Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

“Without much shame retold”: Shakespeare’s sources transformed

Mary Zimmerman, whose Tony-nominated adaptation of Metamorphoses is now playing at the Folger Theatre through June 16, describes Ovid’s epic as being, at its core, about “how life inescapably contains unwanted change.” This idea of transformation — how we navigate rising and falling fortunes, changing political loyalties, and shifting positions in social status — is a prominent theme in Shakespeare’s work, so it’s no surprise to discover that “Ovid’s Metamorphoses has a strong claim to being Shakespeare’s favorite book,” according to Dr. Will Tosh, who argues that Ovid surfaces repeatedly “throughout [Shakespeare’s] plays as a narrative source, a spring of thematic inspiration, and a treasure trove of verbal echoes.”

What is surprising, however, is discovering how many different sources also recur in Shakespeare’s plays.

We know of Shakespeare’s reliance on Holinshed’s Chronicles and Plutarch’s Lives, and can imagine him flipping through the former to write his history plays and highlighting passages from the latter to write his Roman plays. But as Jonathan Bate, author of How the Classics Made Shakespeare, explains, London in the late 16th century was so filled with a pervasive “classical inheritance” in the forms of statues, architecture, and tapestries depicting mythological tales, that Shakespeare wasn’t just reading about these influences, he “was absorbing this knowledge of the classics from […] different sources” all around him. And despite having “small Latin, and less Greek,” according to Ben Jonson’s eulogy in the First Folio, Shakespeare also picked up knowledge of ancient politics and characters by acting in plays by other writers, including Jonson’s own Sejanus His Fall, “one of the most classically learned plays of the time,” according to Bate.

Shakespeare was also alert to stories drawn from oral traditions and found many opportunities to allude to them in his plays. Charlotte Artese, author of Shakespeare and the Folktale, explained on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast that Shakespeare frequently refers to things that have little meaning to us now but would have been familiar to his audience then. Among her many examples, Artese cites Ophelia’s odd-seeming non-sequitur “They say the owl is a baker’s daughter” from her mad scene in Hamlet as referring to a folktale in which Jesus turns a baker’s daughter into an owl for giving him a meager portion of bread, and Benedick’s line “Like the old tale, my lord: ‘It is not so, nor ’twas not so, but, indeed, God forbid it should be so’” from Much Ado About Nothing as being the refrain from the English folktale Mr. Fox. Key scenes in The Merchant of Venice and King Lear echo folktales that are told in various forms in countries around the world, including Morocco, Chile, Denmark, Germany, Italy, and India. Shakespeare tapping into stories embedded in the DNA of so many different cultures maybe helps explain why his plays seem so globally relevant.

While Ben Jonson also argued that Shakespeare was “for all time,” James Shapiro, in his two essential books, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, reveals how Shakespeare also took inspiration from his own very specific time. Shapiro is invaluable in showing how attuned Shakespeare was to the world around him and describing the context in which his plays were written. For instance, though he could never write about his own aging monarch Queen Elizabeth and her lack of an heir and clear successor, Shakespeare could successfully write explorations of similarly complicated leadership in Julius Caesar and King Lear, both of which take place safely in the distant past. Similarly, while he couldn’t write about his new Scottish king and the fears of a divided nation, he could explore both subjects in Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare averaged at least two plays a year for most of his professional life, filling them with details both large and small from the world in which he lived, a theatrical practice Hamlet famously extolled when he observed that “the purpose of playing [in the theatre…] is to hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nature,” reflecting “the very age and body of the time.”

This is the central metaphor that Shakespeare returns to again and again, the idea that “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” Folger Director Michael Witmore says that people think of Shakespeare existing in “an isolation chamber of genius,” but seeing how Shakespeare mixed and repurposed his multiple inspirations into theatrical events we’re still reading and studying 400 years later helps demystify this idea. Shakespeare embraced the theatricality of transformation, turning the bare planks of his stage into royal courts or magical forests where actors can become multiple characters in a single performance, the same kinds of metamorphoses that Ovid explored centuries before.