It's generally well-known that many of Shakespeare's dramas were "inspired" by, "plagiarised" from or otherwise "copies" of existing works. I use these terms advisedly because, of course, Shakespeare put his unique, insightful and lyrical spin on them to make them the plays that have resonated down the centuries.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that a lot of his plots were borrowed from other works. Hamlet came from the "ur-Hamlet", Othello from El Capitano Moro. According to Wikipedia, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Romeo and Juliet are all from Italian novelle.

It's noteworthy that many of these stories are actually themselves based on older stories, in some cases dating back to antiquity: Romeo and Juliet has similarities with a tale from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Nor was Shakespeare alone in doing this: Marlowe based Dido, Queen of Carthage on parts of the Aeneid, and the result has many similarities to Romeo and Juliet.

In the modern era, such wholesale recycling of older and contemporary texts would likely be frowned upon and torn apart by critics. Yet in Shakespeare's day, it was seemingly common and accepted by audiences. My question is: what was the cultural attitude towards plagiarism in the Elizabethan era, why was it accepted and when and why did it change toward the more modern attitude?

  • Are you asking specifically about ‘serious’ literature and/or live theatre? Because if you're claiming that e.g. Hollywood doesn't do remakes, reboots, rehashes, or otherwise recycle plots and stories time and time and time again, then you might have to explain that a bit…
    – gidds
    Mar 13, 2023 at 22:33
  • 1
    @gidds Since this site is about literature, I would assume the question is implicitly scoped to literature and thus excludes film. (And the remakes you mention are subject to copyright agreements.)
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 13, 2023 at 22:49
  • Many books nowadays do only such changes from the best sellers as are required to evade copyright laws.
    – Mary
    Mar 14, 2023 at 1:14
  • @Mary I'm entirely prepared to accept that the premise of my question is wrong: given that Shakespeare was the bestseller of his day, it may be that things haven't changed much at all. If you can build an answer around this argument, I'd certainly consider it.
    – Matt Thrower
    Mar 14, 2023 at 8:48


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