Shakespeare rarely invented his own plots. Instead, he borrowed plots from other writers, often re-ordering events, adding or removing characters and making other significant changes. The book he went to most often for plot ideas was Holinshed’s Chronicles (published in 1577). The Chronicles are a history of England, Scotland and Ireland written by Raphael Holinshed and a number of other contributors. Shakespeare took the plots of Macbeth and almost all his history plays from the Chronicles, as well as plot elements for King Lear and Cymbeline . Another history book, Lives by the Roman writer Plutarch, was Shakespeare’s second biggest source. Shakespeare may have read it in the original Latin, and he definitely read the English translation by Thomas North (published in 1579). Julius Caesar , Antony and Cleopatra , Coriolanus and Timon of Athens are all based on North’s translation of Lives. Sometimes Shakespeare followed North’s wording so closely that a reader can figure out which page of Lives he is drawing on for particular scenes.
Shakespeare borrowed from dozens of other writers. He borrowed many plot ideas from Italian writers, especially from a medieval collection of stories called The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio. Some readers believe that Shakespeare must have known Italian, but it’s just as likely that he was able to read all his Italian sources in English translations. He also borrowed from Roman writers, especially Ovid, Seneca and Plautus, and from the great medieval English poets Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. He even updated stories that had been popular just a few decades earlier. The Winter’s Tale (written around 1609) was based on a much-loved novel published in 1588 by Robert Greene, and Romeo and Juliet (written around 1595) is closely based on a long poem that was popular in the 1560s. Sometimes Shakespeare drew on recent non-fiction publications which had caused a stir. Written accounts of sailors’ and colonists’ experiences in the Americas certainly shaped The Tempest .