It depends. You decide.
In our time a writer who has plagiarised something is considered a serious offender. If caught they find themselves ostracised by the professional community in which they are operating – the media, the literary establishment, journalism, and in any area where writers publish what we call their intellectual property – property that belongs to the original writer of that piece. Those guilty of plagiarism are likely to have anything they write turned down by publishers, and they are also regularly sued. Being caught plagiarising something can mark the end of a writer’s career.
It can be a grey area, however, in the sense that one can steal a story from an ancient culture, or a writer who lived centuries ago, as long as it is changed. In which case we call the original a source. And then there are film adaptations of plays and novels. Are they plagiarisms? They often use the same words, but as long as the film carries the notice, “based on the novel by…” it’s okay. And the original writer will be paid.
The Elizabethans were the first English playwrights. Before them English dramas were morality plays with no real characters but rigid moral figures with names like Justice, Envy, Knowledge, Death, Discretion, Good-Deeds etc., acting out the qualities their names imply in stiff, didactic representations. Plays, as we know them today, were the invention of modern-thinking Elizabethans, writing plays that were so good, with exciting or romantic stories and rounded characters, that many are still performed today and, indeed, some, like those of Shakespeare, are performed far more frequently than the plays of any playwrights since.
The modern concept of plagiarism did not exist for the Elizabethans. Those writers took from wherever they could find a good story to adapt in order to feed a voracious audience base. And they weren’t above lifting whole passages and levering them into their dramas. Today, you would have to make it clear that the passage is a quotation, and if it was something written less than about a century ago you would also have to get permission from the writer or their estate.
The Elizabethans also lifted from each other – everything from the plot and the characters, to the actual language, and that was acceptable. It is doubtful as to whether Shakespeare ever devised an original plot. He always stole or borrowed his plots from other writers, sometimes writers very close to him, like his friend Thomas Kyd’s, taking his stories of Hamlet and King Lear and making his own plays out of them. He took stories intact from the historian, Raphael Holinshed, who wrote about the English kings and queens, and also from his contemporary, Thomas North’s, translation of the Roman historian, Plutarch, who wrote about such figures as Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius, Cleopatra, Brutus, and all the rest.
Also, some of Shakespeare’s comedies are straight lifts, their plots just tweaked to satisfy his kind of plot making. ‘The Comedy of Errors’’ plot is almost a straight translation of the play ‘Menaechmi’, by the Roman comic playwright, Plautus. It is not often performed these days: it is Shakespeare’s first try at comedy and he was probably in a hurry because someone needed a play fast. So he took ‘Menmaechmi’ and played around with it a bit. It was a start, though, and a learning exercise for a writer who was to become the author of ‘Twelfth Night,’ the greatest comedy of them all.
Shakespeare applied his poetic and stage-crafting genius to the stories he found and, whereas the writers from whom he took the stories just mentioned or described the characters as part of the historical processes they were describing, Shakespeare turned them into the immortal characters of his plays who we know today.
He made his characters so viable as real people that today, when we think about some historical characters, we think of them as the people who appear in Shakespeare’s plays. To us Richard III was a thoroughly nasty piece of work, a narcissistic, psychopathic killer. Historians trying to set the record about this good king straight have no chance against Shakespeare’s Richard, who will always be the real Richard III to our minds.
The study of the sources of Shakespeare’s plays is a big scholastic area. Shakespeare was a great reader and a great listener and observer, who had many friends among the educated, well-travelled playwrights who, like him, were making their living freelancing in London. His sources were not just one play or one history book or book of classic tales – like Ovid’s Metamorphosis – but often a mixture of them all, including what he got from picking the brains of his university educated colleagues about things like astronomy, and listening to the tales of their travels and other adventures.
There are numerous places in Shakespeare’s plays where images, sentences and even quite long passages were taken from the works of other writers – hundreds of them.
Here is a question. Is the following an example of plagiarism?
The first passage is from the Elizabethan, Thomas North’s, translation of a French translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. It is Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra. The second passage is Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.”
North: “She disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, cithernes, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her. Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids of the waters) and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of which there came a wonderful passing sweet savour of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf’s side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people.”
“The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd, that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.”
Plagiarised from North? A copy of the North passage, isn’t it? But look more closely. It’s very different. North’s is prose and Shakespeare’s is poetry. But so what? What makes Shakespeare’s passage poetry? At first glance they look identical.
We will come back to the poetry. More to the point, the two pieces are different in another way. North’s is a straight description of a queen in her barge. There is no other agenda. Shakespeare’s is also a description of a queen in her barge but he has an agenda. This isn’t just any queen, it is Cleopatra. So his aim is to unify this description with the poetic meaning of Cleopatra as divine, immortal, beautiful, that he has been building up in the play and which he climaxes with Cleopatra’s statement, as her spirit is about to leave her body for higher things: “I am fire and air; my other elements/I give to baser life,” she says as she stares death in the face.
The whole play is about the transforming power of love. The triumvir, Antony, an earthy, masculine Roman general who shares the governance of Rome with two others, falls in love with the Egyptian queen. His Roman world is practical, matter-of-fact, logical and sharp-edged. Her Egyptian world is soft, cushioned, intuitive, unpredictable and feminine. She captivates him and although against his will, he finds it impossible to leave Egypt. His fellow Romans even comment that he has been feminised.
Shakespeare draws these two worlds poetically. Rome is earthy – presented in words associated with earth – cities, kingdoms, clay, dungy earth; whereas Egypt is presented in images of air and fire. It is soft, with cushions, light, fire and perfume. Antony is torn between between these two worlds as he goes on his spiritual journey from Roman general to his death via his love for the Egyptian queen. His transformation is seen in terms of “melting,” “dissolving,” “overflowing.” Images of mud, earth dissolving in water, are associated with him – as he changes from an earthy to a softer being. Images of land animals that live in water – crocodiles and dolphins – are associated with him, too, in the poetry. When the time comes for him to fight Caesar, he chooses to fight on water, although he is a renowned army general. Like Cleopatra, he is travelling upward, in her case, through air and fire, in his case, from earth to water. Both are described poetically in that way.
That poetic structure is based on the Aristotelian idea that nature is made up of earth, water, air and fire, and human nature is a mixture of those things. Some people are more earthy, some watery, some airy and some fiery, according to the individual makeup. And so Shakespeare uses that idea to present a story of the spiritual development of the two protagonists, with Cleopatra already on a high level of air and fire, and Antony, through his love for her, moving through the elements to eventually reach her.
Now look again at North’s description. There is nothing there to do with fire. But in Shakespeare the barge becomes a burnished throne, burning on the water. Fire and water. There is nothing about air in North’s description but in Shakespeare the winds are lovesick with the perfumed sails. North has wind instruments playing and Shakespeare happily adopts that, but the flute is now having an effect on the water. North has the little boys fanning her but look at what Shakespeare does with that: wind and fire become unified when the fans glow the cheeks that they are cooling with their wind.
There’s much more to it than that but already one can see that North’s passage is like the lump of clay from which a sculptor fashions a work of art. Shakespeare’s changes seem quite minimal but they are huge and we are led to ask the question ‘what belongs to North and what belongs to Shakespeare?
Shakespeare turns plain description into a poem in which Cleopatra rises above the plain picture of her by mythologizing her. He gives her divine powers over Antony, and also over the audience. Her regal status is established by making her barge a burnished throne and her sails purple. Her pages, like smiling Cupids, point to her divinity, emphasised by the elements being personalised and serving her like royal servants. They are unified in the way they react to each other, the oars dipping into the water keeping time with the wind of the flutes. She is even more beautiful than portraits of Venus, the goddess of love, the portraits said to be even more beautiful than the goddess herself.
The use of iambic pentameter ensures that there will be a beat which, in this passage, imitates a heart beating. Enobarbus is clearly in love with Cleopatra and as he describes her you can feel his beating heart.
Shakespeare always uses iambic pentameter as he found, early in his writing career, that it allowed him to create rhythms, both strong and subtle, and also to imitate the rhythms of natural speech. In this passage he goes further than he usually does by giving some lines an extra syllable and, in one line, “The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,” several more. Those extra syllables are unstressed, and so instead of ending a line on a strong masculine emphasis on the last word – ‘throne,’ ‘gold,’ ‘lie,’ ‘cool,’ etc. they end with an unstressed, feminine, ending – fas/ter,’ ‘tis/sue,’ ‘her,’ ‘per/son.’
All that verse making renders the two passages like night and day.
But is Shakespeare’s passage plagiarism?
If he had done that today, he might have been sued by North and a judge may well have looked at the two and judged them to be virtually the same. Shakespeare would then have been made to pay damages.
So what do you think? Was Shakespeare a plagiarist? We regard plagiarism as the worst kind of literary crime. If you think he was, do you forgive him?