Did Shakespeare Plagiarize?
Not Likely, the Evidence Indicates
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By Michael J. Cummings © 2003
Revised in 2016
Accusations Against the Bard Unfounded
Over the centuries, William Shakespeare has been accused of plagiarism on grounds that he pirated plots, phrases, lines of verse, and even entire poems. However, the evidence against Shakespeare is weak. In a modern court of law, he could mount a stout defense against the charges. I would find him innocent of all charges even though the evidence against him appears strong—at first glance.

Consider, for example, what might be called Exhibit No. 1, The Passionate Pilgrim, a collection of poems published under Shakespeare’s name between 1599 (first edition, with 21 poems) and 1612 (third edition, with 23 poems). Shakespeare has been identified with certainty as the author of only five poems in the first edition: Numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, and 17. The authors of the other first-edition poems—which appeared in the collection as verbatim or altered copies—have been identified as Richard Barnfield (8 and 21), Bartholemew Griffin (11), Thomas Deloney (12), Thomas Weekes (18), Christopher Marlowe (most of 20), and perhaps Sir Walter Raleigh (one stanza in 20). Thomas Heywood wrote the two poems added to the third edition. The authors of the rest of the poems have not been positively identified. However, the title page of the first and subsequent editions of the collection identifies “W. Shakespeare” as the author of all the poems. Surely this evidence alone would be enough, it seems, to convict Shakespeare of plagiarism.

But there is more to the story. Strong evidence indicates that the printer, W. Jaggard, appropriated all of the poems in the collection and printed them with Shakespeare’s byline without his authorization. This evidence is found in Apology for Actors (1612), by one of the plagiarized authors, Heywood. In that work, Heywood complains that The Passionate Pilgrim contains two of his love epistles, both with themes from Greek mythology. One is an epistle of Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, to Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Greece. The other is an epistle of Helen to Paris. However, Heywood blames Jaggard, not Shakespeare, for the plagiarism. In fact, he exculpates Shakespeare, saying that Shakespeare was “much offended” with Jaggard and was unaware at the time of The Passionate Pilgrim’s publication that Jaggard had printed the collection.
This exoneration is not foolproof, though, because no records exist of a denunciation of Jaggard’s collection by Shakespeare between its first printing in 1599 and its third printing in 1612. Shakespeare may have “looked the other way” or secretly condoned Jaggard’s activity. At any rate, no conclusive evidence exists that Shakespeare plagiarized parts of The Passionate Pilgrim.
Now consider other seemingly incriminating evidence that Shakespeare plagiarized material for his works, including the following quotations:
Exhibit No. 2
Shakespeare line in The Merchant of Venice, 1596: "Love is blind" (2.6.41)
Chaucer Line in The Canterbury Tales, 1387: "Love is blynd" ("The Merchant’s Tale")
Exhibit No. 3
Shakespeare Play Title: All’s Well That Ends Well, 1603-04
John Heywood Proverb: "All is well that ends well," 1546
Exhibit No. 4
In an article in The Atlantic (April 2002), Richard Posner notes that Shakespeare’s “famous description in Antony and Cleopatra of Cleopatra on her royal barge is taken almost verbatim from a translation of Plutarch's life of Mark Antony.”

Now, then, in regard to Exhibits 2 and 3, Shakespeare’s defense attorney could argue that his client was merely repeating popular catchphrases of his day in the same way that modern writers regularly use catchphrases of past writers without attribution. These are phrases that have become part of the language; their originators are well known and do not require identification, legally or otherwise. Examples of such catchphrases are the following:
‘Twas the night before Christmas

Give me liberty or give me death.

Honesty is the best policy

A penny saved is a penny earned.

Drink to me only with thine eyes
The last of the Mohicans

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here

In fact, it is accepted practice—a literary tradition, even—for authors to use a famous phrase of another writer as a title or trope, with or without attribution, under the assumption that the intelligent reader knows who originated the words. For example, Thomas Merton and Ernest Hemingway both borrowed from John Donne, a contemporary of Shakespeare, to write the titles of novels (Merton: No Man Is an Island; Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls). And what writer or speaker has not used the following catchprases without attribution at one time or another: Thomas Gray’s ignorance is bliss, Rene Descartes’ I think, therefore I am (cogito ergo sum), Julius Caesar’s the die is cast (alia iacta est), or Charles Dickens’ it was the best of times, it was the worst of times?
The Plutarch passage in Antony and Cleopatra (Exhibit No. 4), a passage which Shakespeare altered and enriched, was well known in Shakespeare’s time. In that age, the Renaissance authors of ancient Greek and Roman works were well read and often memorized; devotion to these works was part of the Renaissance revival of the literature of antiquity. To assert that Shakespeare meant to present the Plutarch passage as his own is like arguing that the makers of the motion picture Star Trek VI: the Undiscovered County were attempting to present the title as a coinage of their own. (Undiscovered country is a phrase in Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, referring to death or the afterlife.)

What of the charge that Shakespeare plundered the plots of other authors—including Ovid, Plautus, Boccaccio, Cinthio, Thomas Lodge, Arthur Brooke, Christopher Marlowe, and Robert Greene? The charge is true. But such “plundering” is not plagiarism. Otherwise, almost every writer in history would be guilty of plagiarism, for original plots are rare. The plots of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey have spawned thousands of books, poems, and plays. Cervantes’ Don Quixote inspired the broadway musical The Man of La Mancha. Ovid’s version of the Greek myth about Pygmalion—a Cypriot king who fell in love with a statue of Aphrodite, the goddess of love—provided the plot for George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the Lerner and Loewe stage and movie musical My Fair Lady. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet inspired the Academy Award-winning film, West Side Story, as well as hundreds of other spinoffs. Authors Christopher Marlowe, Gotthold Lessing, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Paul Valéry, and Thomas Mann all capitalized on the Faust legend as told in the Faustbuch, as did opera composers Hector Berlioz and Charles Gounod.
Was Shakespeare a plagiarist?
The verdict here is not guilty.
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