When dismissing a work as derivative or limited, one of the most common expressions we use today is some variation on “Well, it’s hardly Shakespeare.” The assumption encoded in saying that is that Shakespeare was an entirely novel writer of completely original ideas. While we here at Shakespeare in Action love his work, it’s important to be honest even about one’s heroes – maybe especially about one’s heroes – and the question of Shakespeare’s originality is a rather more complicated story.
Hugely innovative he was, in his deployment of convincing mixes of working-class speech (the often…difficult to like…sections of earthy comedy with lots of puns about turnips and hangings) and high-toned poetic rhetoric full of references to mythology, history, political allegory and religious sentiment. His characters had clear reasons for their behaviour and often realistic reactions to that of others – please believe me that in a theatrical scene only new-grown out of Punch and Judy and Christmas pageants, this was a huge leap forwards.
Structurally, Shakespeare didn’t invent sonnets or blank verse, but oh! how he improved the former with a new rhyme scheme, giving greater emphasis to sudden turns of emotion and a more personal authorial voice. Similarly, his iambic pentameter sings off the page, often (in modern productions) indistinguishable from prose unless the director wishes to emphasize the lovely clockwork regularity underlying the apparently unrehearsed speech that results.
Furthermore, Shakespeare had a direct hand in how the most basic elements of language sound: for those not in Liberal Arts degrees, Shakespeare’s time of writing loosely coincided with something called the Great Vowel Shift – in which our pronunciation of English entirely changed. English has been described as, at that time, consisting of “a mix of Latin grammar and Saxon vocabulary spoken badly by the French”. In Elizabethan England, this changed along with the pronounciation of our long vowels – A-E-I-O-U went from Ah-Eh-Eee-Aw-Oo to Ay-Eee-Eye-Oh-You. What sounded pleasant to the poet’s ear changed, irrevocably, with it.
This change came about for a variety of very dull linguistic reasons; Shakespeare’s popularity in London and the changing way in which his plays handle (for example) rhyme helped cement this cultural change. (Much like, in the 1390s, Chaucer helped consolidate English spelling and grammar – before his wide audience helped cement, again, London’s version of English there were no less than seven regional dialects of the language with no right answer.)
All that said, one might be tempted to call Shakespeare an ‘original genius’ and have done. For thinkers at that time, however, such would have been an incomprehensible move. As late as the early 1700s, many thinkers would never speak of a person being a ‘genius’ themselves – ‘genius’ was a creative force that was sometimes in the room when people created or performed beyond their usual abilities. The ‘genius of a place’ was recognizable, but not that belonging selfishly to one human being.
Even besides this technicality, Shakespeare’s stylistic innovations made use of genius ideas that predated him – blank verse built on classical Roman metre and was introduced to English by Henry Howard (a minor translator and poet) and brought quite close to Shakespeare’s heights in some of the works of tragically shortlived Kit Marlowe – Shakespeare’s only competitor still regularly performed today. Sonnets were an Italian invention as well, and arguably – for some – perfected before ever an English citizen laid eyes on them by the Tuscan poet Petrarch.
In all these cases, Shakespeare was that thing more valuable than a total pioneer – he was a perfecter of troubled or incomplete ideas. We’d rather fly with the first plane that flies high and lands safely than the first one that flies at all – Shakespeare’s works soar using concepts others had before him, but none before and few since have integrated them so well.
This same spirit applies to his plots, which demonstrate the paradox whereby they are among his least wholly original aspects as a writer – usually a hodgepodge of various source materials – and among his most inventive, as he takes interesting or amusing stories and makes them worthy of becoming canonical myths of the English literary world to this day. Ironically enough, we often are primarily aware of the originals Shakespeare adapts through the far superior versions he wrote for the stage – if his work was less stellar in its quality, and had earned less critical attention, he may well have had less of his source texts so exhaustively tracked down.
Here then, are some of Shakespeare’s more famous plays and the original source texts from which they were ‘born’:
-Firstly, the elephant in the room: ALL THE HISTORY PLAYS. It’s so obvious that you mentally skip right over it – Shakespeare takes history from the recent Tudor kings and makes them sound like a modern day franchise of interminable sequels (King John I, Richard II/III, Henry IV/V/VI) or cuts a gory swathe through the ancient Roman dictators (Antony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar – but not Titus Andronicus, oddly enough. That bloody mess is a Shakespeare original.) The originality in these works comes from their relentless promotion of the Tudor cause – making the Henrys a set of altruistic divinely inspired military masterminds and recasting figures like Richard III – by all accounts a fairly alright sort of Monarch – as vile, traitorous swine. (NB: The very powerful and often publicly vindictive Tudor queen who ruled his home city with an iron fist had nothing at all to do with this artistic choice. Really. Not a thing.)
-Romeo and Juliet’s story started as a riff on the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe – an ancient Roman myth most famously covered in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which Shakespeare uses as an original text for the Rustics’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.Feuding families, secret meetings, tragic end – all there in rough form. Various Italian rewrites added the potion and the Verona setting and gave the lovers very silly names (Mariotto! Gianozza!) before settling on ‘Romeo and Julietta’ right before Shakespeare found and borrowed the storyline. By ‘borrowed’, I of course mean ‘swiped with both hands’. Of course he did also make it readable; try to suffer through ten minutes with most of the earlier versions and you’ll see why imitation goes, in Shakespeare’s case, beyond flattery to ‘a desperately needed rescue.’
-Some of the other Kings that we figure to be original – Macbeth and King Lear, and even Hamlet! – rely on earlier sources. Far beyond the Lear cited in Geoffrey of Monmouth – who claimed that he and King Arthur were real historical entities! – are ancient Celtic legends of King Lir, who abused his children on false pretenses and saw his trust in wicked women rewarded with his ruin. Macbeth was a real historical figure who actually reigned fairly long and relatively well, as expressed in Holinshed’s Chronicles – consider that the vastly unpopular future heir to Elizabeth I, James, was a Catholic (boo!) King of Scotland (double boo!) while Shakespeare was writing and you can see how he might have influenced proceedings. Hamlet, or “Amleth”, was the much more assertive hero of a set of nasty Viking legends, in which he did much less thinking about life and the essence of human happiness and much more chopping bits off of people with giant axes. Shakespeare clearly ruined that far more exciting story, one is tempted to argue. More seriously, for a man whose son (Hamnet) had recently died to write a play of failed fathers and hurt sons is a telling personal touch.
-The lighter plays often borrowed from earlier traditions of comedy: The Comedy of Errors is a straight-up remake of Menaechmi by Plautus with even more identical twins. Much Ado About Nothing would similarly revisit Orlando Furioso if the unbelievably boring romance of Hero and Claudio were not delightfully kicked out of focus by the “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedict. Troilus and Cressida doesn’t even attempt to disguise its treatment of a legend as old as the Trojan War myths, most famously (for the English) visited in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. As usual for Shakespeare though, all three massively improve on their sources; Comedy of Errors adds class consciousness and romance to its formulaic original. Much Ado (as mentioned previously) invents Beatrice and Benedick and thus defines the romantic comedy convention that, through Pride and Prejudice to The Philadelphia Story and the modern day, holds that couples who fight fiercest love best. Troilus is – well, a pretty desperate and morbid tragedy that Shakespeare turns into a fairly sweet comedy which also invents the Elizabethan word for ‘pimp’. Always trying to help the progress of communication for humanity as a whole, that Shakespeare.
In all these cases, remember (O Constant Readers) that “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” To take a previous work and be influenced by it is tolerable; to convincingly make it your own is brilliant. Beautifully, perfectly, that quote is ascribed to the 1920s, and was claimed by both T.S. Eliot and Pablo Picasso. The wonderful irony is that both the poet and the painter were great enough artists that either could be plausibly claimed to have stolen it from each other. Art imitates life, but often does so best by imitating other – and inferior art.