“Monsieur, We Are Not Lettered”
In all likelihood, Shakespeare’s first exposure to formal comedy occurred in the schoolhouse, not the playhouse, when he and his fellow students read the texts of Plautus and Terence that constituted an important part of the grammar school syllabus.1 Indeed, it is not hard to imagine this young writer from Stratford arriving in London from the country with drafts of a comedy adapted from Plautus’s Menaechmi and Amphitruo (Comedy of Errors), and a tragedy strongly influenced by Seneca (Titus Andronicus) already in his briefcase. Shakespeare was English, and his own man, from the start, but classical influences dominate many of the plays we suppose him to have written early in his career.2 And the dominance is natural, for this was the time in his theatrical life when his school-day experiences, as a student and perhaps even as a teacher (if there be truth in the suggestion that he did time in that role before coming to London to join the players), would have been freshest and strongest, and before extensive exposure to the works of other dramatists in the theater and to nonacademic influences of various kinds supplied alternative models for constructing plots, developing characters, and using language.3 Analysis of Shakespeare’s relationships to his classical predecessors is nothing new, of course; there have been admirable studies by T. W. Baldwin, Madeleine Doran, John Velz, Robert Miola, and many others.
KeywordsCorporal Punishment Young Writer Classical Influence Early Play Political Reading
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