What Jonson meant by Shakespeare’s “small Latin and less Greek”

Jonson famously eulogized Shakespeare thus:
 
 
For if I thought my judgment were of years
I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe’s mighty line.
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
From thence to honor thee I would not seek
For names, but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,
Euripides, and Sophocles to us…
 
The apparent dig “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek” is, according to Tom Moran, a hypothetical, akin to the King James translation of 1 Corinthians 13:1: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not charity…” The Greek word the King James Bible renders as “though” simply means “if.” Jonson was, we can conclude, writing for an audience that would have read “though” as something closer to what we would think of when we read “even if.”
 
Hence, what looks like an attack on Shakespeare’s learning turns out to be the opposite: “Even if you had small Latin and Less Greek…”
 

Saving this for the next time I teach Shakespeare.

There is a lot that we don’t know about William Shakespeare, but there is one fact concerning him about which nearly everyone appears to be in full agreement. They agree with Shakespeare’s great contemporary Ben Jonson in his poem about his fellow playwright included at the beginning of the 1623 First Folio that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek”:

For if I thought my judgment were of years
I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe’s mighty line.
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
From thence to honor thee I would not seek
For names, but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,
Euripides, and Sophocles to us…

It is one of the few statements about Shakespeare that is almost universally considered to be uncontroversial and accepted as fact.

[…]

Jonson’s meaning, though a little startling, seems to me to be pretty obvious, and the best way of getting that meaning across is to translate what Jonson is saying into 21st-century English. If we were to do so, the result would look something like this: “Even if Shakespeare knew very little Latin and even less Greek, that would not stop me from comparing him to the greatest of Greek and Roman playwrights, because he is not just as good as they are – he’s better.” That is what Ben Jonson is really saying.

He’s not saying that Shakespeare didn’t know Latin or Greek: he’s saying that, even if he didn’t, Shakespeare would still be better than Aeschylus. Better than Sophocles or Euripides. Better than Seneca or any of the Roman tragedians. Better than the comic playwrights Aristophanes, Terence or Plautus. What Jonson is saying is that Shakespeare is the greatest playwright who has ever lived, and is superior to all the competition in all ages both in comedy and tragedy. Even superior to Ben Jonson.

That’s a great deal different from claiming that he didn’t know Latin and Greek. —Tom Moran, Shakespeare’s Latin and Greek