Even Shakespeare Knew—Great Artists Steal

From the lecture series: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc Connor, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Where did Shakespeare find inspiration for the plots of his stories? Upon close inspection, out of 38 plays attributed to the writer, only two of them can be accounted as entirely original.

The Shakespeare monument outside the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London, UK
(Image: A and J King/Shutterstock)

The greatest writer in English history was not a great creator of new stories. Rather, he drew upon all sorts of sources for his plays. Explore the sources of the Shakespearean plot.

Great Artists Steal

Picture William Shakespeare as a boy, seven or eight years old, hunched over his desk, studying at the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon. His curriculum included the Latin classical writers—standard fare for any English school of the day. One way they would teach Latin would be to read and perform the plays by Roman writers like Terence and Plautus.

One of Plautus’s plays, called The Two Menaechmuses, has an improbable plot: Identical twin brothers are separated in childhood and spend years attempting to reunite. They finally do so after all sorts of absurd misidentifications, confusions, and hilarious errors. It’s quite possible young Shakespeare would have read this play and maybe even acted it out in a schoolhouse performance.

Robson & Crane in Shakespeare's "Comedy of errors" published by Metropolitan Litho. Studio, 1879.
Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” about two twin brothers and their twin servants was influenced by Plautaus’s
classic plays “The Two Menaechmuses”.
(Image:  Metropolitan Litho. Studio/Public domain)

One of his first plays, The Comedy of Errors, is based on Plautus’s classic work. Whereas Plautus gives us one set of twins, Shakespeare gives us two, the two brothers and also their twin servants, and he heightens the comedy by having one brother’s wife mistake the other brother for her husband. Then that brother falls in love with the wife’s sister, and the brother’s father is reunited with his wife whom he hasn’t seen in years, and so it goes.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Shakespeare complicates, or “thickens,” his source material, weaving more plot lines and complications into the original story, of greatly expanding its portrayal of family, marriage, love, and even the mystery of how human beings can come together against hopeless odds. This technique is how Shakespeare uses his so-called sources: He draws upon a huge range of outside materials—works of history, other plays, legends, folk-tales, material from classical authors, and weaves them together to form a new whole.

Learn more about the archetypal plot devices of “blocked love”

Roman Inspiration

Beyond some plot ideas, these Roman plays gave Shakespeare a form that he could follow in the early years of his career, roughly 1590–1594, when he wrote several comedies. The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Comedy of Errors closely follow the classical models of comedy.

The word “comedy” derives from the Greek word comos, meaning revelry or merry-making, and was related to ancient village festivals like weddings. It is essential to keep in mind: Comedy and marriage are always connected.

The Roman playwrights Shakespeare studied developed a style known as “New Comedy,” which focuses on the private life of families and follows a standard, three-part structure: First, young lovers are blocked in their love, usually by an older father figure called the senex iratus or angry old man; second, the lovers seek to escape from this block, resulting in all sorts of comic confusion, disguises, and disorder; and third, the disorder is sorted out, the block to love is overcome, and order and harmony are restored not just to the young couple but to society as a whole.

This structure is the typical form of our romantic comedy even in today’s movies: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. The key is the initial block to love that sets everything else in motion.

Learn more about the four points of entry for understanding what’s happening in a Shakespeare play

The Old Boy Meets Girl Plot-line

If you look at Shakespeare’s early comedies with this tool in mind—the block to young love and how it can be overcome—you see this structure everywhere in his work.

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for example, the Duke banishes Valentine because the young man plans to elope with his beloved Sylvia; in The Comedy of Errors, the two pairs of young lovers are blocked by massive confusion of identity; and Love’s Labour’s Lost opens with King Ferdinand having his three young lords swear to him that they will devote themselves to study and not look at a woman for three full years.

To approach any Shakespeare comedy with a critical eye, look for the block to young love, because this forms the very heart of the play’s plot.

Let’s see how this works with probably Shakespeare’s first great comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The block to love can be found just 20 lines into the first scene.

An angry father, Egeus, appears before Duke Theseus to complain about his willful, disobedient daughter, exclaiming:

Full of vexation come I, with complaint against my child, my daughter Hermia.

At the heart of his anger is her refusal to marry the man he has chosen for her:

Stand forth Demetrius. My noble lord, This man hath my consent to marry her.

Stand forth, Lysander. And, my gracious Duke, This hath bewitch’d the bosom of my child.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

With cunning hast thou filch’d my daughter’s heart, Turn’d her obedience (which is due to me)

To stubborn harshness.

Hermia and Lysander
Hermia and Lysander in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Painting by John Simmons (1870).
(Image: John Simmons/Public domain)

We don’t learn why Egeus is so opposed to Lysander—in fact, part of the humor of the play is that Lysander and Demetrius are pretty much alike: They’re both gentlemen, both well dressed, both desirable. The difference seems only to be that Hermia loves one, and not the other—part of the mystery of love that this play seeks to explore. What so angers Egeus is this issue of disobedience, a matter that fascinates Shakespeare: The efforts of the old to control the young, and especially of fathers to control their daughters.

Learn more about how Shakespeare created theatrical “reality” through language

The Trouble with Daughters

The Taming of the Shrew
Katrina, the troublesome daughter, in the “The Taming of the Shrew”. Painting by Edward Robert Hughes (1898).
(Image: Edward Robert Hughes/Public domain)

This parental concern may well have been a matter of personal concern: Shakespeare had two surviving children, both girls. The difficulty of controlling a young woman, as his early comedy The Taming of the Shrew also demonstrates, is a constant obsession of his.

Egeus even begs the Duke to kill his daughter if she will not relent:

And, my gracious Duke,

Be it so she will not here, before your Grace,

Consent to marry with Demetrius,

I beg the ancient privilege of Athens:

As she is mine, I may dispose of her; Which shall be either to this gentleman, Or to her death, according to our law.

Even in the patriarchal world of Shakespeare’s day, this is fairly harsh. It is a comic version of the central dynamic in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet—who seemed to be a loving, even doting father—bursts into a rage when his daughter refuses to marry Paris, the man he’s chosen for her.

He screams at her,

An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend. / An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets …

In that play, Shakespeare wrote of the tragic inability of young lovers to overcome the block to their love.

These great tools and the knowledge that literature of classical antiquity inspired Shakespeare’s works, reveals the subtle complexity of human relationships.

Common Questions About the Shakespearean Plot

Q: Does the Shakespearean tragedy have a plot structure?

Shakespearean tragedies derive their plot structure from the Freytag Pyramid structure: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement. This is also a derivation of Aristotle’s three-part poetic structure.

Q: What are the three categories that Shakespeare worked in?

Shakespeare’s work is divided into the sonnets, the plays, and the poems.

Q: How many types of plays did Shakespeare write?

Shakespeare wrote four primary types of plays: tragedies, romances, histories, and comedies.

Q: Who were Shakespeare’s influences?

The Bible, Plutarch, and Geoffrey Chaucer were the main influences on Shakespeare’s writing.

This article was updated on November 12, 2019

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