Every writer has favorite authors he or she likes to read, which often show up in the writer’s own works, in one way or another (my favorites include Annie Dillard, Louis L’Amour, Wendell Berry, and, well, William Shakespeare). So who were the Bard’s favorites?
We have virtually nothing to go on except his writings. But those reveal at least a top ten:
- Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid). From every indication, Shakespeare loved Ovid. He first encountered Ovid as a schoolboy and both read and memorized him in both Latin and English. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (see the title page above) is the likely inspiration for the Theseus and Hippolyta plot in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He may also have borrowed Titania’s name from Ovid.
- Raphael Holinshed. He took over a work begun by Reginald Wolfe as a world history and “completed” it in 1577 as the Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Irelande. Holinshed’s Chronicles were a primary source for Shakespeare’s history plays, including Macbeth and King Lear.
- Edward Hall. Though much of Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York was incorporated into Holinshed’s Chronicles, it is apparent that Shakespeare referred to Hall for the Henry IV, Henry VI, and Richard III plays.
- Samuel Daniel. This accomplished poet and tragedian was a contemporary of the Bard. His works include a famous sonnet sequence, Delia, and The First Fowre Books of the Civile Wars, which probably influenced Shakespeare’s poetry and his history plays.
- Titus Maccius Plautus. Shakespeare learned from Plautus’s Latin text as a schoolboy, but may also have devoured an English translation that was published in 1595. The Comedy of Errors borrowed from Plautus’s Menaechmi and Amphitruo.
- Giovanni Boccaccio. The fourteenth century Italian writer’s Decameron supplied ideas for All’s Well That Ends Well and (less directly) Troilus and Cressida.
- Geoffrey Chaucer. The greatest figure in English literature up to Shakespeare’s time, Chaucer provided material for Troilus and Cressida and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
- Plutarch. He might be considered Shakespeare’s favorite writer if only the tragedies were under consideration, for Plutarch’s Lives of noble Romans and Greeks was indispensable to the writing of Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, and Timon of Athens. Shakespeare also referred to Plutarch for some details in the story of Theseus and Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
- John Foxe. The Anglican deacon’s Actes and Monuments of These Latter Perilous Days became popularly known as The Book of Martyrs, the 1583 edition of which Shakespeare consulted for some particulars of the Henry VI and Henry VIII plays.
- Edmund Spenser. Spenser’s famous epic poem, The Faerie Queen, the first parts of which were published in 1590, exerted a huge influence on English literature and language. Shakespeare was no exception. Spenser’s influence can be discerned in Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and King Lear.
In Shakespeare’s day, borrowing from the work (and even words) of others was the course de rigueur. It was not always a compliment (playwrights, in particular, often stole themes and plots from each other not only to compete but also to “top” the competition). But the practice does provide insight into what Shakespeare read, knew, and often revisited.