Category Archives: sources

Othello – sources

Critical consensus is that Othello is based on “Un Capitano Moro” (“A Moorish Captain”), by the Italian writer Giovanni Battista Giraldi, better known as Cinthio, which appeared as one of the stories in his collection called The Hecatommithi, in 1565. If that name sound familiar, your memory is pretty good: Cinthio’s Hecatommithi was also one of the sources behind our last play, Measure for Measure.

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Sources

Unlike many of Shakespeare’s plays, All’s Well That Ends Well doesn’t seem pilfered from multiple sources. No, it looks like Willy only stole from one author here.

In the mid-fourteenth century, Italian writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio wrote what is considered to be his masterpiece, The Decameron, a collection of stories, told from the perspective of ten characters who each told ten stories apiece (deca is the Greek root for the number 10, natch). Think of The Decameron as the Italian Canterbury Tales… before there was The Canterbury Tales.

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Boccaccio and Chaucer, too

A few days back, I brought up Homer’s The Iliad as a possible source for Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. That works for the Trojan War aspects of the play. But as I mentioned, there’s no link in the poem between Troilus (who’s mentioned in the poem only as a dead son) and Cressida (provided she is even the Chryseis of the poem).

So where did Shakespeare steal, uh, get the love story?

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Homer, not Simpson

Troilus and Cressida is set during the Trojan War, and thus we can assume a partial source would be The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem (which Shakespeare probably encountered via George Chapman, whose translations began appearing in 1598). Broad strokes of the play’s plot regarding the war are taken from the poem, including the conflicts within the Greek army regarding Achilles and his reluctance to participate, as well as the minor character Thersites, a loud-mouthed Grecian soldier.

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Hamlet: Shakespeare’s Revenge on the Revenge Play

Back in the day–by which I mean around the time I started this whole mess of a Project–I discussed a wonderfully nasty piece of work called Titus Andronicus. During that month, I made reference to the debt many of the Elizabethan playwrights owed Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman politician/philosopher, who also wrote some plays (though to call them plays is stretching the definition a little: his works were meant to be recited, not so much acted out). Back then I wrote

Some of his plays reworked stories of earlier Greek writers (like Sophocles), but in his hands, the plays had a greater focus on the terrible deeds that precipitate the tragic hero’s fall. Sometimes witches and ghosts were employed to bring about actions (or reactions) by the characters, often prompting them to revenge.

So what does this have to do with Hamlet?

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Twelfth Night: Sources

If you dig deep enough into the possible source materials that Shakespeare used for Twelfth Night, you can find a whole slew of suspects.

You want to talk twins and the confusion that can arise from mistaken identity (like The Comedy of Errors)? Check out the old Greek play, Plautus’ Menaechmi, which actually was a source of that earlier play).

If, however, you want to talk about the concept of the female disguising herself as a young male, to work for a(nother) male, who tasks her/him to plead his suit to a(nother) female, who in turn falls in love with the first female, but as the young male, who–of course–has fallen for the male who has hired her (as a him)… well, then you’ve got quite the tangle coming up.

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Julius Caesar: NOT Targeting Plutarch (on purpose)

As I mentioned last month, the primary source material Shakespeare used in the composition of Julius Caesar was Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by the Greek historian Plutarch. Lives was translated into French by writer Jacques Amyot in the early 1560’s. Thomas North then translated it into English, with his first edition appearing in the late 1570’s. Shakespeare used North’s translations, particularly those sections on Brutus, Julius Caesar, and Antony.

And a couple of days back, I noted that contrary to Shakespeare’s usual modus operandi of appropriation then mutation of his sources, he hewed pretty damn close to his sources in Julius Caesar.

So if Shakespeare made such a point of specifically using (or some might say “copying”) Plutarch, what does it say when he deviates from the source?

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Julius Caesar: Targeting Plutarch (the hits)

As I mentioned last month, the primary source material Shakespeare used in the composition of Julius Caesar was Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by the Greek historian Plutarch. Lives was translated into French by writer Jacques Amyot in the early 1560’s. Thomas North then translated it into English, with his first edition appearing in the late 1570’s. Shakespeare used North’s translations, particularly those sections on Brutus, Julius Caesar, and Antony.

Usually, Shakespeare’s appropriation of his sources is subtle and mutated. Here, however, some of his borrowings seem more wholesale than understated. Let me show you what I mean…

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Julius Caesar: Sources

The primary source material Shakespeare used in the composition of Julius Caesar was Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by the Greek historian Plutarch. Lives was translated into French by writer Jacques Amyot in the early 1560’s. Thomas North then translated it into English, with his first edition appearing in the late 1570’s.

Shakespeare used North’s translations, particularly those sections on Julius Caesar, Antony, and Brutus.

He would later revisit Plutarch’s Lives for Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus.

This is not to say, of course, that you can depend upon the Bard for historical accuracy (as we know from earlier in the project)…

Podcast 88: Julius Caesar: Introduction, Sources, and Plot Synopsis

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This week’s economy-sized podcast kicks off our two month-long discussion of Julius Caesar, with an introduction, discussion of sources, and a plot synopsis.

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