Shakespeare’s Three Favorite Books

Hi, friends. In this post, we’ll glance at Shakespeare’s favorite books, which definitely influenced his writing.

Scholars formerly debated whether Shakespeare only read translations of Roman and Greek classics or whether he was proficient in Greek and/or Latin. We know now that Shakespeare knew Latin, French, and probably Italian. As did other grammar school students of the sixteenth century in England, Shakespeare learned to translate English to Latin.

Shakespeare rarely wrote dramas completely from scratch; he often adapted his works from biographies, fictions, current events, etc. Shakespeare was a brilliant synthesizer. Despite always starting with source material, he mixed things and changed things and added things to make the stories his own.

Two examples of Shakespeare’s synthesizing: The Winter’s Tale dramatizes the novella Pandosto, or The Triumph of Time; the heroine dies in the novella, but Shakespeare manipulates the ending in his version to add suspense then leave an emotional impact. Richard III converts a dry political story to “a vivid and complex portrait of a charismatic psychopath” (153).

Though Shakespeare was directly and indirectly influenced by other texts (the Bible for one), these three books greatly impacted Shakespeare’s writing.

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Ovid’s MetamorphosesRoman (Latin) narrative poem with myths about the history of the world

 

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Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and RomansBiographies of famous Romans and Greeks

 

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Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and IrelandComprehensive description of British History

 

Thanks for reading! What’s your take on formulating an original story vs. synthesizing different stories for inspiration?

Information came from The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare. ISBN: 0312248806

18 comments

  1. I’m always a bit doubtful about taking too much from other people’s plots – unless it’s myth or folk tale, which is fair game. Shakespeare didn’t have Netflix and iPlayer and suchlike to remind people of the originals – if hoi polloi ever knew the stories to begin with

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I guess if you change the story around enough, it will seem new. [ Kinda like when i hear a hilarious/embarrassing story but i am sworn to secrecy, I have asked the original teller if i may repeat the funny parts of the story yet change enough details so they will not be recognized. As i am aging, my memory isn’t so good anymore, so i only remember the ‘good’ part anyway. ha ha! ] Also, Shakespeare was much more scholarly than i realized !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True! Some go as far as to say that having an original idea is literally impossible–had to read a piece of English Theory arguing that position in college once. The claim seemed too absolutist, but the writer definitely had a point.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Since I write historical fiction I do a bit of both. I enjoy making my fictional characters go through known events (like the U.S. Civil War or hazing at West Point in the late 1800’s) that I can explore and research. It makes me feel a part of the story too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, that sounds fun! I always loved how history and literature would often overlap in my university studies. It’s a funny paradox that they seem like opposite sides of the coin–what happened in the past vs. fiction from the past–yet they intertwine and influence each other.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. If there was no Christian Bible, Redemption story, Jesus and all that… would se still have Shakespeare?

    I don’t know, but if we did, there is little doubt he would be the heavy-weight left on the stage..

    Yet nearly anything you tell me about him is educational to me. I am aware, like an intro art appreciation class for non-majors, of his important contributions, but I have no depth of knowledge about him.

    Thanx for the insights.

    Like

  5. Thank you for bringing to the forefront the fact that Shakespeare took most of stories from other sources. It is important to understand what influenced him as a writer to make him and his work more accessible.
    I also love “synthesizing” as a way to explain how he took the original text and made it his own. Great post!

    Like

  6. Interesting for sure! I liked the comments too, they help me to understand whats is really being said. If that makes any sence..Deb

    Like

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