The stories told in Shakespeare's plays are not original. Rather, Shakespeare sourced his plots and characters from historical accounts and classical texts.
Shakespeare was well-read and drew from an extensive range of texts - not all of them written in his mother tongue! It is often difficult to prove a direct link between Shakespeare's plays and the original sources, but there are some writers that Shakespeare came back to time and time again.
Below are some of the most important sources for Shakespeare's plays:
Main Shakespeare Sources:
- Giovanni Boccaccio
This Italian prose and poetry writer published a collection of stories entitled the Decameron in the mid-fourteenth century. It is believed that, in parts, Shakespeare would have had to work from the original Italian.
Source for: All's Well That Ends Well, Cymbeline and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
- Arthur Brooke
Although the plot behind Romeo and Juliet was well-known in Shakespeare's time, it is believed that Shakespeare primarily worked from Brooke's 1562 poem entitled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.
Source for: Romeo and Juliet
- Saxo Grammaticus
In around 1200 AD, Saxo Grammaticus wrote Gesta Danorum (or “Deeds of the Danes”) which chronicled Denmark's Kings and told the story of Amleth - the real-life Hamlet! You will notice that Hamlet is an anagram of Amleth. It is believed that Shakespeare would have had to work from the original Latin.
Source for: Hamlet
- Raphael Holinshed
Holinshed's Chronicles records the history of England, Scotland, and Ireland and became Shakespeare's primary source for his historical plays. However, it should be noted that Shakespeare did not set out to create historically accurate accounts - he reshaped history for dramatic purposes and to play into the prejudices of his audience.
Source for: Henry IV (both parts), Henry V, Henry VI (all three parts), Henry VIII, Richard II, Richard III, King Lear, Macbeth, and Cymbeline.
This ancient-Greek historian and philosopher became the main source for Shakespeare's Roman plays. Plutarch produced a text called Parallel Lives in around 100 AD that contains over 40 biographies of Greek and Roman leaders.
Source for: Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Timon of Athens.