The liues of the noble Grecians and Romanes

Chrzanowski 1579pIn his book’s dedication to the “Most High and Mighty Princesse Elizabeth,” Thomas North commends the Queen that: “I hope the common sorte of your subjects, shall not onely profit them selves hereby, but also be animated to the better service of your Majestie. For amonge all the profane bookes, that are in reputacion at this day, there is none (your highnes best knows) that teacheth so much honor, love, obedience, reverence, zeale, devocion to Princes, as these lives of Plutarke doe. Howe many examples shall your subjects reade here, of severall persons, and whole armyes, of noble and base, of younge and olde, that both by sea & lande, at home and abroad, have strayned their wits, not regarded their states, ventured their persons, cast away their lives, not onely for the honor and safetie, but also for their Princes?”

North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes did have a profound impact on the Queen’s men—both directly and through Shakespeare’s plays. Plutarch’s Lives was the preeminent influence on Shakespeare’s classical plays (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and others) and the source for numerous passages in other of his dramatic works such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Merchant of Venice. In many instances, Shakespeare uses North’s words verbatim. He had access to any of the several editions published in his lifetime; the present copy is the first (1579).

It was the right book for the times. Also author of Moralia—a collection of more than sixty essays greatly admired by Michel de Montaigne and later thinkers—Plutarch displayed considerable interest in the ethical and moral choices of the nobles and other prominent figures examined in his Lives. His method for examining the historical figures entailed studying lives in parallel to compare the virtues and vices of a noble Greek with a noble Roman, which naturally invited comparisons with noble Englishmen.

The book also had the right translator. Because North translated from a French edition (and not especially well), there are inaccuracies. His English prose, however, brought the stories to life and made characters accessible to readers, as if they were fellow countrymen. To North’s readers and Shakespeare’s audiences, Roman and Greek history was very relevant to their nation’s history and the issues of their day.

Chrzanowski 1579p *

STC 20065