Covert Appropriations of Shakespeare: Three Case Studies

By Hirsh, James | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Covert Appropriations of Shakespeare: Three Case Studies


Hirsh, James, Papers on Language & Literature


Some artists have constructed new works or major elements of new works from raw materials provided by Shakespeare but have redeployed these materials in such a way that the appropriation, despite its significant contribution to the creation of the new work, is disguised. Among the ways an appropriation may be disguised are the following: the source material may be redeployed in a context radically different from the original context; superficial features of the material may be radically altered; one appropriation may be obscured by a less significant but more conspicuous appropriation of other material. Any or several of a variety of factors may contribute to a writer's reluctance to acknowledge an appropriation. For example, a writer may fear that awareness of an appropriation by a reader or playgoer would distract attention from or undermine the artist's intentions in the new work. Harold Bloom has argued that a writer suffering from anxiety of influence may prefer not to call attention to the writer's indebtedness to a precursor. The present essay will explore three examples of significant but covert appropriations of Shakespearean material. (1)

The following exchange occurs early in King Lear:

KING LEAR:  Which of you shall we say doth love us most
            [....................]
            Goneril,
            Our eldest-born, speak first.
GONERIL:    Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter,
            Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty,
            Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,
            No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor;
            As much as child e'er lov'd, or father found:
            A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable:
            Beyond all manner of so much I love you.
            (1.1.51-61, italics added)

Compare Goneril's response with the following poem:

            How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
            I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
            My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
            For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
            I love thee to the level of everyday's
            Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
            I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
            I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
            I love thee with the passion put to use
            In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
            I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
            With my lost saints,--I love thee with the breath,
            Smiles, tears, of all my life!--and, if God choose,
            I shall but love thee better after death. (italics added)

Sonnet 43 of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (probably written in 1846, published in 1850, and here quoted from Selected Poems 237) was evidently inspired by Goneril's speech. (2) The speaker of the sonnet is implicitly responding to a question posed by the addressee (How dost thou love me?) that paraphrases the question posed by Lear. The sonnet contains elements that specifically resemble elements in Goneril's speech.

Goneril                            Sonnet 43
I love you                         I love thee / I love thee
eyesight                           sight
space                              depth and breadth and height
eyesight, space, and liberty       depth and breadth and height
liberty                            freely
No less than life                  all my life
with grace, health, beauty, honor  with the breath, / Smiles, tears
grace                              Grace
child                              childhood's
A love that makes breath poor      I love thee with the breath
I love you                         I ... love thee

Furthermore, most of these elements occur in the same sequence in the speech and the sonnet. Browning's sonnet occupies twice as many iambic pentameter lines as Goneril's speech, and some elements in the sonnet seem to be expansions of elements in the speech. …

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