Shakespeare: Renaissance Man

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Lecturing yesterday evening at the Shakespeare Centre on ‘Shakespeare as a Man of the Renaissance’, I stressed particularly the fact that he had a humanistic education, centering on Latin literature and on the techniques of rhetoric and oratory of which he displays great mastery in his plays and poems. He draws extensively on Roman history, obviously in what he have come to call the Roman Plays, he frequently quotes bits of Latin, especially in the early plays, he invents words based on Latin roots, and he uses rhetorical devices which he would have learnt about at school. Whether he knew any more than the little Greek that Ben Jonson writes of it’s hard to say, but I suggested that the last two of the poems in his collection of Sonnets, Nos 153 and 154, which derive from a single Greek epigram, might even be schoolboy exercises recycled at a late point in his career.

No less importantly the techniques of dialectic and debate underlie his plays. Like a great orator, he can see both sides of any question. He can portray the Duke in Measure for Measure trying, successfully at first, to persuade Claudio to be ‘absolute for death’ and no less passionately he can show Claudio in a state of abject fear of the fate that appears to await him. He constructs his plays with an architectural sense that resembles that of great Italian Renaissance painters. I instanced Mantegna’s series of paintings of Caesar’s triumphs as works of visual art that can bear comparison with the effects that Shakespeare was seeking in for instance Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Love’s Labour’s Lost is the play which most obviously reflects his education, not just in its portrayal of the schoolmaster Holofernes but more subtly in the dialectic between self- restraint and sexual desire that underlies the lords’ attempts to retire from worldly pleasures for the space of three years. And I suggested too that a similar dialectic underlies the tensions between self-restraint and self-indulgence that characterise the relationships of Hal and Falstaff, Sir Toby Belch and Malvolio, and Angelo and Lucio (in Measure for Measure.) I found myself interested too in considering Hamlet and King Lear as two interrelated attempts to project a tragic vision, one through a world permeated with Christianity, the other in one from which explicit Christianity is deliberately drained away as if to portray the absolutely elemental aspects of the human condition. These are big themes which I shall go on pondering, and I hope I may have stimulated members of my audience to think about them too.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website

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