Bard Bits: A Prince Among Plot Thieves
T.S. Eliot is attributed as saying “Bad poets borrow, good poets steal.” If that is the case, then Shakespeare is no doubt the Prince of Plot Thieves. He heavily borrowed his stories from others. All those wonderful plays that have lasted the ages? Not one is original.
It was not considered “stealing” during Shakespeare’s time as there were not copyrights. In fact, the plays did not belong to Shakespeare–they belonged to the theatre company. Shakespeare did not earn residuals or did not receive an advance. His earnings came from the box office of the paying customers, and that was split with the other theatre owners.
Shakespeare wouldn’t be considered a thief in his time. Nope he was just another writer inspired by someone else’s story (who no doubt had “borrowed” it from someone else.
Here are some of his inspirations:
Othello comes from Cinthio’s Hecatommithi.
As You Like It? Look to Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde.
Julius Caesar and the other Roman plays were developed from Plutarch’s Lives.
Romeo and Juliet is a much better version of English poet Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, a “borrowing” from a story by the Italian writer Matteo Bandello.
King Lear is complicated. Not only in plot, but in the way of which version inspired Shakespeare, since there are at least 40 versions available.
Is Shakespeare a thief or simply a writer who knew how to improve upon available resources?
And what of accusations that he wrote very little of them?
I can’t remember exactly how he phrases it, but my husband gives similar business advice: it doesn’t matter if you have an idea. It matters how well you produce and sell it.
The Bard remains a mystery, especially when it comes to authorship. In the words of David Tennant as to whether Shakespeare is the authentic writer, “I really don’t care.” I am of (most of) his work, and that suffices for now.
That’s how I feel.