Much Ado about the Magpie Mind of Shakespeare

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Much Ado about the Magpie Mind of Shakespeare


It is one of the first things that schoolchildren learn about Shakespeare. He didn't make much up. Even the examples I was given - Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream or Prospero, Caliban and Ariel in The Tempest - have been chiselled away by scholarship. At university, this shifted towards an appreciation of what Shakespeare had read and how he had adapted his sources. I have fond memories of Geoffrey Bullough's eightvolume Narrative And Dramatic Sources Of Shakespeare. We learned about his use of Holinshed's Chronicles and North's translation of Plutarch, Arthur Brooke's The Tragicall Historye Of Romeus And Juliet and that before King Lear there was a play called King Leir, with a much happier ending. More recently, critical concentration has looked into Shakespeare's collaborative work, how he worked with George Wilkins on Pericles, Prince Of Tyre or maybe with Thomas Middleton on Macbeth. The most recent new edition of Shakespeare, the New Oxford Shakespeare, makes various attributions - to Christopher Marlowe, contentiously - and even adds in plays like Arden Of Faversham. Even last month, a study using plagiarism software found similarities between several parts of different plays to an unpublished manuscript, George North's A Brief Discourse Of Rebellion and Rebels. Whenever we think Shakespeare studies are exhausted, they prove inexhaustible.

John Kerrigan is, to my mind, one of the most incisive and subtle contemporary writers on Shakespeare. His study of oaths and swearing - Shakespeare's Binding Language - is magisterial. This book comprises versions of his Oxford Wells Shakespeare lectures and looks, closely, at this trickiest of questions: how original was Shakespeare? It takes in textual sources, innovation in stagecraft and the history of when Shakespeare became both the great original and the best of adaptors.

The book contains four essays or speeches: one on Much Ado About Nothing and Shakespeare being twigged by Robert Greene as an upstart crow, beautified with the feathers of others, and how Shakespeare may have responded; another on Richard III and the nature of "walking" or "limping" (taking in Lady Macbeth and As You Like It, and featuring a number of ingenious puns: a foot is a metrical measure as much as a way of crossing a stage); a bold piece on King Lear that tracks the origins back as far as the Oedipus myth; and a finale on The Tempest, a play which latterly became a metaphor for Shakespeare himself, the Prospero who consigns his magic staff to the deep at the end of his career (patently untrue: Shakespeare wrote at least three plays afterwards - The Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII or All Is True and the lost Cardenio, which was almost certainly based on Cervantes' Don Quixote, but it may well have been Fletcher that knew that work). …

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