Can anything new be said about plagiarism? Perhaps the best we can do is to remind ourselves of the stories that we choose to forget in our modern worship of originality. There was a time when new books were made out of old ones and an author's originality was of limited significance. Witness the story of Shakespeare.
It is usual to think of literary invention as taking place in the middle reaches of two extremes. At one end, total originality: the impossible work written in new language addressing a subject never before addressed; at the other end, total derivativeness, the scandalous work, a mere transcription of an already existing literary work. Close to the one end, typically, we locate writers of genius, and we might put William Shakespeare closest to that extreme. At the other, ignominious, end, we place the cheats, the tricksters: thieves of the labour of others.
But what if Shakespeare himself were a plagiarist? Can a writer be, so to speak, at both ends of the spectrum at the same time? Both a creator and a thief? If so, at the very least we need to rethink our understanding of literary merit. The greatest just might not equal the most original.
We know very little about Shakespeare's life; or to be more precise, we know very little that's remotely interesting. But we do know that Shakespeare so upset a fellow playwright, Robert Greene, that Greene wrote an intemperate attack upon him in his pamphlet A Groatsworth of Wit.
Abusing him as "an upstart crow", Greene complained that, while Shakespeare "beautified [himself] with our feathers", he was arrogant enough to "suppose that he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of [his contemporaries]". Indeed, Greene punned, Shakespeare believed himself to be "the only …