chapter  8
Shakespeare's Learning
Pages 19

When, therefore, we are considering Shakespeare's learning, we ought not entirely to neglect this habit of curious brooding upon ideas; not that one wants to make him a philosopher-only a poet capable of intense intellectual application, dealing in the excitement of speculative thought. It is an excitement that can seem perverse, wanton even; it has a privacy denied to public propositions. An instance which explains part of what I mean is the treatment of time in Macbeth,

When Lucrece apostrophizes Time she nobly utters commonplaces; what she says derives in an orthodox way from two famous places in Ovid (Met. xv. 234, 'tempus edax rerum . . .' and Tristia, IV, vi) and from Horace's 'exegi momentum', also laid under contribution in the sonnets. Shakespeare may have remembered also a frequently quoted scrap from the Timœus; certainly he had looked up Time in the emblem books. In short, he wrote, in the manner of his time, a variation on a set theme.11

Traces of the same theme may be found elsewhere, not only in the Sonnets but as late as the comic set-piece on Time in As You Like It. The first hint of a personal, perhaps obsessive, treatment of the theme may be in Henry IV. There the Prince is 'redeeming the time'; this meant, in the devotional language of the period, to make 'the activity of the passing moment a contribution to a man's most vital duty, that of saving his soul'.12