Whether you’re used to the Queen’s English, American English, or the other many forms of English, you probably grew up studying Shakespeare in high school, along with a lot of other English poets and writers as part of English Literature classes. The fascinating thing about studying Shakespeare and his influences is that William Shakespeare went to public Grammar School, for four years, until the age of 15, and studied the classics of ancient Greece and Rome.
Not only that, but everyone in England was reading the same classics as well. Students at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge studied the classics in Greek and Latin during the 1530s, and in turn would write their own books in English from the 1530s onwards. This generation spread the knowledge of the classic writers who would eventually be taught in the public Grammar Schools that were begun in the 1560s. From the 1530s to the 1590s, treatises on education, moral philosophy, and poetry and drama were being published.
Collections of novellas from Italy were being published. Collections of poetry. The 1500s on the continent and in England saw the beginning of mass-market printing and the beginning of modern publishing. Books were everywhere. Drama was also everywhere, even the mediaval mystery plays were slowly replaced with theatrical works based on the works of classical dramatists.
From Thomas Elyot in his book The Governor in 1530s to Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster of 1570, to William Webbe’s Discourse of English Poetry of 1586 that echoes these works, it was the general consensus, that the English language could be used to create poetry as excellent in quality as that of Homer or Virgil. The popular poets of the 1500s probably gained inspiration and insight from these writers. They certainly wrote in Talian sonnet form, created by Petrarch in the previous century, and were influenced by the forms and subject matter of Roman poets.
Roman playwrights looked to Greece playrights and mythology for their stories. The Greekplaywrights also told the stories of Greece heroes, kings, and myths. Famous Greeks or mythology were not the property of one playwright. The most famous playwrights had their own styles and would create very different plays based on the same stories or characters.
Shakespeare, in creating his plays, drew upon an old tradition of adapting stories for the stage. Even as a child, he would watch Medieval Morality plays every Christmas time. The Morality Plays were based on scenes from the Bible and were the first types of plays to be publicly performed during the beginning to middle of the 1500s.
Elyot, Ascham, and Webb in their works all point to the origins of Greek poetry and its basis in telling the stories of Greek mythology and of the Trojan War. English playwrights in the 1580s would use the historical Chronicles published in their days to create plays based on English history. Shakespeare took up this tradition and wrote his own History plays. It is William Webb, in his Discourse of English Poetry of 1586 who writes of there being three kinds of poetry: Comical, Tragical, and Historical. It was the Greeks who also wrote three kinds of plays, usually known as either Comedies or Tragedies, but the Tragedies are the one's which include the stories of historical figures.
The Romans took Greek Comedy and made it their own, also by adapting its character types and stories. The origins of Greek comedy was one of improv and character types. Actors would take on the roles of various stock characters, and improvise scenes in front of audiences. The Greek stock characters were borrowed by Roman playwrights for their works. Their works were then adapted as well by Shakespeare for his English audiences.
Roger Ascham writing in 1570 had the decade of the 1560s to look back on, a decade that produced translations of Virgil and Horace, as well as the first English comedies and tragedies written, performed, and published in the combination of blank verse and rhymed lines.
The plays from the 1560s are great to read to see the evolution of theater in England. William Shakespeare would perfect the formula of playwriting in the classical mode that was being used in the middle to late 1500s.