Shakespeare is not Western literature’s great inventor but rather its great inheritor. The Bard borrowed plots, ideas, characters, themes, philosophies, and occasional passages from sources ranging from Plutarch’s Lives and Holinshed’s Chronicles to Montaigne’s Essays and plays by his contemporaries. He returned again and again to ancient Rome, finding inspiration in Ovid, Seneca, Plautus, and others.
His inheritance also goes beyond the textual. When he began working in the London theater scene, its component parts were there waiting for him. There were already professional theater companies, outdoor amphitheaters, plays in five acts, iambic pentameter, and conventions surrounding comedies, tragedies, and history plays.
None of this should make us think less of Shakespeare’s achievements and neither should the increasing evidence that he sometimes used uncredited collaborators and occasionally served as one himself. Shakespeare didn’t just faithfully reproduce his sources—he argued with and subverted them, he combined them in unconventional ways, and he made substantial changes to them. King Leir, the anonymous source text for Shakespeare’s King Lear, ends with Leir restored to the throne and everyone still alive. Shakespeare frequently expands roles for women in his plays and removes many passages where characters share their motivations. Shakespeare also often makes his plays more complicated than his sources, both ethically and logistically. He even went so far as to add an extra set of identical twins to The Comedy of Errors.
To sum up:
A grubby businessman furiously writing plays and ripping off whatever he could get his hands on hardly fits our model of artistic genius. We think of geniuses as tormented rock stars, breaking new ground with sui generis innovations that spring from their minds like Athena from the brow of Zeus. In movies like Amadeus, this myth of artistic genius makes for delicious art in its own right, but it’s not how artistic creation really works. Creating a work of art is part of an endless dialogue that reaches both back thousands of years and out into the world around us. This is what Shakespeare did, and he didn’t do it alone.
Just because Shakespeare was not a lone genius does not diminish his work. Indeed, perhaps it is even more remarkable in this light: while there were plenty of other people who could have drawn upon the same resources and were engaged in similar activities to Shakespeare, they were not able to do the same thing.
Even though I teach about this topic from the sociology of culture fairly regularly, the idea of a lone genius is difficult for students to overcome. Not only do they want to give credit for success to a single person, they sometimes do not see “remixing” or approaching existing materials in new ways and with editing as examples of creativity. Yet, many of the social changes we see as monumental did not require the development of a completely new idea but rather a reapplication or reuse of existing concepts.
This reminds me: I should do a better job in the classroom of explaining how sociological work comes about. When you see a final product – article, book, other publication – it is easy to just see the author(s). But, there is often a significant backstory involving multiple people, institutions, and ongoing discussions within an academic field. For example, this blog post could be examined further for where the ideas came from. The typical acknowledgements section of a publication does not provide enough space to truly acknowledge the intellectual debts of the author(s) – and it is debatable whether readers would want to dig into this further.