I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

A Classical Education II


Enda O’Doherty writes: Many of us may be aware of the rather disparaging remark Shakespeare’s friend and rival Ben Jonson – a highly educated scholar himself ‑ made on the extent of the Bard’s classical knowledge: “And though thou hadst small Latine, and less Greeke …” This was often interpreted to mean that Shakespeare had a scant or scrappy education (Latin having been the indispensable foundation of schooling in the Elizabethan age) and it was probably grist to the mill of those misguided folk who thought the plays could not possibly have been written by a person from such a humble social background.

Modern historical scholarship, however, has revealed how advanced the teaching of Latin was in the sixteenth century in the kind of school that Shakespeare attended (the King’s New Grammar School in Stratford). Having learned proper pronunciation in the first form, the scholars went on in the second to grammar and the parts of speech. Then, as a syllabus dated 1561 for an institution similar to the King’s New Grammar specifies:

In the third form the master shall teach Terence, Aesop’s Fables, Virgil, Tully’s [Cicero’s] Epistles … every day he shall give them an English to be made in Latin and teach unto them there placed Sallust, Ovid, Tully’s Offices, the Commentaries of Caesar, Copia Verborum et Rerum Erasmi, and also he shall teach the art and rules of versifying (if he himself be expert therein) … The scholars of the third and fourth forms shall speak nothing in the schoolhouse but Latin …

One of the main things Shakespeare seems to have taken away from this thorough grounding was a love for Ovid, and particularly his Metamorphoses. I have the vaguest memory of studying a small part of this text in school. I’m pretty sure the section we translated was the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, which Shakespeare took as a comic subject for the play of the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Pyramus et Thisbe, iuvenum pulcherrimus alter,
altera, quas Oriens habuit, praelata puellis …
(Pyramus and Thisbe, he the finest of fine things,
She the sweetheart of all the East.)

At the beginning of the final act of The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo and Jessica recall the various pairs of lovers whose stories were told by Ovid – lovers whose destinies were more tragic than that of the Venetian pair:

Lor.                             … In such a night as this
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,
And they did make no noise, in such a night
Troilus methinks mounted the Trojan walls,
And sigh’d his soul toward the Grecian tents
Where Cressid lay that night.
Jes.                                          In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o’oertrip the dew
And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself
And ran dismay’d away.
Lor.                                    In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea banks, and waft her love
To come again to Carthage.

Another episode from the Metamorphoses, which has appealed over the centuries to many painters and poets and which may have a certain topicality, features the tale of Daedalus and his son Icarus. You probably know the story. Daedalus, a skilled craftsman or artificer, having done what he came to Crete to do (build a labyrinth) wants to leave. Crete is a lovely island, they say, with great scenery and friendly people, but Daedalus would really prefer to be somewhere else. But how can he get away, with the strict ban on inessential travel King Minos’s government has imposed?

Hating the isle of Crete and the long years
Of exile, Daedalus was pining for
His native land, but seas on every side
Imprisoned him. ‘Though land and sea’, he thought,
‘The king may bar to me, at least the sky
Is open; through the sky I’ll set my course,
Minos may own all else, he does not own
The air.’

And so Daedalus fashions wings made from feathers and wax for himself and Icarus: they’re getting out. And naturally he warns the young lad not to fly too low or too high, neither down where he might be caught by the waves nor up towards the sun, where the heat might melt the wax … but of course you might as well be talking to the wall. Up goes Icarus, higher, higher, whee!

                                The scorching sun so close
Softened the fragrant wax that bound his wings;
The wax melted; his waving arms were bare;
Unfledged, they had no purchase on the air!
And calling to his father as he fell,
The boy was swallowed in the blue sea’s swell …

The sad fate of Icarus has provided meat for many writers, artists and, not least, moralists, the latter pointing out the entirely predictable consequences of not listening to one’s parents or, more broadly, the foolish pride of man in thinking he can emulate birds, gods and angels. Until the unusual events at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903 there must indeed have been generations of clerical gentlemen who were more than pleased to tell us that if God had intended us to fly he would have given us wings.

A rather left-field interpretation of the Daedalus and Icarus myth came with a celebrated early modern painting and the mirroring of its particular slant on the story in a number of twentieth century poems. The painting we know as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus was long thought to be by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but is now thought to be an early copy, perhaps from the 1560s, of a lost work by the master. The most notable aspect of the painting is that the fall of Icarus (only his legs, disappearing into the sea, are shown) is not the main event. Rather there are three other human figures which take up a lot more space and are more prominent: a ploughman at his work, foreground; a shepherd with his flock, below him; and in the bottom right corner an angler, casting his line into the sea. For WH Auden, in his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”, Bruegel’s painting tells us something about suffering and its reception, how it happens “[w]hile someone else is eating or opening a window or just dully walking along”:

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water: and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen,
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

You may be the centre of your own life, it seems we are being told, but you are probably not the centre of other people’s. Further poetic treatments of the myth and in particular the painting, by William Carlos Williams and Michael Hamburger for example, adopt not dissimilar perspectives.

Icarus was of course given, by his father, sound advice on flying – advice which he chose not to listen to. This did not seem to include what he should do if he ended up in the drink. One presumes the lad was not a strong swimmer and, if that is the case, really there is not much he could have done. Those of us who engage in Icarian adventures today – or who have so indulged in the relatively recent past – do, however, have the benefit of detailed advice on what to do in almost any eventuality. I am myself a slightly nervous flyer: indeed at one stage of my life I avoided air travel for several years. I’ve got over that now, though I am still occasionally somewhat unnerved when I think of the sheer unnaturalness of shooting along in a small cigar-shaped metal box some 20,000 feet above land (or sea). My solution is not to think of it while I’m doing it. Two glasses of wine can help.

It seems to me impolite to simply ignore the cabin staff – as many do ‑ when they are giving the safety briefing before takeoff. So I do look ahead in their general direction. But do I hear what they’re saying? And if I hear, how much of it is really going in? How would I do if I had to put any of it into effect? Well, given the difficulties I have every day in negotiating food packaging, I seriously doubt if I would manage, in a hurry, to get the life jacket out of its compartment, and if I did I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to get it on me and properly secured (“as the crew is demonstrating”). Don’t even start me on the red toggle.

Possibly because I have heard these – admittedly quite utilitarian ‑ words so often they have come to assume in my memory something of the status of an incantation, an almost-poem. The conditional clause “In the unlikely event of landing in water” exerts a particular fascination. I would guess that it originally read “In the event of landing in water” but that some bright PR person decided it should be reworded so as to sound less alarming. I am not less alarmed.

In the current long succession of non-flying days and months I find that these words – which I by now miss almost as much as a plate of orata or spigola within sight of the Adriatic ‑ often come back to me and churn around in my mind. Indeed they seem to have churned into the piece of verse they were always aspiring to be. Verse, I say, not poetry. I am of course aware that it is a perilous enterprise to try to follow big shots like Ovid, Shakespeare and Auden into this game, something akin indeed to flying too close to the sun. But what the hell. Put it down to confinement fever. Off I go … whee!

                  Listen Carefully

In the unlikely event of landing in water
Do not panic. We are not dead yet.
Little Eve may still get that pen you bought her.
We could just make it, though we will get wet.

In a box above you’ll find your jacket ‑
Getting it out can sometimes be a pain.
If it won’t open simply whack it,
But don’t inflate until you’ve left the plane.

Screaming’s not helpful. And please don’t act the lout.
Await your turn. Take care, don’t squash that child!
If we stay calm we might still all get out.
The seas are not too high today, the weather’s mild.

All may survive ‑ if all do as they oughter ‑
In the unlikely event of landing in water.



Information on Shakespeare’s education is gleaned from Soul of the Age by Jonathan Bate (Penguin); the verse translation from Ovid is from Metamorphoses: A new translation by A.D. Melville (Oxford World’s Classics)


The image on the home page (detail) is The Fall of Icarus, by Michael Mulcahy, artscouncil.emuseum.com

Previous article
Next article