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It’s Not Plagiarism, It’s Recycling
What does plagiarism have to do with Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ovid's Metamorphosis, Titus Andronicus, Revenge Tragedies, Adam, Eve and the apple, and The Tempest? All these and many more are the result of plagiarism.
There seems to be a great discussion on whether or not Shakespeare is the true author of the plays associated with his name. The internet seems to be full of essays, discussion boards and book reviews all dealing with this particular topic and most of the people submitting them are very forceful and definitive about their positions. In just a few hours of searching I found well over a thousand pages dealing with the original source of the works of art assigned to Shakespeare's name. The most disappointing part was that none of the essays I read even suggested the possibility of Shakespeare just "borrowing" information and topics from other playwrights and authors. They were all mainly interested in the man who actually put the words on paper. Not only did this decrease their usefulness for this particular paper but also they made it seem like the person who wrote the plays down on paper had some particular lawful ownership over them. This was not true though.
During the time that Shakespeare was writing plays in England, there were no such laws deeming a play protected by copyright laws. Today, plays are usually published and distributed but in the Elizabethan era, plays were only written enough for the actors to learn their lines. When plays were put on there was usually a large audience. This audience could have included other playwrights and actors who would then remember pieces of what they saw and use them later in their own productions. How could this be copyrighted?
Back then, actors were lucky if they did not get stopped by the police while performing a play why would the ideas of a playwright be protected by law? I do not think anyone even cared if the plays were used as resources for other plays. If Shakespeare used a part from one of Marlowe's plays, then Marlowe could take some ideas from Shakespeare. Since most of the ideas for plays came from famous works anyway, who's to say that Shakespeare's idea was even his own?
Ovid's Metamorphosis is one of the most referenced works in the plays we have read already in class.
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"Cheating and Plagiarism - It’s Not Plagiarism, It’s Recycling." 123HelpMe.com. 17 Nov 2019
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The Bible has been used as well. In The Revenger's Tragedy, the anonymous author has Vindice talking about his mother and how she is just like all other women. He does not have a high opinion of any woman, which is apparent in the very beginning. He expresses this in II, 2 when he says, "'twas decreed before the world began, that [women] should be the hooks to catch a man." (Revenger's, 120) This is using the old tale of Adam, Eve and the apple. When Eve gives Adam the apple she is setting him up to be a sinner and by this, gets him thrown out of the Garden of Eden.
No one seems to be accusing the playwrights of plagiarizing these sources. When they were cited it was just a way for the playwright to add more meaning to the play for the audience. All the stories were well known to the visitors of the theatre so they would understand the references that may have been used for comedic purposes or as a sort of explanation of what has happened.
Another source for playwrights is history. As G.B. Harrison points out in his book, England in Shakespeare's Day, the plays provide a good place for teaching history. He says: "First for the subject of them...our forefathers are revived and they themselves raised from the grave of oblivion, and brought to plead their aged honours in open presence: than which, what can be a sharper reproof to these degenerate days of ours?" So, if the subjects of plays are taken from history, like the choler Sr. Hugh Evans and the shipwreck of Sr. George Somers in The Tempest, then again, how could it be wrong to use these stories? (Rowse 348)
Therefore, the sharing of ideas amongst playwrights cannot be considered plagiarism either. Not only were there no laws against it but most of the stories were just recycled from even earlier works anyway. This is why I do not think that the "stealing from everyone" is a big deal. If all stories are just expansions of one or mutilations of others, there is no one true story. Even the Bible has passages that could be considered "borrowed." Before it was put in writing, there were many versions passed on as folklore.
Harrison, GB. England in Shakespeare's Day. Harcourt, Brace and Company. New York, 1928.
The Revenger's Tragedy. Anonymous. "Four Revenge Tragedies ." Oxford's University Press. New York, 1995.
Rowse, AL. The Expansion of Elizabethan England. St. Martins Press. New York, 1955.
Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. Oxford University Press. New York, 1994.