceof chronicle work” in which “the number of pages devoted to the causes, signs, and prognostications of civic rebellion [is] out of all proper relation to the real matter of the story” (2). For Lydgate these things are the real matter of the story.

20 Ed. H. Bergen (Washington, D.C., 1923-1927).

21 Patch, Howard R., The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, Mass., 1927) esp. 68-72: for later developments, R. Chapman, “The Wheel of Fortune in Shakespeare's Historical Plays,” Review of English Studies, n.s. 1 (1950): 1-7; Farnham, Willard, The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy (Oxford, 1963) esp. 160-72, 277-303.

22 L. D. Green, “Modes of Perception in The Minor for Magistrates,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 44 (1980/1): 117-33.

23 John Capgrave's Abbreuiacioun ofCronicles, ed. Peter J. Lucas, E.E.T.S. 28-5 (Oxford, 1983), described by the editor as “one of the last works in a long, already outmoded, tradition” (xcv).

24 Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages 70-74; Ferguson, A. B., The Indian Summer of English Chivalry: Studies in the Decline and Transformation of Chivalric Idealism (Durham, N.C., 1960).

25 Green, Richard F., Poets and Princepleasers: Literature and the English Court in the Late Middle Ages (Toronto, 1980) 84.

26 Bornstein, D., “William Caxton's Chivalric Romances and the Burgundian Renaissance in England,” English Studies, 57 (1976): 1-10, argues that Edward IV's stay in Burgundy in 1470, during his exile, led him to encourage Caxton to concentrate on romances.

27 Blake, N. F., Caxtonandhis World (London, 1969) 8889 , 196-99.

28 Blake, N. F., ed., Selections from Caxton (Oxford, 1973) 23 .

29 Blake, Caxton and his World 163.

30 Blake, , Caxton's Own Prose (London, 1973) 23 .

31 Ibid. 64. For a comparable passage from George Whetstone's A Touchstone for the Time (1584), which shows by contrast what a detailed acquaintance with daily life in ancient Rome was current a century later, see Dean, Paul, “Contemporary English History in Elizabethan Roman Histories,” Notes and Queries, 231 (1986): 315-16.

32 Nelson, William, John Skelton, Laureate (New York, 1939) 2729 .

33 R. Weiss, Humanism in England 179.

34 Ullmann, Medieval Foundations of Renaissance Humanism 104. For Petrarch's innovations see Mommsen, T. E., “Petrarch's Conception of the Dark Ages,” Speculum, 17 (1942): 226-42; Kessler, E., “Petrarch's Contribution to Renaissance Historiography,” Res Publica Litterarum, 1 (1978): 129-49.

35 By Anglo, Sidney, Spectacle, Pageant, and Early Tudor Policy (Oxford, 1969) 4546 and references.

36 Hanning, R. W., The Vision of History in Early Britain: from Gildas to Geoffrey of Monmouth (New Haven, 1966); R. W. Southern, “Aspects of the European Tradition of Historical Writing: I. The Classical Tradition from Einhard to Geoffrey of Monmouth,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Ser. 5, 20 (1970): 173-96.

37 The History of the Kings of Britain, tr. Lewis Thorpe (London, 1966) 232-33: a speech described by Hoel, King of the Armorican Britons, as “adorned with Ciceronian eloquence” (233)!

38 The poem was written at a time of dispute between England and Rome over payment of Papal taxes (Morte Arthur: Selections, ed. John Finlayson [London, 1967] 80, note on line 2350).

39 Cf. Koebner, R., “ ‘The Imperial Crown of this Realm': Henry VIII, Constantine the Great, and Polydore Vergil,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 26 (1953): 29-52, and Philip Edwards, Threshold of a Nation (Cambridge, Eng., 1979) 83, for James's encouragement of similar propaganda.

40 Vergil's definition of which was sermo grandiloquus: Hay, Denys, Polydore Vergil: Renaissance Historian and Man of Letters (Oxford, 1952) 144 and n. 6.

41 King, J. N., English Reformation Literature (Princeton, 1982) 43 .

42 R. P. Adams, “Bold Bawdry and Open Manslaughter: the English new Humanist Attack on Medieval Romance,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 23 (1959/60): 33-48.

43 Hanning, R. W., The Individual in Twelfth-Century Romance (New Haven, 1977) 139 .

44 Hay, Polydore Vergil 109-110. At the end of his copy of Geoffrey, another Humanist, Flavio Biondo, wrote: “I have never come across anything so stuffed with lies and frivolities” (Hay, “Flavio Biondo and the Middle Ages,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 45 [1959] 118).

45 Colet, An Exposition of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, ed. and trans. J. H. Lupton (London, 1873) esp. 95-96; Duhamel, P. A., “The Oxford Lectures of John Colet,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 14 (1953): 493-510. (Ironically the young Luther first made his name in 1515-1516 with lectures on this same epistle!) By 1531 Elyot could cite the use of classical historians by scriptural commentators as proof of the reliability of the historians (The Book of the Governour, 3.25; page 283 in the Everyman edition).

46 Tres Thomae (1588), trans. P. E. Hallett, quoted in Richard S. Sylvester, ed. More's Richard HI (Yale, 1963) lxxxi.

47 Ro. Ba., Life of More, ed. Elsie V. Hitchcock and P. E. Hallett, E.E.T.S. o.s. 222 (Oxford, 1950 for 1945): 23.

48 Quotations from Erasmus are from the translations for the Collected Works being issued by Toronto University Press; Antibarbari, trans. Margaret M. Phillips (23 [1978]); De Copia, trans. Betty I. Knott (24); De ratione studii, trans. B. McGregor (24). Page references are inserted in my text.

49 Baldwin, T. W., William Shakespeare's Smalle Latine and Lesse Greeke, 2 (Urbana, 1942): 176-96; Trousdale, Marion, Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians (London, 1982) 4355 .

50 Such a procedure is itself classical: it was advocated by Quintilian (J. F. d'Alton, Roman Literary Theory and Criticism [London, 1931] 521-22) and practised, using the rules for the controversia, by the first-century historians Cn. Gellius and Valerius Antias (T. P. Wiseman, Clio's Cosmetics [Leicester, 1979] 25).

51 Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare 14; Altman, Joel B., The Tudor Play of Mind (Berkeley, 1978).

52 Gilmore, Myron P., “Fides et Eruditio: Erasmus and the Study of History,” in his Humanists and Jurists (Cambridge, Mass., 1963) 87-114.

53 Humanism in the Age ofHenry VIII (London, 1986).

54 Bernard Andre, in an incomplete life of Henry VIII, claimed that by the age of fifteen Prince Arthur had read Cicero, Thucydides, Pliny, Caesar, Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, Valerius Maximus, Sallust and Eusebius (Nelson, John Skelton, Laureate 15); Henry VIII was in close touch, in early manhood, with the More circle; himself a pupil of Skelton's, he had his illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, educated by Croke and Palsgrave, while his first wife Katherine of Aragon and his last Katherine Parr were respected for learning by Erasmus and Vives. Edward VI was taught by Cheke, and read Livy, Sallust and Suetonius as well as Huttichius's De imperatorum et Caesarum vitae (1534) and other treatises on Roman antiquity (Baldwin, 1.244). Elizabeth was taught by Ascham, Mary by Linacre and Vives, with whom she read Livy, Plutarch, Cicero and Seneca (Carrolly Erickson, Bloody Mary [London, 1978] 42). Even Lady Jane Grey was reputedly a scholar.

55 The Origins of Shakespeare 13.

56 Historical Writing in England, 2: c. 130710 the Early Sixteenth Century (Ithaca, 1982): 433-35.

57 I use the Camden Society editions of the Anglica Historia: Books 1 to 8 in a translation dating from the latter part of Henry VIII's reign, ed. Sir Ellis, Henry, Polydore Vergil's English History (London, 1846); idem., ed., Three Books of Polydore Vergil's English History (London, 1844), same translation; Hay, Denys, ed. and trans., The Anglica Historia of Polydore Vergil A. D. 1485-1537 (London, 1950).

58 Bullough, Geoffrey, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 3 (London, 1960): 168 on the Henry VI trilogy; for the same technique in a Roman play see Velz, J. W., “Undular Structure in Julius Caesar,” Modern Language Review, 66 (1971): 2130 .

59 Ibid. 139.

60 Life ofMore, ed. Elsie V. Hitchcock and R. W. Chambers, E.E.T.S. o.s. 186 (Oxford, 1932 for 1931): 217 (subsequent references in text).

61 Dean, Leonard F., “Literary Problems in More's Richard III,” PMLA, 58 (1943): 22-41; Sylvester, Richard S., ed., Richard III (New Haven, 1963) (I am heavily indebted to this work, which I use for references throughout); Hanham, Alison, Richard III and his Early Historians 1483 to IS35 (Oxford, 1969); A. N. Kincaid, “The Dramatic Structure of Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III,” Studies in English Literature, 12 (1972): 223-42; Alison Hanham, “Fact and Fantasy: Thomas More as Historian,” in Alistair Fox and Leech, Peter, ed., Thomas More: the Rhetoric of Character (Dunedin, N.Z., 1979) 6581 ; Gordon, W. M., “Exemplum Narrative and Thomas More's History of King Richard III,” Clio, 9 (1979): 75-88; Donno, Elizabeth Story, “Thomas More and Richard 111,” Renaissance Quarterly, 35 (1982): 401-47; P. Grant, “Thomas More's Richard III: Moral Narration and Humanist Method,” Renaissance and Reformation, 7(1983): 157-72.

62 Hanham, “Fact and Fantasy,” 80.

63 More twice explicitly compared Henry VIII to Tiberius (Sylvester lxxxix). Hanham, Richard III and his Early Historians 188, notes the risk of discussing Henry VII (a man More in any case disliked) while his son was still alive.

64 Hanham's analysis in Richard HI 174-85, is dazzling if overingenious, and she makes useful comparisons with Shakespeare's treatment. See also Kincaid's article cited in n. 61.

65 Suggested by Hanham, Richard III 159.

66 Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957) 223.

67 Historical Writing in England 2: 443.

68 “The Reformation was an historically orientated movement” (Margaret Aston, Lollards and Reformers [London, 1984] 135). Compare J. J. Scarisbrick's description of the pre-Reformation church as lacking a historical sense and possessing a theology “which was basically static and platonic” (The Reformation and the English People [Oxford, 1984] 40).

69 References (inserted in text) are to the editions by Campbell, Lily B. of The Mirror for Magistrates (Cambridge, England, 1938) and Parts Added to “The Mirror for Magistrates” (Cambridge, England, 1946). Fall of Princes had been reprinted by Tottel only one year before the first edition of the Mirror.

70 See L. D. Green's article cited above, n. 22. Lily B. Campbell, “Tudor Conceptions of History and Tragedy in The Mirror for Magistrates,” reprinted in her Collected Papers (New York, 1968) 281- 307, discusses wider questions.

71 See Douglas Bush, “Classical Lives in TheMirrorforMagistrates,” Studies in Philology, 22 (1925): 256-66.

72 Campbell, Parts Added … 16, has a judicious sketch of the differences between the original Mirror authors and Higgins, which is effectively the difference between Erasmian creative imitation and antiquarian pedantry.

73 Details in article cited above, n. 31.

74 Details from Schoenbaum's, S. revision of Alfred Harbage's Annals of English Drama 97s to 1700 (London, 1964).

75 Burton's phrase is quoted by Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare 126, who also discusses Elizabethan interest in Lucan. On this, see also Baldwin, Smalle Latine, 1.103-108; Blissett, William, “Lucan's Caesar and the Elizabethan Villain,” Studies in Philology, 53 (1956): 553-75; Marlowe's Poems, ed. Millar MacLure (London, 1968) xxxiv-xxxvi.

76 For a recent, highly important discussion of this play, and of Elizabethan Roman plays in general, see Vanna Gentili, “Thomas Lodge's Wounds of Civil War: an Assessment of Context, Sources and Structure,” REAL: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature, 2 (1984): 119-64.

77 Tamburlaine the Great, Parts land II, ed. J. S. Cunningham (Manchester, 1981) 11, 326.

78 The Jew of Malta, ed. N. W. Bawcutt (Manchester, 1978) note ad loc.

79 Boas, F. S., University Drama in the Tudor Age (Oxford, 1914) 277; Pearson, Jacqueline, “Shakespeare and Caesar's Revenge,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 32 (1981): 101-104; Rene A. J. Weis, “Caesar's Revenge: a Neglected Elizabethan Source of Antony and Cleopatra,” Shakespeare Jahrbuch (Heidelberg) (1983), 178-186.

80 Paul Dean, “ The Tragedy of Tiberius (1607): Debts to Shakespeare,” Notes and Queries, 229 (1984): 213-14.

81 Part 1, I. i. 56, I. ii. 55-56, 139, 142, I. iv. 94, I. v. 21; Part 2, I. iv. 16-20, 60-61, IV. i. 83, 135—138, IV. viii, 57-60; Part 3, III. i. 18-20, V. i. 81, V. v. 50-53 (New Ardeneds. by A. S. Cairncross, London, 1957, 1962, 1964).

82 Womersley, D. J., “3 Henry VI: Shakespeare, Tacitus, and Parricide,” Notes and Queries, 230 (1985): 468-73.

83 The account of the sources in Antony Hammond's New Arden edition of Richard III London, 1981) 73-97 is extremely judicious.

84 Barroll, J. L., “Shakespeare and Roman History,” Modem Language Review, 53 (1958): 328-29.

85 See Gary Taylor's edition (Oxford, 1982) 52-55.

86 Jones, , Scenic Form in Shakespeare (Oxford, 1971) 107-13.

87 R. S. Miola, in Shakespeare's Rome, argues unconvincingly for an “organic” view of the Roman plays as a group.

88 On which see Spencer, T.J. B., “Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans,” Shakespeare Survey, 10 (1957): 27-38, who also gives arguments incompatible with the assumption of a Shakespearian concept of Romanitas.

89 Hussey, S. S., The Literary Language of Shakespeare (London, 1982) 170-76.

90 Law, R. A., “The Roman Background of Titus Andronicus,” Studies in Philology, 40 (1943) 150; Hussey, Literary Language 46.

91 G. K. Hunter, “ ‘A Roman Thought': Renaissance Attitudes to History Exemplified in the Work of Shakespeare and Jonson,” in Lee, B. S., ed., An English Miscellany Presented to W. S. Mackie (Oxford, 1977) 108 .

92 Dean, Paul, “Chronicle and Romance Modes in Henry V,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 32 (1981): 1827 , and “Shakespeare's Henry VI Trilogy and Elizabethan ‘Romance' Histories: the Origins of a Genre,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 33 (1982): 34-48.

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Tudor Humanism and the Roman Past: A Background to Shakespeare

  • Paul Dean (a1)


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