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kottke.org posts about Shakespeare

The Books Shakespeare Read

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 26, 2019


Five Books is a pretty cool website I’d never heard of before; it’s a recommendations website, anchored by interviews with experts who pick a certain number (guess how many!) of books to recommend. Most are sorted by topic, so you get the best books about X; this interview, with Shakespeare expert Robert S Miola, examines five books that influenced Shakespeare, especially (but not only) as source material.

What I like especially is how Miola deftly deals with the whole problem of influence in an era when what it even meant to read or own a book was very different from our own age.

One thing we’re coming to appreciate is how print culture existed side by side with a vibrant and flourishing manuscript culture. Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, were passed around in manuscript, from what we can gather, as were most of John Donne’s poems. Many have pointed to the importance of print because at that time, schools had texts that people could study. And, more importantly, individuals could collect libraries.

This leads to one of the great mysteries: where did Shakespeare find these books? Whose libraries did he raid? John Florio was known to have a big library, as did Ben Jonson, who famously wrote a poem about its burning. And there were collectors, too. Yet we still haven’t discerned from the available clues where Shakespeare got access to his books…

When you get a passage in Shakespeare—or any Elizabethan—you can’t really assume that the author knows the whole text. He or she might just have 12 lines from Virgil. The reading practice was that knowing lines might help you in another situation in your life. Scholars get upset because they can’t be sure that someone really knows Virgil; the lines might have been taken out of context from Virgil’s Georgics on beekeeping or gardening, for any reason whatsoever.

That’s one way to look at it. But the other is to say that they believed in Virgil so much that they took him as a guide for daily life. And that is the way they saw it. It takes an imaginative leap to understand just how much they valued books, and just how much they read.

The discussion of what Shakespeare took from Ovid, not just in terms of content for stories, but stylistically, is great:

Ovid is like Shakespeare as a poet; both possess extremely rapid wit and move magically and unpredictably on the surface of the text, from image to image and metaphor to metaphor. They defy expectation. Reading them is always surprising. Here, you have a great contrast with Virgil. I think Shakespeare read and liked Virgil, but Virgil is stately, imperial, and marvellously well-wrought, whereas Ovid is quick, shifting, and interested in surface and glitter.

Another nugget gleaned from this interview right away: only two of Shakespeare’s plays are thought to be more or less original in their plots — A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest. Everything else was borrowed, in whole or part, from classical, historical, or contemporary sources.