Will’s a Thief, I tellya, a THIEF!

Bad poets borrow, good poets steal

— attributed to T.S. Eliot


One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

— T.S. Eliot (the real deal)

Shakespeare… poet?  Yep.

Shakespeare… thief?  Oh, yeah…

The Comedy of Errors is based, er… “resembles” (in the words of the introduction to the Pelican edition) a play called Meaechmi by the Roman playwright Plautus around 220 B.C..  That comedy concerned a man finding mistaken identity-based confusion when he looks for his twin brother, who happens to have the same name.  But it seems he also lifted from Plautus’ comedy Amphitryon, which has as characters a pair of identical servants (which are missing from Meaechmi).  And the Egeon/Emilia framing device has its basis in the old Latin tale of Apollonius of Tyre, who in a voyage is separated from this wife and child (in his case a daughter), thinks them dead, but then is reunited with them much later in life.

Thief, sure.  But given the remoteness in time (and language) of the sources and the combination into somtheing “unique, utterly different”… well, then I guess you’d have to list Shakespeare under Eliot’s heading of “good poet.”

Or, think of it this way: The Bard of Avon was MC Will, and The Comedy of Errors was his platinum Latin remix, baby.

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