Can anything new be said about plagiarism? Perhaps the best we can do is to remind ourselves of the stories that we choose to forget in our modern worship of originality. There was a time when new books were made out of old ones and an author’s originality was of limited significance. Witness the story of Shakespeare.
It is usual to think of literary invention as taking place in the middle reaches of two extremes. At one end, total originality: the impossible work written in new language addressing a subject never before addressed; at the other end, total derivativeness, the scandalous work, a mere transcription of an already existing literary work. Close to the one end, typically, we locate writers of genius, and we might put William Shakespeare closest to that extreme. At the other, ignominious, end, we place the cheats, the tricksters: thieves of the labour of others.
But what if Shakespeare himself were a plagiarist? Can awriter be, so to speak, at both ends of the spectrum at the same time? Both a creator and a thief? If so, at the very least we need to rethink our understanding of literary merit. The greatestjust might not equal the most original.
We know very little about Shakespeare’s life; or to be more precise, we know very little that’s remotely interesting. But we do know that Shakespeare so upset a fellow playwright, Robert Greene, that Greene wrote an intemperate attack upon him in his pamphlet A Groatsworth of Wit.
Abusing him as “an upstart crow”, Greene complained that, while Shakespeare “beautified with our feathers”, he was arrogant enough to “suppose that he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of ”. Indeed, Greene punned, Shakespeare believed himself to be “the only Shake-scene ina country”.
The pamphlet immediately prompted a scandal. Thomas Nashe, rumoured to be the real author, published a denial. Even the publisher expressly dissociated himself from the pamphlet, holding another dramatist, Henry Chettle, responsible for any adverse consequences. Chettle publicly apologised to Shakespeare, acknowledging his contemporary’s “uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, andhis facetious grace inwriting, that approves his art”. The controversy limped on: two years later a small volume of poetry was published by (so it is believed) Richard Barnfield, praising Greene and commenting that “the men that so eclipsed his fame/Purloined his plumes: can they deny the same?”
Greene’s description of Shakespeare as an “upstart crow” is a complex insult, offensive to Shakespeare both as actor and playwright. In classical literature the crow was a bird that could be trained to repeat phrases but was (not unnaturally for a bird) incapable of original speech. Greene was thus in part accusing Shakespeare ofbeinga mere parrot, declaiming others’ lines as an actor.
But there’s more to the insult thanjust this. Acrow is an ugly, common bird, and it can only be made beautiful if it disguises itselfwith the plumage of more gorgeous creatures than itself. Shakespeare pretends to be something that he is not, and does so by stealing the feathers of others. This is where the charge of plagiarism comes in. Shakespeare was not capable of writing plays of any quality: he had to pass off the work of others as his own to gain a reputation.
Was Greene – even remotely – right? The scandal did nothing (or practically nothing) to hurt Shakespeare’s emerging reputation. But in the 18th century it was believed, in reliance on Greene’s pamphlet, that Shakespeare began his career by revising the plays of others. This is not now the approved view.
But let us suppose that Shakespeare and Greene were to fight a contemporary libel case over the pamphlet’s allegations. Shakespeare would open his case by announcing that he was the author of 38 plays. Greene would immediately go on the offensive.
First he would challenge the number. We do not know precisely how many plays Shakespearewrote. There are several troubling titles on the disputed margins. Should we include The Two Noble Kinsmen? What of Henry VIII? Or King Edward III, which the New Cambridge Shakespeare has just admitted to the canon?
Second Greene would argue that the plays were all, to a greater or lesser degree, collaborations. Actors would have added lines, stage directions and so on, according to the practice of the times. Greene would even suggest that other playwrights might have contributed lines, speeches, whole scenes.
Third, and here Greene would warm to his theme, it cannotbe disputed that the plots of many of Shakespeare’s plays are lifted from earlierworks. Greene was not the only person to make such a complaint of Shakespeare. Their contemporary, Ben Jonson, lamented in an Ode to Himself, written after the failure of one of his own plays, that contemporary audiences preferred “some mouldy tale/Like Pericles” to his ownwork. (Pericles is “mouldy” because it is based on a Greek romance which enjoyed considerable popularity during the renaissance and middle ages.) More importantly, in the year of Shakespeare’s death, Jonson published an epigram in which he attacked a “Poet-Ape” who plagiarised the work of others, “mak each man’s wit his own”. The man is a” thief Jonson among the “robb’d”. Many have taken the “Poet-Ape” to be Shakespeare.
In this imaginary trial Greene would then quote great chunks of verse from the plays, pointing to their origin in the works available to Shakespeare: histories, translations and so on. He might rely on the detective work of Malone, an early editor of Shakespeare, who concluded, . after an exhaustive study of the sources of Henry VI, Parts 1, 11 and III, that out of a little more than 6,000 lines, 1,800 were written by someone else, nearly 2,400 lines were adapted by Shakespeare from theworkofothers, and a mere 1,899 lines were exclusively his own work. Shakespeare’s modern biographer Sidney Lee believes that the explanation of Greene’s bitterness toward Shakespeare was that he himself had produced the original draft of all three parts of Henry VI.
By this time, one imagines the sympathies of thejury beginning to change. A trial that would begin as a scandalous affront to our greatest playwright could become a scandal of a quite different kind. And, as certainties disappear, it seems impossible even to answer that mostbasic of questions: how many plays did Shakespeare write?
One’s first reaction to this perplexity might be: we need more evidence! But in truth, “evidence” is irrelevant. It’s much more an issue of interpretation – do we count this or that derivative work as Shakespeare’s?This is all very arbitrary: how many lines, what fraction of the play as a whole, must be “original” to the playwright in order that the play should qualify as his own? One could not guarantee Shakespeare’s success in such a trial.
If Shakespeare’s appropriations were adaptations, then itmightbe easier. But many are not: hejust took whole passages and transcribed them. Does this make him a lesser playwright? Only, I suggest, if we could imagine someone else doing everything that he didbutwithout taking those lines and plots from others. If we cannot imagine such an author, then we are on the brink of suggesting that the thefts were necessary to the creation.
Mostwriters both steal and create; some of the more interesting ones create by stealing. It thus might be said that while a plagiarist is a writer with a bad name, a writer with a good name is merely an undetected plagiarist. In today’s literary regime, he’s lucky. In earlier regimes, he’d be considered unlettered or mad.
It’s at this stage of the argument – an argument which is so counter-intuitive, which so flatly runs against received literary wisdom – that protest seems inevitable. Plagiarism surely can no more be excused than any other unpermitted appropriation. To hold otherwise is to sanction two wrongs: the depriving of one author of the benefit of his work, and the conferring on another of an undeserved reputation. The first is unjustly impoverished, the second unjustly enriched. Indeed, if authors had no property rights in their work (or were unable to enforce those rights) theywould not be able to secure royalties and the amount of writing would drop, perhaps to zero, as they turned away from writing toward other, more profitable pursuits. The law of copyright, whichprotects authors fromplagiarists, thus ensures the continuity of literature itself. Or so it could be argued. But such an argument would not survive an encounter with the massive counter-example of Shakespeare, whose work suggests that any copyright law, however narrow, inhibits literary creativity. Itwasjust this argument that the l9thcentury American sage Ralph Waldo Emerson confronted in his essay on Shakespeare. Great men, he wrote, are more distinguished by range and extent than by originality. No great man is original. The greatest genius is the most indebted man. Genius, indeed, consists in not being original at all, but rather in beingwhollyreceptive. Shakespeare owed debts in all directions. He knew that tradition supplies a better fable than any invention. In his times, our own petulant demand for originality was not so much pressed. The great poet comes to value his memory equally with his invention. He doesn’t much mind where his thoughts come from: whatever the source, they are equally welcome. It had come to be, Emerson rather scandalously proposes, practically a rule in literature that a man having once shown himself capable of original writing is thenceforth entitled to steal from the writings of others at his discretion. And then, pursuing his paradox to its terminal point, Emerson declares: Shakespeare is unique.
The American critic Harold Bloom insists that plagiarism is a legal and not a literary distinction. T S Eliot – aman who plagiarised Emerson when making his own defence of plagiarism – declared that immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. One might think that this benevolent view of plagiarism would be received wisdom by now.
Yet the discovery of plagiarism is still always regarded as a scandal. There is the shock at the writer’s deception, the violation of the trust between writer and reader. There is the embarrassment caused to those readers (often literary prize panellists) who missed the theft: held up as literary arbiters, they are disclosed to be literary incompetents. And there is the sharp, downward revaluation of the writer himself. We thought he had merit, but it turns out that merit was someone else’s.
Though one cannot overlook in all of this a certain iconoclastic glee on the part of the general public, the true beneficiary of the scandal is the critic-sleuth who rumbles the plagiarism. He emerges as intrepid hero, aprosecutorupholding the sanctity of literary law. Each scandal is thus a kind of open, unregulated trial. The evidence emerges in a chaotic way, and motive and reason get mixed up. Nor do all scandals end with verdicts.
When the plagiarism is just copying just theft – then the scandal is a limited one. A writes a poem; B copies it down and then claims it as his own; B is discredited. It’s a scandal of reputation. But sometimes the institution of literature itself is implicated in the scandal.
The scandal lies in the paradoxical truth that novels and plays can be both original and derivative: original because derivative, even. If we reject plagiarism, do we also reject literature itself? It would be odd if we had to conclude that the one aspect of the institution of literature which most undermines it is yet also fundamental to its existence. Can plagiarism be both its poison and its nourishment? Perhaps the truth is that writing alarms as it pleases, biting the hands that applaud it.