The barge she sat in…

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One of the things which I find most interesting about Shakespeare is the way in which he adapted historical and literary sources to inform his own works. Because the idea of intellectual ownership was so different in Shakespeare’s day he makes no effort to conceal the borrowings he makes. Most of Shakespeare’s plays have some literary antecedent, in some cases this is simply an echoing of theme or plot elements, in others there are whole passages which are clearly derived from other sources, between this creative inspiration and out and out copying there is every variation of adaptation.

However even in the most derivative of plays, in the most straightforward of copying there is always alteration, Shakespeare always puts his stamp on his work. By considering the inspirational source and the play it inspired side by side we get a glimpse of Shakespeare the craftsman at work.

Here is an example from Antony and Cleopatra

Elements of this play are retellings of Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Nobel Greeks and Romans, for instance descriptions of Cleopatra follow North very closely.

Here is North’s version

“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.”

This is Shakespeare’s version of the same scene

“…She did lie

In her Pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,

O’er picturing that Venus where we see

The fancy outwork nature. On each side her

Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling cupids,

With diverse coloured fans, whose wind did seem

To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,

And what they undid did.” (Act two, Scene 2)

At first glance Shakespeare’s version seems very similar, all be it in verse form, but there are important differences, differences which affect the way Shakespeare invites us to see Cleopatra.  For instance in North’s version Cleopatra is dressed like a portrait of Venus, however Shakespeare’s Cleopatra ‘o’er pictures’ (Or outshines) the portraits of Venus which are themselves more beautiful than nature.

Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is more beautiful even than a painting which is famed for being more beautiful than nature.  Her boys too move from being dressed like Cupid in artwork to being simply ‘like’ cupid. Once again there is less sense of a painted picture in Shakespeare’s version, we are being offered something which transcends the achievements of art. Though one might argue that rather than being more naturally beautiful than art, Cleopatra’s appearance it is in fact a level of artistry that goes far beyond mere imitation or painting.

So Shakespeare builds on his source material, shaping it to offer new views of Cleopatra, and weaving into it a whole debate about nature, art and artistry.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    Thanks Sylvia (Nice to hear from you!), yes he uses his sources in so many and various ways that it really shows his ability to adapt and shape things to his own ends. ^liz

  • Sylvia Morris

    I agree it’s always fascinating to see what Shakespeare does with his sources. It’s easy to think that he took poor material and turned it into transcendant poetry but it’s much more subtle than that (there was nothing wrong with Plutarch). One of my favourites is the Salic law speech in Henry V, where Shakespeare made only minimal efforts to turn the speech as written by Holinshed into poetry, and even makes a joke about how dull it is. He was obviously trying to do something rather different with the description of Cleopatra!

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