How the classics shaped Shakespeare

Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, Jonathan Bate, explained the extent to which Shakespeare drew inspiration from classical literature.

Bate, the author of How the Classics Made Shakespeare, spoke of how these inspirations appeared in his work.

He said, “The idea of an example from the past, as a way of understanding the present and shaping the future, was an absolutely central technique for Shakespeare.” 

He continued, “So many of them [Shakespeare’s plays] do take a story from the past, whether it’s fiction or from history, and they use examples from the past as a way of addressing an audience in the present.”

Shakespeare’s love of literature was the dominant creative force in his work, and it was far more influential in his writing than debates surrounding religion.

Bate said, “Shakespeare’s imagination was shaped by the classics; he was much more interested in those classical stories than debates between Catholicism and Protestantism… The stage was a place where the pagan world of primal emotions and erotic desire could be kept alive in vivid language.”

While Shakespeare’s reputation is well entrenched in today’s global society, Bate highlighted his concerns about whether that status will be maintained in the future.

He said, “Shakespeare has become our classic; he is to us what the classics were to him. The anxiety that underlines my book is whether that will continue to be the case in the next few generations; where the kind of slow, thoughtful reading of complex, beautiful works of literature is perhaps under threat by the sheer speed and multiplicity of the digital age.”

If you’re interested in Literature, also see Martin Puchner discuss the historical importance of literature at 4 pm, 2 June. If you like watching Hay Festival events digitally, please sign up to the Hay Player for more from the world’s greatest thinkers.

Picture by Marsha Arnold