Fascinating talk looks at parallels between lives of Plutarch and Shakespeare

Fascinating talk looks at parallels between lives of Plutarch and Shakespeare

16 September 2022

Dr Jessica Dixon, Head of Classics

The Classics Department was delighted to welcome Professor Judith Mossman, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Arts and Humanities) Coventry University and Woldingham alumna, back to the school on Thursday 15 September to give a talk on how Shakespeare used and adapted the work of Plutarch.

Professor Mossman began by exploring the parallels between their lives. Both Plutarch and Shakespeare were born in small provincial towns (Chaeronea and Stratford respectively) and, after an illustrious literary career in the capital, died in the same small town of their birth. Plutarch was a Greek philosopher and biographer who lived under the Roman empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. His most famous and influential text is the Parallel Lives, in which he wrote a series of paired biographies of one Greek and one Roman man to illuminate their common virtues or failings. Shakespeare used Plutarch as a source for many of his plays, either directly from the Greek or more likely from Sir Thomas North’s English translation, published in 1579.

Professor Mossman gave examples from a selection of scenes from Shakespeare that were closely linked to Plutarch’s Lives. First, we examined the parallels to Plutarch in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the moment Brutus meets the ghost (questioning whether this is in fact Caesar’s ghost or an unnamed phantom). Next, Professor Mossman explored how in Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare played with Plutarch’s portrayal of the death of Cleopatra to make it more engaging for a theatre audience. Finally, we looked at how Shakespeare showed his knowledge of Plutarch through Fluellen’s references to Alexander the Great in Henry V.

When asked by a student why she studies both authors, Professor Mossman referred to Plutarch and Shakespeare’s great storytelling skills, as well as the academic value and personal pleasure that can be gained from examining how the same story is approached and adapted by different authors for different purposes and audiences.

Professor Mossman’s extensive knowledge of both Plutarch and Shakespeare was inspiring and her talk has spurred me to read more into Shakespeare, an area of literature I am less familiar with.

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