Four centuries after his first collected works were published, the plays of William Shakespeare are still inspiring new creative works – but the story of what inspired him is just as intriguing.

For centuries, Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted and recreated more than those of any other.

There have been high culture adaptations, like Verdi’s 1887 opera Otello and Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet, Romeo and Juliet, and contemporary pop cultural treatments, such as Bernstein’s West Side Story to the ‘coming-of-age juke box musical’ & Juliet. There have also been fresh and forceful recalibrations from beyond the Anglophone world, like Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s extraordinary 1985 Japanese film adaptation of King Lear.

But why do Shakespeare’s plays continue to hold such a grip on the global imagination?

In her book, Why Shakespeare?, Catherine Belsey suggests the answer to this question has changed over time, with every generation perceiving its ‘own preoccupations’ in Shakespeare. But what if, instead of positioning Shakespeare as inspiration ground-zero, we asked what inspired him? This reveals a more complex story of creative inspiration, appropriation, subversion and translation, of which Shakespeare is but one part.

The 2021 version of West Side Story reimagines Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Disney

This 400th anniversary of his first collected works has prompted me to think about Shakespeare’s relationship with books. He may not have sought publication of his plays as a prestigious volume — his friends did that for him seven years after his death — but he certainly read many.

In his day, the printed book had been in England for less than a century. Literacy was an increasingly sought-after new skill and, like many a digital whizz-kid in the 21st century, Shakespeare had mastered the new tech, outstripping his parents in literacy before the age of 10. He was a leading member of Gen Read.

Drawing from his experience, what might Shakespeare recommend for a Books 101 course? It would likely have been a rich and strange curriculum.

First, the Bible — an exquisite millennia-spanning portmanteau of genres from love poetry to law, encompassing an epic narrative of creation and redemption. It filtered into his consciousness by ear from infancy and, for the first time, was an easy book to get your hands on.

Next, works by the Roman poet, Ovid, who also shared tales of the world in formation, and of the transformative collisions of gods, humans and other kinds of animals. Shakespeare probably read Ovid in Latin at school, and evidently relied on Arthur Golding’s 1567 English translation of The Metamorphoses throughout his career.

Histories, both ancient and modern, would also make the list. Shakespeare’s Roman plays bear evidence of heavy borrowing from Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by the first-century Greek historian Plutarch. His English history plays borrow and blend from multiple sources including Hall’s Chronicle (1548) and Holinshed’s 1577 Chronicles.

For holiday reading, perhaps, he turned to contemporary prose romances such as Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde (1557) and Robert Green’s Pandosto (1588). On returning to work, he seems to have ripped them off — making them into plays of more enduring appeal. If you have read either of these turgidly earnest tales in their original form, you will know why!

He also dabbled in philosophy and politics — in this era, if you could read, the world was your oyster. In The Tempest, he sets up the ideal ‘nation’ of Michel de Montaigne’s Essais (c. 1580) to be torn down by cynics in a less than ideal society.

While reading was sacred to Gen Read, they expressed their love for books in ways we might not approve, with early modern books bearing all sorts of readers’ marks. From practicing letter formation, to doodling in blank spaces, to annotating the text, reading was evidently a form of slow, sensuous, private involvement with the book. Perhaps, for Shakespeare, reading provided a counterpoint to the public playhouse—the fast-paced, creative environment that shaped his dramatic writing.

For almost 300 years, the hunt for books from Shakespeare’s own collection has sustained a hope for new clues. Curiously, it has also produced more than two centuries of deliberate forgeries; you can find books all over the world with inscriptions that claim they were once the property of (variants on) ‘William Shaxpere’. Imagining Shakespeare as a reader has been so appealing that people have spun their own fictions in ink to give it substance.

However, the real evidence that Shakespeare read both deeply and widely is proffered in his writing. Knowing what he read produces insights, not so much into to why his works have retained their popularity, but into the process of culture itself: clues as to how one oceanic mind transformed what it absorbed into things ‘rich and strange’ that continue to wash up on the shores of human consciousness today.

Top image: stevem/stock.adobe.com

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