Everyone (or nearly everyone) knows that William Shakespeare begged, borrowed, or stole plots and characters for most of his plays. His historical plays relied on Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland and Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York, among others. His Roman plays drew from Plutarch, Livy, and others. The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and King Lear are new-and-improved versions of earlier plays. And so on. But did he write anything original?
Well, yes and no. Like any writer, especially those who face the pressure to regularly produce good material, he constantly drew from multiple sources, and was probably unaware at times of where a particular scene or line or word came from. But of his thirty-eight plays (more if you count Edward III or Arden of Faversham), four are generally thought to be original Shakespearean plots:
Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594?)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595)
The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597)
The Tempest (1611)
To modern readers and writers, four original plots out of thirty-eight may seem to be slim pickings, so to speak. But borrowing from others–even competitors–was the way things were done for the busy playwrights of Shakespeare’s day. And Shakespeare’s genius was not so much in creating new plots from scratch but in breathing new life into old stories and vastly improving everything he touched.