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Why Do Shakespeare's Plays Make Great Movies? Part Two—How Shakespeare Used His Reading

This is Part Two of a series. For Part One, click here.

Onstage sword fighting in Henry V during
the  2014 Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.
The swordplay in Henry V would have thrilled Shakespeare's audience, despite the Chorus's denigrating it as "four or five most vile and ragged foils, / Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous." But Shakespeare wanted to provide more than cheap thrills. In Henry V, as we've seen, he wanted to present a clash of kingdoms and a king like the god of war himself. These are awe-inspiring subjects, which doesn't necessarily mean that they should inspire admiration—Henry V presents war's horrors as well as Henry's ruthless Machiavellianism. The play's subjects inspire awe because they're gigantic. To do them justice, a playwright would need the divine inspiration that the Chorus longs for in the play's opening lines: "O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention."

By "invention," he means what we would call "creativity," and when he calls for a muse to provide it, he's echoing Virgil's Aeneid, which was part of the curriculum at Stratford's "grammar school," where Shakespeare studied Latin grammar and literature. The Aeneid, the fantastic tales in Ovid's Metamorphoses, the comedies of Plautus, and the tragedies of Seneca fertilized his imagination and supplied him with plots and models for his own poetry and drama. He wasn't as widely read as his friend and fellow playwright Ben Jonson—few people were—but what he read, he read deeply, which is more important.

A quick look at how he used that reading in Henry V and some related plays will show that his creative process resembled that of a screenwriter.

William Page,
Shakespeare Reading (1873-74).
Image from the AMICA Library.
In a poem prefacing the first collection of his plays (the First Folio, published seven years after his death, in 1623), Jonson wrote that Shakespeare had surpassed his classical literary forebears, despite having "small Latin and less Greek." This description of Shakespeare's learning has been exaggerated to mean that he was a Warwickshire yokel who could barely read (he's portrayed this way in the conspiracy thriller Anonymous). Like many grammar-school-educated Elizabethans, Shakespeare read Latin extremely well, better than many classics professors today, though when he had a good English translation available for a Latin work—as he did for Ovid's Metamorphoses—he sometimes used it along with the original.

But like most grammar-school-educated Elizabethans, Shakespeare couldn't read Greek, so what he knew of Greek literature came primarily from reading the Roman writers who imitated it. From Seneca and Plautus, he learned the structure of Greek tragedy and "new comedy" (he used these as springboards for some early plays). From Virgil, he learned most of what he knew about Greek epic—the Iliad and Odyssey—though he also read part of the Iliad in an English translation by George Chapman. (Two centuries later, Chapman's translation of the Odyssey would inspire John Keats's "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.") Chapman's Iliad translation heavily influenced Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, a strange play that deserves to be filmed by a clever, funny director. Chapman's Iliad also influenced Henry V, though that influence pales in comparison to the direct influence of the Aeneid (see Hunter 1-25 and Taylor 52-5).

Kenneth Branagh in his 1989 Henry V.
Image from
Virgil begins his epic by announcing its dual subject as war and a warrior: "Arma virumque cano"—literally, "Of weapons and a man, I sing." (Robert Fitzgerald translates this as, "I sing of warfare and a man at war.") Since the Chorus tells us that this is essentially Henry V's subject, we might expect that Shakespeare used the Aeneid as a model for this play. But he also used it as a model for the entire tetralogy of plays that Henry V concludes. That tetralogy is sometimes called the Henriad because, like the Aeneid, it follows a warrior from his shaky beginnings—Aeneas begins as a refugee, Henry as a rascally prince—to his final victory.

After Henry's victory, and his wooing of a French princess, the Henriad ends with an epilogue linking it to Shakespeare's "first tetralogy" of history plays. We call it the "first" tetralogy because Shakespeare wrote it first, much as someone might call Star Wars Episodes 4-6 the "first" Star Wars movies because George Lucas made them first. Just as Lucas later returned to his story with prequels, so Shakespeare returned with prequels in the Henriad or "second tetralogy." Together, the two tetralogies form a continuous epic that tells England's story from the late fourteenth century to the late fifteenth.

Georg Christoph Eimmarts's 1688 engraving (after
a drawing by Georg Jacob Lang) of Aeneas
killing Turnus at the end of the Aeneid.
Shakespeare found that story in history chronicles, especially Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In Virgil's Aeneid he found a model for telling it. Much as the Aeneid tells a story of the founding of Rome, Shakespeare's linked tetralogies tell the story of the founding of the Tudor dynasty; and much as Virgil's hero is a claimed ancestor of the emperor Augustus, so Shakespeare's, in the sequence's final play, is Elizabeth's direct ancestor, her grandfather Richmond, who becomes Henry VII after defeating Richard III, the last Yorkist king.

When Shakespeare invokes a muse in Henry V's opening lines, he alludes to the Aeneid, but his use of Virgil's epic poem goes further than mere allusion. With Henry V, the Henriad, and the entire, two-tetralogy history-play sequence, Shakespeare turns epic poetry—and history chronicles—into drama for the stage. Such transformations were one of his favorite writing strategies.

Much like a screenwriter adapting a novel, Shakespeare took material that had been written to be read (or recited) and changed it into something that could be performed. Over the course of his approximately twenty-four-year long career, in the thirty-eight plays that we know he wrote or co-wrote, he did this with classical and contemporary literature of all kinds, with poems, history chronicles, biographies, novellas, and "romances" (these were something like fantasy novels). Using these works, he created masterpieces that transcended the originals, in an entirely different medium.

Virgil was finished once he had transferred his vision to the page, but Shakespeare's vision had to be realized in a "cockpit" of a theater, by fallible actors, in front of an unruly and distracted crowd.

Next: Part Three—Imagination.


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