William Shakespeare did not come up with many of the stories of his plays, but read them elsewhere. Is he is a copycat? Not really.
“Thunder and lighting. Enter three witches.” These stage directions might not be as famous as Shakespeare's Scottish play, which is where they come from, but they do hide a curious origin, a deliberate decision on Shakespeare's part to take stories other writers had already written and making changes to them in order to be more, shall we say, theatrical? Many people have taken notice to how Shakespeare did not come up with some of his most celebrated plays. Does this mean Shakespeare was a copycat?
To begin addressing these questions, we must start at the beginning, with a young William and his upbringing. Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small market town a hundred miles from London. Stratford was then a mid-sized market town, where Shakespeare's father would be what we now call middle class, or something like that. William Shakespeare attended the local grammar school, which was actually kind of demanding. He learned to read and write, not only in English but in Latin as well. There he also had access to great works of literature, including the classics. Naturally, this must have given him a huge cultural background, making him become acquainted with the authors who came before him.
You have to imagine the context in which Shakespeare grew up. By the second half of the sixteenth century England, there were plenty of books available. Books were not exclusive to the aristocracy, nor to monasteries where priests would make and copy them. They were being sold all over the place, and people, regular people, were beginning to build a library of their own. One of them might have been Shakespeare himself.
For many of his plays there are certain identifiable sources. Romeo and Juliet came from Arthur Brooke’s long poem Romeus and Juliet (published in 1562); while Plutarch’s Lives was useful when it came to writing plays like Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra . He follows these sources so closely, sometimes he uses word for word as the original. Interestingly, however, the phrase "Et tu, brute?" (when Caesar realizes his adoptive son Brutus is part of the conspiracy to kill him) is actually ALL Shakespeare. He did not read this anywhere, yet it became so popular, many people think it's part of history.Cardenio is thus considered one of the Bard's lost plays.Shakespeare could have read other languages.“Un Capitano Moro” by Chintio, which became the basis for Othello, was not available in English at the time, which could very well have meant that Shakespeare read Italian. It’s even possible that Shakespeare even read Don Quixote, either in its original version or the translated version by Thomas Shelton, which was first published in 1612. How do we know this? There's a record of there being a play called The History of Cardenio attributed to William Shakespare and John Fletcher, but there's no way of knowing this for sure. Cardenio was unfortunately not included in the First Folio (a book published in 1623 which claims to contain the complete works by Shakespeare) and no quarto version survives, let alone a manuscript.
Let's focus on the plays that are not lost, though: The History plays (Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI) come from several books (Edward Halle's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York and Samuel Daniel's The Civil Wars between the Two Houses of Lancaster and York). But Shakespeare mostly turned to one source: Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Among other plays, this is where Shakespeare read about a medieval Scottish thane (nobleman) who betrays and kills the king in his own house.
Legend has it that real-life Macbeth bumped into three goddesses that Holinshed called the Weird Sisters. Weird didn't mean strange, though. It comes from the Germanic word "Wyrd," which meant fate. Therefore, you could say these creatures, whatever they were, could be called the "fate sisters", or sisters who could tell the future. This is why they taunt Macbeth by telling him he'll become king one day.
All of this might have been interesting enough, but Shakespeare was a master of turning things up a notch or two, so he decided to do exactly just that. People in England and Scotland had been nearly obsessed by witches for decades, and they published many books debating whether witches were real or not. Surely some people believed they were, but there were also people who thought the whole witchcraft business was total BS. Guess who didn't think it was BS and even wrote a book about witchcraft called Daemonologie? Mr. King James I, who became king in 1603 after Elizabeth I died. James also happened to be from Scotland and he also happened to become the patron of Shakespeare's theater company. What better way to suck up to him than write a play about Scotland that includes witches and makes Banquo, his ancestor, look good?
We could go on and on about this, but the point is that Shakespeare knew having witches on stage could create an amazing spectacle, something both skeptics and believers could be amazed at. So he chose to adapt these goddesses to bearded women with foresight who cook potions and vanish into the air right before our eyes!Does this mean Shakespeare was a plagiarist? Of course, not. He condensed, expanded, and changed plots and characters while adding contemporary allusions to his plays. Much like how Hollywood adapts contemporary books, plays, stories and all sorts of things. Plus, Shakespeare’s language remains largely unmatched. So, let’s just say he was a “borrower and a lender” of stories. Happy?
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