Recent scholarship has added to the conversation about Shakespeare’s originality—or lack thereof. Published in the mid-20th century, Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare detailed the stories that Britain’s most famous playwright has used and altered, for example how he brought two separate stories together to make The Merchant of Venice. However John Kerrigan, professor of English at the University of Cambridge and a leading Shakespeare scholar, has recently argued that the bard’s creative borrowing far exceeds previous estimates. Delving far deeper than Shakespeare’s obvious sources, he uncovers a web of allusions, references, and imitation.
In his book Shakespeare’s Originality, he discusses the very meaning of originality and plagiarism, which is largely a modern concept. Rather, before the late 18th century, imitation of established models was the sign of a work’s merit, whereas we now hold innovation in far greater esteem. Even in the last century Picasso famously stated that “art is theft”, and T.S Eliot quipped, “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” In fact, Kerrigan actually concludes that Shakespeare differs from his contemporaries in that he doesn’t boast about his literary knowledge through his writing or rely heavily on recognisable plots. Instead, he demonstrates a more nuanced and subtle use of older material, and his references would have gone unnoticed by the majority of his audience.
Applicants for English Literature should think about the concept of originality, what it means for readers and audiences today and what it meant in the past. Along with students wishing to study History of Art they should consider what in their opinion distinguishes a good work from an average one, and how value judgements on literature and other art forms are influenced by culture and change over time with the changing demands and expectations of audiences. This may lead to a discussion on what constitutes “art”, and whether or not it is a useful category.