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Plutarch's Influence on Shakespeare and Other Writers of the Sixteenth Century

From Shakespeare's Plutarch. Ed. C.F. Tucker Brooke. London: Chatto and Windus.

The influence of the writings of Plutarch of Chaeronea on English literature might well be made the subject of one of the most interesting chapters in the long story of the debt of moderns to ancients. One of the most kindly and young spirited, he is also one of the most versatile of Greek writers, and his influence has worked by devious ways to the most varied results. His treatise on the Education of Children had the honour to be early translated into the gravely charming prose of Sir Thomas Elyot, and to be published in a black-letter quarto 'imprinted,' as the colophon tells us, 'in Fletestrete in the house of Thomas Berthelet.' The same work was drawn upon unreservedly by Lyly in the second part of Euphues, and its teachings reappear a little surprisingly in some of the later chapters of Pamela. The essay on the Preservation of Good Health was twice translated into Tudor prose, and that on Curiosity suffered transformation at the hands of the virgin queen herself into some of the most inharmonious of English verse.

The sixteenth century was indeed steeped in Plutarch. His writings formed an almost inexhaustible storehouse for historian and philosopher alike, and the age was characterized by no diffidence or moderation in borrowing. Plutarch's aphorisms and his anecdotes meet us at every turn, openly or in disguise, and the translations I have alluded to did but prepare the way for Philemon Holland's great rendering of the complete non-biographical works in the last year of the Tudor era.

But it is as author of the Parallel Lives of the famous Greeks and Romans that Plutarch has most strongly and most healthily affected the literature of modern Europe. Few other books of the ancient world have had since the middle ages so interesting a career; in the history of no other, perhaps not even the Iliad, can we see so plainly that rare electric flash of sympathy where the spirit of classical literature blends with the modern spirit, and the renascence becomes a living reality. The Lives of Plutarch were early translated into Latin, and versions of them in that language were among the first productions of the printing press, one such edition being published at Rome about 1470. It was almost certainly in this Latin form that they first attracted the attention and the pious study of Jacques Amyot (1514-93).

Amyot's Translations of Plutarch

No writer of one age and nation has ever received more devoted and important services from a writer of another than Plutarch owes to Amyot. Already the translator of the Greek pastorals of Heliodorus and Longus, as well as seven books of Diodorus Siculus, Amyot came not unprepared to the subject of his life's work. Years were spent in purification of the text. Amyot's marginal notes as to variants in the original Greek give but a slight conception of the extent of his labours in this direction. Dr. Joseph Jager has made it more evident in a Heidelberg dissertation, 'Zur Kritik von Amyots Ubersetzung der Moralia Plutarch's' (Biihl, 1899).

In 1559, being then Abbot of Bellozane, Amyot published his translation of Plutarch's Lives, printed in a large folio volume by the famous Parisian house of Vascosan....The success of the work was immediate; it was pirated largely, but no less than six authorized editions were published by Vascosan before the end of 1579.

Amyot's concern with the Lives did not cease with the appearance of the first edition. Each re-issue contained improvements, and only that of 1619 can perhaps be regarded as giving his final text, though by that time the translator had been twenty-six years in his grave. Yet it was not the Lives solely that occupied him. In 1572 were printed Les Oeuvres Morales et Meshes de Plutarque. Translatees du Grec en Francois par Messire Jacques Amyot. The popularity of this volume, by whose appearance all Plutarch was rendered accessible in the vernacular to French readers, was hardly inferior to that the Lives had attained, and it directly inspired another work, already mentioned, whose importance for English drama was not very greatly inferior to that of North's translation of the Lives: 'The Philosophic, commonly called the Morals, written by the learned Philosopher, Plutarch of Chaeronea. Translated out of Greeke into English, and conferred with the Latin translations, and the French, by Philemon Holland...London 1603.'

The indebtedness of such writers as Chapman to the Morals of Plutarch is hardly to be measured. Our concern, however, is rather with the lives as they appeared in North's translation from the French of Amyot, in 1579.

Sir Thomas North

Thomas North, or Sir Thomas, as history has preferred to call him, was born about 1535, the second son of Edward Lord North and Alice Squyer his wife. The knightly title in North's case, like that or Sir Thomas Browne, is really an anachronism as regards his literary career. It was a late granted honour, withheld, like the royal pension, which seems to have immediately preceded death, till the recipient's fame had long been established and his work in this world was virtually over. It is simply as Thomas North that he appears on the early title pages of his three books, and as Master North we find him occasionally mentioned in state papers during the long and eventful years that precede 1591 . Sometimes, by way of self-advertisement, he alludes to himself rather pathetically as 'sonne of Sir Edward North, Knight, L. North of Kyrtheling' or 'Brother to the Right Honourable Sir Roger North, Knight, Lorde North of Kyrtheling.'

We know little of his life. It appears to have been a long and honourable one, full of incident and variety, darkened till almost the very end by the shadow of poverty, but certainly not devoid of gleams of temporary good fortune, and on the whole, no doubt, a happy life.

There is good reason, but no positive evidence, for believing that he was educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge. In 1557 we find him at Lincoln's Inn; on the 2Oth of December in that year he dates from there the dedicatory epistle to Queen Mary, prefixed to his D'tall of Princes. In 1568 he was presented with the freedom of the city of Cambridge. In 1574 he accompanied his elder brother Roger, second Baron North, on a special mission to the court of Henri III of France. Six years later, under date of August 25, 1580, the Earl of Leicester commends Mr. North to Lord Burghley as one who 'is a very honest gentleman, and hath many good things in him which are drowned only by poverty.' During the critical days of the Armada he was Captain of three hundred men in the Isle of Ely, and he seems always to have borne a high reputation for valour.

With 1590 the more interesting part of North's life closes. In 1591 he was knighted. At this period he must apparently have enjoyed a certain pecuniary prosperity, since eligibility for knighthood involved the possession of land worth 40 [pounds] a year. In 1592 we hear of him as justice of the peace in Cambridgeshire; the official commission for placing him is dated February 24. Six years later we may infer that he was again in financial straits, for a grant of 20 [pounds] was made to him by the city of Cambridge. The last known incident of his life was the conferring on him of a pension of 40 [pounds] per annum from the Queen, in 1601. He may or may not have lived to see the publication of the third, expanded edition of his Plutarch in 1603, to which is prefixed a grateful dedication to Queen Elizabeth.

North was twice married, and we know that at least two of his children, a son and daughter, reached maturity. His literary fame rests on three translations. The first in point of time was a version of Guevara's Libra Aureo, of which an abbreviated translation by Lord Berners bad been printed in 1535, with the title 'The Golden Boke of Marcus Aurelius Emperour and eloquent Oratour.' North made no such effort at condensation; his rendering appeared first in 1557 and again, with the addition of a fourth book, in 1568, with the following title page: 'The Dial of Princes, compiled by the reverend father in God, Don Antony of Guevara, Byshop of Guadix, Preacher, and Chronicler to Charles the fifte, late of that name Emperor. Englished out of the Frenche by T. North. . . And now newly revised and corrected by hym, refourmed of faultes escaped in the first edition: with an amplification also of a fourth booke annexed to the same, entituled The fauored Courtier, never heretofore imprinted in our vulgar tongue. Right necessarie and pleasaunt to all noble and vertuous persones.' There seems no reason to accept the suggestion that the style of this book was influential in any particular degree in shaping that of Lyly's Euphues.

North's second translation appeared in 1570. The title page, which contains all the information concerning the work that the reader is likely to require, runs as follows: 'The Morall Philosophic of Doni: Drawne out of the auncient writers. A worke first compiled in the Indian tongue, and afterwardes reduced into divers other languages: and now lastly Englished out of Italian by Thomas North.'

In the Stationers' Register for 1579 occurs this entry: 'VI to Die Aprilis. -- Thomas vautrollicr, master Wighte Lycenced vnto yem a booke in Englishc called Plutarks Lyves -- XV and a copie.' This is the first mention of North's translation of Plutarch, which was duly published in the same year, 1579, by the two book-sellers named in the registration notice. A facsimile of the title page appears as frontispiece to this volume....It is of importance to consider here the exact relation in which North's translation stands to that of Amyot, first printed just twenty years before and definitely claimed by North as his source.

....North's Plutarch enjoyed till the close of the seventeenth century a popularity equal to its merits; but its vogue was now interrupted. It was supplanted by a succession of more modern and infinitely less brilliant renderings and was not again reprinted as a whole till 1895. How entirely it had fallen into disrepute in the eighteenth century is evident from the significant verdict of the Critical Review for February, 1771, 'This was not a translation from Plutarch, nor can it be read with pleasure in the present Age.' One hopes, and can readily believe, that the critic had not made the attempt to read it.

There is some doubt as to which edition of North was used by Shakespeare. The theory of Mr. A. P. Paton that a copy of the 1603 version bearing the initials 'W. S.' was the poet's property has long ago been exploded. From an allusion by Weever in his Mirror of Martyrs, we know that Julius Caesar was in existence in 1601. The two possible editions, those of 1579 and 1595 respectively, often vary a little in wording, but there seems to be no instance where such difference offers any hint as to which text Shakespeare used. No one with a knowledge of the rules and vagaries of Elizabethan orthography will probably lay any stress on the argument which prefers the folio of 1595 for the sole reason that on the first page of the Life of Coriolanus it happens to agree in spelling of the word 'conduits' with the 1623 Shakespeare, whereas the folio of 1579 gives the older form of 'conducts.'

If Shakespeare's acquaintance with North was delayed till about 1600, it may be imagined that copies of the second edition would then be the more easily obtainable. If, on the other hand, we derive the allusions in A Midsummer Night's Dream (II. i. 75-80) to Hippolyta, Perigouna, Aegle, Ariadne, and Antiopa from the Life of Theseus, as has been done, though with no very great show of probability, we must then assume the dramatist to have known North's book at a period probably antecedent to the appearance of the second edition. The question is of little import. There seems on other grounds every reason to prefer the text of the editio princeps, which in practically all cases of difference offers an older and apparently more authentic read ing than the version of 1595. As has been said, we have no evidence that North was personally responsible for any of the changes in the second edition.


How to cite this article:

Plutarch. Plutarch's Shakespeare. Ed. C.F. Tucker Brooke. London: Chatto and Windus, 1909. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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