April: Julius Caesar and the Latin Language

In 1599, William Shakespeare wrote and staged Julius Caesar, the second of his Roman plays. Titus Andronicus had preceded Julius Caesar; Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra were to follow. All were tragedies. All focused on heroic figures who displayed ambition, honour, sobriety, strength in defeat, courage in death, patriotism, austerity - warrior virtues, Roman virtues. Those virtues could be destructive.

Titus showed the Roman hero overwhelmed by primitivism in a welter of blood. Coriolanus showed the Roman hero brought to his death by arrogance and thirst for vengeance. Antony showed the Roman hero seduced and destroyed by Egypt. Caesar showed the Roman hero as the man of ambiguous destiny.

Either to praise Caesar or to damn him was dangerous, both in Ancient Rome and in Renaissance Europe. Shakespeare revels in the double-talk forced upon Romans trying to discover what other Romans were ready to do. Cassius and Casca, both enemies of Caesar, needed to take care in sounding one another out:

CASCA             ‘Tis Caesar that you mean, is it not, Cassius?

CASSIUS           Let it be who it is; for Romans now

                      Have thews and limbs like to their ancestors.
                      But, woe the while! Our fathers’ minds are dead,
                      And we are govern’d with our mothers’ spirits.
                      Our yoke and sufferance show us womanish.

CASCA             Indeed, they say the senators tomorrow
                      Mean to establish Caesar as a king;
                      And he shall wear his crown by sea and land,
                      In every place, save here in Italy.

CASSIUS           I know where I will wear this dagger then:
                      Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius.

(Julius Caesar Act 1, Scene 3)


Shakespeare took the plot of Julius Caesar from Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives. Though Shakespeare worked with a translation, it is very probable that he could read Plutarch in the Latin. Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare had little Latin and less Greek, but most people had little Latin by comparison with Jonson. Shakespeare came from a prosperous home. He had had a solid grammar school education when grammar meant Latin grammar. Boys were not taught English at school. Latin was all.

At the time that Shakespeare was at school, Latin was having its third and greatest impact on the English language. Early Modern English was reshaping itself as a language fit for Renaissance learning for Latin was finally faltering after two thousand years of strength. The printing press was the great technology of the period and money was to be made by printing in vernaculars: in France in French, in Spain in Spanish, in Germany in German, in England in English. Religious wars and reformation maddened men and women to read the Scriptures and never-ending theological texts. It took education to learn to read Latin; it took no more than book thirst to learn to read one’s native language.

The first borrowings of English from Latin came before ever English had reached England. Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived with some few words of Latin origin: anchor, butter, chalk, cheese, kettle, kitchen, church, dish, mile, pepper, pound, sack, sickle, street, wall, and wine. These had been taken from the soldiers of the Roman frontier with whom Germanics had dealings long before they crossed the North Sea.

Latin again loaned words to English when those Angles, Saxons and Jutes became Christian in the seventh century: apostle, chest, circle, comet, master, martyr, paper, tile. (Several of those words originally come from Greek but English did not borrow directly from Greek until the Renaissance.) More significant than the introduction into Old English of five hundred or so Latin words was the adoption of the Latin alphabet. That occurred as early as 600 when King Ethelbert asked Bishop Augustine of Canterbury to have his monks write down the laws of the kingdom of Kent. The monks provided the very script used to this day though they did take five Germanic runes (now abandoned) to represent English sounds not heard in Rome.

Beyond the alphabet, the impact of Latin on Old English was not great. Latin’s impact upon Middle English is hard to judge. Middle English adopted 10,000 French words. The very great majority of those words were of Latin origin, and it may be that some words came direct from Latin into English without going by way of French. John Wycliffe’s translation of Jerome’s Bible, completed by 1400, included many words taken directly from Jerome’s Latin, but it was usually the case that Latin words reached Middle English by way of French.

Since French is an Italic language derived from Latin, it can at least be said that the Italic impact on Middle English was formidable. The Italic impact upon English was redoubled in the Renaissance for it was then that English began to take words directly from Latin on a great scale. The vocabulary of a university-educated English speaker will today include some 40,000 words derived from French and Latin in about equal proportions.

Shakespeare was himself a great adopter, and he is credited at a generous guestimate as having introduced 600 ‘Latinate neologisms’. Impressive, but Shakespeare was unaffected by the final stage of Latin’s impact upon English. That can be dated from the middle of the seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth century. Then it was that Latin was called upon to reform English grammar.

As vernaculars all over Western Europe were being upgraded to serve as learned languages, the first job to be done was to expand vocabularies to cover subjects from astrology to zoology. The second job was to look at the grammars of those vernaculars. The first English grammar books appeared at the end of the sixteenth century. They were modelled on Latin grammar books. These made English appear to fall short in a number of ways. It is not possible to end a sentence with a preposition in Latin; double negatives are not used in Latin; double comparatives are impossible in Latin; infinitives cannot be split in Latin. A sense that English was inferior became inbuilt. Even as English superseded Latin, it continued to be thought second best. Latin scholars then told English men and women that they must not use double negatives, double comparatives, split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions.

Learned English began to run against the grain of traditional English, but it was an unhappy fact that not a single one of the best writers could be relied upon to demonstrate perfectly the new standards. Indeed, to be called a best writer and to be made a model writer invariably led to being censured as imperfect. Robert Lowth, an eighteenth-century bishop and Oxford professor of grammar, regretted that ‘our most approved authors’ including Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton - offended ‘against every part of grammar’. All great writers failed the new examination. Shakespeare failed comprehensively.

By dying in 1616, Shakespeare died at a high point of Latin’s impact on the English language. By that date, the English language had achieved a richness and sinuosity that made it a vehicle for the most complex thought and feeling, it had found an effortless means of expanding its vocabulary, and it had not yet been made the victim of Italic grammar. At the same time, English was coming into its own.

For a thousand years from 800 to 1800, English had been reacting to other languages, first Danish, then French and finally Latin. But, by 1800, a new phase of the language was becoming apparent. It was being spoken in Africa, Asia and America. English was becoming a great language, and a great language must have its great writer. It must have its Virgil, and Shakespeare was clearly the Virgil of the English language. He was emerging as a formidable figure in a new linguistic world.


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