Monday, October 28, 2013

William Shakespeare---Wise Sage or Plagiarist?

I have always considered William Shakespeare (1564-1616) to be a wise sage and my favorite playwright, probably from as early as the fifth grade. Growing up in a country school in Central Canada, we began reading and memorizing Shakespeare from a very early age. Then we repeated his passages many times throughout the year, using them to validate our own thoughts and writings.

I remember writing an essay on As You Like It in high school and enlarging on what I considered Shakespeare's most wise of passages, "All the world's a stage, and men and women merely players." Those words felt so true to me in those adolescent years. I started looking at the world as a stage and me as one of the performers. Amazing. In that process I could finally separate myself from what seemed like the life and death emotions I felt during those difficult years of hormone changes and teenage angst.

I had always thought of Shakespeare's writings as completely original. "What an incredible mind to think up all these new but wise sayings," I used to say. It was not until later on in college and beyond, that I learned some facts that troubled me. Were all the plays we attributed to Shakespeare really written by him? No one seemed to know. And were his ideas and writings really original?

This is what I discovered over the years:
Shakespeare like many of us read a lot and used his knowledge of Greek and Roman classics and philosophers to create his works. Sometimes Shakespeare borrowed his plots down to the fine details. He borrowed several of Geoffery Chaucer's poems as sources of his plays. (Most of you will know Chaucer, 1340-1400, as the one who wrote Canterbury Tales.) Then there was Plutarch (46-120 AD). a Greek philosopher, who wrote Parallel Lives. The book became the source for Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Shakespeare copied whole passages from the work, making only small changes. And the greatest source for his images and symbols was the Bible.

So did Shakespeare plagiarize other authors? I looked up the word in the dictionary. The word plagiarize today means to appropriate passages, ideas, and thoughts of another author and represent these as your own original works. So, as we define it today, yes he did.

But let's think for a minute. Don't we all get our ideas from our readings, the culture, and the beliefs we encounter everyday? How many original ideas are really out there? I am writing a book called How to Cope with Stress after Trauma for veterans and families. The book is a compilation of healing steps I have used for many years with clients. But where did I get those ideas? Yes, from my readings, my classes, my clients, and the people around me. I certainly can't say I have not plagiarized ideas and thoughts although I don't remember where I first heard about them.

Then what really makes Shakespeare so unique? Why are we still fascinated with him and his works? Most of us have favorite plays and passages even today, several hundred years after he lived. As I have become older and hopefully wiser, I have become more realistic and less judgmental in my views. What I see now is an amazing artist and writer, who after the rigid Middle Ages and during the beginning of the Renaissance looked into the hearts of humans and wrote those older plots and passages in such a brilliant way, with such emotional complexity (e.g., Hamlet, Macbeth), that all of us still identify with his characters and their feelings. He saw people (even the monarchy who were often considered to be like gods) as humans who made mistakes and needed forgiveness. He portrayed both the dark and the light side of all of us. That was his true genius. And even though he plagiarized some passages and plots, he wrote his plays and sonnets, combining words and images in such a way that people all over the world resonate with his works
William Shakespeare indeed is a wise sage.

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.
Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds, or bend with the remover to remove."

Wow! If only I could write as well as he did.


Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. We were lucky to have as much access to Shakespeare as we did. Maybe we could all meet up in Ashland, Oregon, or Stratford Ontario, or better yet, England, and indulge in a few days of unfettered play watching.
As for the great debate, it is a matter of style. We like to hear the old stories retold in engaging ways. It is hard to fathom how any mere mortal could write as well as Shakespeare.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I didn't love Shakespeare until I acted in two of his plays. In Macbeth, I played Lady MacDuff (one scene in which I got murdered) and in Romeo and Juliet I played Romeo's mother (two scenes in which I looked distraught). So, a great acting career was not launched, but I got to wear fabulous costumes both times. Best of all, I got to appreciate Shakespeare at a whole new level. :)

William Ray said...

It is true that Montaigne expressed a similar sentiment as "Shakespeare" did before the English author did, but not in the same way. And for those who hold that Edward de Vere was the mind who used the name "Shakespeare" as his stage and title-page moniker, he indeed had access to Montaigne's aphorisms. Libraries containing that book in French were available to him and he spoke and wrote fluent French. To my thinking what was unique to this author was his rhetorical skill, coming from several langauges, but with respect for his own, its deep sincere usually monosyllabic vocabulary. The music of the interlocking words build up a power that matches the power of their impacting meaning.

It is important to me, part of my ambition in these latter years of my life, to see to it that the true author is credited for his commitment to truth and language despite the shame and "outcast state" he suffered for being an artist in a time when aristocrats were considered infra dig to write for the masses. He did anyway and "we" masses are richer for it.

William Ray

Ana said...

Thank you William for your insightful comment to my blog. I like what you said about your commitment to see to it that Shakespeare is credited for his commitment to language and to tell truth. Keep it up.