Ben Jonson famously accused Shakespeare of having "small Latin and less Greek.” But he was exaggerating. Shakespeare was steeped in the classics. Bates argues that the influences of the classical world profoundly shaped the mind, world and ultimately the work of William Shakespeare.
...any study of classical influences can readily come across as either daunting or soporific, but Bate eschews jargon, writes a forceful, clear prose, provides translations of Latin quotations and makes sure that his arguments are easy to follow. As a result How the Classics Made Shakespeare stands as a model of sensitively marshaled humanist learning and thoughtful appreciation ... How the Classics Made Shakespeare deserves an accolade too seldom awarded to academic works: Besides being eminently readable, it proffers illuminating observations and facts on every page ...
The real problem...is that careless writing is among the least of the flaws that make How the Classics Made Shakespeare so disappointing ... it is bewildering to find 'one of the world’s leading authorities on Shakespeare' (to borrow a line of Bate’s own blurb) so persistently shutting his eyes to the nuances of writing in which difficulty, and with it ambiguity, are deliberate artistic strategies ... How the Classics Made Shakespeare does not put the case that Shakespeare offers us a transformative-transcendent vision of human sexuality of the kind sketched by D. H. Lawrence, Anaïs Nin, or even a Judith Krantz. We are instead asked to swallow sex as the lowest common denominator, joining together Roman antiquity, the Shakespearean imagination, present-day science, and everyday lived experience ... Shakespeare is never middlebrow, never safe, never conventional, never reassuring, never clear-cut ... for Shakespeare, the vicissitudes of neither sex nor romantic love are enough of a basis on which to fashion the kind of dramatic and poetic 'dreams' in which he was interested, and whose limitations he understood only too well. Rather, he wrote to explore and ultimately to escape the vanilla of magical thinking — the self-same confection into which Bate would have us plunge him back.
... Shakespeare didn’t merely draw from certain sources; the ancients shaped the very cast of his mind. 'Shakespeare,' writes Mr. Bate, 'had a classical intelligence.' It’s a beautiful formulation, reminding readers of a kind of lost language, a way of thinking and a fluency with classical mythology and history that have lapsed in us. It’s also a clever formulation, allowing Shakespeare both more learning and less. It makes it possible for Mr. Bate to argue that the importance of Cicero to Shakespeare was not strictly dependent on his actually reading Cicero: 'this was an influence transmitted by osmosis as well as by education.' That’s convenient, especially if one’s formal education ended at 13. Still, even as he leans toward less, Mr. Bate can’t resist giving Shakespeare more ... These readings grew out of a series of lectures and they retain the quality of the lecture hall in the best sense—slightly rambling, generally informal, frequently exquisite.