William Shakespeare was undoubtedly a literary mastermind, yet several allusions and quotations in his works suggest that he gathered ideas from other texts. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, was alluded to more than any other classical text, and the Bishop’s and Geneva Bibles were quoted numerous times in his works. Shakespeare’s reliance on source material from external literature was a common practice of the time period. He would have learned this habit of absorbing and imitating other texts (imitatio) in grammar school and from classics that were translated into English. The following is a collection of sources that appear to have influenced several of Shakespeare’s works, such as Coriolanus, As You Like It, and Antony and Cleopatra.
Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (1577)
Holinshed’s ‘Chronicle’ was the single most important source for Shakespeare’s history plays. It was used as a source for his historical play, ‘Henry VI, Part 2’.
Image: “Raphael Holinshed. Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande. 1577” by Susan Gibson. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Folger Shakespeare Library
Giovanni Boccaccio, The decameron containing an hundred pleasant nouels (1620)
Shakespeare learned the habit of ‘imitatio’, or imitation, in grammar school as he studied the classics. In particular, one of the top three plot sources for his plays was Giovanni Boccaccio’s ‘The Decameron’.
Image: “Title page The Decameron printed by Isaac Iaggard London 1620” by Isaac Iaggard. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Ovid, Metamorphoses (1606)
Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ was a strong classical influence on Shakespeare’s work, particularly his sonnets. He included more allusions to “Metamorphoses” than any other classical text.
Image: “Frontispiece with the Bust of Ovid” by Antonio Tempesta and Wilhelm Janson. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Bishop's Bible (1568)
Despite his use of The Bishop’s Bible in his earlier plays, Shakespeare later switched to the Geneva Bible.
Image: “Elizabeth I Frontispiece Bishops Bible 1568” by Franz Hogenberg. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Geneva Bible (1560)
Aside from classical source material, Shakespeare also incorporated scriptural quotations and allusions from the Geneva Bible.
Image: “Geneva Bible” by Aurevilly. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Lucan, Pharsalia or the civill warres of Rome (1592)
Once classical texts were translated into English, Shakespeare continued his use of ‘imitatio’. Lucan’s ‘Pharsalia’ appears to be a direct source for the tragedy, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’.
Image: “Lucanus, De bello civili ed. Pulmann (Plantin 1592), title page” by Aristeas. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Arthur Brook, The tragicall historie of Romeus and Iuliet (1587)
The relationship between these two texts, Brooke’s and Shakespeare’s, is apparent through the similar title. Brooke’s publication, which was originally a translation of an Italian story, was an incredible influence on the Shakespearean tragedy we know today.
Image: “Arthur Brooke Tragicall His” by Arthur Brooke. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Featured Image: “Globe Theater Innenraum” by Tohma. CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons