Did Shakespeare Really Adapt Old Plays? (YES! And No-One Denies This!)

As all Shakespeare source-scholars agree, and as umpteen pre-Shakespeare allusions to these earlier plays confirm, and as the first title pages of Shakespeare’s plays make clear, and as Shakespeare’s contemporaries frequently complained: Shakespeare remade old plays. This is not controversial. Yet while this is a fact that few experts deny, it still appears to be a major obstacle for some. They will even refer skeptically to “vanished” or “imaginary” source-plays. But this is a little like referring skeptically to “vanished” or “imaginary” dinosaurs: These earlier plays have left behind so much incontrovertible, fossil evidence that only those who remain innocent of this information, or who are disinclined to believe it, express doubts.

We can confirm the existence of Shakespeare’s source-plays through both internal and external evidence: first, researchers have discovered a number of impossibly early allusions to seemingly “Shakespearean” plays from the 1560s, 1570s, and 1580s—far too early for Shakespeare, who was born in 1564. These references appear in Revels accounts of plays performed before Queen Elizabeth or in comments about recent productions in anti-theater pamphlets or in allusions in contemporary satires.

“How many old plays he revised is an argument for another chapter, but in some cases Shakespeare was clearly collaborating diachronically with an earlier playwright, building upon elements of the older work to create a new whole.”

James L. Marino, The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare,324.

Even more significantly, Shakespeare was not the only person to write adaptations of North’s plays. The Leicester’s Men performances of North’s plays, both in England and on the continent, or the circulation of copies of his plays at Cambridge or the Inns of Court, inspired other writers to attempt their own versions. This includes the 1580’s history play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, a German version of Titus and Vespasian (North’s 1561 source-play for Titus Andronicus), Robert Greene’s prose romance, Pandosto (1585, based on North’s recently revised Winter’s Tale), and Thomas Lodge’s prose romance, Rosalynde (1588-90, based on North’s As You Like It). Confirmation of North’s authorship of the early versions of Titus Andronicus and The Winter’s Tale has already appeared in two publications[1] — and will be explored in greater detail on this webpage. But the relevant point for this particular FAQ is that all these older texts and allusions have provided proof upon proof of Shakespeare’s relationship to his plays: “He was,” in the words of Samuel Astley Dunham, “not the author but the adapter of them to the stage.” 

Let us first begin with six plays for which there can be no quibble. With King John, King Lear, Measure for Measure, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V, early versions of these works still exist. And no one denies the close connections between these works and Shakespeare’s later plays.

There are also unambiguous allusions to early productions of Romeo and Juliet (1562), Two Gentlemen of Verona (in 1574 & 1585), The Merchant of Venice (1579), Timon of Athens (1584), and Hamlet (1589) — all before Shakespeare could have written them.

For example, the currently-accepted, primary-source for Romeo and Juliet is a long poem by Arthur Brooke, published in 1562, which includes all the characters and the entire story of the star-crossed lovers. But in the foreword, Brooke notes that he had seen a play on the subject performed on stage, “being there much better set forth than I have or can do.”

Most editors and many scholars of Romeo and Juliet, including Gerald Stacy (right), have written about or have noted the reference to this early source-tragedy.

Likewise, in a 1589 foreword on Inns-of-Court translators and playwrights, the young, wise-cracking satirist Thomas Nashe referred to one influential dramatist as “English Seneca” — that is someone who wrote in the vein of the Roman dramatist, Seneca. Addressing the students of Cambridge, Nashe noted that this English Seneca… “yields many good sentences… and if you entreat him fair [i.e., ask him nicely] in a winter’s morning he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say, handfuls of tragical speeches.” As the word Hamlets is italicized and capitalized in the original (and the play is written in the neo-Senecan vein to boot), most scholars agree that this is a reference to some early version of the Danish tragedy.

Moreover, since Shakespeare was only 25 at that time and may not have even written his first play (let alone penned such a mature tragedy by this date), most contend he used this “Ur-Hamlet” (as it is often called) as the source for his own Danish tragedy, which, according to the standard chronology, he would write some 11 years later. Again, all this is well accepted, and there is no modern edition of Hamlet — whether Norton, Arden, Folger, Penguin, Cambridge, or Oxford — that neglects to mention Nashe’s reference.

As shown in the pic on the left, a Google search for “Ur-Hamlet” yields over 34,000 results.

Again, in 1579, when Shakespeare was 15, the young and priggish Stephen Gosson wrote an anti-theater essay in which he mentioned a few exceptional plays that did rise above reproach. His brief description of both the plot and subplot of one such play, which he called The Jew, matches the dual storylines of The Merchant of Venice, which was also known at the time as The Jew of Venice.[2] Check here for more detailed evidence that Gosson was clearly talking about an early version of Shakespeare’s play.

Again, in the early 1590s, two different historical dramas evoke the assassination scene in Julius Caesar, becoming the first plays to quote the famous lines “Et tu, Brute” and “Caesar shall go forth.”[3] These lines are not part of the historical record and appear nowhere other than in the familiar Roman tragedy, confirming that a play much like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar existed at least seven years before scholars contend Shakespeare wrote the work.

Moreover, contemporaries also frequently referred to the fact that Shakespeare adapted old plays. Indeed, they would even express aggravation about it.

Thus, statements from literary insiders of the day and in the decades after he died also support what all the other allusions to the early plays demand: Shakespeare revised earlier works.

Finally, it is not even really Shakespeare’s fault that he is now getting full authorial credit for these plays that he produced. After all, he never even published the majority of his plays. And four of the first five title pages of plays that did carry his name or initials clarified that he was merely modifying earlier works. All of this is, in turn, consistent with everything else we know about Shakespeare’s method of operation.

“Shakespeare was an expert at remakes of old plays for the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men.”

Giorgio Melchori, ED., The Second Part of King Henry IV: The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 10.

While perhaps shocking to some, Shakespeare’s use of source-plays is still important to stress. For once one accepts that Shakespeare used earlier plays, originally written between the 1560s to 1580s, particularly ones from Italian and French sources and often first performed at the Inns of Court and for Leicester’s Men, shouldn’t we at least consider Thomas North as a possible candidate for their authorship? This is especially true since he translated works from Italian and French, was an Inns-of-Court/Leicester Men’s playwright at that time, and hundreds of his passages (not to mention his life) appear in these plays.

Now, once we discover that the satirists of the era — like Thomas Nashe, Thomas Lodge, Gabriel Harvey, and Ben Jonson — all independently identified North as the author of Shakespeare’s source plays; that literally hundreds of passages in the canon derive from Thomas North’s texts; that the playwright even appears to borrow from North’s unpublished journal in manuscript and his “Nepos’ Lives” before he published it; that North even marked the passages in his own “Dial of Princes” that he used in the plays; and that, as shown in Michael Blanding’s “North by Shakespeare,” he also lived the plays; it becomes even harder to deny North’s authorship.

We will continue to expand this page with more descriptions and companion pages, all confirming the existence of these source plays.

[1] Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, “A Shakespeare/North Collaboration,” Shakespeare Survey 67 (2014), 85-101; Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, “

[2] Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse Conteining a plesaunt invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Jesters, and such like Caterpillers of a Comonwelth; Setting up the Hagge of Defiance to their mischievous exercise, overthrowing their Bulwarkes, by Prophane Writers, Naturall reason, and common experience: A discourse as pleasaunt for Gentlemen that favour learning, as profitable for all that wyll follow virtue (London: Thomas Woodcocke, 1579), 22: “The Jew …, shown at the Bull, the one representing the greediness of worldly choosers and bloody minds of Usurers.”

[3] “Et tu, Brute” occurs in The true Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixt … (London: Thomas Millington, 1595), E2. This play was the staged adaptation of 3 Henry VI. “Caesar shall go forth” occurs in Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris… (London: Edward White, 1594), C8 (EEBO doc. image 23). Marlowe had to complete this play prior to 30 May 1593, the day of his death.

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