Where did he get his ideas?

Shakespeare wrote different types of plays – histories, tragedies and comedies, as well as some mixtures called ‘problem plays’. He drew on many different sources to create his unique plays. Some of them were based on the history of the kings of England – Elizabeth’s ancestors. These plays did not necessarily tell the truth, but the version that was most acceptable to the queen or king.

The politics of the court and what people on the street were talking about also inspired Shakespeare. When James I came to the throne, Shakespeare wrote his Scottish play, Macbeth, which featured the witches James was interested in. The character of Banquo was portrayed as good and wise – because James was descended from him.

Shakespeare set some of his plays, such as Twelfth Night and A Merchant of Venice, in Italy – which was far enough away to be a kind of fantasy world for the English. Italians were also the butt of a lot of English jokes at the time – probably because Italy was where the Pope lived, and was strongly associated with Catholics.

Shakespeare used stories from older books of all sorts for his non-historical plays. He borrowed from Latin and Greek authors as well as adapting stories from elsewhere in Europe. Hamlet is borrowed from an old Scandinavian tale, but Romeo and Juliet comes from an Italian writer writing at the same time as Shakespeare. Adapting the work of other writers was very common at the time. Although he borrowed plots, Shakespeare made the details his own, and often combined different plots.

Did you know?

  • Just as Shakespeare borrowed his ideas from others, lots of modern films borrow ideas from Shakespeare. You might have seen adaptations like Ten Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) or She’s the Man (Twelfth Night). Films like Shakespeare in Love borrow elements of his plays as well as his life.
  • Shakespeare didn’t write all the plays himself. It was common in those days to write plays with another person. We know he wrote several plays with other people – such as Timon of Athens with Thomas Middleton. These are often his less famous plays.
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