Shakespeare’s Originality by John Kerrigan, OUP, 167pp, £25
How original was Shakespeare? And how was Shakespeare original? These are the two interlinked questions that underlie John Kerrigan’s latest book. They are not new topics but have been part of the illimitable discourse around the Bard’s work for the past 400 years.
Kerrigan has already made his name in Shakespeare studies with his scintillating Shakespeare’s Binding Language. But here he is going for something quite different. While the earlier book anatomised the Bard’s language to demonstrate his particular genius, Shakespeare’s Originality comes at the problem from another angle, asking: “How far, and in what ways, was [Shakespeare] a derivative writer?”
It’s well known that Shakespeare took nearly all his plots from existing sources. Only three plays out of 37 are commonly believed to have no prior source: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest (though Kerrigan demonstrates that the latter was not in fact “sourceless”).
The author begins by interrogating the meaning of originality in the early modern period where, unlike our Romantic idea of the concept, creative genius was more to do with how a writer modified familiar sources than with the propagation of new material. Perhaps this trend is reappearing in the 21st century with the proliferation of memes and fan fiction.
But source-hunting is not what Kerrigan is about. Despite stating that “it helps us identify creative decisions made by Shakespeare in the process of composition”, Kerrigan is far more interested in mapping out the tropes of originality and origin in four of Shakespeare’s plays: Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III, King Lear and The Tempest.
It is interesting to note that the first printed reference to Shakespeare, in the dying Robert Greene’s splenetic Groats-worth, accuses the Bard of plagiarism. But Kerrigan shows, through adroit readings of Much Ado, King Lear and The Tempest, that Shakespeare’s genius lies in precisely how he adapts and plays with well-known texts and audience expectations, thereby creating something new and strange.
I wasn’t entirely convinced by the first chapter, wherein tropes of fashion and recycling in clothes are picked up from Much Ado and used, in turn, by Kerrigan, as a metaphor for the way Shakespeare tailored his material. But his analysis of King Lear – which digs deeper than the usually accepted sources to find resonance with Seneca’s Thebais and, more importantly, with Sophocles’s Theban plays, is a masterclass in intertextual hermeneutics.
Kerrigan ably demonstrates how Shakespeare has gone back to the origins of tragedy, just as his protagonist, Lear, spends the play trying to unravel the origins of nature and the origins of evil in an atomised and fallen world. There’s an intriguing analogy Kerrigan draws between Lear’s division of the kingdom and the divisions in the Genesis account of creation, and Lear himself obsessively speculates about generation and origin in his misguided attempt to understand the troubles that have befallen him.
By exploring notions of origin and fall, the play complicates our concepts of beginnings and causation. Shakespeare challenges the prevailing worldview and, through the intensity of action and blank verse, shows that it is nothing but a fragile fiction.
In the final part, Kerrigan looks at The Tempest. He rightly contends that the special place given to this play in the oeuvre is, for later critics, because its very lack of source material pointed to the true originality of Shakespeare in the period when his status was elevated to almost God-like supremacy.
Kerrigan shows how fraudulent such claims are, reaching back to the Virginia pamphlets which fed Shakespeare’s imagination, to Montaigne’s essay on cannibals and even further back to Virgil’s Georgics. We are taken on a breathtaking whip around ecologues, Francis Bacon, colonial literature, early environmental theories and the wretched crop failures of the Bard’s England to show how elegantly and impressively Shakespeare picked and filleted his sources for new ends.
There is also a lively discussion of the heinous posthumous adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays by, among others, Dryden, Davenant and Pope, and how it was only in the mid 19th century, when the cult of originality began to gain ground, that there was a return to the original texts.
While at times dense and difficult, Kerrigan’s book is important because it undermines facile notions of Shakespeare’s genius, as well as our modern concept of creativity. It shows how subtly nuanced Shakespeare’s use of source material always is, and how, by its transmission through his quill, the commonplace and hackneyed could burst forth with shining originality.