The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0669 Friday, 17 July 1998.
Date: Friday, 17 Jul 1998 07:51:15 +0000
Subject: Stoic Shakespeare
Dear Ed Taft and David Evett,
It appears we are agreed that Christian humanism and Stoicism can exist
side by side, since they do not contradict each other.
Yesterday, I checked the British Library holdings of Marcus Aurelius
and discovered why he doesn't connect with Shakespeare. They don't have
anything under meditations, thoughts, or pensees earlier than a
translation into English by King dated 1634. (British Library Catalogue
= http://opac97. bl.uk). Since the original is in Greek, no wonder
nobody knew anything about it. The Meditations do not seem to have been
discovered until the 17th century after S's death. There were 186 hits
on Aurelius Antoninus, his BL last name, (Warning: "Marcus Aurelius"
gets you 0). After Madame and Monsieur Dacier got interested in the
17th century there were spotty editions and copies in the 18th and 19th
centuries. The big boom in Meditations occurs around 1900 just when our
discipline is emerging. And that's why, I suppose, we all seem to
connect Stoicism with M. Aurelius.
David Evett , in reviewing your graduate years, you suggest that
Stoicism has already been done, and that at any rate to pin the label of
either humanism or Stoicism on a writer's work "seems to ignore the way
most people's intellectual stock-in-trade, including Shakespeare's, gets
formed." Two points: 1. "Thin" Stoicism (as the anthropologists might
say) has been done. I'm doing "thick" Stoicism. 2. If Shakespeare
weren't a Stoic he would be a outcast. There wasn't any other way to be,
except a Puritan, which is the opposite of a Stoic.
1. Thick Stoicism is a cluster of accepted behaviors. E.g. , returning
favors is a must. Not to do so is to face ostracism. Thin Stoicism is
a "philosophy of life." Thought is free, but behavior isn't. Since
philosophical Stoicism is a very flimsy construct, Shakespeare scholars
never got anywhere with it. Thick Stoicism is not a philosophy, but a
code of ethics. I doubt very much that scholars in E.Lit. ever read the
primary sources. The #1 primary source, more important than all others
put together is Cicero's De Officiis. I did a search for De Officiis
as a subject in the MLA bibliography (4000 items beginning in 1968) and
dredged up only six items on literary subjects. None dealt with
You may be wondering how Roman books became the basis of English
morality: The work was done in the schools and colleges. To make a
living scholars (called "humanists") taught history (with a strong moral
emphasis), rhetoric (with a strong moral emphasis), and ethics. Of
course the moral emphasis was Stoic. (See P.O.Kristeller, Renaissance
Thought and Its Sources, 1979)
2. Shakespeare was either a Stoic or an outcast. You can't cite today's
tolerance of a multiplicity of opinions and behaviors in connection with
Shakespeare's time. Especially in connection with a client of the
gentry. Manners are, for the groups that establish, practice, and
maintain them, not a matter of opinion, but a matter of whether you are
in or out.