Juvenal and Shakespeare: factoids


‘An item of information accepted as a fact, although not (or not necessarily) true; spec. an assumption or speculation reported and repeated so often as to be popularly considered true; a simulated or imagined fact.’ OED, s.v. factoid.

Norman Mailer, who probably coined the word, explained factoids as ‘facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product…’

Nothing is known about Juvenal except what can be deduced from his Satires, which is almost nothing. So people produced an array of factoids about him, some contradictory: he came from a freedman’s family—or he was from minor Italian aristocracy; he served in the army… or didn’t; he was exiled by Domitian—or else he wasn’t; he went to Egypt, or perhaps didn’t… and so on.

Someone in our department said the tone in the Satires was of a man who would cover his tracks. Certainly the tracks are covered, as completely as those of Homer and more than those of Shakespeare. His privacy remains undisturbed—this man who put into memorable verse some of the most embarrassing and ridiculous things about Roman society, and, in passing, about human nature.

There are countless factoids about Shakespeare, not all from magazines or newspapers. The Victorian scholar Professor Churton Collins, who would have it that Shakespeare was a classical scholar, quotes:

We, ignorant of ourselves,
Beg often our own harms, which the wise powers
Deny us for our good; so find we profit
By losing of our prayers.
       Antony & Cleopatra II . I. 622-625

and calls it a ‘terse translation’ of Juvenal:

nil ergo optabunt homines? si consilium uis,
permittes ipsis expendere numinibus quid
conueniat nobis rebusque sit utile nostris;
carior est illis homo quam sibi.
Satires X 346-350

Had Shakespeare read Juvenal? The first English translation did not appear until 1644, long after his death. But John Florio, a tutor at the court of James I, did the first translation of Montaigne into English in 1603. Now in his Essays*, Montaigne quotes and explains the above lines of Juvenal.

It has been suggested that Florio was a friend of Shakespeare; this may be another factoid. But Shakespeare was a ravenous reader. He could not resist Florio’s translation of Montaigne, given its politico-psychological content. Here, and perhaps nowhere else, he read some Juvenal.
See http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/07/montaigne-and-shakespeare-two-great-writers-one-mind

Next post: Coinage and verbicide.


*Book II, Ch.12

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