Shakespeare read widely and took inspiration from everything he read, but some writers proved especially influential. 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 each other personally, but they could not have had a long friendship. Marlowe died young, killed in a tavern brawl in 1503 at the age of 23. 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?’” (III.v.). The play also references the circumstances of Marlowe’s death: “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.
The French essayist Michel de Montaigne was another important influence on Shakespeare’s plays. Montaigne’s essays address a dazzling range of ideas, and Shakespeare’s plays often explore similar ideas. In
for instance, 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.” But Shakespeare goes further than adapting the essay’s language. He also adopts the essay’s sympathy for so-called “cannibals” and “savages,” who Montaigne believed superior Europeans due to their “natural innocence.” Shakespeare reflects this sympathy in his depiction of Caliban, whose critiques of the oppression he faces under Prospero are some of the most powerful and moving in the play. In addition to “Of the Cannibals,” Shakespeare also drew influence from the essay, “Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children,” in which Montaigne argues that aging parents should not demand gratitude from their offspring. Shakespeare explores this topic in
in which terrible consequences befall a father who does precisely what Montaigne advises against.
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 in particular would not have been possible without the work of the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch. The sonnet was invented in the thirteenth century, but Petrarch perfected the form and took it further by stringing series of sonnets into thematic sequences that usually addressed a love object. Petrarch’s most famous sequence concerns his idealized love for a young woman named Laura. Beginning in the sixteenth century, many English writers used sonnet sequences to tell romantic stories. Though Shakespeare’s use of the sonnet form does not in itself indicate that he knew Petrarch’s work, Romeo and Juliet provides evidence that he had indeed read Petrarch’s sonnets. For instance, the language Romeo uses to idealize Rosaline at the beginning of the play clearly satirizes Petrarch. In a less satirical mode, Shakespeare inserts a sonnet into the scene where Romeo and Juliet first 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 sonnet 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 influential narrative poems such as The Shepheardes Calendar and The Faerie Queene. But by far the biggest influence on Shakespeare’s own narrative poems is the epic Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid. Metamorphoses was often studied at schools like the one Shakespeare probably attended in Stratford, and Shakespeare demonstrated a deep knowledge of Ovid in his earliest poems. Venus and Adonis is a retelling of an episode from Metamorphoses, and Shakespeare’s poem imitates Ovid’s playful and erotic style. Ovid also influenced Shakespeare’s plays. In
A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
the play-within-a-play performed by the Mechanicals 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 appears 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.