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Copycat Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. Was he really so? According to George Bernard Shaw, Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories so long as someone else had told them first. While reading a biography of Shakespeare (Shakespeare: The World as Stage), penned by none less than Bill Bryson, I found an interesting passage on the bard’s habit of plagiarizing. Read on…

 “Slightly more jarring to modern sensibilities was Shakespeare’s habit of lifting passages of text almost verbatim from other sources and dropping them into his plays. Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra both contain considerable passages taken with only scant alteration from Sir Thomas North’s magisterial translation of Plutarch, and The Tempest pays a similar uncredited tribute to a popular translation of Ovid. Marlowe’s “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” from Hero and Leander reappears unchanged in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and a couplet from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine-

Hola, ye pampered jades of Asia

 What, can ye draw but twenty miles a day?

 – finds its way into Henry IV, Part 2 as

 And hollow pampered jades of Asia

 Which cannot go but thirty miles a day.

 

Shakespeare at his worst borrowed “almost mechanically,” in the words of Stanley Wells, who cites a passage in Henry V in which the youthful king (and, more important, the audience) is given a refresher course in French history that is taken more or less verbatim from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles. Coriolanus, in the First Folio, contains two lines that make no sense until one goes back to Sir Thomas North’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans and finds the same lines and the line immediately preceding, which Shakespeare (or more probably a subsequent scribe or compositor) inadvertently left out. Again, however, such borrowing had ample precedent. Marlowe in his turn took several lines from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and dropped them almost unchanged into Tamburlaine. The Faerie Queene, meanwhile, contains passages lifted whole (albeit in translation) from a work by the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto.”

From: Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Author : Bill Bryson

Publisher: Atlas Books

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