In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Classics and Shakespeare

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Editions of Classical Translations in English by Shakespeare’s Contemporaries
  • General Anthologies of Recent Scholarship
  • General Studies of What Shakespeare Knew, How He Knew It, and How He Used It
  • Thematic Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Response to the Classical Tradition
  • Rome
  • Ovid and Myth
  • Virgil, Politics, and Romance
  • Plautus, Terence, and Comedy
  • Other Classical Authors
  • Ancient Philosophical Traditions

Classics Classics and Shakespeare
Sean Keilen, Nick Moschovakis
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0380


Was William Shakespeare’s classical learning sufficient for him to appreciate the distinctive legacies of Greek and Roman Antiquity? This question can mean many things, depending on which legacies one knows most about, the degree to which one is expert in Latin or Greek, and what one means by terms such as “appreciate” or “distinctive.” Various versions of the question have occasioned lively argument ever since the 18th century, when critical Shakespeare studies began. In the early 21st century, no one who attends seriously to the evidence doubts that Shakespeare knew and read Latin literature. He knew and read plenty—some through close and recurrent attention, some through more casual encounters—both in the original and in translated and adapted forms. As for Greek, much expert opinion, if not all, still favors his reliance on translations for the most part (likely into Latin as well as modern languages). More important, studies of Shakespeare and the classics have moved far beyond their early preoccupation with linguistic mastery and philological sophistication. While scholars sometimes continue to differ over which classics Shakespeare read and in what languages, they also explore many more specific questions in detail. For example: How did he use his books as resources for composition? How did humanist pedagogy and textual presentation affect his aims in reading classical texts and his approach to reading them? How did his lifelong engagements with classical works reflect his evolving interests beyond school? How did Renaissance cultural practices, theatrical and otherwise, shape his thinking on ancient mythical and historical subjects and on the purposes and values they could be made to serve? And how did the broader and deeper currents of history—social, political, religious, and more—inform his views of Roman and Greek Antiquity and inflect his imaginative treatment of classical subjects? The more these themes are scrutinized and debated, the more Shakespeare comes to resemble a “classic” among other classics: venerated and canonized, yet subjected to intense critical scrutiny (at times controversial), and implicated by manifest textual debts and possible intertextual relationships in a long and ramified history of reception. Because the secondary literature in this area is vast and impossible to capture in a selective list, this bibliography often gives priority to more recent over older works of equal merit. It also sometimes gives priority to later efforts by scholars whose earlier and related work may still be of vital importance. In both cases, the earlier work is typically cited in the later and is thus easily discovered using the titles here as a starting point.—Compiled by Sean Keilen and Nick Moschovakis, with the assistance of Katie O’Hare.


Two published bibliographies of Shakespeare and the classics have aimed to be as comprehensive as possible. Velz 1968 traces the history of scholarship in this area from 1660 through 1960. Walker 2002 is a sequel to Velz 1968, covering the increasingly rapid proliferation of studies from 1961 through 1991.

  • Velz, John W., ed. 1968. Shakespeare and the classical tradition: A critical guide to commentary, 1660–1960. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    Organized by genre categories, this path-breaking, annotated bibliography of 2,487 entries covers the first three hundred years of writing about Shakespeare and the classics. A useful introductory essay summarizes key earlier figures and their positions, clarifying how these set the stage for later critical developments. Includes extensive annotations to paraphrase and evaluate each title.

  • Walker, John Lewis, ed. 2002. Shakespeare and the classical tradition: An annotated bibliography, 1961–1991. New York: Routledge.

    Organized according to the titles of Shakespeare’s works, this annotated bibliography of 3,210 entries picks up where Velz 1968 leaves off. Includes unpublished doctoral dissertations. Annotations include substantial summaries but generally refrain from evaluation.

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