FUN FACT #3: (i’m just gonna quote wikipedia here: i promise i’ll fact-check this at some point) “According to Geoffrey [of Monmouth]’s genealogy of the British dynasty, Leir’s reign would have occurred around the 8th century BC, around the time of the founding of Rome.”
I can't understand why people like Shakespeare's plays he literally stole all of the ideas from the Ancient Greek and Roman plays. I can't praise a lack of creativity.
Shakespeare did occasionally borrow dramatic devices from Senecan tragedy and characters from Greek and Roman mythology, but the words and the ways he told the stories were his own. That’s what writers do. That’s how we develop a theatrical and literary vocabulary so we all know what we’re talking about when we say deus ex machina or peripeteia. Writers all use the same old stories and plot devices in new ways in new eras, because it’s not possible in a world with thousands and thousands of years of history for every idea to be totally and entirely new and original. Accusing Shakespeare of ‘stealing’ all his plays from Greek and Roman poets is like accusing Walt Disney of stealing fairy tales.
Intellectual property didn’t exist in the early modern era. Playwrights and poets constantly stole and borrowed from each other. That was just the way their creative world worked. By using other poems and plays as source material Shakespeare was just participating in the intellectual conversation of his day and age. And even if intellectual property had existed in 1599, anything written by the Greeks or Romans would have been in the public domain anyway because it was written like a thousand years before.
Shakespeare wrote literally dozens of plays that have nothing to do with Greek or Roman culture. (I would love to see the lost play of Sophocles that was the basis for The Merry Wives of Windsor.)Some of Shakespeare’s plays are purely of his own invention and many are loosely based on real historical events. In fact, there’s a whole category for those: they are called, imaginatively, ‘history plays,’ and are loosely based on the lives of real English monarchs. Even Macbeth and Hamlet and Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are based (theoretically) on real people. And we still do this. Ever seen Lincoln or read Mary Renaultor listened to Hamilton? Performing or reimagining history isn’t theft. Homer doesn’t have exclusive rights to the Trojan War. Sorry.
Sometimes the brilliance of Shakespeare’s work lies in radically reinterpreting old material. King Lear is a great example. It’s based partly on Sidney’s Arcadia and partly on Gorboduc and partly on an earlier play called King Leir, but Shakespeare turned the sappy happy ending into gut-wrenching tragedy and the result is one of the greatest plays of all time. It is, indisputably, a work of genius, which I don’t think can be said of any of the source material.
What we remember Shakespeare for most is his words. Shakespeare didn’t steal any of Troilus’s speeches from Chaucer. He didn’t steal Antony’s funeral speech from Plutarch. Here’s a speech from Macbeth, which is pretty uniquely Shakespeare’s and only so very loosely inspired by history:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time, And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
If you can find a lack of creativity in that, I don’t know what to tell you, except that you’re missing out on the greatest English writer who has ever lived and probably will ever live and you’re doing it for the most foolish possible reason, which is basically that you’ve been grossly misinformed.
A mythic king from the twelfth century, fabled to be the father of King
Leir (Lear) and the founder of the city of Bath. Geoffrey of Monmouth
records him as a “…very ingenious Man, taught Necromancy in his
Kingdom, … til he attempted to fly to the upper Region of the Air with
Wings he had prepared, and fell down upon the Temple of Apollo in the
city of Trinovantum (London), where he was dashed to pieces.”
Geoffrey seems to not know another tradition concerning Bladud, that he
was a leper who was cured of his disease by the medicinal mud in the
hot springs at Bath. A tale no curiouser than his magical flight, but it
draws a neat line from the Greco-Romantic fable of another great
artificer, Daedalus. It sounds as if the Roman spa of Bath was so
astonishing, the British tradition accounted for it as the work of a
wizard, much like Stonehenge. It is worth noting, as well, that the Old
English poem The Ruin, thought to be about Bath, describes it as “enta
geweorc” - “the work of giants.”
King Leir, like so many histories and tragedies of the 1590s, was fixated on royal succession. These plays spoke to a nation fearful of foreign rule or the outbreak of civil war after its childless queen’s death. For a decade that stretched from Titus Andronicus and his Henry the Sixth trilogy through Richard the Third, King John, Richard the Second, the two parts of Henry the Fourth, Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, Shakespeare displayed time and again his mastery of this genre, exploring in play after play who had the cunning, wit, legitimacy, and ambition to seize and hold power.
James Shapiro, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606
*curtsies* Greetings! We just finished King Lear in my Shakespearean drama class, and I noticed that a lot of people pronounced Regan's name like a certain former US president. How do you prefer to pronounce her name? Also, I have a group project where we are acting out scenes from KL in 45 minutes and I get to be Edgar, so pretending not to be crazy and a sword fight is in the mix. What is your opinion on Edgar? *curtsies away*
*Curtsies* Personally I’m inclined to think that pronouncing it Reegan is partly an affectation of the declamatory 1960s acting style (think old white British men rolling their rs). In the source material her name is sometimes spelled ‘Ragan’ so pronouncing it like aforementioned former president’s name might actually be more accurate. As to Edgar: When is he pretending not to be crazy? Usually for him it’s the other way around… As to my opinion of him, that’s a bit vague, but on the whole I think he’s good guy but he’s also extremely naive, probably a little spoiled, and he’s definitely internalized a lot of his dad’s misogyny, possibly without even realizing it.