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From Oresteia to Hamlet: Greek and Roman Influences on English Literature

Greek and Roman thought, literature, and theatre, have had a tremendous and immortal influence on English literature, particularly that of the modern world. Philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, among others, have laid down the foundation of Western thought as a whole. Much of the popularly followed structure of English plays—and to a certain extent, poetry and fiction—is based on the framework laid down by Aristotle and Plato’s writings.

Modern-world playwrights and authors have derived inspiration for their plays and writings from Greek and Roman dramas. Shakespeare himself heavily relied on elements from Seneca and Terrence’s plays to construct the stories that are studied around the world as fascinating pieces of literature today. So, we’re attempting to briefly understand the journey of Greek and Roman thought into mainstream English literary works.

But, before that, let’s take a look at the origin of Greek and Roman theatre.

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Aeschylus was the first and one of the most popular playwrights to introduce tragedy as a form of drama into the Greek theatre. Tragedy came forth as a form of art that coalesced and transformed the Ionian and Doric traditions of epic poems (such as the Odyssey) into a trailblazing measure of entertainment. It superseded the role of epic poetry in the narration of traditional tales and gathered the intellectual population of not just Athens, but all of Greece, together. The philosopher Aristotle, with his book Poetics, played a pioneering role in shaping the framework of Greek dramas in the fourth century. He laid down a list of rules, also called Aristotelian Unities—which included the unity of time, place, and action. His work and study of dramas and their structure created a model upon which Greek dramatists of the time built their plays.

The other kind of drama popular in Athenian society was comedy. It was considered to be a part of public discourse and the culture of Athens and the Hellenistic society. It served as an ethical medium of entertainment, pleasure and inculcation of moral lessons. However, at times, it was also considered to be a profligate and contemptuous kind of entertainment, especially by the elite circles of society. Artistole’s opinion on comedy was that it—in its more unsophisticated form—may be considered a rather tawdry form of entertainment. Comedy was perceived by the politicians of the time as something that would have an impact on their fortunes as politicians. However, despite the early negative reception it received, comedy became a popular form of entertainment in Greek theatre.

Dramatists like Sophocles and Euripides wrote a culminated total of about two hundred plays, although only a few survive today. The influence of their writings altered drama as a form, and would eventually become the originating point of the writings of the modern world. Aristophanes, too, with his comedic genius, is regarded to be a master of witty dialogue and comic innovation.

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Greek drama reached Rome around 240 BCE, pioneered by Livius Andronicus, who wrote both comedies and tragedies. He used Greek dramatic meters in his writing, following the structure of the Greek style almost identically.

The Romans performed Latin versions of Greek texts. Playwrights like Terrence and Plautus adapted Greek plays for Roman society and translated them into Latin. Nearly all of their works were exclusive adaptations of “New comedies”. The setting, too, was maintained to be the Greek world, incorporating Greek personalities or characters that were long dead. Roman plays were of various kinds— such as the” fabula palliata,” and the “Atellan farce,” which influenced Plautus’ writings. They sometimes altered the endings of the plays they were adapting to make them more entertaining for the Roman audience.

Let’s now look at the influence of these texts and their authors on English literature written throughout history:

Middle Ages

Although there was not much effort made by the dramatists of the middle ages to adapt or perform Greek and Roman dramas, they played a huge part in the preservation of the texts. As the intellectual crowd transitioned from making use of Latin to English for linguistic purposes, Greek and Roman texts were documented by scribes and commentators, making them available in various languages through translations, especially English.

Around the 1440s, the plays of Plautus began to be used as models to construct “mirth” plays and Terrence’s plays similarly became a model for the plays depicting a “prodigal son”. Early comedy was studied by the playwrights and commentators—especially Vitruvius and his stage technique. Aristophanes’ plays were also popularly studied during this era.

Renaissance: the age of the resurrection of Greek and Roman ideals

With the beginning of the Elizabethan age, and the Renaissance that brought on the new dawn of English literature, Playwrights and Translators widely read and performed Latin classics. Ovid’s poetry was popular—so much so, that Marlowe and Shakespeare emulated his style in their writings. Plutarch and Horace’s plays were translated. Seneca’s “revenge tragedies” became a model for Shakespeare’s plays—Hamlet and Titus Andronicus being the most prominent examples of the style.

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Greek dramas were prominent influences for Elizabethan comedies. The works of Aristophanes and Menander were widely studied and adapted. Theocritus’ works influence the pastoral elements in comedies like Shakespeare’s As You Like It. People showed interest in Plato and Aristotle’s writings, which also greatly shaped the Elizabethan structure of plays.

17th and 18th century

In the 17th century, Greek was well-known to the literary masses. Roman didactic poetry was a popular form used by almost all poets of the time.

Thomas Hobbes and John Milton pioneered the use of Greek and Roman elements in their writings. Milton, especially, was interested in the writings of Ovid, and Vergil; and Homer and Hesiod were his main sources of Greek classical writings.

It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that Elizabethan works were considered popular and interesting again. During this time, Aristotle’s unities were studied by literary masters and eventually gave way to the formation of formal rules of drama. Terrence’s influence on drama was immense, but Horace and Plautus were alongside him in the authors being studied.

19th and 20th century

Anyone familiar with classics or poetry has heard these names being repeated— S.T. Coleridge, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, P.B. Shelley, and William Wordsworth being only a few of them. All these notable writers and poets were, in some shape or form, influenced by Greek or Roman literature, because the hold of Greek influence over literature was the most powerful during this era. The Greek style of writing was widely emulated—Lord Byron, in particular, was attached to Greece and its romantic style of written expression. Writers of this time were deeply interested in Greek dramatists and pastoral poets.

Even though it was declining, it can’t be said that Latin texts did not influence the writings of this era. Fitzgerald and Tennyson were interested in the writings of Lucretius. They attempted to inculcate the Latin classical meters into their poetry. But, as the nineteenth century came to an end, the use of Latin for linguistic purposes reduced drastically.

In 20th-century literature, Horace was still widely used for literary criticism and reference, but the influence of Latin writings diminished. On the other hand, interest in Greek culture and texts retained its popularity even in the twentieth century.

Contemporary literature

Today, we’ve seen the incorporation and adaptation of Greek and Roman literature and mythology by various authors and screenwriters. Movie adaptations of classical texts are prevalent. The representation of classical tales of the battle of Troy, the battle of Sparta, the stories of Hercules, and more make Greek tales more accessible. Most notable of recent works are Rick Riordan’s book series, which imagines the presence of mythical Greek and Roman characters in today’s world. Circe by Madeline Miller, too, is an adaption that tells the story of the witch goddess Circe. The most recent and popular piece of writing based on Greek texts is The Song of Achilles, putting a different perspective on the events of the Odyssey and the Illiad.

English as a language, and the literature written in it, has never been void of influence from the cultures that preceded it. Greek and Roman literature is just one of the influences on the vast body of written expression that is literature in English written across the centuries. This was just a brief history of the influence of the culture and writings of Greece and Rome, which is truly monumental, and pretty exciting to discover as you delve deeper into it.

If you want to read further, do check these out:

  1. A Handbook to the Reception of Greek Drama. (2016). Germany: Wiley.

  2. Kraemer, C. J. (1927). The Influence of the Classics on English Literature. The Classical Journal, 22(7), 485–497.

  3. Albert, Edward. & Stone, J. A. (1979). History of English literature. London: Harrap

  4. Whalen, R. F. (2018). Hamlet's Sources and Influences, and Its "Forerunners" by Oxford. Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, 54(1), 1+.

About Mrunal Rajadhyaksha

Mrunal Rajadhyaksha is a student currently studying English Literature in Ruia College. She is passionate about reading, art and history, and the sea. She plays the guitar as a hobby.

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