Creating Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Sources

Shakespeare often spun new stories out of old, offering a fresh perspective on things already read or seen. He mined popular books such as Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (first published in 1577) and John Harington’s 1591 translation of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Shakespeare also wove into his work references to current events, books, maps, and artifacts that would have been familiar and meaningful to early modern audiences and readers, but are often opaque to modern readers or spectators.

Other references are less specific, but nevertheless would have served as a touchstone for audiences. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, filled with humor about education and language, Shakespeare mocks a pedantic schoolmaster with a joke about a hornbook, a common tool used to teach children to read:

Armado [to Holofernes]: Monsieur, are you not lett’red?
Moth: Yes, he teaches boys the hornbook. What is a, b, spelt backward with the horn on his head?
Holofernes: Ba, pueritia [a boy], with a horn added.
Moth: Ba, most silly sheep with a horn. You hear his learning.
—Love’s Labour’s Lost Act V, Scene 1

This dialogue is constructed on the model of education used at the time. Schoolmasters taught boys to put the consonants in order before every vowel, and to repeat them over together—out loud— as thus: “ba, be, bi, bo, bu.” After they learned to say them, they learned to spell them in order, as the schoolmaster prompted, “What spells ‘b-a’?”


He does smile his face into more lynes, than is in the new Mappe, with the augmentation of the Indies.
—Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene 2

In Twelfth Night, when Maria makes the above comment about Malvolio, she is alluding to this map, created in 1599 by the mathematician Edward Wright for the the geographer-navigator Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1599). Wright based the work on the terrestrial globe of Emery Molyneux, and on the maps of Gerhard Mercator (1512-1594), the cartographer renowned for creating a world map based on a new projection, which represented sailing courses of constant bearing as straight lines. Given that Twelfth Night was probably written in 1601 or 1602 (with the first known performance recorded by John Manningham), Shakespeare had probably seen, or at least heard about, this map, as would his audiences.

The Comedy of Errors (probably written in 1594 but not published until the First Folio of 1623) tells the story of two sets of twin brothers and the mishaps that arise because of mistaken identity. In one scene, Dromio of Syracuse, fleeing the advances of Nell, a woman the audience has not seen, provides a lengthy physical description of her in cartographic terms. While a globe never appears onstage, Nell’s description certainly conjures the image of one. The first English globes, made by Emery Molyneux in 1592, prompted great sensation. Shakespeare may have known not only globes, but also metamorphic maps, such as this one, configuring maps in the shapes of animals or people and often intended as social or political commentary.

Dromio: No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip:
she is spherical, like a globe; I
could find out countries in her.

Antipholus: Where Scotland?
Dromio: I found it by the barrenness; hard in the palm of the hand.
Antipholus: Where France?
Dromio: In her forehead; armed and reverted, making war against her heir.

Antipholus: Where Spain?
Dromio: Faith, I saw it not; but I felt it hot in her breath.
Antipholus: Where America, the Indies?
Dromio: Oh, sir, upon her nose all o’er embellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining
their rich aspect to the hot breath of Spain;
who sent whole armadoes of caracks to be

ballast at her nose.
Antipholus: Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?
Dromio: Oh, sir, I did not look so low.
—The Comedy of Errors, Act III, Scene 2

Sonnet 122

In Sonnet 122, Shakespeare muses on the usefulness of artificial objects of memory, including notebooks and tally sticks (or tallies) versus the heart and the brain:

Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain
Full charactered with lasting memory,
Which shall above that idle rank remain,
Beyond all date, even to eternity:
Or, at the least, so long as brain and heart
Have faculty by nature to subsist;
Till each to razed oblivion yield his part
Of thee, thy record never can be missed.
That poor retention could not so much hold,
Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score;
Therefore to give them from me was I bold,
To trust those tables that receive thee more:
To keep an adjunct to remember thee
Were to import forgetfulness in me.
—Poems: written by Wil. Shake-speare. Gent

Tally sticks were essentially wooden receipts for financial transactions, and were used in England until the early 19th century.

Romeo and Juliet

In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio calls Tybalt “a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic,” a reference to the style of fencing by the Dutch fencing master Gerard Thilbault. Based on the Spanish school of fencing, Thibault’s method is notable for its highly logical, mathematical approach to swordplay. He discusses at great length the precise geometric relationships between opposing swordsmen, stressing the importance of natural proportion. These relationships are expressed through a circular diagram that Thibault refers to as the “mysterious circle,” visible on the floor in most of the plates in Academie de l’Espée. With his dying words, then, Mercutio accuses Tybalt of fighting without inspiration, as though he had learned from a manual.

The main storyline of Romeo and Juliet can be traced back to a number of Italian sources. Agostino Velletti’s Ginevra degli Almieri is similar to some of the texts Shakespeare may have seen: Ginevra is in love with Antonio but is forced to marry Francesco. Her heartbreak causes her to fall into a deep trance, leading people to believe her dead. After being buried in a tomb, she awakens, escapes, and knocks first on the door of her husband’s house, and then her parents’ house, but they do not see her. Ginevra then goes to the home of her beloved Antonio, who takes her in his arms and revives her, later claiming her as his wife.

Love's Labour's Lost

Love’s Labour’s Lost was the first play published with Shakespeare’s name on the title page. Although it was not printed until 1598, the play was probably written and first performed around 1594-95. Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of the few Shakespeare plays for which we can identify no earlier sources, but it abounds in sophisticated wordplay, puns, and literary allusions. Perhaps more than any other Shakespeare play, it explores the power and limitations of language.

Shakespeare and his audience may have been familiar with Richard Mulcaster’s 1582 Elementarie, an early attempt to organize the English language into a list of 8,000 words. Many of these words are familiar today, such as elephant, gunpowder, bum, or glitter, while others are more obscure, like brible brable, carpetknight, or flindermouse. None of these words are accompanied by definitions; therefore, the list cannot be classified strictly as a dictionary—there was no such thing as a purely English dictionary at this time.

The Poet's Pen

Shakespeare would have learned to write as a boy from a writing book, perhaps with additional tutoring from a writing master. Shakespeare likewise skilled his character of Hamlet in the art of penmanship. In the play, Hamlet confesses to Horatio that he had once hated the writing lessons that would eventually save his life; his penmanship enabled him to forge a new, innocuous copy of the commission that, in its original form, requested the English king to kill him:

. . . I sat me down,
Devised a new commission, wrote it fair:
I once did hold it, as our statists do,
A baseness to write fair and labour’d much
How to forget that learning, but, sir, now
It did me yeoman’s service.
—Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2

The earliest writing books were Italian or French. Giovanni Battista Palatino’s writing manual, one of the most famous Renaissance books on writing, offers examples of a wide variety of contemporary writing styles. The French writing master Jehan de Beau-Chesne published the first English writing manual in 1571 and later served as writing master for James I’s children, Elizabeth (1596-1662) and Charles (1600-1649); the manuscript shown here was created by Beau-Chesne (at age “72 ½”) specifically for Elizabeth, who has a Shakespeare connection of her own: A Winter’s Tale was performed at her wedding to Frederick V of Bohemia.

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This page references:

  1. A Pleasant Conceited Comedie Called Loves Labors Lost
  2. Collection of hornbooks
  3. Tally stick
  4. Anthropomorphic map showing Europe as a queen
  5. Academie De L’Espée De Girard Thibault d’Anvers
  6. The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet
  7. Thou hast here (gentle reader) a true hydrographical description of so much of the world as has beene hetherto discovered and is comme to our knowledge
  8. Collection of hornbooks
  9. Orlando Furioso In English Heroical Verse
  10. La Historia Di Ginevra De Gli Almieri: hef ù seppellita per morta in Fiorenza: nella quale si contiene un bel caso d’Amore
  11. Poems: Written By Wil. Shake-speare. Gent
  12. The First Part Of The Elementarie
  13. Libro Nuovo D’Imparare A Scrivere Tutte Sorte Lettere Antiche Et Moderne Di Tutte Nationi, Connvove Regole Misure Et Essempi.
  14. Manuscript specimens of calligraphy