Shakespeare and Plagiarism by Henry Noble MacCracken 1910
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Among the curious alterations in public sentiment that have come in the last century or two, none is more striking than the change of attitude in regard to what is called "plagiarism." Plagiarism may be defined as the appropriation for one's own use of the literary ideas of another. The laws of patent and of copyright have led us into thinking that the ideas of a play must not be borrowed in any degree, but must originate in every detail with the writer. This is as if we should say to an inventor, "Yes, you may have invented a safety trigger for revolvers, but you must not apply it to revolvers until you have invented a completely new type of revolver from the original matchlock."
But the playwright of to-day cannot help plagiarizing his technique, many of his situations, and even his plots from earlier plays; consequently, he tries to conceal his borrowings, to placate public opinion by changing the names and the environment of his characters.
The Elizabethan audiences were less exacting. If a play about King Lear were written and acted with some success, they thought it perfectly honest for another dramatist to use this material in building up a new and better play on the story of King Lear. They cared even less when the dramatist went to other dramas for hints on minor details. The modern audience, if not the modern world at large, holds the same view. So long as the mind of the borrower transforms and makes his own whatever he borrows, so long will his work be applauded by his audience, whatever be the existing state of the copyright laws or of public fastidiousness.
Hence we do not to-day hunt up the sources of Shakespeare's plots and characters in order to prove plagiarism, but in order to understand just how great was the power of his genius in transmuting common elements into his fine gold.
It is customary to say: "Shakespeare did not invent his plots. He was not interested in plots." So far is this from the truth that the amount of pains and skill spent by him in working over any one of his best comedies or tragedies would more than suffice for the construction of a very good modern plot. It is more true to say of most of his work, "Shakespeare did not waste his time in inventing stories. [There are two plays at least which have plots probably original with Shakespeare — Love's Labour's Lost and The Tempest. Both of these draw largely, however, from contemporary history and adventure, and the central idea is directly borrowed from actual events.] He took stories where he found them, realized their dramatic possibilities, and spent infinite pains in weaving them together into a harmonious whole."
There is one other point to remember. The sources of Shakespeare's plays were no better literary material than the sources of most Elizabethan plays. Shakespeare's practice in adapting older plays was the common practice of the time. We can measure, therefore, the greatness of Shakespeare's achievement by a comparison with what others have made out of similar material.
Just as Shakespeare's plays fall into the groups of history, tragedy, and comedy, so his chief sources are three in number: biography, as found in the Chronicle of Holinshed and Plutarch's Lives; romance, as found in the novels of the period, which were most of them translations from Italian novelle; and dramatic material from other plays.
Holinshed. — Raphael Holinshed (died 1580?) published in 1578 a history of England, Scotland, and Ireland, usually known as Holinshed's Chronicle. The two immense folio volumes contain an account of Britain "from its first inhabiting" up to his own day, largely made up by combining the works of previous historians. The Chronicle bears evidence, however, of enormous and painstaking research which makes it valuable even now. Holinshed's style was clear, but not possessed of any distinctly literary quality. Much of what Shakespeare used was indeed but a paraphrase of an earlier chronicler, Edward Hall. Holinshed was uncritical, too, since he made no attempt to separate the legendary from the truly historical material. So far as drama is concerned, however, this was rather a help than a hindrance, since legend often crystallizes most truly the spirit of a career in an act or a saying which never had basis in fact. The work is notable chiefly for its patriotic tone, of which there is certainly more than an echo in Shakespeare's historical plays. But the effects of steadfast continuity of national purpose, of a belief in the greatness of England, and of an insistent appeal to patriotism, which are such important elements in Shakespeare's histories, are totally wanting in Holinshed.
Not only are all of the histories of Shakespeare based either directly or through the medium of other plays upon Holinshed, but his two great tragedies, Macbeth and King Lear (the latter through an earlier play), and his comedy Cymbeline are also chiefly indebted to it. The work was, moreover, the source of many plays by other dramatists.
Plutarch. — Plutarch of Chaeronea, a Greek author of the first century a.d., wrote forty-six "parallel" Lives, of famous Greeks and Romans. Each famous Greek was contrasted with a famous Roman whose career was somewhat similar to his own. The Lives have been ever since among the most popular of the classics, for they are more than mere biographies. They are the interpretation of two worlds, with all their tragic history, by one who felt the fatal force of a resistless destiny.
A scholarly French translation of Plutarch's Lives was published in 1559 by Jacques Amyot, Bishop of Bellozane. Twenty years after (1579) Thomas North, later Sir Thomas, published his magnificent English version. The vigor and spirit which he flung into his work can only be compared to that of William Tyndale in his translation of the New Testament. Here was very different material for drama from the dry bones of history offered by Holinshed. Shakespeare paid North the sincerest compliment by borrowing, particularly in Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, not only the general story, but whole speeches with only those changes necessary for making blank verse out of prose. The last speeches of Antony and Cleopatra are indeed nearly as impressive in North's narrative form as in Shakespeare's play.
In addition to the tragedies already named, Julius Caesar and almost certainly the suggestion of Timon of Athens, though not the play as a whole, were taken from Plutarch's Lives. Other Elizabethans were not slow to avail themselves of this unequaled treasure-house of story.
Italian and Other Fiction. — Except for Geoffrey Chaucer (1338-1400), whose Troilus and Criseyde Shakespeare dramatized, and John Gower (died 1408), whose Confessio Amantis is one of the books out of which the plot of Pericles may have come, there was little good English fiction read in the Elizabethan period. Educated people read, instead, Italian novelle, or short tales, which were usually gathered into some collection of a hundred or so. Many of these were translated into English before Shakespeare's time; and a number of similar collections had been made by English authors, who had translated good stories whenever they found them.
One of these was Gli Heccatommithi, 1565 (The Hundred Tales), by Giovanni Giraldi, surnamed Cinthio, which was later translated into French and was the source of Measure for Measure and Othello. Another collection was that of Matteo Bandello, whose Tales, 1554-1573, translated into French by Belleforest, furnished the sources of Much Ado About Nothing, and perhaps Twelfth Night. The greatest of these collections was the Decameron, c. 1353, by Giovanni Boccaccio, one of whose stories, translated by William Painter in his Palace of Pleasure, 1564, furnished the source of All's Well That Ends Well. Another story of the Decameron was probably the source of the romantic part of the plot of Cymbeline. The Merry Wives of Windsor had a plot like the story in Straparola's Tredici Piacevole Notte (1550), Thirteen Pleasant Evenings; and The Merchant of Venice borrows its chief plot from Giovanni Florentine's II Pecorone.
Two of Shakespeare's plays are based on English novels written somewhat after the Italian manner — As You Like It on Thomas Lodge's novel-poem, Rosalynde, and The Winter's Tale from Robert Greene's Pandosto. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is from a Spanish story in the Italian style, the Diana of Jorge de Montemayor. The Comedy of Errors from Plautus is his only play based on classical sources.
The Italian novelle emphasized situation, but had little natural dialogue and still less characterization. The Elizabethan dramatists used them only for their plots. Never did works of higher genius spring from less inspired sources.
The Plays used by Shakespeare.—Although Shakespeare made up one of his plots, the Comedy of Errors, from two plays of Plautus (254-184 b.c), the Menaechmi and Amphitruo, the rest of the plays he used for material were contemporary work. He borrowed from them plots and situations, and occasionally even lines. With the exception, however, of one of the early histories, the plays he made use of are in themselves of no value as literature. Their sole claim to notice is that they served the need of the great playwright. None but the student will ever read them. In practically every case Shakespeare so developed the story that the fiction became essentially his own; while the poetic quality of the verse, the development of character, and the heightening of dramatic effect, which he built upon it, left no more of the old play in sight than the statue shows of the bare metal rods upon which the sculptor molds his clay.
Seven histories go back to the earlier plays on the kings of England. The Second and Third Parts of Henry VI are taken from two earlier plays often called the First and Second Contentions (between the two noble houses of York and Lancaster). The First and Second parts of Henry IV, and Henry V, are all three an expansion of a cruder production, the Famous Victories of Henry V. Richard III is based upon the True Tragedie of Richard, Duke of York; King John upon the Troublesome Reigne of John, King of England, the latter undoubtedly the best of the sources of Shakespeare's Histories.
King Leir and His Daughters is the only extant play which is known to have formed the basis of a Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespeare made additions in this case from other sources, borrowing Gloucester's story from Sidney's Arcadia. The earlier play of Hamlet, which it is believed Shakespeare used, is not now in existence.
Among the comedies, the Taming of the Shrew is directly based upon the Taming of a Shrew. Measure for Measure is less direct, borrowing from George Whetstone's play in two parts, Promos and Cassandra (written before 1578).
The existence of versions in German and Dutch of plays which present plots similar in structure to Shakespeare's, but less highly developed, leads scholars to advance the theory that several lost plays may have been sources for some of his dramas. Entries or mentions of plays, with details like Shakespeare's, dated earlier than his own plays could have been in existence, are also used to further the same view. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and, with less reason, Timon of Athens, and Twelfth Night, are thought to have been based more or less on earlier lost plays.
Finally, a number of plays perhaps suggested details in Shakespeare's plays. Of plays so influenced, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and Henry VIII are the chief. But the debt is negligible at best, so far as the general student is concerned.
To conclude, what Shakespeare borrowed was the raw material of drama. What he gave to this material was life and art. No better way of appreciating the dramatist at his full worth could be pursued than a patient perusal and comparison of the sources of his plays with Shakespeare's own work.