Ben Jonson famously said that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek.” This is usually taken to mean that Shakespeare was not well-educated and lacked knowledge of the two foundational languages of Western culture—unlike Jonson himself, who was the consummate classicist. More recently, some scholars, like Colin Burrow, have pointed out the importance of the word “though” in Jonson’s phrase, “Though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek.” In his book Shakespeare & Classical Antiquity, Burrow suggests that Jonson might actually be saying: even if you knew little Latin and less Greek (which is untrue) the great classical dramatists would still praise you. But regardless of Jonson’s intended meaning, the ancients most definitely did play a role in Shakespeare’s work.
In The Winter’s Tale, for example, despite the fact that the plot was in part lifted from Pandosto by Robert Greene, we can discern the myth of Demeter and Persephone embodied in the figures of Hermione and Perdita. In Pericles, we encounter the Temple of Ephesus and witness the apparition of the goddess Artemis (Diana). In the fairy realm of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we feel the presence of a world in which the destiny of human beings is intertwined with that of the gods (as portrayed, for example, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses). And the list goes on. In short, Shakespeare adopts and molds into his plays many elements belonging to classical antiquity. What is remarkable, however, is that they appear in an extraordinarily natural and authentic way. We can feel the gentle breeze of ancient Greece, like the breath of Zephyrus himself, blowing through the whole of his body of work as an inspiration, kindling life and imagination wherever it blows.
Regardless of how we interpret Jonson’s words, one thing is certain—unlike Jonson, Shakespeare was not an academic scholar or classicist concerned with the philological accuracy of his work. He did not cloister himself away in his ivory tower, looking down upon the world from lofty heights. In fact, before Shakespeare wrote anything, he was an actor, and as such would have experienced direct contact with the inner spiritual and emotional life of the audience. He would have felt how the actor lives and breathes in a dynamic tension with the audience, would have felt when the audience was with him and when their attention ebbed—he might even have sometimes felt the physical pain inflicted by the “groundlings,” who are thought to have thrown things at the actors when unhappy with a performance.
When Shakespeare did eventually try his hand at playwriting, he did it from the perspective of a performer and artist, not a scholar. He was concerned with how to move his audience, how to touch them, how to make them laugh and weep. What Aristotle describes as “catharsis” through fear and pity was familiar to Shakespeare out of a practical artistic necessity; and, with his keen perception of what moves us fundamentally as human beings and a skill for crafting words and actions that do just that, Shakespeare stirred—and still stirs—the hearts and minds of his audience.
We find a remarkable example in The Winter’s Tale of how Shakespeare worked with material from the classical world. As mentioned, we can view the character of Hermione, queen of Sicily, as a Demeter figure and the character of Perdita as her daughter Persephone. In the Greek myth, Persephone is stolen away to the Underworld by Hades. Demeter, overcome with despair, searches far and wide for her daughter, but to no avail. This causes death to spread throughout the land—a winter of sterility sets in. At last, Zeus orders Hades to release Persephone from the Underworld, but Hades tricks her by feeding her pomegranate seeds, which, when eaten, force her to return for part of the year to the Underworld. Nevertheless, Demeter is overjoyed with the return of her daughter and blesses the earth with the gift of crops and agricultural prosperity. This return of life, this resurrection, is enacted at the end of The Winter’s Tale, when Hermione, having been presumed dead for many years, comes to life again from stone. Her reawakening is occasioned by the return of her daughter Perdita (meaning “lost one”) from the far shores of Bohemia. Perdita’s connection with the figure of Persephone is clearly established in an earlier scene in the play when she says:
For the flowers now that, frighted, thou letst fall
From Dis’s wagon!—daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets, dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses,
That die unmarried ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength—a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips, and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one. O, these I lack,
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o’er and o’er! (IV, iv)
In this scene, she appears as a representative of Persephone (Proserpina). And if we turn to her mother, we find she bears in her name, Hermione, a tribute to the goddess Demeter. As Stevie Davies writes in her book The Feminine Reclaimed, “We have forgotten now that the name of ‘Hermione’ was immemorially associated with Demeter, but that knowledge was easily accessible in the Renaissance as staple dictionary information”. In Hesychius’ lexicon, the name Hermione is connected in Syracuse with the myth of Demeter and Persephone. And because this knowledge was “easily accessible” in Shakespeare’s time, the resonance of the name with the myth would have been felt by at least some in the audience. The connection between the myth and the play is further strengthened by the fact that Sicily is considered the sacred island of Demeter and Persephone. As Margaret Bennell points out in Shakespeare’s Flowering of the Spirit, Shakespeare changes the birthplace of his heroines from Bohemia, as it appears in Greene’s Pandosto, to Sicily. He also significantly alters the ending of the play toward reunion and redemption rather than death by suicide. These facts would have heightened the audience’s awareness of the play’s connection with the myth.
The final scene, which marks the return of the lost Perdita and the arrival of renewed life, unfolds in an atmosphere of wonder and magic. Shakespeare, the actor who knew first-hand what moves an audience most deeply, writes a scene that is charged with a mystical power—mystical in its more original sense of “mustēs,” referring to one who is initiated into the Greek Mysteries. In this connection, Bennell mentions an intriguing oration by the fourth century philosopher and rhetorician Themistius in which we hear an account of the Demeter Mysteries of Eleusis that provides a backdrop for this moment in the play:
Just as a person approached the inner sanctuary, he would be filled with awe and anxiety, he would be in distress and gripped by a sense of utter helplessness, unable to take a step, unable to embark on any path that would lead him into the sanctuary. Then that interpreter would open the gateway of the temple, clothe the god’s statue, and make it beautiful and clean on all sides. He would show the statute, now all sparkling and shining with a heavenly light, to the initiate. That fog and cloud would be completely broken up without delay. From the depths, meaning would emerge full of light and splendor instead of the original darkness (Themistius, Orat. xx).
If we compare this description of Themistius with the final scene of The Winter’s Tale, we find a remarkable correspondence. The main characters of the play, including Leontes, who believes his wrongful accusation of his wife caused her death sixteen years ago, are brought before a newly created sculpture of her. The statue appears amazingly lifelike, and Leontes can hardly believe his eyes. Paulina, who has fiercely defended Hermione and constantly reminds Leontes of his transgression, tells him that she can make the statue come to life. Leontes urges her on, assuring her that all of them will silently behold her magic. Paulina then initiates the resurrection moment:
Music; awake her; strike!
[To Hermione] ’Tis time. Descend. Be stone no more. Approach.
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come,
I’ll fill your grave up. Stir. Nay, come away.
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you.
[To Leontes] You perceive she stirs.
Start not. Her actions shall be holy as
You hear my spell is lawful (V, iii.).
This is an initiation moment. After having undergone the trials of the earlier part of the play, we arrive at this apotheosis. It is believed that the high point in the Mysteries of Eleusis consisted in the enactment of this reunion of the daughter Persephone with her mother Demeter. In this scene, upon seeing her daughter Perdita after these many years, Hermione exclaims:
You gods, look down,
And from your sacred vials pour your graces
Upon my daughter’s head (V, iii.).
At the end of initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries, the initiates would go out into the fields calling for rebirth, “Hye! Rain! Pour down! Kye! Conceive! Give birth!”. Furthermore, the final day of the festival surrounding the initiation was known as Plemochoai, or Pourings of Plenty, during which the initiates would pour libations from special vessels, plemochoai. One final element worth mentioning is that music played an important role in the initiation ritual. For example, at the height of the ritual, during the reenactment of the sacred drama of Demeter and Persephone, a brass gong was struck. All of these elements are woven into this final scene of The Winter’s Tale through Shakespeare’s subtle artistic sensitivity for the ritualistic aspect of drama, and the effect is to elicit a powerful experience of rebirth in the audience. Shakespeare draws from the wellspring of drama at its source, not as an exploit of the intellect but through a deep feeling for what lives at the heart of human experience. Western drama, after all, emerged from the rituals of the Mysteries, which were a kind of greenhouse for all the arts. We know, for example, that through a similarly deep artistic feeling, Aeschylus staged scenes that mirrored the sacred rituals of the Mysteries and that he was put on trial for “betraying” their secrets. He had to prove that he had no knowledge of the Mysteries in question to be acquitted of the charges, which would have resulted in his death (Cf. Aristole, Nicomachean Ethics III. i.). Shakespeare likewise reaches so deeply into the essence of dramatic art that he produces a kind of Mystery ritual.
Critics have long pondered this final scene, many at a loss to explain in logical terms the lapse of sixteen years and the youthful preservation of Hermione. They are thinking literally, not in terms of the enactment of sacred drama, which is both grounded in the concrete and raised above the mundane. The statue of stone, concrete and visible, comes to life through a moment of inner awakening. This is an act of “play” in its highest form. As Goethe put it, “The highest task of any art is to give through appearance the illusion of a higher reality”. It is precisely through this leap into the representation of a higher reality, which develops according to the laws of imagination and not the logic of everyday life, that Shakespeare achieves this final moment of apotheosis. It is a rebirth that takes place in the soul and heart of all who are present and is brought to expression through the enactment of drama as ritual. In this moment, Shakespeare intuitively reaches back to the ancient world for the form in which to cast such an event. The effect is, for those who can follow the play in its spiritual thrust, a cathartic release from the pain and suffering of life. Even if Shakespeare did possess “small Latin and less Greek,” his work is rooted in the spirit of ancient drama, and most especially of drama as redemption. In that sense, we can agree with Ben Jonson when he says, “he was not of an age but for all time.”