The idea of the lonely misunderstood genius does not seem to me either an accurate understanding of how creative vitality works, nor do I think that it's a sustainable myth the more we learn about the ways in which ideas persist and get transformed in the stream of human creative activity. What seems revolutionary in one time and place could simply be the recovery of elements that had fallen into disuse or creative presentations of relatively rare combinations in this or that work of something that, if we were to bracket it out into its respective elements, is full of things that could be considered even pedestrian. The body may be new, you see, while capillaries and nerve endings and skin color and skin type might all be fairly "normal".
So if it turns out Shakespeare made use of, and significantly reworked, ideas and works from his time and place, that fits what my understanding of the creative process is, as a kind of collaboration even when it seems to be just one person surveying an art form and its idioms and traditions and developing something.
So, there's continuing research to suggest some more details about some relatively overlooked places for appropriation for the Bard.
This week, scholars Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter announced that they had discovered a new major source of Shakespeare’s plays. Using plagiarism software and literary analysis, McCarthy and Schlueter are preparing a new book in which they argue that the forgotten A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels by the even-more-forgotten George North was a key point of inspiration for 11 of his major works. As reported by the New York Times:
The book contends that Shakespeare not only uses the same words as North, but often uses them in scenes about similar themes, and even the same historical characters. In [a] passage, North uses six terms for dogs, from the noble mastiff to the lowly cur and “trundle-tail,” to argue that just as dogs exist in a natural hierarchy, so do humans. Shakespeare uses essentially the same list of dogs to make similar points in “King Lear” and “Macbeth.”
The article, and the book, have many more examples of places where the words of Shakespeare and North intersect. Even though plagiarism-detecting software was used to make this discovery, McCarthy and Schlueter want to make clear that they are not accusing Shakespeare of plagiarism. Instead, they’re simply arguing that North’s writings were an inspiration for him.
They needn’t bother. By our standards, Shakespeare, who lived before modern ideas of authorship, plagiarized constantly. The discovery of North’s influence on Shakespeare is a welcome opportunity to remember how the Bard of Avon’s genius actually worked, and how much his methods are at odds with our own ideas of artistic greatness.
Shakespeare is not Western literature’s great inventor but rather its great inheritor. The Bard borrowed plots, ideas, characters, themes, philosophies, and occasional passages from sources ranging from Plutarch’s Lives and Holinshed’s Chronicles to Montaigne’s Essays and plays by his contemporaries. He returned again and again to ancient Rome, finding inspiration in Ovid, Seneca, Plautus, and others.
His inheritance also goes beyond the textual. When he began working in the London theater scene, its component parts were there waiting for him. There were already professional theater companies, outdoor amphitheaters, plays in five acts, iambic pentameter, and conventions surrounding comedies, tragedies, and history plays.
This is, generally speaking, not how we think about Shakespeare or, given limited classroom time and the emphasis on close textual reading, how he is taught. Many of his predecessors’ plays are lost, and his peers among Elizabethan playwrights aren’t read, taught, or produced nearly enough, making it harder to see the connections between his work and his contemporaries. Even when Shakespeare’s sources are mentioned, rarely is much time spent on reading them to see the influence clearly.
Thus, we look at Julius Caesar and marvel at the incredible rhetoric but don’t see it as in dialogue with plays about Rome by other Elizabethans such as Thomas Lodge’s The Wounds of Civil War, and we don’t look at Plutarch’s accounts of Brutus and Mark Antony’s lives, which served as the source for both Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The result is that our understanding of both Caesar and Shakespeare is impoverished. By looking at his sources, we can see what he kept and cut and changed. By looking at his context, we can see the debates and cultural moments that he was responding to.
What emerges when you do this is a richer appreciation of the plays and a more down-to-earth view of their writer. Shakespeare wasn’t a God, and he wasn’t unique, even if he was the best. He was an artist responding to his time the way artists actually do, through opening themselves up to influence and creating out of the materials around them. There’s a practical side to his work as well. He wrote for a company, which means he wrote to the particular skills and limitations of his actors. He wrote prolifically, which necessitated recycling ideas, themes, and bits of dramatic business. As a part owner of his company, he also had to respond to practical matters like trends, government censorship, and the need to fill up to 3,000 seats a night.
A grubby businessman furiously writing plays and ripping off whatever he could get his hands on hardly fits our model of artistic genius. We think of geniuses as tormented rock stars, breaking new ground with sui generis innovations that spring from their minds like Athena from the brow of Zeus. In movies like Amadeus, this myth of artistic genius makes for delicious art in its own right, but it’s not how artistic creation really works. Creating a work of art is part of an endless dialogue that reaches both back thousands of years and out into the world around us. This is what Shakespeare did, and he didn’t do it alone. If it worked so well for him, perhaps we should stop being attached to ideas of originality that have no bearing on how art is actually made
and so T. S. Eliot wrote that immature poets imitate and mature poets steel ... but transform whatever they've taken into something better or different from the original meaning or implication of the thing they took.
We may still be stuck with a number of powerful vestiges of 19th century Romantic ideological commitments to a certain conception of genius. Certainly in music pedagogy and historiography regarding 19th and 20th century music the favor is given to whomever is considered daring and innovative. Those considered conservative or traditionalist tend to get bypassed. This can sometimes happen even in cases where a fairly clear counter-argument could be made. Richard Taruskin described Anton Reicha as having a conservative approach to defining musical forms like sonata, if memory serves. School teachers can tend to land that way but Reicha's theoretical writings, as Kyle Gann has mentioned them, speculated on the viability of quarter tones and Reicha wrote a fugue in 5/8 in which a subject in A major is given an answer in E flat major, the sort of weirdness that Beethoven found a bit too far afield for him to consider such works fugues. As Gann has put it, the 18th century for what we call classical music was a much weirder and more experimental period than traditional music history tends to give it credit for.
We could approach the history of an art form focusing on innovators but as our era proliferates in recorded music and preserved scores and stuff like, oh, suits about songs like "Blurred Lines", one of the ways to remedy what may be an overemphasis on originality is to remind ourselves that there are only so many variations on "I love you" or "I don't like that". There's something to be said for considering an arts history of innovators, but there's something to be said for considering an arts history of consolidators and refiners, too. J. S. Bach didn't exactly introduce any new forms or styles or ways of composing. What he did was to refine and comprehensively explore what was possible within the realms of the styles and idioms he lived with.
As more scholarship gets done on where Shakespeare got his ideas it might be worth noting that he can be understood as a consolidator and a refiner rather than some revolutionary.