Shakespeare’s Originality

by John Kerrigan, OUP, 167pp, £25

How original was Shakespeare? And how was Shakespeare original? These are the two interlinked questions that underlie John Kerrigan’s latest book. They are not new topics but have been part of the illimitable discourse around the Bard’s work for the past 400 years.

Kerrigan has already made his name in Shakespeare studies with his scintillating Shakespeare’s Binding Language. But here he is going for something quite different. While the earlier book anatomised the Bard’s language to demonstrate his particular genius, Shakespeare’s Originality comes at the problem from another angle, asking: “How far, and in what ways, was [Shakespeare] a derivative writer?”

It’s well known that Shakespeare took nearly all his plots from existing sources. Only three plays out of 37 are commonly believed to have no prior source: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest (though Kerrigan demonstrates that the latter was not in fact “sourceless”).

The author begins by interrogating the meaning of originality in the early modern period where, unlike our Romantic idea of the concept, creative genius was more to do with how a writer modified familiar sources than with the propagation of new material. Perhaps this trend is reappearing in the 21st century with the proliferation of memes and fan fiction.

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