Shakespeare: The Upstart Magpie …


there is an vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide , supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Iohannes factotum , is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie. [a]

Stop and think for a moment – the more you read, the less you find that is truly original. *

If you click the link to the Intertextuality tag to the left of this post, you’ll find that this is something I’ve been talking about for a while, especially here.  The general idea is that all texts are connected to each other in a mind-bogglingly vast web of literature – in fact, of the written word, fiction and non-fiction.  So the more widely-read you are, the more connections you are able to make.  It’s like a literary version of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon game.

I often get a lot of pleasure in making links between texts I’ve read, drawing family trees and following ideas as they pass down the centuries.  Intertextuality can make me wince, too.  Last year I wondered if it was possible to say anything new about Shakespeare; 2019 sees me reading The Incendium Plot and finding it disappointingly formulaic. Possibly the biggest let-down was a couple of years ago, when re-reading Conan Doyles’ The Sign of the Four to write a scheme of work for it, and realising that it was, essentially, a cover version of Poe‘s The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Have you ever considered the extent to which Shakespeare borrowed from others?  Jonathan Bate‘s brilliant The Genius of Shakespeare explicitly discusses the debt owed to Marlowe, and past a certain point of reading round we all know that very few of Shakespeare’s plots are original.  Reading round Henry VI made me aware of the extent to which Shakespeare lifted from Holinshed, sometimes word-for-word.  Does it bother me?

Not really.

William MacNeil Dixone said of Tennyson that the poet could:

polish a pebble until it became a gem. [b]

He was speaking about Tennyson’s willingness to rework his poems until they were, to his mind, perfect.  Shakespeare does something slightly different.  He was, definitely:

a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles [c]

Mackenzie Crook in ‘Detectorists’ (BBC)

… or a ‘detectorist’ of the English language?

As I constantly tell students, Shakespeare was not a man with a large vocabulary (thank you David Crystal, for this nugget), but he knew what to do with the words at his disposal.  He could express things in ways others could – and can – only dream of.  In this vein, I think he picked up ‘pebbles’ left behind in other people’s writing and polished them until they became gems.

I found something of this sort today.  A new one to me, and therefore highly exciting.  Here’s Robert Greene:

Time loosely spent will not againe be woonne, My time is loosely spent, and I vndone. [a]

This quotation, from his ‘Groatsworth‘, jumped out at me, because my favourite Shakespeare quotation is that marvellous carpe diem from Richard II:

I wasted time, and now doth time waste me  [d]

It felt too close to be a coincidence, and set off an excited burst of searching: who borrowed from whom?  Could it be possible that Greene had beautified his pamphlet with Shakespeare’s feathers?

Alas, no.

Groatsworth – entered in the Stationer’s Register:  20 September 1592

Richard II – entered in the Stationer’s Register: 29 August 1597 [e]

What would Greene have made of this?  We’ll never know, because the Groatsworth was his final publication, and he didn’t see out 1592.  Did Shakespeare do this deliberately?  Again, we will never know.  Does it matter?  Not to me.  But it was fun …

* of course, this applies to music too.


[a] Robert Greene, ‘A Groatsworth of Wit’, in George Saintsbury, Elizabethan and Jacobean Pamphlets, (Percival & Co:  London, 1829), (epub edition)

[b] William Macneile Dixon, A Primer of Tennyson (Methuen:  London, 1901)

[c] William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale (IV,iii) at

[d] William Shakespeare, Richard II (V,v) at


Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

4 thoughts on “Shakespeare: The Upstart Magpie …”

    1. Possibly! Look at the extent to which WS borrowed from sources like Ovid, or set a number of plays in Italy. There’s even something to be said for English History being a bit of a cultural appropriation – like LP Hartley said: ‘the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’… 🙂


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