Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays: Four Difficulties

A writer of such prodigious and prolix nature as William Shakespeare, his primary concern was to get hold of a story that could be shaped to the needs of the theatre. For, he was essentially a man of the theatre with a practical sense and eye always on what would please the palates of his audience.
 And Shakespeare’s plays, as has already been mentioned, were meant to be enacted and not for closet reading. So, the story came first with him. William Shakespeare’s for all this popularity and universality was not an original story – writer but an original story – teller only. Shakespeare was a unique creator; but not an inventor of stories. He never took the trouble of inventing his plots. He drew upon, for the materials of his plays, such stories as had already been invented or recorded, provided only that they were suitable to his particular purpose, and were well – known or popular. Where from did William Shakespeare get so many stories for so many of his plays? It is here that we turn to the topic on hand, Shakespeare’s sources. There are four difficulties in a discussion of Shakespeare’s use of his sources.

[A]So many Elizabethan books have been lost. So many plays which William Shakespeare may have known as actor or spectator were never published. The inevitable result is that we cannot always be certain that he did not derive information from them rather than form works which he seems to have used.

[B]There was a great deal of common knowledge repeated in book after book. Hence a particular source for such ‘commonplaces’ is often impossible to determine. 

[C]The extent of Shakespeare’s knowledge of foreign languages is still a matter of critical debate. He knew Latin and French. He probably knew some Italian. He may have known a smattering of Spanish. The only evidence that he knew any Greek is Jonson’s rather pejorative remark that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek”.

[D] There is itself a confusions over Shakespearean authorship.

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

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