This is some weeks late now, but after a packed induction week for my Masters at the start of October, I celebrated by going to this Ovid in Shakespeare event at the British Museum. Given that I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on how Shakespeare uses Classics to portray strong emotion, I was incredibly excited to go (not least because Jonathan Bate, one of the speakers, wrote some very excellent books that I read as part of my research).
As expected, I had a wonderful time, and learnt many things I didn’t know before (such as that the Emperor Augustus had a personal seal/gem carver called Dioskourides), but I also came away feeling somewhat melancholy. Near the start of the event, Gregory Doran (the RSC’s artistic director) commented that, nowadays, there’s a temptation to cut the Classical allusions from Shakespeare plays because often the audience doesn’t understand them. He then ran through a list of Classical figures to illustrate this point, and while I knew all of them, I do recognise myself to be an exception.
And I wish that wasn’t the case. Studying Classics has been the singularly most exciting and invigorating part of my life, and I wish everyone had the chance to enjoy it. Because I do recognise that I have been extremely fortunate: 1) to have been introduced to the stories at a young age, 2) to have had such talented and dedicated teachers (one of whom was willing to give up so many lunchtimes to teach me Ancient Greek), and 3) to have parents who didn’t pressure me into doing a ‘proper’ (i.e. science-based) subject at university.
The subject I studied, and the Classicists I studied it with, in no way reflect the boring/elitist brushstrokes they’re often painted with (though, at the same time, I’m very aware of how these misconceptions arise – and, indeed, that in some cases they may be true!) But, for me, Classics is not a snooty subject of dead languages; it is a living, breathing entity, unafraid to acknowledge that deep suffering exists and that people do terrible things to each other. You see humanity at its best and its worst, running the whole gamut of emotion with an intensity (I believe) unmatched by anything since. Ancient mythology and literature were the first places I felt I’d found people who felt things as deeply as I did, and I passionately wish that everyone could have the chance to discover things like that too. I’m not saying everyone should be forced to study it (I know there’ll be people who simply don’t like it, the way I don’t like Maths, and that’s fine!), but I am saying everyone should have the opportunity to study it, and in the current climate that is impossible.
And this is why I think Gregory Doran’s admission is so sad. Shakespeare is drowning in allusions to ancient literature/stories/characters (believe me, I know; a chief part of my dissertation prep was reading his Complete Works, and underlining all the references to Classics I could find…) and cutting them out rips a whole (beautiful) layer from his plays and poetry. Plus, I find the implication that Classical allusions are the only thing an audience doesn’t understand about Shakespeare rather amusing. If that’s the logic in editing the plays, then why not also remove all the jokes that require copious footnotes to be understood?
That being said, this state of affairs did seem to upset Doran too, as he ended the evening by asking what could be done to revitalise Classics in our time. While the current consensus is that everything that is not immediately/physically practical is next-to-useless, I’m not sure there’s any one answer, but I know I’m not the only one who wants this to change. Still, I’ve prattled on long enough, so further thoughts will follow in Part 2 of this post!