DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.
As an English major, I was taught that plays written by William Shakespeare borrowed from other authors. In fact, as part of my seminar class for my final semester as an English major, the curriculum revolved around William Shakespeare’s play “King Lear” as well as the Elizabethan play that it was inspired by, which was “King Leir.” Although the differences go beyond the “i” to “a” in the title, Shakespeare still had to repackage this play into a darker, more tragic one.
It would not be considered blatant plagiarism, but Shakespeare merely wrote within a system of literary ownership completely different from today. It was not a recent phenomenon to question the authenticity of Shakespeare’s plays since they go all the way back to Shakespeare’s time. For revising a part of Robert Greene’s play “A Knack To Know A Knave” for “1 Henry IV,” he called Shakespeare an “upstart crow,” as well as a lot of insults. One in which was a mockery of one of the lines from “1 Henry IV” which was “tiger’s heart.”
When it comes to all three parts of “Henry IV,” it was revealed that William Shakespeare co-wrote them with another famed playwright, Christopher Marlowe. This was deduced by finding similarities between those plays and Marlowe’s writing style found in his own plays. To quote Hanspeter Born, the author of the article “Why Green was Angry at Shakespeare,”
“Every author has his own compositional and linguistic habits, making up a verbal fingerprint or DNA.”
Technology plays an incredibly important role in examining Shakespeare’s works and not in a literary way. It was revealed through an anti-plagiarism software that George North’s English translation of “Plutarch’s Lives” not only served as an inspiration to the plots of “Julius Caesar,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus,” but he also used the same words such as “glass,” “proportion,” “feature,” “fair,” and other words within the same context of ugliness and beauty. Among other authors, Shakespeare borrowed from were Montaigne, George Gascoigne, Saxo the Grammarian and Leo Africanus.
So, it would not be the case that all of his works, besides “The Tempest,” which was his only original play, are illegitimate. Although Shakespeare recycled plays, he offered his own unique interpretations that make the characters more dynamic and complex. He also answered the question that Ron Rosenbaum, author of the “The Shakespeare Wars,” asked, which was “What makes Shakespeare Shakespeare?” In “King Lear,” he made Lear into a rambling old man suffering from senility and made Edmund into a complex villain. The fact that Shakespeare can create truly human characters is definitely what makes his work Shakespearean.
What can fellow English majors or young people who want to become an English major take from this fact? It basically involves understanding the complex relationship between the author, his/her work and other author’s works. On the one hand, inspiration can provide a starting point for writing, but the rest cannot be derivative. Otherwise, it actually would be considered plagiaristic. Not only that, but these discoveries of Shakespeare’s sources could provide a gateway to studying those works he was inspired by.