William Shakespeare


Shakespeare read widely and took inspiration from everything he read, but some writers had an especially strong influence on his work. One important influence was Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe pioneered the use of blank verse, the form Shakespeare uses in all his plays. Like Shakespeare, Marlowe also portrayed complex tragic characters on stage. He was only two months older than Shakespeare, but he was already the most famous playwright in England when Shakespeare began his career. The two men probably knew one another. Marlowe was killed at the age of just 29 in a tavern brawl. Shakespeare paid tribute to Marlowe in several of his plays. As You Like It addresses Marlowe directly and quotes one of his poems: “Dead Shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,/‘Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?’” The play also references the circumstances of Marlowe’s death in the lines “When a man’s verses cannot be understood… it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.” (III.iii.) In these lines, “reckoning” refers to the bar bill Marlowe fought over, and “little room” refers to the room in the tavern where Marlowe was killed.

Another important influence on Shakespeare was the French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne’s essays address a dazzling range of ideas in a conversational style, and Shakespeare often seems to be exploring these ideas. In The Tempest , Gonzalo imagines the “commonwealth” he would create if he ruled the island where the play is set. His speech closely follows a passage from Montaigne’s essay “Of the Cannibals.” Montaigne’s essay goes on to explore European attitudes to indigenous peoples, showing a sympathy for “cannibals” that was unusual in his time. The Tempest also explores the clash of European settlers with indigenous Americans through the character “Caliban,” whose name suggests that he too might be a cannibal. Like Montaigne, Shakespeare is sympathetic to his indigenous character. In another essay, “Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children,” Montaigne argues that aging parents should not demand gratitude from their offspring. Shakespeare’s King Lear explores the terrible consequences of Lear’s doing just that.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, and his long narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, show a wide range of influences. Shakespeare’s sonnets would not have been possible without the work of the Italian poet Petrarch. Petrarch strung sonnets, which are fourteen line poems following specific rhyming schemes, together in a long sequence to tell the story of his idealized love for a young woman named Laura. After Petrarch, many Italian and English writers used sonnet sequences to tell romantic stories. Shakespeare almost certainly read Petrarch’s sonnets. He initially satirizes Petrarch in Romeo and Juliet , with Romeo idealizing Rosaline in the manner of Petrarch’s poetry. But Romeo and Juliet also contains some beautiful examples of sonnets between Romeo and Juliet. When the lovers meet, their dialogue forms a shared sonnet, with each lover providing one half of the rhyming poem. At the conclusion of the fourteen lines the lovers seal the poem with a kiss.

Shakespeare also knew the work of other English poets inspired by Petrarch, including Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, who were both favorites of Queen Elizabeth. Edmund Spenser wrote narrative poems that partly inspired Shakespeare’s, but by far the biggest influence on Shakespeare’s narrative poems is the epic Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid. Metamorphoses was often studied at schools like the one Shakespeare attended in Stratford, and Shakespeare demonstrated a deep knowledge of Ovid in his earliest plays and poems. Venus and Adonis is a retelling of an episode from Metamorphoses, and Shakespeare’s poem also imitates Ovid’s playful and erotic style. In Midsummer Night’s Dream , the play-within-a-play the Mechanicals perform is based on the story of the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe from Metamorphoses. Although the Mechanicals bungle the play enough to turn it into a comedy, the original story is tragic. A more faithful version of Pyramus and Thisbe is echoed in Romeo and Juliet, which also tells the story of two lovers who must keep their love secret from their parents and who die due to a misunderstanding.