William Shakespeare is often heralded as one of the greatest literary minds that has ever lived, but the majority of his stories draw their roots from some other creative source. Shakespeare appropriated themes from history, folklore, and mythology to compile his plays. However, despite the origin of the content of the play, it is beyond question that William Shakespeare was the true genius behind the works that he made popular. This paper shall discuss selected works by Shakespeare in order to demonstrate that while the content might not have been original, the genius behind the execution of the plays belongs to Shakespeare alone.
The classic tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet” is one such example. Shakespeare modeled this play on the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. In the Greek tradition, Pyramus and Thisbe were lovers that were kept separate by their feuding families in ancient Babylon. These two young lovers were able to talk with one another through a single wall that separated them, and they made plans to escape together. Yet Thisbe was the first to arrive at their scheduled meeting place and when she arrived she found a lion which was bloody from hunting, and she was so frightened that she dropped her robe and ran. The lion seized the robe, and when Pyramus arrived he believed that Thisbe had been eaten by the lion. Overcome with grief, he killed himself, and when Thisbe returned she found him dead on the ground. She killed herself in turn.
It is apparent from this myth that strong similarities exist between it and “Romeo and Juliet”, but the classic telling of this myth has none of the majesty found in Shakespeare’s telling. Shakespeare influences the play to show circumstances that are beyond the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe: Shakespeare writes flowing passages about the beauty of love, and adds difficulties to the theme with the presence of Tybalt, Friar Laurence, and Mercutio. Each of these characters provides an additional layer of complexity to the plot, such as where Mercutio is accidentally killed and Romeo is forced to flee.
Similarities to English folklore are also found in Shakespeare’s plays, but again it is clear that Shakespeare is responsible for the wonder found in his plays and not the subject matter itself. This is best seen in his comedy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. In this play, the characters of the fairies are based upon English superstition that fairies will often touch the world of humans in order to have entertainment at the expense of humans. The superstition that fairies would steal a human child and raise it as their own is also expressed in this play.
Yet as has been shown in the critique of “Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare is wholly responsible for the wonder found in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. It is not the content so much as the dynamics between the characters that makes this play successful: The lover’s quarrel between the fairy king and queen, the mistaken identities that result from Puck’s mischief, and the eventual reconciliation at the conclusion of the play are all alien to the folklore from which Shakespeare spun his stories.
Finally, the influence of history on Shakespeare’s works must be addressed. Shakespeare focused on chronicling the history of the kings of Europe, yet while the plots are based in fact many of the subsequent events are based in fiction. Indeed, often historians become angry due to the discrepancies between the content of Shakespeare’s plays and the actual events known to have taken place at the time, as Shakespeare’s plays have reached a wider audience and are therefore frequently accepted as truth.
One example of this is found in Shakespeare’s “Richard V”. This play strongly casts Richard as an absolute villain: He is crippled and malformed, yet has a mind more keen than any demon. Shakespeare allows Richard to destroy all who stand in his way for the throne, and this includes members of Richard’s immediate family. Yet historians argue that while some of the events in the play did come to pass, Richard was most certainly not the bloodthirsty murderer that Shakespeare makes him out to be. However, it is beyond question that Shakespeare’s meddling with fact has created a highly enjoyable fiction.
In conclusion, this paper has clearly demonstrated that William Shakespeare successfully used the content of traditional sources of myth, folklore, and history in order to create plays that can be considered wholly his own. Shakespeare did not plagiarize: Rather, Shakespeare used adaptation to execute a more complex story from a bare foundation.
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