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Why Stoics?

1. Because they were there.

Scholars who study the Renaissance have too often focused more on what the Renaissance produced than on what it was, on those ideas that led to our modern presuppositions about the nature of things rather than on what it was like to live in those far-off times. Fixing our sights on the discoveries of Copernicus, who paved the way to our view of a sun-centered planetary system, we forget that while he saw the planets spinning around the sun, the man on the street still saw the sun rising in the East and setting in the West as it circled the earth. As it was with man's view of the heavens, so it was with his view of himself: while Ficino and other Renaissance Platonists imagined a fully-rational, perfectly virtuous, autonomous individual, competent to live in complete freedom to develop his own personal talents so as to achieve the highest level of human potential, the ordinary citizen of the Renaissance would have seen himself as playing a role so necessary to the efficient functioning of society that any deviation from it for personal reasons was a dereliction of duty. We have here the difference between a Romantic poet and a soldier.

Shakespeare the poet responds to the Ficino thread of Renaissance discourse in words he assigns to Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals!

But Shakespeare the skeptical observer of character punctures this inflated paragon in Hamlet's blunt summation: "Yet. . . what is this quintessence of dust?" (2.2.303-308)

Ficino's optimistic view of the nature of men still dominates our idea of the Renaissance. Recently, two scholars produced a book called The Idea of the Renaissance (Kerrigan and Braden 1989) that pursues the Ficino thread until it reaches modern autonomous individualism and Kantian idealism. A bit earlier one of these authors wrote a chapter actually entitled "Stoicism in the Renaissance," which altogether missed the fact that an overwhelming tide of Stoicism actually dominated Renaissance ethics.(Braden, Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition, 1985). Students of the Renaissance had been warned against making this mistake by no less an authority on Ficino et al. than Paul Oskar Kristeller, who frequently reminded his readers that study of the Platonic idealists had little to do with what was really going on in the minds of Renaissance intellectuals. The famous "humanists" who populated the Renaissance universities, he noted, actually made their livings by teaching grammar, rhetoric, history, and moral philosophy (22; see also 25, 36-7, 128) Since both rhetoric and history were given strong moral emphasis, it could be said that the universities were to a great extent schools of virtue. In fact, although Ficino occupied the inaccessible mountain peaks, the Roman stoics occupied the solid ground.

If you want to know what people were thinking you must find out what people are reading. Years ago, Professor Ruth Kelso took the trouble to find out just that and succeeded in amassing two monumental bibliographies pertaining to The Doctrine of the English Gentleman in the Sixteenth Century (1929, reprinted 1964) and The Doctrine for the Lady (1956), in which she lists some 1500 early modern vernacular titles, published in Europe, bearing on proper conduct. "There is plenty of evidence," she says, "that [the moral commonplaces found in these books] were not mere academic interest, for the letters, speeches, and fiction of the time are full of the same ideas and rules for conduct." According to Professor Kelso, these commonplaces came from only four ancient authors: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca (Lady, 322). It was a time of great social mobility; many merchants, tradesmen, and yeoman farmers (as well as dramatists) wanted to behave like gentlemen and they didn't know the rules of the game. Thanks to diligent study of Professor Kelso's reading list, many of them probably became better gentlemen than the incumbents, who had learned their manners at the University but had less at stake, being to the manor born.

History has also produced a shift in the meaning of Stoicism. On this site "Stoicism" means a consensus of the opinions of philosophers who identify themselves as Stoics, as Cicero and Seneca do. By "Renaissance Stoicism" I mean the presence of these opinions in writers of the Renaissance. Because proficiency in Greek was rare in the Renaissance and because Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus wrote in Greek, Cicero and Seneca, who wrote in Latin, to all intents and purposes, dictated the contents of Renaissance Stoicism. In the 19th century, to judge by the number of editions and copies of their books in the British Library Catalog(www.blpc.bl.uk), translations of Aurelius and Epictetus came in vogue, and I think this invasion has clouded our view of Stoicism. As a result of it, modern scholars tend to see Stoicism as an ascetic suppression of emotion in order to reach a state of calm of soul, almost Buddhist in nature. On the other hand, Cicero and Seneca devote themselves to the welfare of their families, friends, neighbors, and nation, shunning enslavement to the appetites, not to find peace, but to more effectively fulfill their obligations to their fellow men. Again in words of Hamlet, they chose not to let "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" force them into a cowardly retreat from active life but with Cicero and Seneca to "take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them." (3.1.57-59) This latter brand of Stoicism is the kind I mean by the term on this site.

"Postmodern" literary critics are generally uncomfortable with morals, I surmise because moralists, they suuposee, discriminate against large classes of people whose behavior they judge wrong, drawing boundaries and preventing a universal culture of diversity from coming into its own. Furthermore, they say, no approach to literature can be morally neutral, so why should ours be? Consequently the postmodern critic assumes an agenda at the start which impels him to search the work in hand for deplorable forms of oppression, such as sexism, racism, classism, chauvinism, homophobia, colonialism, or capitalism, thus disabling himself from any chance of reading Shakespeare on his own terms. It is self-evident that Shakespeare didn't know it was wrong to tame a shrew, however abhorrent the spectacle may be to an enlightened citizen of the 21st century. The postmodern prejudice against the past prevents him from even trying to understand the society that produced the work, a task as difficult for him as sitting down to dinner with a cannibal. If there is any way to read a work objectively, it is to read it in terms of the author's own agenda while suppressing one's own. Using postmodern agendas to understand an Elizabethan Shakespeare constitutes a logical fallacy.

The use of Shakespeare's moral perspective rather than our own is all the more important because the interpretation of plays consists largely in judging the behavior of characters. One says, for example, "Cordelia should have humored King Lear," perhaps identifying her curt response to her father's request for flattery as ageist oppression. Another says, "She did just right to warn her father not to make a big mistake." The only way to decide between them is to consult the full context in which Cordelia corrects her father, and that includes both the textual and extratextual moral ground on which Cordelia's behavior stands. I have compiled this web site in order to expedite the task of describing the extratextual moral ground.


2. Because Stoicism works.

When we view Shakespeare's plays through a Stoic lens, we can settle questions which scholars have always lacked hard evidence to answer. Their answers have fluctuated with time and place, for they have no anchor in the only time and place that really matter: Shakespeare's. To illustrate the point, I submit three of my essays:

Granville's Jew of Venice: A Close Reading of Shakespeare's Merchant." Restoration 17 (Fall 1993).

Are We Being Historical Yet?: Colonialist Interpretations of Shakespeare's Tempest." Shakespeare Studies 23 (1995).

King Lear in Its Own Time: The Difference That Death Makes." Early Modern Literary Studies 1 (1995).


3. Because the Renaissance books on this site are Stoic in content and it is very likely Shakespeare read them. References to Shakespearean themes and characters in my indexes confirm Shakespeare's familiarity with these texts.

This site came into being as a result of my attempt to establish that the ethical contents of Renaissance literature derive from Cicero and Seneca, as suggested by Ruth Kelso's analysis of conduct books. It was clear that my study would require electronic texts, making it possible to search for any keyword or phrase that became important during the course of the survey.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which digitizes the characters used in printed texts so that the computer can recognize each one as a number is a fallible process, and therefore each text must be carefully proofread. During this process, I took the opportunity to mark with a plus sign (+) amy presumed Stoic ideas. When the text itself supplied the keyword for the idea while discussing it, I simply marked the keyword. When a keyword was missing from the discussion I inserted it in braces {keyword+}. I also tagged passages in which the behavior praised or blamed resembled that of one or another Shakespeare character, thus linking Shakespeare to the text. So that no one would have to proofread and tag these books again, I decided to mount the 22 texts on a web site, along with an index to each of the topics I had tagged.

My hypothesis is that the ethical contents of any Renaissance book will reflect the thinking of Cicero and Seneca. The books were chosen because of the high probability that Shakespeare would have been acquainted with them. Since the incidence of Stoicism in the Renaissance is not documented anywhere that I know of, I had no way of knowing in advance that any of these books would have Stoic content. I have been conducting a "blind" test. The indexes to the marked passages in each book give promising evidence that my hypothesis is sound. I have indeed excluded religious books, but the similarities between New Testament Christianity and Stoicism would predict a quantity of Stoicism in those as well. For example, the Seven Deadly Sins could be glossed as Stoic virtues in reverse. I have excluded Plato and Aristotle because they were written in Greek and their writings were not very well-known outside the academy in the Renaissance. Cicero and Seneca have adopted many of their basic ideas.

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Why Cicero's De Officiis?

Cicero PhotoThe principal carrier of Stoicism to Shakespeare's England is almost unknown today: Cicero's De Officiis. Although it is not a member of the Western Canon as now constituted, perhaps it should be. To judge from a sampling of the holdings of the British Library, De Officiis far outperformed the classics as we know them. On the printed book market Virgil's Aeneid scored 20 copies/editions and no English translations before 1600; Plato's Republic scored 9 and no translations; De Officiis scored 91 Latin texts and 10 translations. 

Thomas Cahill's recent fascinating account of How the Irish Saved Civilization chronicles how   monasteries, where monks' main occupation was making copies of classics, were established all over Europe during the Dark Ages. He doesn't give us titles, but we can be certain that De Officiis was their stock in trade, for 700 manuscript copies of it now exist in the libraries of the world; these copies would have been produced before the invention of printing in the mid-15th century. Only the Latin grammarian Priscian boasts more, with 900.

In a monograph entitled "The Influence of De Officiis on Christian Thought, 300-1300" (1933), N. E. Nelson documents the process by which De Officiis became the preeminent moral authority in Europe during the Middle Ages. At first, there were what we would call spin-offs, whole books modeled on De Officiis. In 407 AD, the Church Father Lactantius initiated the process with an exhaustive commentary on De Officiis. In the same century came St. Ambrose's attempt to duplicate De Officiis in Christian terms, De Officiis Ministrorum. This text, a virtual paraphrase of its source, but with a Saint's imprimatur, was often quoted and copied during succeeding centuries. Martin of Bracara's 6th-century Formula Honestae Vitae, which often appears as De Quattuor Virtutibus, partook heavily of De Officiis and also was enormously popular. 

In the dawn of the Renaissance at the School of Chartres (12th century), De Officiis spawned one more hugely successful spin-off, William of Conches' Moralium Dogma Philosophorum. William's Moralium exists in at least sixty-seven manuscripts, and it was translated into Old French, Franconian, German, Italian, and Icelandic. The Moralium's fingerprints may be detected all over the thirteenth-century writings of Giraldus Cambrensis, Vincent of Beauvais, Guilielmus Peraldus, Brunetto Latini, Johannes de Janua, and Albertano of Brescia. In the first fifty years after the invention of printing in 1455, at least five printed editions of the Moralium were created. But pagan Cicero could speak for himself without the help of Christian interpreters. With 700 manuscripts of De Officiis in circulation, his own voice could easily have been heard above the hubbub of the clerics. Professor Nelson's account of the many writers on whom De Officiis left its mark is a long one. I will merely list their names, using an asterisk (*) to distinguish those on whom De Officiis's influence was most pronounced: 

Church Fathers: St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Thomas Aquinas* 

Carolingian Renaissance, 9th century during the reign of Charlemagne: Hadoard the librarian*, Radbertus of Corbie* (d. 865 AD) 

School of Chartres, 12th century: John of Salisbury,* Bishop of Chartres; Otto of Freising, Bishop of Freiburg* 

Europe, 13th Century: Guilielmus Alvernus; Guilielmus Peraldus; Vincent of Beauvais,* reader to Louis IX and his sons; Roger Bacon, opus Majus, 1267; Joannes Gallensis,* doctor of theology at Paris; Bartolommeo da San Concordio;* Geraldus Cambrensis*; Guilielmus Peraldus; Ptolemy of Lucca; Giovanni da Viterbo,* jurist and an assessor to the Florentine government; Albertano da Brescia;* Brunetto Latini, mentor of Guido Cavalcanti and Dante and secretary of the Florentine Republic.* 

De Officiis was the first classical text ever printed by Germans at the Monastery of Subiaco, near Rome in 1465 (Of f. xv). The British library holds 35 printed copies and editions dated earlier than 1500 (incunabula) and 56 dating from the 16th century. It was the religious leaders of the Renaissance who gave the book its preeminent place in moral education. When Erasmus and Melanchthon published a coat-pocket edition of it in 1501, they sent it into the world with these prefatory remarks: 

Erasmus: 

    We are rereading those three famous, truly golden little books [Books I, II, and II of De Officiis of Marcus Tullius [Cicero] On Duties, I know not whether with greater pleasure or profit. Since Plinius Secundus says that they should never leave one's hands, we have reduced as much as possible the size of the volume so that they could always be carried in one's hands like a handbook and, as the same man wrote, could be learnt by heart; . . . Here that divine source of virtue divides into four little streams [Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Temperance], and outage, a draught which makes one not merely possessed of a voice, like that Aonian one, but also immortal; from its waters, if you have once wetted the limbs of your mind there, you will emerge like a second Achilles, proof against all the arrows of fortune. 
Melanchthon: 
    The custom of civil life is described by Cicero, with which religion is by no means in conflict. St. Ambrose also wrote De Officiis, I believe in order to inculcate religion in boys, concerning which he saw nothing [being] taught [of] the Ciceronian Duties. But I hold that religion ought to be derived from the Divine Scriptures. Concerning civil morals I would rather listen to Cicero . . . 
(Translations courtesy of Andrew Dyck, editor De Officiis, 1996.) 

With support of leading humanists like Erasmus and Melanchthon, the secularization of moral teaching in the schools proceeded, in spite of the church's religious mission. Prompted by Italians Alberti and Palmieri, English educators in the early 16th century set out to create an aristocracy of virtue by means of the grammar schools. De Officiis provided both the basic premise, that virtue can be taught, and the core of the curriculum (Charlton 27-35). Sir Thomas Elyot, in his popular Governour (1531), which nowadays we would shelve with books on leadership, lists three essential texts for bringing up young gentlemen: Plato's Works, Aristotle's Ethics, and De Officiis. "Those three books," he says, "be almost sufficient to make a perfect and excellent governour" (47-8). 

King James I contributed his own Golden Book to the genre, not by accident called Basilikon Doron [King's Gift] (1603), addressed to his son Henry as Cicero had addressed De Officiis to his son Marcus. He refers Henry to De Officiis sixteen times In The Complete Gentleman (1622), Henry Peacham implies that De Officiis is a standard beginning Latin text (29), and modern educational historians, when they deviate from methods to content in their coverage of the 16th century schools, almost always mention De Officiis as a subject of instruction. 

Roger L'Estrange was undoubtedly right in 1681 when he wrote in the preface to his translation that De Officiis was "the commonest school book that we have." No wonder that T. W. Baldwin, in his great tome on Shakespeare's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke can say that "in Shakespeare's day De Officiis was the pinnacle of moral philosophy" (II, 590). Voltaire said of De Officiis, "No one will ever write anything more wise." The modern editor of Henry Fielding's Miscellanies places this work, unwittingly, in the great tradition of De Officiis's imitations by showing in detail how much the author of Tom Jones owes De Officiis for both form and content of the Miscellanies (xvii-xxvii). 

Both Hume and Kant reasoned their moral philosophies in terms of De Officiis (Des Jardins). Given the high reputation of De Officiis in 18th-century Germany, it is no wonder that Kant paid close attention to it. Frederick the Great thought so highly of the book that he asked the scholar Christian Garve to do a new translation of it, for it was his favorite book. Complaining that there had been already two German translations since 1756, Garve went ahead with the project anyhow, and added 880 pages of commentary. Unasked, the King paid him for the translation, although he thought the commentary was superfluous. To Garve's surprise, his translation went into five editions during his lifetime; three or four more were published after he died (van der Zande, 75, 78-9). At Cambridge in Wordsworth's time, disputations required for the B.A. degree often took up moral dilemmas discussed in the pages of De Officiis

Although De Officiis continued to be taught in 19th-century schools, the Romantic revolution against reason effectively deleted it from the history of ideas, and that is probably why, although De Officiis has played a major role in the development of our own culture, very few students of English literature know anything about it. 

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Why Seneca's Moral Essays and Moral Epistles?

Seneca PhotoWhereas Cicero's De Officiis was the distillation in a small space of all his moral thought, Seneca provided no such convenience. He left six volumes of moral and philosophical reflections, and every reader had to make his own distillation. As British Library holdings show, no single Essay, with the notable exception of De Beneficiis, gained prominence over the others, and the jumble of moral topics covered in the three volumes of Epistles was equally unmanageable. Someone needed to make a digest, and that would occur.

Meanwhile, among the Latinate clergy, Seneca's reputation soared. Someone in the early Middle Ages, probably attracted by the disarmingly Christian tenor of De Clementia, Seneca's essay on clemency (he thought it was good policy), and De Ira, his essay on anger(he comes perilously close to turning the other cheek), went so far as to present a text named Quattuor Virtutibus (actually written by St. Martin of Bracara in the sixth century) as a letter from Seneca to St. Paul. Moreover, the presenter alleged that Seneca had converted to Christianity. Whether a deliberate fraud or an honest guess, Seneca's letter to St. Paul became a best seller, as the British Library catalog shows.  By Shakespeare's time the legend had faded, but both the very Senecan Quattuor Virtutibus and something attributed to Seneca called Mores were available to Shakespeare in translation.

In the 16th century, the century of Shakespeare, major scholars took up Seneca. Erasmus, Lipsius, and Gronovius published "famous editions" of Seneca's Essays (Essays 1.xv). Lipsius devoted a whole book to the points of agreement between Senecan Stoicism and the teachings of Christ. Montaigne, who in his own time was known as the "French Seneca" (Frame 310), greatly admired Seneca and copied his informal essay style from the Epistles.  In one place he confesses that his oeuvre is utterly owed to Seneca and Plutarch. A sure sign that Seneca had come in vogue was the publication in English of his book-long essay On Benefyting by Arthur Golding in 1578, explicitly for courtiers. Shakespeare took advantage of this event by dramatizing On Benefyting in The Merchant of Venice. We know that his Queen and patroness fancied Seneca, because Elizabeth herself privately circulated her very own translations of his epistles on adversity (Brooks 140). In 1614, Thomas Lodge, the wit who wrote the Euphuistic tale Rosalynde, the source for As You Like It, finally published his translation of the Complete Moral Works of Seneca. A bit anticlimactically, Sir Roger L'Estrange published the much-needed digest, Seneca's Morals by Way of Abstract 1679. By 1793 this book had gone into seventeen editions. 

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Why Plutarch's Lives?

Plutarch PhotoIt is possible to argue, although not very sensibly, that Shakespeare was unacquainted with De Officiis or with Seneca's Essays. However, it is impossible to argue that he didn't know Plutarch's Lives, because it supplied the historical facts for Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. Who knows how many lives he perused and rejected as scenarios while storing the information for his own edification? Plutarch's Lives is actually little more than a multivolume exercise in Stoic principles. 

The highest compliment a publisher can pay a book is to have it translated into a vulgar tongue. Undoubtedly the publisher sniffs large popular demand. In Italy, the Lives had been translated from the original Greek into Latin, and from Latin into Italian as early as 1509. It was translated into French by Amyot in 1559. Then Thomas North made his English version out of Amyot's French one in 1579. Both Montaigne's (1580-88) and Bacon's (1579) Essays are deeply indebted to Plutarch. With vernacular translations of the principal moral philosophers and of the best source of classical history easily available, there never was a better time than Shakespeare's to become, as Swift put it, "deep learned and shallow read."  This is one more reason why one does not need to postulate university men like Lord Oxford or Sir Francis Bacon to explain the splendid erudition of the works of a glover's son of Stratford. Those cranks who believe that the "Stratfordian Claimant" was too ignorant to have produced the plays that bear his name underestimate the educative power of translators harnessed to a printing press. The bookseller was the Internet of Shakespeare's time, bringing the power of esoteric knowledge to the people. 

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Plutarch (CD-ROM, 1999), "the ideal... 'high antique virtue and the heroically moral man' that became the humanist ideal of the Renaissance... derived from Plutarch's presentation of character and openly expressed opinion."  If that is so, we certainly cannot approach Shakespeare's plays without a good grounding in Plutarch's Lives.

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Why Castiglione's Courtier?
 

Castiglione  photo The title page of this book reads as follows: "The Covrtyer of Covnt Baldasser Casttilio Devided into foure Bookes, VERIE NECESSARIE and profitable for young Gentlemen & Gentlewomen abyding in Court, Palace, or Place."  According to see Oxford English dictionary "place"  in this context means "the chief residence on an estate; a manor-house; a country-house. "

The Encyclopedia Britannica entry under Castiglione makes it clear why anyone  who wishes  to understand the culture that produced Shakespeare and his plays, must become acquainted with Castiglione's Courtier:
The Courtier was a great publishing success by the standards of the time. . . .   In the century after its publication, it averaged an edition a year and was translated into Spanish (1534), French (1537), Latin (1561), and German (1565), besides the English version by Sir Thomas Hoby, The Courtyer (1561), and the Polish adaptation by Lukasz Górnicki, Dworzanin polski (1566; "The Polish Courtier"). Copies of the text can be found in libraries from Portugal to Hungary and from Sweden to Sicily. The Encyclopedia goes on to note that in the 18th century, Lord Chesterfield, Samuel Johnson, and the actor David Garrick admired the book.  All three were prominent taste-makers.

Anyone with an ambition to call himself  "William Shakespeare, Gent."   as he ultimately did, would have put this book on his "must read" list as soon as he heard of it.   The last act of The Merchant of Venice is deeply indebted to this book.
 

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Why Erasmus's Education of a Christian Prince?

Erasmus PhotoIf Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466?-1536) were not aboard my Stoic ship, it would surely have a bad leak in it. For although he wrote in Latin, he was the most learned, witty, well-known, well-liked, and consulted cleric in all Europe at a time when every well-educated person read and wrote Latin and often spoke it (e.g., Queen Elizabeth, King James, Spenser, and Sidney, but probably not Shakespeare, who depended on English translations). 

Erasmus was born with the printing press. He devoted himself to editing Greek and Roman classics hitherto buried in old manuscripts in monasteries for the printer Froben of Basel, thus becoming a major contributor to the development of what we call Western Civilization. He was well known in England, and counted Thomas More, Colet, and Henry VIII among his friends. He wrote The Education of a Christian Prince for the heir apparent to the throne of Spain. He translated the New Testament into Latin from the original Greek, thus laying the groundwork for the King James version. He wrote satires on human folly. But for us his most important achievement was printing a pocket edition of De Officiis, small enough for carrying around and memorizing (for more on Erasmus, see Why Cicero?). The Education of a Christian Prince shows that Erasmus must have memorized his own copy very well.

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Why Elyot's Governour?

If my claim is valid that Renaissance ethical thought was dominated by De Officiis and Seneca's moral works, then we should see a high incidence of Stoic themes in Elyot's Governour. Indeed, my index shows just the saturation with Stoic thought that one would expect.  The approximately 1500 16th-century books on good conduct listed by Ruth Kelso testify to the overwhelming presence of Stoicism in the Renaissance.  It is not surprising that Elyot's conduct book conforms to the stereotype. I originally picked The Governour not because I knew in advance that it would confirm my hypothesis (I hoped it would), but because I knew it was both enormously popular in Shakespeare's century and because it is almost certain that Shakespeare read it, for it is the only known source of the story of the justice who sent Prince Hal to jail, repeated in Henry IV, part 2.

Nowadays we would shelve this book with books on leadership because it is designed to help tutors and schoolteachers make good administrators out of youths destined by birth to command.  It was part of the movement to secularize education and make it serve the real needs of the nation (see Charlton in Why Cicero?). It is no accident that its precepts are especially useful in understanding the behavior of Prince Hal/Henry V. The title "Governour" shows that Elyot is making a conscious effort to link his book to Plato's Republic, also devoted to the training of future commanders, for "Governour" is a viable early modern translation of the Greek word now usually translated as "Guardian" in Plato's book. The Governor was published in 1531 and went into nine editions before 1600, almost as many as the translations of De Officiis.

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Why Sidney's Arcadia?

Since Sidney, in his Defense of Poetry, made it a rule that the function of fiction is to lead men to virtue, it is no surprise that his protagonists overtly exemplify virtuous action. By setting his tale in Ancient Greece, he implies that the classical virtues are entirely sufficient for this purpose, without the help of the Bible. In his book, The Sound Of Virtue: Philip Sidney's Arcadia and Elizabethan Politics, Blair Worden locates a few Stoic doctrines in the Arcadia, without going into detail. But more telling for him than internal evidence is the fact that Sidney was a good friend of Justus Lipsius, the great Flemish student of Stoicism to whom Sidney offered an apartment in his house so that he could carry on his important work without worry about living expenses. Sidney hoped to become his patron, but Lipsius decided to stay in Flanders (Worden, 25-34). Indeed the action of the Arcadia does illustrate a full range of Stoic thought. Being something of a courtier poet himself, one would assume that Shakespeare paid close attention to the fashions in fiction made public by Spenser and Sidney.

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Why Spenser's Faerie Queene?

Spenser Photo Spenser was just 10 years older than Shakespeare. I chose The Faerie Queene because if Spencer's poem was demonstrably Stoic, it would help to prove that Stoicism was in the air that Shakespeare breathed. 

Nowhere in The Faerie Queen is Cicero's influence more prominent than in a wise man's words on the pursuit of glory in Book I. In De Officiis, Cicero discussed the matter at some length and decided that glory was a legitimate pursuit if it furthered the general welfare. 

But cloistered religious men of the Middle Ages held that the pursuit of glory was idolatrous, so there were two opinions. Spenser's wise man urged Cicero's worldly argument in favor of glory, and with good reason. For without Cicero's authority, Spenser's heroic edifice would be a house built on sand.

The very names of the characters are indebted to Stoic philosophy. The heroine and villainess of Book I, Una and Duessa (One and Two), may well refer to a passage in De Officiis that runs as follows: "It is . . . an excellent rule," says Cicero, "that they give who bid us not to do a thing, when there is a doubt whether it be right or wrong; for righteousness shines with a brilliance of its own, aequitas enim lucet ipsa per se, but doubt is a sign that we are thinking of a possible wrong." Una actually does shine ipsa per se in a dark night of doubtful alternatives, all wrong. Duessa, on the other hand, has two faces, one ravishingly beautiful and the other ugly as sin. She is Duplicity itself. In The Merchant of Venice, which was probably written in 1596, the year when The Faerie Queene was published, Shakespeare seems to have been pondering the same passage in the character of Shylock, who took up some 150 lines of the play trying to make up his mind to lend money to Antonio. He couldn't give a "yes" or "no" answer because he was "thinking of a possible wrong." The speed with which Shylock's opponents follow the true light of virtue stands out in high relief. 

Shakespeare and Spenser also drew on the same material in the same year when they echoed Seneca's allegory of the three graces in De Beneficiis, available at the time in translation. In the process of answering some rhetorical questions about the figure of the Three Graces (gratiis = "thanks"), Seneca becomes enraptured by the beauty of reciprocating benefits. First, why are there three of them? 

    There is one for bestowing a benefit, another for receiving it, and a third for returning it . . . . Why do the sisters hand in hand dance in a ring which returns upon itself? For the reason that a benefit passing in its course from hand to hand returns nevertheless to the giver; . . . Their faces are cheerful, as are ordinarily the faces of those who bestow or receive benefits. They are young because the memory of benefits ought not to grow old. They are maidens because benefits are pure and undefiled and holy in the eyes of all; and it is fitting that there should be nothing to bind or restrict them, and so the maidens wear flowing robes. (Essays 3.15) 
Seneca's ring of gratiis spawned dozens of allegorical pictures in the Renaissance (Archer), the most famous of which is Botticelli's Primavera (Uffizzi Museum, Florence). Shakespeare and Spenser also tried their hands at this motif. The last book of the The Faerie Queene, called "Of Courtesy," contains Spenser's version of Seneca's ring. In it "an hundred naked maidens lily white" dance a ring around the three graces. Explaining the allegory, Spenser defines courtesy (emphasis mine): 
These three on men all gracious gifts bestow . . . 
As comely carriage, entertainement kynde, 
Sweete semblaunt, friendly offices that bynde. . . . 
Therefore they alwaies smoothly seeme to smile, 
That we likewise should mylde and gentle be, 
And also naked are, that without guile 
Or false dissemblaunce all them plaine may see 
Simple and true from couert malice free. . . . 
As they dance, two of the gratiis always face backward and one always faces forward because, Spenser says, "good should from us goe, then come in greater store" (6.10.23-4). The social function of courtesy is to bind people together. 

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare tries his hand at Seneca's ring by making it the plot of his play: Antonio stakes his life to fund Bassanio's courtship. So Bassanio owes Antonio not just three thousand ducats, but his own life in return for Antonio's risking his, not to mention the fortune that Antonio enabled him to win. By the same token, Portia owes her husband to Antonio. She pays him back by saving his life at the trial. Now Antonio owes his life to the "lawyer," whom he repays by commanding Bassanio to give up the ring. Antonio also owes Bassanio for jeopardizing his domestic tranquility. Back at Belmont, Portia pays her debt to Antonio by giving him the honor of returning the ring to Bassanio. He returns this favor by promising to cherish the union forever after. And when he puts the ring back on Bassanio's finger, Antonio pays his debt to Bassanio for sacrificing Portia so that he could repay the lawyer who saved his friend's life which he risked by borrowing money form Shylock to give Bassanio so that he could woo Portia. If we explore transactions involving minor characters, the links go on and on until they potentially engage all the good people of Venice. 

Perhaps it is safe to say that Stoicism was the basis of Elizabethan social relations. 

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Why Montaigne's Essays?

When I first decided to scrutinize Montaigne's Essays for signs of Stoicism, I did not expect to find a bulging storehouse of Stoic wisdom. Probably because the opinions of academics are socially constructed just as those of ordinary mortals, Montaigne has come down to us as a hero of the skeptic rebellion against medieval superstition, and it is for skepticism that we read him today.  Of course he is skeptical, but I see that side of him only as a part of his Stoicism, for skepticism clearly owes its beginnings to the Stoics, who taught self-doubt as a virtue. 

I actually chose Montaigne for his links to Shakespeare. Shakespeare was born in 1564. In this year Montaigne was 31, on the verge of becoming a major force in European literature. In 1595, when Shakespeare was just beginning his career, Montaigne's Essays were published in three volumes, three years after his death in 1592. Since the first two volumes had been in print for 15 years, the arrival of a complete edition (revised), must have been an important literary event. Shakespeare probably didn't read French very well, but most of the English elite whose society he sought did not have this difficulty.  In 1603, John Florio removed this obstacle with an English translation. By this time, Shakespeare was about to write King Lear, and there are strong reverberations of  Montaigne in that play. By 1611, when he wrote The Tempest, the borrowings were obvious. (For more on Montaigne's presence in Lear and Tempest, search for Montaigne in my articles on Lear and Tempest.)

We cannot tell how much Stoicism Shakespeare drank in at Montaigne's well, because there is as much of Cicero and Seneca in his plays as there is of the Essays. Montaigne himself is so good a Stoic in his opinions, that when we seem to detect the influence of Cicero or Seneca in Shakespeare's plays, we may really be responding to Montaigne. In his own time, Montaigne was known as "The French Seneca" (Frame 310). Hence the real function of Montaigne in this web site is to show how far Stoicism has permeated the European mind, which he does indeed. Montaigne once admitted that Seneca and Plutarch were responsible for whatever value his essays possessed. What he adds to them is a first-hand view of Renaissance history and society.

You may have noticed how many times I have marked these texts with the term Plain Dealer. (For
more on this character type, search for Kent in my article on Lear.) In his essays, Montaigne, like his Stoic forbears, continually hammers at affectation in manners, morals, speech, or dress. So much did he hate foppery that we often find him deviating in the opposite direction and assuring us that he is totally unworthy of our esteem. An excellent example of the Plain Dealer's self-deprecating style is Montaigne's address To The Reader at the beginning of Essays, volume 1: 

    I have no respect or consideration at all, either to the reader's service, or to my glory:
    my forces are not capable of any such desseigne. [The Essays are for my family and friends only.]  Had my intention beene to forestal and purchase the world's opinion and favour, I would surely have adorned myselfe more quaintly, or kept a more grave and solemne march. I desire therein to be delineated in mine own genuine, simple and ordinarie fashion, without contention, art or study; for it is myselfe I pourtray. My imperfections shall thus be read to the life, and my naturall forme discerned, so farre [as public decency allows]. For if my fortune had beene to have lived among those nations which yet are said to live under the sweet liberty of Nature's first and uncorrupted lawes, [aborigines] I assure thee, I would most willingly have pourtrayed myselfe fully and naked. Thus, gentle Reader, myselfe am the groundworke of my booke:  it is then no reason thou shouldest employ thy time about so frivolous and vaine a subject. 
Half a century after Florio translated these words, the dramatist Etherege's hero Dorimant, in The Man of Mode, fends off his valet's offer of perfume with these words:  "No thanks. I will smell as I am today, no offense to the ladies' noses."  Reverse foppery has become a social norm.

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Why James I's Basilikon Doron

Basilikon Doron ("A King's Gift" 1599, 1603) belongs to the tradition of advice to a son (De Officiis) and advice to a prince (Erasmus's Education and Machiavelli's Prince), all addressed to the problem of what we now call leadership. (For other examples, see Why Cicero?). With the possible exception of Othello, Shakespeare's tragedies are concerned with problems of governing, and most of his comedies have a King or Duke who restores order at the end. The romances may not bear heavily on the problems of rule, but rulers are often protagonists. Shakespeare belonged to a band of actors known as "The King's Company." For a dramatist so intensely focused on problems of governing to ignore his king and Patron's opinions on the subject would seem to be downright foolhardy. Basilikon Doron was published in 1599, in time to bear on all of Shakespeare's great tragedies. 

In typical Renaissance fashion, James bolsters his argument with numerous citations of classical authorities, about five per page, with some pages thrusting as many as a dozen in our faces. Since the point was to show how much ancient wisdom lay behind the work, James was undoubtedly proud of his lack of originality. After all, originality is a modern concept. Of the 200-odd citations in the Basilikon Doron, three-quarters refer to the reader to Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Seneca, for some reason, made only 9 appearances. Cicero's De officiis and Aristotle's essay on politics were most often cited, each accounting for 23 references, and Plato's Laws accounted for 20. James probably read Latin translations of the Greek authors; there were no English versions. A scholar interested in political thought in 1600 would do well to read the authorities named in James's footnotes.

This book is one more witness to the fact that Stoicism was omnipresent in Shakespeare's England.

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Why Hall's Characters of the Virtues and Vices?

Because Hall was a bishop of the Church of England and a contemporary of Shakespeare, his moral tract is eminently suited to represent for us the symbiotic relationship between Anglicanism and Stoicism that then prevailed. In his preface, Hall practically defines that relationship. He says, 

    Reader, The divines [clergy] of the old heathens were their moral philosophers [e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, et al.]. These received the acts of an inbred law in the Sinai of nature; and delivered them, with many expositions, to the multitude. 
In other words, the Word of God, whether it descends directly to Moses and Christ, or indirectly through the medium of Nature to the "heathen" philosophers, is still the same Word. These divines functioned as "the overseers of manners, correctors of vices, directors of lives, [and] doctors of virtue." Here Hall refers to a historical fact: When the Medieval churchmen, inevitably, assumed the task of "Doctors of Virtue," they used Christian and pagan texts indiscriminately (see Why Cicero? and Why Seneca?). Just so, Hall's Characters is an indiscriminate mix of Christian and Stoic topics, though predominately Stoic. The term "Renaissance" refers to the revival of classical learning. Above all it signifies the revival of classical morality.

According to Hall, these ancient moralists operated in three ways: by "discourses of human felicity, and the way to it in common"; by applying "general precepts of goodness or decency to particular conditions and persons"; and, combining both, by "drawing out the true lineaments of every virtue and vice." Hall participated in a genre inaugurated in ancient times by Theophrastus in which particular vices and virtues were personified in character sketches. On this web site, Cicero and Seneca represent doctors of virtue in the first mode, Plutarch in the second, and Hall in the third. 

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This page last updated August 25, 2014.

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