So who or what inspired Shakespeare to write?

File:George Romney - William Shakespeare - The Tempest Act I, Scene 1.jpg

Hello again readers. During some more research  for my upcoming novel and trying to find inspiration for one particular scene, I followed a path that took me all the way back to 1611. In that year the play “The Tempest” was first performed. It is usually acknowledged to be Shakespeare’s last play and has always fascinated me. I have always wondered where he got his ideas for the plot and characters. For me the fantasy elements of a witch, magician and sprite take this play into another realm. Its almost like a 1611 Sci-Fi play!!  So did he just dream it up? Did any other writer inspire the work? What if any sources did he use? After a few hours browsing I had my answers.

It has been claimed that with the exception of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest, which are wholly original stories, Shakespeare borrowed most of his plots. My research would question the Tempest being wholly original. Shakespeare certainly was influenced by at least two earlier writers, namely Plutarch and Geoffery Chaucer.

Plutarch  (46-120 AD) is best known for the work Parallel Lives, which consists of the biographies of notable soldiers and statesmen. Plutarch’s Lives was translated by Sir Thomas North in 1579 and the work grew very popular in Renaissance England. Shakespeare himself used North’s translation of Parallel Lives as the primary source for Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, and a minor source in several other plays.  Shakespeare copied whole passages from the work, making only the smallest of changes

Shakespeare would have been more familiar with the works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) and he uses several of Chaucer’s poems as sources of his plays. Troilus and Criseyde was the primary source of Troilus and Cressida, and the Parliment of Fowles was a source of Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech in Romeo and Juliet.

Returning now to the “The Tempest”  There is no obvious single source for the plot of The Tempest, but researchers have seen parallels in Erasmus’s Naufragium, Peter Martyr’s De orbe novo, and an eyewitness report by William Strachey of the real-life shipwreck of the Sea Venture on the islands of Bermuda. In addition, one of Gonzalo’s speeches is derived from Montaigne’s essay Of the Canibales, and much of Prospero’s renunciative speech is taken word for word from a speech by Medea in Ovid’spoem Metamorphoses

Shakepeare would almost certainly have been aware of the story of the The Sea Venture. On June 2, 1609, the Sea Venture set sail from Plymouth as the flagship of a seven-ship fleet (towing two additional pinnaces)  for the New World, carrying settlers to the new town of Jamestown in Virginia. Nearly two months into the trip, the ship was caught in a hurricane, leading the captain to ground it on the reefs of an island. By crash landing on Bermuda, 150 people and a dog were saved from the storm.

In London accounts of the shipwreck and the events that followed it were published in pamphlet form by an eyewitness, William Strachey. Many believe that Shakespeare not only had access to Strachey’s tales, but drew on them extensively to write The Tempest. The timing certainly matches, as the play was first performed in 1611 and is believed to have been written no more than a year before.

The character that really captures my imagination in this play is the sprite Ariel. Ariel has been imprisoned in a tree by the witch Sycorax but is freed by the magician Prospero on condition he carries out some work for him. Only Prospero can see Ariel. So where did Ariel come from?

The ‘-el’ ending of Shakespeare’s name Ariel translates in Hebrew as ‘God’, placing Ariel with more benevolent spirits, many of which were listed in sorcery books published in Shakespeare’s day with similar suffixes. Jewish demonology, for example, had a figure by the name of Ariel who was described as the spirit of the waters. Another spirit, Uriel, is also comparable. In Isaiah 29, an Ariel is mentioned as another name for Jerusalem. In the Geneva Bible, which Shakespeare and others of the time would have known, the entry carries an interesting footnote describing this Ariel as the “Lyon of God.” Further descriptions of this Ariel as having power to confuse and weaken his enemies with sounds and tempests increase the parallel.

Another character, Caliban  may be an anagram of Canibal, better know today as Cannibal. Montaigne’s essay Of the Canibales may well have been the inspiration. In the 1600’s strange tales of creatures never before seen were starting to be published including the first written accounts of Cannibals.

It is perhaps not surprising that this amazing play has been used or adapted many many times by composers in at least 46 operas , featured in songs and literature, in paintings  and even used for inspiration on the stage and screen, notably in one of my favourite old science fiction fims – “The Forbidden Planet”.

So returning to my original question, it can be seen that Shakespeare drew inspiration, ideas, poems even plots from other writers. He was not afraid or ashamed to plunder other works and he was also influenced by contemporary accounts of exploration and disaster. I think we can safely say he was a researcher.  In short he synthesised existing ideas and words and produced poems and plays that are rightly seen as some of the greatest works of English Literature  and will be so for all time. He didnt make it all up, he didnt live in a bubble but like Ariel he had a magic touch. He re-told existing stories in a mix of prose, blank verse and rhyming couplets to make something quite remarkable.

As writers we can all draw inspiration from Shakespeare so its ok to borrow a line or two from here and a plot-line from there. Its a hackneyed phrase but its certainly true – its not what you do but the way that you do it!

These are the writings and mumblings of aspiring writer and researcher Michael Sheridan who will be back again soon…..

PS image with article comes from WIKIPEDIA as does some of the text here,link below..


About bakersfieldlad

July 2015...... I published my first book on Amazon - "Savilles Spinnney". On April 1st 2015 I published my second book - "Arsenic Sally". Christmas Day 2015 I published my third book " Murder Mystery and Mayhem on the Railways 1830-1899. That's 3 books in roughly 18 months. I enjoy researching and see no reason to stop writing. There will be many many more books and while I would love to be taken in by a publisher I am content to make my books available via Amazon. Keep checking my blogs for updates about my upcoming projects......
This entry was posted in Ariel, first novel, Ideas for writer, Magic, Play, Poet, publishing, Shakespeare, The Tempest, Writing, writing ideas, writing process and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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