AD's English Literature : Shakespeare’s Imagination and Sources: Italian Novella, English History, and Wellknown Romances of Europe

Shakespeare’s Imagination and Sources: Italian Novella, English History, and Wellknown Romances of Europe

The main ‘sources’ of William Shakespeare’s plays were the classics, the Italian Novella, English history, and the well – known  romances of Europe. To know the sources, is not to detract from the glory and greatness of the dramatists.

William Shakespeare contributed to the making of his plays, almost every element of their greatness. The sources are known by the plays, not the plays by the sources. “He invades authors like a monarch, and what would be theft in other in other poets is only victory in him”. To use a hackneyed metaphor, he almost always borrowed the rough ore of a story or plot and transformed it into the pure gold of one of his complete plays. Mere stories lay ready to his hand in abundance. Shakespeare made them dramatic, gave to the principal actors in the stories distinctive characters, revealed these characters to us, showed us the play of motives, of feelings, of passions. Now let’s sumup all the dramatic works of Shakespeare:

Early Comedies: The Comedy of Errors The Two Gentlemen of Verona The Taming of the Shrew Love's Labour's Lost Middle Comedies A Midsummer Night's Dream The Merchant of Venice
 Mature Comedies: Much Ado About Nothing As You Like It The Merry Wives of Windsor Twelfth Night
Problem Comedies: All's Well That Ends Well Troilus and Cressida Measure for Measure Early Histories Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III Richard III
 Later Histories: Richard II Henry IV, Parts I and II Henry V King John Henry VIII
Early Tragedies: Titus Andronicus Romeo and Juliet Julius Caesar
Mature Tragedies: Hamlet Othello King Lear Antony and Cleopatra Macbeth Coriolanus Timon of Athens
The Late Plays: Pericles, Prince of Tyre Cymbeline The Winter's Tale The Tempest

William Shakespeare based the plot of The Comedy of Errors, a farce performed in 1594, on classical comedies by Plautus.   Shakespeare makes his play more complex than Plautus’s by the addition of the second set of twins, twin servants to the twin brothers of the main action, and the play displays the young Shakespeare’s formal mastery of the comic form and anticipates themes and techniques of his later plays. Love’s Labour’s Lost was first published in 1598 and was the first published play to have “By W. Shakespeare” on its title page. The play’s slight action serves as a peg on which to hang a glittering robe of wit and poetry. It satirizes the loves of its main male characters as well as their fashionable devotion to studious pursuits. The noblemen in the play have sought to avoid romantic and worldly entanglements by devoting themselves in their studies, and they voice their pretensions in an artificially ornate style, until love forces them to recognize their own self-deceptions. The play’s title anticipates its unconventional ending: The women refuse to marry at the end, demanding a waiting period of 12 months for the men to demonstrate their reformation. “Our wooing does not end like an old play,” says Berowne; “Jack hath not Jill.” The Merchant of Venice, first published in 1600 though seemingly written in 1596 or 1597, shares the lyric beauty and fairy-tale ending of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the strong characterization of the play’s villain, a Jewish moneylender named Shylock, shadows the gaiety. Shakespeare drew the main plot from an Italian story in which a crafty Jew threatens the life of a Christian merchant. Its composition may have arisen from a desire by Shakespeare’s acting company to stage a play that could compete with The Jew of Malta (1589?), a tragedy by English dramatist Christopher Marlowe, performed by a rival company, the Admiral’s Men. In As You Like Itwritten about 1599 but not published until the 1623 First Folio, Shakespeare draws a rich and varied contrast between the strict code of manners at the court and the relative freedom from such structure in the countryside. Yet it also satirizes popular pastoral plays, novels, and poems of the time. Those popular but sentimental works presented rural life as idyllic and its inhabitants as innocents not yet corrupted by the world. The Merry Wives of Windsor was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I, who wished to see “Falstaff in love” following his comic appearance in both of the Henry IV plays. First Folio placed the play at the beginning of the section of tragedies; the 1609 quarto titles the play The Famous Historie of Troylus and Cresesid; and the prefatory note in that edition considers the play one of Shakespeare’s comedies and worthy of comparison with the best of the classical comic playwrights. Some critics believe that Troilus somewhat resembles the satiric comedy in fashion at the time it was written. The play has two plots. The first, a dramatic version of the siege of Troy by Greek armies during the Trojan War, and the second, which gives the play its name, a rendering of the medieval legend of the doomed love between Troilus, son of the king of Troy, and Cressida, daughter of a Trojan priest who defects to the Greek side during the war. The legend inspired a number of other works, including the tragic poem Troilus and Criseyde (1385?) by Geoffrey Chaucer. Shakespeare’s play, however, brilliantly combines the two plots in a withering exploration of the realities of both chivalric honor and romantic love. Shakespeare borrowed the tragic story of the two young Italian lovers from a long narrative poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562) by English writer Arthur Brooke. Shakespeare, however, added the character of Mercutio, increased the roles of the friar and the nurse, and reduced the moralizing of Brooke’s work.  

However, William Shakespeare borrows from the ‘sources’ nothing more than the outline of the plot and a few incidents, but by his supreme dramatic genius transformed these mostly crude and unpromising materials into great original dramas that are the wonder of the literary world. He takes up the bare story and moulds it ab initio and ad nove to finer issues by characterization, ever the crown of the dramatist’s art, by deft and dexterous manipulation of plot and under plot and varied relief, by interweaving character inextricably with plot, by recreating the original characters, and inventing new ones, by life – like impassioned dialogue, and by such outstanding qualities as humour, pathos, passion and poetry. Originality of plot and incident meant little to Shakespeare. For the material of his plots he preferred such stories as were commonly known, so that from the first his plays had ties of popular association and interest.

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