Shakespeare's Knowledge
of Italy, the Classics, and the Law


Table of Contents


One common theme of Oxfordian and other antistratfordian writings is the belief that William Shakespeare did not have enough formal education to have written the works attributed to him. Many Oxfordians believe that Shakespeare's plays display a level of erudition and knowledge which could only have been achieved by someone with at least a university education, supplemented by years of further study and experience. Since William Shakespeare did not attend a university (though we can be virtually certain that he had a good grammar school education), these Oxfordians believe he could not have been the author of the works published under his name.

But, as usual, the antistratfordians are badly mistaken in some key elements of their arguments. In many cases, they have greatly overestimated the extent of Shakespeare's knowledge in certain areas, or at least the extent to which his knowledge was unusual among his contemporaries. In most cases, they have greatly underestimated the resources available to any intelligent Elizabethan who wished to learn about virtually any subject.

Discussion of the knowledge (and ignorance) displayed in Shakespeare's plays, and how antistratfordians have misrepresented it, could easily fill a book on its own. In this essay, I focus on three areas where antistratfordians have often claimed that the plays exhibit knowledge beyond the ability of William Shakespeare of Stratford: Italy, the classics, and law. For each of these topics, I have included edited versions of posts from the newsgroup humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare in which I respond directly to claims by Oxfordians, supplemented by introductions and comments in square brackets. Where space does not permit a full rebuttal, I have given references to books which treat the same subjects at much greater length.

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1. Shakespeare's Knowledge of Italy

[Antistratfordians have often fixated on the knowledge of Italy supposedly displayed in Shakespeare's plays, believing that only someone who had personally visited the country (such as the Earl of Oxford) could have written so knowledgeably. They are fond of quoting 19th-century Shakespeare scholars who believed that Shakespeare must have visited Italy at some point. But few Shakespeare scholars hold that opinion today, for a number of reasons. Italian culture and literature permeated all of Elizabethan literature and drama (not just Shakespeare) to a much greater extent than anybody realized a century ago; there were many sources, both written and unwritten, which any intelligent Elizabethan could use to find out all about Italy; and many Elizabethans of Shakespeare's social class, including members of his own acting company, visited Italy. Following is an excerpt from a newsgroup post in which I summarize some of this evidence.]

Peter Wilson wrote:

Are we so sure Shakespeare NEVER made it to Italy ?
[quotes from scholars about Shakespeare's knowledge of Italy snipped]
Now, people should realize that this is only one side of the story. Peter has selected quotes only from people who thought Shakespeare must have visited Italy, making it seem like this is a consensus. But in fact, there is considerable disagreement on this point among Shakespeare scholars, and nowadays only a small minority of scholars believe that Shakespeare must have had first-hand knowledge of Italy. (Note that many of Peter's quotes are from the 1800s or early 1900s.) Several recent studies have dealt with this question in some detail, and have shown how enamored the English were with all things Italian, how many sources there were for a curious Englishman to find out anything he wanted about Italy, and how Shakespeare got details wrong and sometimes lapsed into English customs in his Italian plays. The most relevant recent books include

Peter Wilson said,
Shakespeare's biographers can find no evidence of him ever leaving England despite what E.K. Chambers describes as "much research has been devoted to a conjecture that he spent some time in Italy" (foreign travel was dangerous and expensive).
Despite its danger and expense, quite a few Englishmen in Shakespeare's day managed to go to Italy anyway; this included not only noblemen like Oxford but writers like Thomas Coryat. Few if any people believe that Shakespeare went to Italy by himself; rather, the more likely scenario is that he may have gone in the entourage of some person who could better afford the trip, such as the Earl of Southampton. We know that John Fletcher's brother Nathaniel went to Venice in the entourage of Sir Henry Wotton, and Anthony Munday went to Italy in his mid-20s as part of the Elizabethan Secret Service, and also toured the Continent as an actor. Several of Shakespeare's fellow Chamberlain's Men (such as Will Kempe) are also known to have toured Europe as part of an acting company. However, Kempe also went to Italy on his own in 1601, where he met Sir Anthony Sherley in Rome. He probably financed this journey by the same method he used for his Morris dance to Norwich in early 1600, namely giving money to speculators who promised to pay him back three times the amount if he returned safely. Fynes Moryson had traveled for six years (1591-97) using this method, but he later complained that stage players and others "have drawne this custome into contempt."

Thus, while I don't think it's likely or necessary that Shakespeare went to Italy in order to write his plays, it's certainly within the realm of possibility. Other people, including other actors, managed to do it.

[Thomas Larque wrote:]

The real problem with Peter's theory comes when he suggests that this provides strong circumstantial evidence for the Earl of Oxford having written Shakespeare's plays. The truth is that far too many Elizabethans went to see Italy - the heart of European culture, history, science and (Catholic) religion at the time - for Oxford's trip to be anything particularly conclusive.
[Peter Wilson wrote:]
I guess the various coincidences between Oxford's trip and the canon didn't strike you as odd. I'm sure a search of other travellers to Italy will turn up some coincidences but, however, they are not candidates for the authorship of the canon.
Huh? What are you talking about? The Earls of Derby and Rutland have both been proposed as candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare, they both went to Italy, and their proponents have pointed out many coincidences of the same type as those proposed by Oxfordians. Moreover, some of these coincidences eliminate Oxford. For example, a painting referred to in the induction of The Taming of the Shrew was on display in Milan only between 1585 and 1600 -- too late for Oxford to have seen it, but just right for Derby and Rutland.

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2. Shakespeare's Knowledge of the Classics

[Some antistratfordians, impressed by the fact that Shakespeare used classical sources for many of his plays and poems, jump to the conclusion that he must have been an accomplished classical scholar. Such a conclusion, however, completely collapses under scrutiny -- Shakespeare actually displays remarkably less classical knowledge than his average contemporary poet. In an era when grammar school children read more extensively in Latin and Greek authors than most university classics majors today, Shakespeare's knowledge of the classics is singularly unremarkable, just what we would expect from a writer educated in a grammar school but not a university. The following exchanges are excerpted from two newsgroup posts I wrote in response to Mark Alexander's claims.]

Mark Alexander wrote:

David Kathman in the latest Elizabethan Review uses J.A.K. Thomson as a source for Shakspere's "lack" of superior classical knowledge, yet he doesn't reveal Thomson's methods, which are clearly stated at the beginning of his book, that he has set out assuming NO such knowledge whatsoever and from there only allowing such knowledge that can be irrefutably proven. But Kathman would never allow such a standard to be applied to Shakspere. Such an approach would leave him with no foundation for being the author.
I can't quite figure out what you're claiming about Thomson, and I don't have the book here right now to look it up. But my recollection is that Thomson found that Shakespeare's classical knowledge, while impressive by our standards, was nothing at all remarkable among Elizabethan poets. The only quotes from Thomson that I have at hand right now are those on pp.210-211 of Churchill's Shakespeare and His Betters, which I know I've posted before. But here they are: Now, all this seems pretty clear to me, and in line with what I recall from the rest of Thomson's book: Shakespeare's poems contain very few classical allusions compared to the poems of his contemporaries, and the allusions that are present are unremarkable and mostly from Ovid. Other writers have noticed the same thing about Shakespeare. Is there some specific passage you can cite elsewhere in Thomson's book that contradicts what he says above? [Mark responded rather testily by asserting that I was misrepresenting Thomson's book, to which I replied with the following post:]

Mark, I'm not going to be bullied by your rhetoric. I don't have Thomson's book here with me in order to respond to this properly, but it's my recollection that he wasn't trying to write the comprehensive work you're suggesting; rather, he was using his 50 years of experience (at the time) as a classical scholar to judge how much classical learning Shakespeare must have had. Four years earlier (1948), Thomson had published The Classical Background of English Literature, the year before (1951) he had published Classical Influences on English Poetry, and four years later (1956) he was to publish Classical Influences on English Prose, so he was very familiar with the necessary literary context. Thomson's book is hardly the series of ex cathedra pronouncements you depict it as; he provides plenty of arguments and evidence, though you're right that he doesn't meticulously document every statement. That had already been done by T. W. Baldwin in William Shakspere's Small Latin and Lesse Greeke, to which Thomson's book was in part an informal rejoinder. As you must know (since you own the book), Baldwin looked in painful detail at the classical sources of Shakespeare, and concluded that the normal grammar school education of the day was an ample foundation for the learning exhibited in the plays and poems. Baldwin thought that Shakespeare had read more widely, and more in the original Latin, than Thomson did; but both men agreed that there was no need to make Shakespeare any kind of classical scholar.

I feel no compunction about citing Thomson's book, because it's a concise and readable statement of what other scholars have said. Shakespeare demonstrably did use fewer overt classical allusions than his contemporaries. For example, the following is from Don Foster's Elegy by W.S., which I happen to have handy:

Shakespeare in his dramatic works has fewer proper nouns, and far fewer classical allusions, than do most of his contemporaries. The same may be said of his non-dramatic works. Apart from personified common nouns, we find in "A Lover's Complaint" (329 lines) only "May and April"; in "The Phoenix and the Turtle" (62 lines) only "Arabian." In Venus and Adonis (1,194 lines), apart from the names of the title characters and Cupid, we find only four proper names, each used once. In the Sonnets (2,154 lines), the names of the months are used seven times, the names of classical figures seven times, "Grecian" once, and "muse" (capitalized in some editions) seventeen times. The majority of Renaissance verse is far more heavily peppered with proper nouns. For example, in Ben Jonson's elegy for Shakespeare (again excluding personified common nouns) there are thirty-two proper nouns and adjectives in only eighty lines. In the 13,200 lines of the 1610-13 Cross-Sample there are 1,689 proper nouns, with a low of 0.72/100 lines (by Holland), a high of 60.83/100 lines (by Primrose), and a combined incidence of 12.80/100 lines.
Just as another check, I looked through the last fifty stanzas (400 lines) of
William Barksted's Mirrha, the Mother of Adonis, which I also happen to have handy. Even excluding "Mirrha," "Venus," "Adonis," and "Cupid," Barksted in those 400 lines uses 51 proper nouns, all of them classical in origin, and three proper adjectives. (Include those four names and the total rises to 72.) And this is a work which is consciously patterned after, and heavily influenced by, Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis.

In short, while Shakespeare's classical knowledge may seem impressive to some people today, it was not impressive to his contemporaries, and it is not impressive to modern scholars of the classics who have studied the issue. Shakespeare's knowledge of the classics was no more than we would expect from a solid Elizabethan grammar school education, and he alluded to the classics far less than virtually any of his contemporary poets.

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3. Shakespeare's Legal Knowledge

[Following are two more newsgroup exchanges with Mark Alexander, this time on the subject of Shakespeare's legal knowledge. This has been a contentious topic, in the broader area of Shakespeare biography as well as within the authorship discussion. Many antistratfordians have misrepresented the extent of Shakespeare's legal knowledge relative to his contemporaries, and they have often also misrepresented the position of mainstream Shakespeare scholars on the issue. In these posts I tried to correct these misrepresentations, and to show that the legal knowledge displayed in the plays is perfectly consistent with William Shakespeare's authorship.]

Mark Alexander wrote:

Wait for the stuff I pull out on Shakespeare as a Lawyer.
I replied,
Mark, I'm a little curious as to what sources you're using for your section on Shakespeare as a Lawyer. I assume you've read Clarkson and Warren's The Law of Property in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama, and also the recent book Kill All the Lawyers?, which I believe is still in print. Both of these books were written by lawyers who also know quite a bit about Elizabethan literature, and both of them conclude that Shakespeare's legal knowledge was nothing out of the ordinary compared to his peers. There's also J. M. Robertson's The Baconian Heresy, which reached the same conclusion 85 years ago, and several other recent books whose titles I've forgotten. I realize that there have been people who have argued that Shakespeare was a lawyer, but I think they've been pretty well answered by the most recent books, including Kill All the Lawyers. So I'm curious as to what your sources are.
Mark Alexander responded,
It is one thing to "think" or to "claim" that the argument for Shakespeare's knowledge of the law has been refuted. It is quite another to deal with specific evidence and arguments.
Uh, yeah, and all the works I cited do deal with specific evidence and arguments. That why I cited them. And let's get one thing clear -- I never claimed that "the argument of Shakespeare's knowledge of the law has been refuted." If you believe that, you're badly mistaken. The authorities I cited all agree that Shakespeare knew quite a bit about various areas of the law and sprinkled his plays with legal allusions, and I agree with them; I don't think anybody is going to deny that. What I do claim, and what I believe the above works amply demonstrate, is that:
  1. Shakespeare's legal knowledge was nothing particularly remarkable compared to that of his contemporary playwrights, and
  2. Shakespeare had ample opportunity to pick up the legal knowledge displayed in the plays without formal legal education.
See, it's a matter of context; you can't just trot out a bunch of legal allusions from the plays and say, "Hey, look at this! There's no way William Shakespeare of Stratford could have known this!" Now, I realize that there have been people who have argued that Shakespeare must have had some legal training, such as a clerkship in a lawyer's office. I'm agnostic on that issue; I think it's possible that Shakespeare may have had such experience, but I don't think the evidence requires such a conclusion, based on all I've read. But either way, the evidence of Shakespeare's legal knowledge is not relevant for the authorship question, in that there's no legal knowledge in the plays that William Shakespeare could not have picked up, either on his own or in a lawyer's office. That's my actual claim, and I think it's amply backed up by the evidence.

Mark Alexander:

Your above statements, of course, qualify as arguing from authority. I will not do that. It is not enough to say that this respected lawyer says Shakespeare had comprehensive and unerringly accurate knowledge of the law. It is also not enough to say that that book answers the earlier evidence and arguments presented.
Mark, we seem to have very different ideas of what constitutes "arguing from authority." When I cited those works (or more accurately, asked you whether you had read them), I was not implying or expecting that anyone should just take my word for it that these authorities answer the question, nor was I saying that anybody should blindly take the word of those authorities. I was saying that those books present a lot of evidence and arguments bearing on the question of Shakespeare's legal knowledge, and that on the basis of all this evidence and these arguments, the authors (all of whom were lawyers) conclude that Shakespeare did not necessarily have formal legal training. Having read those books among many others, I agree with that conclusion. You're free to disagree, as you apparently do. But I don't see how my citing those works constitutes arguing from authority. How is it different from your constantly telling people they should read Ogburn? Both of us are pointing our readers to works where the arguments are made in much greater detail than we have the time or space to do on this newsgroup.

Mark Alexander:

I will be presenting extensive evidence and arguments, as well as the attempts that I can locate that have directly attempted to refute them. (So far, what I have uncovered is pitiful and embarrassing, necessarily so, it seems, given the well-established arguments that exist. In fact, I have uncovered extensive evidence that Stratfordian scholars and lawyers either avoid the evidence and arguments, or argue against them poorly. I will draw from two of the three books you have mentioned. One I am still trying to locate.)
All right, but you still haven't answered my question. I guess I'll just have to wait for the material to appear on your web page. Another book which I forgot to mention is Owen Hood Phillips' Shakespeare and the Lawyers (1972). In a chapter entitled "Did Shakespeare Have a Legal Training?" Phillips surveys two centuries of scholarship and argument on the subject and concludes that the legal knowledge reflected in Shakespeare's plays did not require any formal legal training. A few more citations: George W. Keeton, a specialist in the history of the Court of Chancery, concluded in his massive study Shakespeare's Legal and Political Background that Shakespeare's legal knowledge was not much different from that of his contemporary playwrights, although his observation was closer and more accurate. Judge Donald F. Lybarger, in his Shakespeare and the Law: Was the Bard Admitted to the Bar? (1965; also published the same year in the Cleveland Bar Journal) came to a similar conclusion.

On a slightly different note, I should point out the paradox that Oxfordians are always describing William Shakespeare of Stratford as "litigious" and implying that he was always suing people (actually, he was no more litigious than any average landowner), but then they turn around and say that he couldn't have learned all the law in the plays without formal training. Well, if he was always in the courts, why couldn't he have picked up a lot of legal knowlege there? Plus, there's the fact that William Shakespeare had a lot of friends and acquaintances with legal training, including a bunch who had attended the Middle Temple. Christopher Whitfield wrote a four-part article for Notes and Queries in 1966 called "Some of Shakespeare's Contemporaries at the Middle Temple" (in the April, August, October, and December issues). Whitfield documents the surprisingly broad and strong connections between Shakespeare and dozens of Middle Templars who lived in an area extending from Stratford about eighteen miles south. These Middle Templars included Thomas Greene, Shakespeare's close friend who lived in New Place for several years; Greene's close friend Sir Henry Rainsford of Clifford Chambers; Edward Bushell, whom Richard Quiney mentioned in his famous letter to Shakespeare; William Combe, from whom Shakespeare bought 107 acres of land in 1602 and whose son married Shakespeare's daughter; and a bunch of others. Whitfield's article leaves little doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford had a wide network of friends and acquaintances who had studied at the Middle Temple, some of whom he probably met through others in the network. I find it very plausible that he may have picked some of his friends' brains for legal knowledge.

In a later post Mark Alexander wrote:

David Kathman, you made the following statement in the The Elizabethan Review (Autumn 1997, Vol. 5, No. 2):
Paul Clarkson and Clyde Warren, in an exhaustive study of legalisms in the work of seventeen Elizabethan playwrights (The Law of Property in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama), found that Shakespeare was average at best in the number and accuracy of his legal allusions.
Do you still stand by this statement and its implications? In other words, do your support the following propositions?

1) Clarkson and Warren's book is "an exhaustive study of legalisms in the work of seventeen Elizabethan playwrights."

Well, technically it's just an exhastive study of legalisms involving one area of the law, namely property law. But for all intents and purposes, yeah. They go through the works of seventeen playwrights, including Shakespeare, and note every use of terms from property law.
2) Clarkson and Warren prove that Shakespeare used legal terms so innacurately that he is disqualified from having a legal education.
What? No. Where on earth did you get this idea? First of all, I don't recall Clarkson and Warren saying anything about Shakespeare using legal terms inaccurately; they found that he generally used such terms accurately, but that many other playwrights with no legal training also used legal terms accurately, and often more frequently than Shakespeare. I think that Clarkson and Warren showed that it is not necessary to believe that Shakespeare had formal legal training, which is an entirely different thing from showing that he "is disqualified from having a legal education."

This is the identical fundamental misreading you just made when you took Terry's argument that "'telum' would not necessarily be translated by an Elizabethan as 'spear'" and somehow turned it, in your own mind, into the entirely different assertion that "'telum' cannot be translated as 'spear.'" In propositional logic terms, you're taking the statment "not necessarily A" and turning it into the completely separate statement "necessarily not A." Why are you apparently unable to understand this?

True, Clarkson and Warren did say that Shakespeare's legal allusions "must be explained on some grounds other than that he was a lawyer, or an apprentice, or a student of the law," which could be interpreted as positively asserting that Shakespeare did not have formal legal training; but I would simply replace "must" with "can," and from the context of Clarkson and Warren's book, I think that's closer to what they were trying to say. They demonstrated that many other playwrights with no formal legal training used legal terms just as accurately and frequently as Shakespeare did, and that legalisms saturated literary London at the time; therefore, given the lack of documentary evidence of any legal training for Shakespeare, they are (quite reasonably) inclined to believe that Shakespeare picked up his legal knowledge through means other than formal training.

Since your statement was made in a context where you were discounting Shakespeare's education and training as something less than significant, I also assume that you endorse Irvin Leigh Matus's complete "argument" against Shakespeare's specialized knowledge of law as follows:
[snip of excerpt from Matus]
I endorse Matus' statements to the extent that he argues that it is not necessary to believe that Shakespeare had formal legal training. He seems to be taking a position similar to what I outlined above for Clarkson and Warren.
I maintain simply that Shakespeare never misused legal terms in any way that would disqualify him from having a legal education (at Gray's Inn, for example), and that in every case where individuals like Devecmon, Robertson, Underhill, Clarkson and Warren, Hood Philips, Matus, or you claim that he did err in such a manner, or where an alleged example of such misuse is given, that in fact, Shakespeare was correct, that the critic was wrong. That in fact Shakespeare used legal terms correctly, accurately, or in a way that is tied closely to the character or dramatic context. (Thus, when Dogberry misuses legal terms, we are not in a position to claim that Shakespeare did so in a way that discounts the proposition that he had a formal legal education.)
I don't have any time for a debate with you, but even if I did, this wouldn't interest me very much, since I don't have a particular problem with most of what you've written. As far as I know, Shakespeare's use of legal terms generally was accurate, and I don't recall saying any differently. What I have constantly said, and what Clarkson and Warren and many of the critics you cite have said, is that (listen carefully) THE LEGAL KNOWLEDGE DISPLAYED BY SHAKESPEARE WOULD NOT HAVE REQUIRED FORMAL LEGAL TRAINING, AND WAS SIMILAR TO THAT DISPLAYED BY MANY OTHER CONTEMPORARY PLAYWRIGHTS WITH NO KNOWN LEGAL TRAINING. I can't be sure, but you seem to be tacitly assuming that if Shakespeare's use of legalisms was consistently accurate, that constitutes evidence that he must have had legal training. I'm saying that it constitutes no such evidence, and I believe I have good support in several of the authorities already cited. Now, I should also stress, as I have done numerous times before, that I don't know one way or the other whether Shakespeare actually had any kind of formal legal training; the documentary record is silent on the matter, but a stint working in a lawyer's office would not necessarily leave surviving traces in the records. What I am saying is that the legal knowledge displayed in Shakespeare's plays is not evidence one way or the other.

By the way, I assume that your mention of Gray's Inn is a reference to the fact that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, joined Gray's Inn in 1567 at the age of 17. Since Gray's Inn was one of the four Elizabethan Inns of Court, the centers of legal education, many Oxfordians have seized upon Oxford's membership as evidence that he had some sort of extensive legal education. It means nothing of the sort. For one thing, the Inns of Court were not just law schools in the modern sense; they also served as social clubs for gentlemen and noblemen, who did not necessarily study law there. (Philip J. Finkelpearl's John Marston of the Middle Temple: An Elizabethan Dramatist in his Social Setting (1969) gives a good account of the working of the Inns in Shakespeare's day.) Most noblemen joined one of the Inns of Court as young men, though few of them actually took up residence there to study law; it was just something that young noblemen were expected to do. Alan Nelson, who has spent several years researching Oxford's life for a forthcoming biography, has found no evidence that Oxford ever actually studied law at Gray's Inn. In fact, he told me that the evidence for Oxford's legal education is very slim, and that there is certainly no evidence that Oxford was "immersed in law" as some Oxfordians have deceptively claimed.

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