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Leicester Special Collections

Plutarch

The Civil Wars of Rome

Front page of a translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Roman. John Long, 1846

The influence of Roman writers on Shakespeare is not restricted to classic poetry and drama. Shakespeare’s Roman history plays are in great debt to Plutarch’s The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans. This is the source where the plots of popular plays, such as Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, come from. An often cited piece of evidence of Plutarch’s influence on Shakespeare is the passage where Cleopatra sails down the Nile on her barge. Enobarbus's description (Act 2 Scene 2) is almost word by word a copy of Plutarch’s account of the event.  

Shakespeare would have read Plutarch in Sir Thomas North’s translation, first published in 1579 and reedited around 1595. Shakespeare’s classic training in reading, thinking, and writing enabled him to move from various sources in search of plots, language and meaningful connections. His approach to history was not dissimilar from that adopted by Plutarch himself. In The Lives, Plutarch explores the customs, institutions, and the politics of ancient Greece and describes in greater detail those of Rome. This creates a highly evocative narrative that would be read in the 16th century as a time traveller’s journal to Ancient Rome. Plutarch’s capacity of transporting his readers to far away times and places through the gift of language is also one of the trademarks of Shakespeare’s dramatic composition.

Although Shakespeare uses Plutarch’s texts as source material for his Roman history plays, on the Renaissance stage these old tales would have made Elizabethan audiences draw parallels with the political and social anxieties that plagued the age: riots, the growing gulf between nobles and commoners, political machinations, the questions of the source of royal power and that of succession. Shakespeare’s dramatic approach to history is what makes his plays so malleable and responsive to the concerns of contemporary audiences and possibly one of the reasons why each generation of readers, theatre- and cinema-goers keeps finding in them something that resonates with their preoccupations.