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Shakespeare was a ruthless thief. Some of his first plays – the three parts of Henry VI – were so similar to Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great that many eighteenth-century scholars believed Marlowe wrote them. By today’s standards, the plays of Henry VI were a copyright lawsuit waiting to happen. But the paraphrasing and borrowing of characters and plot lines was common practice in Elizabethan England; everybody stole from everybody. Shakespeare, as it were, was the best thief; he was constantly mining the work of his contemporaries.
Ironically, the more Shakespeare copied and imitated the more he started thinking on his own terms. The aesthetically rich atmosphere of Elizabethan England would always influence him – no man is an island – but by the time Shakespeare penned Hamlet (some fifteen years after the Henry VI plays) he had found his original voice.
Shakespeare’s story isn’t unique. All creative geniuses are thieves.
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