William Shakespeare, You Stand Accused of Being a Crow, an Ape and a Thief; How Do You Plead?
Julius, Anthony Robert, New Statesman (1996)
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 Shake-scene in a country".
The pamphlet immediately prompted a scandal. Thomas Nashe, rumoured to be the real author, published a denial. Even the publisher expressly dissociated himself from the pamphlet, holding another dramatist, Henry Chettle, responsible for any adverse consequences. Chettle publicly apologised to Shakespeare, acknowledging his contemporary's "uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art". The controversy limped on: two years later a small volume of poetry was published by (so it is believed) Richard Barnfield, praising Greene and commenting that "the men that so eclipsed his fame/Purloined his plumes: can they deny the same?"
Greene's description of Shakespeare as an "upstart crow" is a complex insult, offensive to Shakespeare both as actor and playwright. In classical literature the crow was a bird that could be trained to repeat phrases but was (not unnaturally for a bird) incapable of original speech. Greene was thus in part accusing Shakespeare of being a mere parrot, declaiming others' lines as an actor.
But there's more to the insult than just this. A crow is an ugly, common bird, and it can only be made beautiful if it disguises itself with the plumage of more gorgeous creatures than itself. Shakespeare pretends to be something that he is not, and does so by stealing the feathers of others. This is where the charge of plagiarism comes in. Shakespeare was not capable of writing plays of any quality: he had to pass off the work of others as his own to gain a reputation.
Was Greene - even remotely - right? The scandal did nothing (or practically nothing) to hurt Shakespeare's emerging reputation. But in the 18th century it was believed, in reliance on Greene's pamphlet, that Shakespeare began his career by revising the plays of others. This is not now the approved view.
But let us suppose that Shakespeare and Greene were to fight a contemporary libel case over the pamphlet's allegations. Shakespeare would open his case by announcing that he was the author of 38 plays. Greene would immediately go on the offensive.
First he would challenge the number. …