Not long ago, I was treated to an Internet discussion on the likelihood of Shakespeare’s knowledge of the classical Greek language. The participants were all self-identified Oxfordians by virtue of the fact that the location at which the discussion occurred is a Facebook group page supporting the Earl of Oxford in the Shakespeare authorship controversy.
From the standard quote, by contemporary, Ben Jonson, that Shakespeare knew “small Latin and less Greek,” the discussion quickly turned to a Greek bible theorized to have been sent from Venice, by Edward de Vere, the 16th Earl of Oxford, to his wife, Anne. While the subject of the bible was clearly a fascinating one to all involved, I found myself waiting for someone to mention a far less speculative evidence of Shakespeare’s likely knowledge of the Greek language, a fact which might argue strongly for the Oxfordian position.
It is not at all clear from Jonson’s limited comments on Shakespeare, throughout his life, whether he was aware that the Bard may have actually translated a Greek text popular for many centuries. Apart from a helpful 2002 article by Andrew Werth, I am not aware, from any recent comments on the authorship controversy, that present scholars keep the long known fact in mind during their debates.
The fact that Shakespeare’s sonnets canonically numbered 153 and 154 are two variations of a translation from a Greek epigram by Marianus Scholasticus (to use the Latin transliteration of his name) has been “discovered” numerous times over the past 200 years. Most notably, in 1878, Gustav Friedrich Hertzberg boldly announced to the world that he had discovered the connection. He was quickly corrected when it was pointed out that the 1856 Epigramme der Griechische Anthologie included the text of the epigram with an accompanying note that it had been Shakespeare’s source. In 1916, Raymond MacDonald Alden cited a still earlier mention in Henry Wellesley’s Anthologia Polyglotta of 1849. Hyder Edward Rollins has further pointed out that Wellesley does not present it as something thitherto unknown and that a Bodleian copy of the original quarto of the Sonnets includes a hand-written marginal note entered, perhaps, by one Thomas Caldecott (1744-1833) earlier still. From this he infers that the relationship to Marianus’s epigram was known, at least in some circles, as far back as the 18th century.
Alden’s 1916 variorum edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets identifies Marianus as “a Byzantine, probably of the fifth century.” The source of this identification is not mentioned but there seems no reason to explore the matter further. Rollins’s 1944 revised and expanded edition of Alden’s variorum Sonnets, however, claims that the traditional Latin imitation of the Marianus epigram was accomplished by one Regianus “[p]robably composed in the fifth century”. This creates an issue.
The Latin imitation of the epigram (according to Rollins’s source, James Hutton) was first published in 1590, making it seem possible that Shakespeare had translated not from the Greek but from the Latin and that the sonnets must necessarily be dated no earlier than that year. This, of course, is somewhat more in line with the storyline of the Stratford man, and, therefore, was adopted by pre-controversy Shakespearean scholars and still seems to be by contemporary Stratfordians (persons who support the identification of the Stratford man as the poet and playwright Shakespeare) who are aware of the matter. The particular Latin text, however, bears only a passing relationship to the original Greek epigram and none to Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Rollins mentions a 1495 Florentine edition of the Palnudean Anthology, in the original Greek, as the earliest published from a European press. What he fails to make clear is that several popular Greek reprint editions appeared between then and 1566. One of the editions was sure to have been immediately purchased for the Cambridge and Oxford University libraries and by the likes of Sir Thomas Smith (if he did not already long possess a cherished copy of the Florentine edition) and William Cecil, among others. In fact, The Book Rarities of the University of Cambridge (1829) proudly boasts that the University libraries still hold a rare copy of Aldus Manutius’s 1521 edition: Florilegivm diversorum Epigrammatum in septem libros (listed as printed by Andreas Asulanus, Mantius’s brother-in-law).
Badius Ascensius’ Paris edition of 1531 — Florilegîvm Diversorvm, Epigramma cvm, In Septem Libres — was the reprint of choice in France at the time. The shop of the great publisher Wynkyn de Worde was Ascensius’ outlet in the English market, the Dutch ex-patriot Gerard Freez (a.k.a. Gerard Wandsforth) at least occasionally acting as go between. Though I’ve yet to find reference to the Florilegium, specifically relating to this connection, it is more than a little likely that Worde offered it for sale to his more discerning customers.
In what may be an interesting aside, the library catalogue for Henry Wellesley’s estate — Catalogue of the Very Extensive and Valuable Library of the Late Reverend Doctor Wellesley, Principal of New Inn Hall, Oxford (1866)— lists a copy of the M. Nicolini edition of the Anthologia Graeca published in Venice, in 1566. This, then, strongly suggests that particular edition was the specific source of the Greek epigram of Marianus quoted in his Anthologia Polyglotta.
But, much to the consternation of “the Greek camp,” there were actually many Latin and vulgar language “imitations” of Marianus’s epigram. Shakespeare’s sonnets are just two among them and the question arises whether he was doing a loose translation of the original or of one of the imitations (or a combination thereof). It is difficult to imagine a more thorough review of the matter than James Hutton’s “Analogues of Shakespeare's Sonnets 153-54”. Little, if anything, has been added to the subject since.
Hutton’s summation, however, is forced upon him, as is so common, by the traditional assignment of the sonnets to the Stratford man. Shakespeare, he avers, surely not being able to read Greek, and no intermediate version, in any language he may have picked up on the fly, explaining the sonnets close approximation of the Greek original, we must not yet have discovered some intermediate translation that served as his source. To deny that such an undiscovered poem could exist (whether Shakespeare knew Greek or not) would involve proving a negative, a thing patently impossible.
There is, of course, at least one other explanation. Shakespeare could have been familiar with Marianus’s epigram in the original Greek. As for two additions he has made (one extremely minor, one ambiguous) he might well have been familiar with one or more of the popular imitations then available. If one is referring to Edward de Vere, we might even suggest confidence that he was familiar with at least two of the contemporary imitations, which, while they cannot explain the greater closeness of the sonnets to the Greek epigram, can explain the two additions. Of course, the additions might also simply be the product of his own invention and only coincidentally have been adopted by others as well.
In both Alden’s and Rollins’ variorum Sonnets (and Wellesley’s Anthologia Polyglotta) the original epigram is given as follows:
Tᾇδ’ ὑπὸ τàς πλατάνους ἁπαλῷ τετρυμένος ὕπνῳ
εὗδενʾʹ Ερως, Νύφαις λαμπάδα παρθέμενος.
Νύμφαι δ΄ἁλλήλῃσι, τί μέλλομεν; αἴθε δὲ ταύτω
σβέσσαμεν, εἶπον, ὁμοῦ πῦρ καραδίης μερόπων.
λαμρας δ΄ ὡς ἔφλεξε καὶ ὕδατα, θερμὸν ἐκεῖθεν
Νύμφαι Ἐρωτιάδες λουτροχοεῦσιν ὕδωρ.
Both variorum Sonnets give the following literal translation from the standard 19th century edition:
Here beneath the plane-trees, overborne by soft sleep, Love slumbered, giving his torch to the Nymphs’ keeping; and the Nymphs said one to another, “Why do we delay? and would that with this we might have quenched the fire in the heart of mortals.” But now, the torch having kindled even the waters, the amorous Nymphs pour hot water thence into the bathing pool.’
Rollins also quotes a literal prose translation by Hutton which is virtually identical.
The differences from Shakespeare’s sonnets are evident. The plane-trees are nowhere in evidence in the sonnets. In the epigram, the Nymphs engage in conversation but not in the sonnets. In the sonnets, lines are necessarily added, in order to arrive at the requisite number of 14, and the theme necessarily expanded as a result. Cupid/Eros does not hand his torch to the Nymph’s, in the sonnets, but places it by his side. Still, Shakespeare has stayed closer to the original than all but two of the intermediate versions Hutton presents by other hands.
The absence of the plane-trees is easily explained. The original epigram was written to celebrate Venus’s Baths in the island of Cypress. The warmth of the baths is explained by Eros torch being dipped in its waters while he lay sleeping. The plane-trees were an actual feature of the place.
Shakespeare’s sonnets 153 and 154, on the other hand, are two versions of a poem he was working on that was, scholars have generally agreed, about the baths at Bath in England. There are no plane-trees at that location, thus the originals have been dropped from the poems. More on this soon.
What never seems to be remembered (or understood) by any of these fine scholars, however, is that the Marianus epigram is originally one of a pair. The first of the pair reads as follows:
Μητέρα Κύπριν ἔλουσεν Ἔρως ποτὲ τῷδε λοετρῷ
αὐτὸς ὑποφλεξας λαμπάδι καλὸν ὕδωρ.
ἱδρῲς δ’ ἁμβροσίοι χυθεὶς χροὀς ἄμμιγα λευκοἶ;
ὕδασι, φεῦ, πνοιῆς ὅσσον ἀνῆψεν ἔαρ
ἔνθεν ἀεὶ ροδόεσσαν ἀναζείουσιν ἀΰτμήν
;ὡς ἔτι τῆς χρυσῆς λουομένης Παφίης.
Here we remember Dr. Wellesly a final time. He actually made a middling translation of this epigram. The Greek epigram and Wellesley’s translation appear much later in the pages of the Anthologia Polyglotta and without reference to Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Once on a time Love bathed his mother here,
First heating with his torch the waters clear.
Lo from her goddess form what dews distil!
And wake fresh odours in the mingling rill!
E’en now, such roseate fumes ascend, you’d swear
That golden Venus still was bathing there.
While I make no claim at all to improve the poetry, I will modify Wellesley’s effort just a bit in order to clarify the original text.
Once on a time Eros bathed his mother Aphrodite here,
First lit a torch to place beside waters.
The perspiration descending from her divine
Most lustrous skin mingled in the water!
Alas! The waters joined it with her breath!
Forever after, such roseate fumes bubble up
As if golden Aphrodite still was bathing here.
No one, to date, seems to have found a 15th or 16th century translation or imitation, though it is not clear just how much anyone has been seeking it out. For my part, I have yet to find one. This is not to suggest that I have spent considerable time searching.
If, however, the sonnets were being composed for entertainment during the process of the Queen and her Court to Bath, circa 1592, in order to enjoy its purported healing powers, this first of the pair of epigrams takes on a new importance. Of course, Aphrodite is the Greek name for Venus. Shakespeare would have been in the process of writing Venus and Adonis in which he identifies the Queen with Venus. The sonnets, then, are consistent with Shakespeare’s expansion of the Venus theme being accomplished at the time. The Queen, entering the baths, will be reenacting the role of Venus. Her essence will be left behind “against strang malladies a soveraigne cure”.
This can only be an enormous coincidence or Shakespeare knew both parts of the Marianus epigram-pair. They had not been translated together that we are aware of, appeared together, during Shakespeare’s life, only in the original Greek. There would only seem to be one instance in which they had both been included in a loose imitation and the relationship, in that imitation, was quite different in its details from the Shakespeare sonnets. It could not have been his source.
Along the same line, Ronsard is one of two French poets Shakespeare is known to have borrowed from, at length, for his Venus and Adonis. Sidney Lee, in his French Renaissance in England, finds “unmistakable” influences from Ronsard’s Stances de la fontaine d’Hélène, 1578. Hutton mentions that in Hélène Ronsard also refers, in passing, to the epigram of Marianus. In the allusion, Eros
…laissa son Brandon…
“Laid his brand aside,” rather than entrusting it to nymphs. Shakespeare already showing clear signs of being influenced by the Ronsard poem, and of having borrowed some felicitous images from Ronsard for Venus and Adonis (and other works), the scholar hardly need look further afield to find Shakespeare’s source for this small detail of the sonnets. Moreover, Ronsard never does more, in all his works, than refer to the epigram in passing. Shakespeare’s sonnets could not possibly agree so closely with the original epigram without having been familiar with the Greek text.
All of this by way of compelling proof, the Stratfordian interest has predictably theorized a last gasp scenario in which the Stratford man can have known the Greek original without knowing Greek. Ben Jonson, it has occasionally been claimed, probably provided him with a crib from the originals and that crib is the thus far undetected “missing link” between the Greek of Marianus and sonnets 153 and 154 of William Shake-speare.
 SHAKESPEARE’S “LESSE GREEK” Andrew Werth, THE OXFORDIAN, Volume V, 2002, 11-29. Also available via The Politic Worm, http://politicworm.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/werth-lesse-greek-tox022.pdf.
 A Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Sonnets. Hyder Edward Rollins, 1944, @ 393.
 In these editions, the complete original Palnudean Greek text was advertised but the book titles and commentary were in Latin.
 Analogues of Shakespeare's Sonnets 153-54: Contributions to the History of a Theme, James Hutton, Modern Philology, Vol. 38, No. 4 (May, 1941), 385-403.
 Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, John William Mackail, 1911, 205.
 French Renaissance in England, 222. All of this, 220ff, is very informative about influences of Ronsard on Shakespeare.
More from Virtual Grub Street on Shake-speare and Edward de Vere:
Check out the English Renaissance Article Index for many more articles and reviews about this fascinating time and about the Shakespeare Authorship Question.