‘Too Learned and Poetical for our Audience’? Teaching Early Modern English Literature and Classical Adaptation

‘Too Learned and Poetical for our Audience’? Teaching Early Modern English Literature and Classical Adaptation

Katherine Heavey, University of Glasgow (katherine.heavey@glasgow.ac.uk)

Since 2006, I have taught a wide range of English Literature courses at three different UK universities: Durham, Newcastle, and most recently (and currently) Glasgow. All three degree programmes have placed emphasis on English literature’s inheritance of, and relationship with, its classical past. Often, this emphasis can be discerned in the focus of first-year courses, such as Newcastle’s course ‘Transformations’, in which students are introduced to key classical texts (the Odyssey and the Metamorphoses) and then to a wide range of adaptations and appropriations of these works, including James Joyce’s Ulysses, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid. Implicit in the offering of such courses at first year is the suggestion that even if they are taught in translation, familiarity with key works of ancient Greek or Latin literature offers students an advantage, as they go on to study works of English literature that might engage less obviously (but no less significantly) with the works of Homer, Ovid and Virgil.

Upper-level courses, too, might encourage students to consider works of English literature in conjunction with the classics. For example, Glasgow’s Stage 4 course Shakespearean Forms juxtaposes Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra with John Dryden’s adaptation, All for Love (1677), as two examples of heroic drama. However, my teaching also demonstrates to students how Shakespeare had appropriated and dramatised episodes from Plutarch’s Life of Marcus Antonius, which was available to him via the 1579 English translation of Thomas North. Dryden’s play, which makes use of both Plutarch and Shakespeare, significantly softens the character of Cleopatra. However, in his preface, he simultaneously acknowledges the importance of the story’s classical sources, explaining ‘I […] have drawn the character of Antony as favourably as Plutarch, Appian, and Dion Cassius wou’d give me leave: the like I have observed in Cleopatra’ (emphasis added).[i] Here, it is possible to discern a self-conscious negotiation between the competing demands of classical authorities such as Plutarch, of Shakespeare’s well-known play on the same subject, and of shifting Restoration tastes in drama, which led Dryden to deviate (somewhat) from the more scheming and manipulative Cleopatra of Plutarch and Shakespeare.

If Thomas North translates Plutarch’s language (via the French of Jaques Amyot), then Shakespeare’s dramatising of classical myth in Antony and Cleopatra effects what Linda Hutcheon and others have termed a ‘transposition’: an adaptive movement from page to stage, and one that simultaneously challenges students’ preconceptions about Shakespeare’s own originality, while asking them to consider the alterations that are necessary or desirable when the printed myth becomes the performed.[ii] In turn, Dryden was well aware that the story was a popular one, and as his preface begins, he employs a familiar classical tale, to acknowledge that he turns his hand to a task that was often attempted:

The death of Antony and Cleopatra, is a Subject which has been treated by the greatest Wits of our Nation, after Shakespeare; and by all so variously, that their example has given me the confidence to try my self this Bowe of Ulysses amongst the Crowd of Sutors; and, withal, to take my own measures, in aiming at the Mark. (p. 10)

Here, knowledge of the Odyssey enables the student reader to recall that only Odysseus was able to string the bow and successfully hit his target. By extension, they are invited to reflect on Dryden’s perception of his own accomplishments, and of those of the ‘greatest Wits’ that have come before him: is the Poet Laureate to be read as Odysseus in his own example, or merely as another hapless suitor? As their plays unfold, Dryden’s and Shakespeare’s new versions of the well-known story of Antony and Cleopatra encourage students to appreciate how classical myths and characters might be adapted for the early modern stage. Simultaneously, the plays demonstrate that recourse to classical myth, far from being comfortingly predictable, or an easy option, presents authors with the challenge of striking a balance, between the competing demands of respectful fidelity, and exciting, period-appropriate, and saleable originality.

As numerous works of scholarship make clear, the works of Ovid and Virgil in particular exercised a pervasive influence over printed English literature of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, with Seneca’s impact also being enthusiastically debated.[iii] Classical myth could confer prestige, as the playwright Thomas Heywood suggests when he prefaces the printed version of his Trojan play The Iron Age (1632) by asking ‘For what Pen of note, in one page or other hath not remembred Troy, and bewayl’d the sa[c]ke, and subversion of so illustrious a Citty’.[iv] Alternatively, authors might be attracted to classical myth because of the license it gives them to include titillating or sensational episodes of violence or sexual impropriety – although, as we shall see, authors were often keen to be seen to balance such thrills with instruction and advice.

However, despite the crucial influence of the classics on early modern English literature, and despite the emphasis that some first-year English literature courses might place on this influence, it is important to appreciate that many students of English literature will have little or no grounding in the classics, and that, as Robin Sowerby suggests, they may be disadvantaged by this lack of contextual knowledge.[v] Here, online resources such as www.theoi.com may prove useful, helping students to navigate the frequent brief references to classical myth that they will find in works of early modern English literature – for example, Hamlet’s scathing reference to his mother Gertrude as ‘like Niobe, all tears’ in her grief at his father’s death, a show of extravagant mourning that is belied by her swift marriage to Claudius.[vi] Because such references are often unexplained in early modern works, it is also vital that students are encouraged to use modern, annotated editions wherever possible. For example, when I teach Robert Greene’s little-studied romance Mamillia (1580), I do so using a version I have edited myself, which provides copious footnotes to explain Greene’s numerous brief references to Ovidian myth. Other resources, such as Jane Davidson Reid’s Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300-1900 (Oxford, 1993) enable students to trace the use and development of specific classical figures, while those interested in translation as literature may consult the multi-volume Oxford History of Literary Translation in English (Oxford, 2005-), general editors Peter France and Stuart Gillespie. I have also frequently recommended Julie Sanders’ Adaptation and Appropriation (New York, 2006) and Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation to students interested in how and why certain works or stories might be adapted.

However, although it is vitally useful for students studying works like Hamlet, which are peppered with allusions to mythological characters and stories, increased knowledge of the stories that lie behind such brief mentions can be more useful still, for early modern writing is often at its most fascinating when it self-consciously deviates from its classical sources, to reflect in some way on the society that has produced it. Hutcheon notes that via adaptation (not necessarily of classical works) authors can combine ‘the comfort of ritual and recognition with the delight of surprise and novelty’.[vii] Similarly, Sanders has argued that when a source text is appropriated by a later author, ‘it is usually at the key point of infidelity [to the original] that the most creative acts of adaptation and appropriation take place’.[viii] A good example of this practice of self-conscious, creative departure, that simultaneously takes advantage of the familiarity of the classical myth, may be seen in George Pettie’s 1576 compendium of prose tales, A Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure, which I have taught at Newcastle and Glasgow, as part of the courses ‘Popular Fiction 1560-1625’, and ‘Literature 1510-1660’.[ix]

In his work, Pettie reflects Elizabethan literary fashion, dropping in brief allusions to classical myths, in accordance with a trend that would become known as euphuism (after John Lyly’s 1578 romance Euphues the Anatomy of Wit). However, he also adapts entire classical stories, and repackages them in ways that are clearly attuned to the expectations of his English, Elizabethan audience. For example, in his tale ‘Scilla and Minos’, Pettie builds extensively on what he had found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (translated by Arthur Golding, 1567), and in dictionaries and reference works of the time.[x] Pettie adds a lengthy subplot, prior to the main Ovidian action of Scilla’s betrayal of her father Nisus, which she accomplishes by cutting a lock of his hair and presenting it to her beloved Minos. This subplot deals with Scilla’s scornful rejection of Iphis, a young, socially inferior suitor. Having cruelly dismissed Iphis, Scilla is herself spurned by Minos, who is horrified by her treachery towards her father. In the course of a lengthy introduction, Pettie addresses his female Elizabethan readership, and counsels them to see the classical tale as a cautionary example, directly relevant to their own lives:

Gentlewomen, bicause most of you bee maydes (I meane at least taken so) I will manifest unto you the mischeif of love by the example of a mayde, in that estate (though I hope not every way) like unto your selves, that admonished thereby, you may avoyde the like incō[n]venience in your selves.[xi]

Pettie urges the female reader to perceive both similarity and difference between herself and the classical figure – Scilla is in some ways ‘like unto your selves’ in her pride and her susceptibility to love, but the female reader may also be ‘admonished thereby’ when she reads this story, encouraged to shun the example of cruelty, intemperate desire, and filial disobedience that Scilla represents. Here, we might say that Pettie’s Scilla is not only both ‘like unto’ and different from Elizabethan women, but also that she is both like and unlike her Ovidian ancestor, for while Pettie has taken her betrayal of her father from Ovid, he has invented her dismissal of Iphis, specifically so that her story in the Petite Pallace might be of more interest to his sixteenth-century readers. Sasha Roberts has shown how early modern commentators were deeply concerned by the idea that women, in particular, might read Ovid wrongly, deriving pleasure but not learning from this most morally dubious of classical poets.[xii] Pettie gives his readers (male and female) plenty of scandal and scurrility to enjoy in his collection: another tale he adapts and expands is that of Pasiphae’s passionate desire for a bull. However, just as prominent as the entertainment is the insistence (whether genuine or not) that readers could learn from this newly-imagined Ovid. In the case of the latter tale, Pasiphae is the social inferior of her husband, and her sin is, for Pettie, at least partly attributable to the mismatch in their backgrounds, which doomed the marriage before it began. For Pettie and his peers, the invented lesson must be foregrounded so that the worth of the mythological work may be defended: something that is of particular importance when women are among the target readership.

The mythological works of Pettie’s contemporaries often reflect similar concerns. In his address ‘To the reader’, which prefaces his translation of the Metamorphoses, Arthur Golding insists that the Elizabethan reader must not simply read classical myth, but must put in the requisite effort to apply such myths to his or her own life: ‘Now when thou read’st of god or man, in stone, in beast or tree, / It is a mirror for thyself thine own estate to see’.[xiii] In his other prefatory epistle, addressed to the Earl of Leicester, Golding provides brief moralizations of many of the major tales in Ovid’s poem. In the case of Book 8, he explains

The story of the daughter of king Nisus setteth out
What wicked lust drives folk unto to bring their wills about.
And of a righteous judge is given example in the same,
Who for no meed nor friendship will consent to any blame. (169-172)

Here, Golding clearly endeavours to apply classical myth to his readers’ own lives and experiences: Ovid’s tale provides examples of both bad behaviour (Scilla’s intemperate passion for Minos, which leads her to betray her father, is to be shunned) and good (Minos, shocked by her treachery, rejects her suit, and is commended by Golding as a ‘righteous judge’). For his part, Pettie underscores the poetic justice of Scilla’s fate (rejected by Minos, she drowns in pursuit of his departing ship) in a typically forthright manner:

You see here, Gentlewomen, she [that] would not looke upō[n] her Iphis, coulde not be looked upon by her Minos. Shee that would make no account of her inferriour, could not be accounted of by her superiour. For it is a plaine case, (and therfore looke to it) that they which deale rigorously with other, shall bée rudely dealt withal themselves. (p. 134)

Both Pettie and Golding argue (implicitly or explicitly) that one of the primary reasons to return to classical myth is its potential to act as a ‘mirror’ to Elizabethan society. An unexpected benefit for students, then, is that such mythological adaptations reflect valuably on the concerns and interests of this society: concerns such as children’s attitudes towards their parents, the social imperative to marry ‘correctly’, and how the potentially unruly behaviour of young men and women might be controlled. Moreover, as Dryden’s analogy of the adapting author as one who tries his hand at Odysseus’ bow suggests, a study of classical adaptation in the early modern period frequently becomes an illuminating consideration of specifically authorial concerns, encouraging students to think about how authors like Golding, Pettie and Dryden write themselves into literary tradition, while simultaneously striving for the original creation the literary and theatrical marketplace required; and how they situate themselves in relation to their literary peers and rivals.[xiv] Student feedback often singles out the extracts from the Petite Pallace as a favourite text on ‘Literature 1510-1660’, with one student describing the week spent on classical adaptation as providing a completely new perspective on the period’s writing.

The responsibility that an early modern adapter of myth bears to his audience is also foregrounded in Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair (1614), which culminates in Leatherhead’s and Littlewit’s puppet-show, a parody of Christopher Marlowe’s well-known epyllion Hero and Leander (1598), itself an adaptation of Musaeus’ poem. Here, though, the adapters’ concern is with entertaining their audience, rather than instructing them. When Jonson’s foolish spectator Bartholomew Cokes asks Leatherhead if he has adapted the story for the stage ‘according to the printed book’, Leatherhead explains he has felt bound to make certain changes in his transposition, for Marlowe’s version is ‘too learned and poetical for our audience’.[xv] Littlewit is oblivious to the ridiculous nature of his alterations, proudly explaining his efforts to accommodate the mixed audience of the Fair:

I have only made it a little easy and modern for the times, sir, that’s all; as, for the Hellespont, I imagine our Thames here; and then Leander, I make a dyer’s son, about Puddle Wharf; and Hero a wench o’the Bankside, who going over one morning to old Fish Street, Leander spies her land at Trig Stairs, and falls in love with her. Now do I introduce Cupid, having metamorphosed himself into a drawer, and he strikes Hero in love with a pint of sherry. (V.iii.106-113)

Littlewit and Leatherhead give the audience of their production little credit, and are determined to cater to the lowest common denominator in their reimagining of Hero and Leander. By contrast, Jonson’s auditor, armed with knowledge of Marlowe’s poem (which I always teach the week before Bartholomew Fair) can appreciate the ridiculousness of these earnest efforts to make the work accessible for the London fair-goers, who are interested primarily in lowbrow tales of drunkenness and lechery, enacted by comfortingly recognisable characters. Jonson clearly aims to raise a smile through Littlewit’s foolish insistence that a mythological poem and its characters must be revised (and reduced) to make them relevant to a Jacobean audience. However, the study of adaptations can contain genuinely useful clues about contemporary attitudes and interests, clues that can enhance students’ appreciation of a wide range of early modern literature. As the foregoing examples have hopefully suggested, knowing the original myths, and how these are used or abused by authors like Pettie, Golding and Jonson, encourages students to think afresh about Elizabethan and Jacobean societal concerns, about the cultural politics of early modern adaptation, and about the author’s engagement with the full range of his readers, auditors and rivals. Far from being ‘too learned and poetical’ for those with little grounding in the classics, early modern classical adaptation can be in equal measure educative and entertaining, for auditors from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first.

Dr Katherine Heavey

University of Glasgow

[i] John Dryden, All For Love, in Works, vol. 13, ed. Maximillian E. Novak and Alan Roper, 20 vols. (Berkeley, 1956-2000) 10.

[ii] Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation (New York, 2006) 16.

[iii] Examples include T. W. Baldwin’s study William Shakespeare’s Small Latin and Less Greek, 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1944); Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry (Minneapolis, 1932); and, more recently, Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford, 1993); Robin Sowerby, The Classical Legacy in Renaissance Poetry (London, 1994); Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca (Oxford, 1992).

[iv] Thomas Heywood, The Iron Age (London, 1632) A3r-A3v.

[v] Sowerby, 1.

[vi] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York, 1997) I.ii.149.

[vii] Hutcheon, 173.

[viii] Sanders, 20.

[ix] On Pettie, see Katharine Wilson, Fictions of Authorship in Late Elizabethan England: Euphues in Arcadia (Oxford, 2006); Helen Hackett, Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance (Cambridge, 2006); Caroline Lucas, Writing for Women: The Example of Woman as Reader in Elizabethan Romance (Milton Keynes, 1989).

[x] Such reference works and their influence are discussed by De Witt T. Starnes and E. W Talbert, Classical Myth and Legend in Renaissance Dictionaries (Chapel Hill, 1955).

[xi] George Pettie, A Petite Pallace of Pettie His Pleasure (London, 1576) pp. 119-120.

[xii] Sasha Roberts, Reading Shakespeare’s Poems in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 2003): 20-21, 36-37.

[xiii] Arthur Golding, trans., Ovid’s Metamorphoses, ed. Madeleine Forey (Baltimore, 2001) lines 81-82.

[xiv] For a fascinating and far more negative assessment of how classical myth might be adapted to reflect the mores of contemporary society (here, twentieth-century America), see Page duBois, Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from the Conservatives (New York, 2001) 19.

[xv] Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair, in ‘The Alchemist’ and Other Plays, ed. Gordon Campbell (Oxford, 1995) V.iii.94-98.