I’m in the midst of an amazing trip to England that included a visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the hometown of William Shakespeare. On the flight over, I read an excellent biography of the bard by Stephen Greenblatt. As I read the book and visited the various Shakespeare sites in Stratford, I was reminded how heavily Shakespeare borrowed from the existing literature of his day. In fact, most of his plays are based on well-known stories or historical books. Shakespeare Online has a good listing of the various sources. It shows how well read he was despite being without an Oxford education.
But, it also underscores the importance of artists being able to draw on exisiting works. The genius of Shakespeare was his ability to take existing stories and add both new twists and poetical language to make those stories his own. If he were alive today, I think he would approve heartily of the notion of a creative commons where people contribute their creative works to the greater good.
Here’s some good news: all of Shakespeare’s writings are in the public domain and available at Gutenberg so you and your students are free to draw on them for your own work. When I was still teaching English, I had my students write their own stories and poems based on Shakespearean themes. Now, I would open that assignment to include audio and video productions as well.
And for your reading pleasure, here’s one of my favorite sonnets, mostly because of its ironic tone:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,–
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.