June 2, 2022


Shakespeare's Latin and Greek (Tom Moran, 5/26/22, Antigone)

There is a lot that we don't know about William Shakespeare, but there is one fact concerning him about which nearly everyone appears to be in full agreement. They agree with Shakespeare's great contemporary Ben Jonson in his poem about his fellow playwright included at the beginning of the 1623 First Folio that Shakespeare had "small Latin and less Greek":

For if I thought my judgment were of years
I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe's mighty line.
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
From thence to honor thee I would not seek
For names, but call forth thund'ring Aeschylus,
Euripides, and Sophocles to us...

It is one of the few statements about Shakespeare that is almost universally considered to be uncontroversial and accepted as fact. The editors of The Norton Shakespeare footnote the line, claiming that "The underrating of Shakespeare's Latin was likely influenced by Jonson's pride in his own impressive classical learning." Even Jonson's most recent biographer, Ian Donaldson, accepts the line at face value, claiming that Jonson was utilizing a rhetorical strategy that he had gleaned from the Roman rhetorician Quintilian: namely, that you should point out a person's shortcomings (such as Shakespeare's having "small Latin and less Greek") before building up his virtues.

There's only one problem with this assumption: not only is it not true, the exact opposite is true. Jonson's statement concerning Shakespeare's alleged ignorance of Greek and Latin might be the single most misunderstood and misinterpreted line of English poetry ever written: it means the opposite of what most people think it means. When we examine what Ben Jonson actually said, as opposed to what we think he said, we will realize that not only did Shakespeare know both Latin and Greek, and that Ben Jonson never said he didn't, but that Shakespeare's knowledge of Greek is evident in one of the most famous passages he ever wrote.

Posted by at June 2, 2022 12:00 AM