Borrowing Genius

Remaking ShakespeareGenerally, no one tries to plagiarize Shakespeare because – among other reasons – getting caught is a foregone conclusion. But occasionally an intemperate, hot-blooded youth will think a little borrowing and re-mixing is simply fair play, and appropriate passages wholesale from the canon that would make your hair stand on end.

Some might say that there is neither rhyme nor reason to the rule of plagiarism when the great Bard himself (whether he be William Shakespeare, Edward de Vere, or some other creature) was among the most liberal of “borrowers” of his time, prone even in the late 1500s to call upon heaven to turn a blind eye to the plotlines and dialogue he took from Italian drama and refashioned into elegiac English pentameter. The gods favored Shakespeare for his genius, just as we favor our own homegrown talents. Even after all these long centuries, love is still blind to the transgressions of those we hold dear.

The question of plagiarism is not nearly as much of a wild goose chase as it was in what some refer to as the Golden Ages of literature. Though those may have been better days (just as we may have seen better days), nowadays we can parse a script for plagiarism with the push of a button, and publishers, universities, scholars and even high schools have now invested in software that vets essays for misappropriations from Wikipedia and the ubiquitous internet. There is even software that catches paraphrasing of plagiarized text, so rewriting passages by changing tense or the names of characters, or slightly modifying the dialogue from a scene will almost invariably be found out sooner or later.

But is this demand for wholly “new” material really too much of a good thing? Artists have always been influenced by what they read and saw, and style and phrasing, plot and dialogue are absorbed almost by osmosis, so the occasional similarity or recreation of a long-forgotten passage is not always conscious plagiarism. And where it is a conscious appropriation, there is nothing necessarily inappropriate in having copied the material.

For example, my recent post, Plagiarizing Shakespeare, takes individual lines from Othello, The Tempest, Merry Wives of Windsor, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Timon of Athens, and Romeo and Juliet, and rearranges them to do something entirely different with the language. I am not writing a play, or fashioning a poem, but reusing language from 500 years ago to make something new, weaving in transitional phrases and other original content, capping it off with a misquoted line from George Meredith, and creating a pastiche that is something entirely new.

Would this be deemed fair use under a modern copyright analysis? I would argue strongly that it is, for copyright protects the exact phrasing of the work, not a snippet here and a snippet there snatched from random texts and rearranged to suit their new creator. An enterprising artist could create an entirely new play using lines lifted from 100 other plays, and the work would be new, original, his – not copyright infringement.

In this modern day and age of litigiousness we fear to borrow, since our idea of what is fair will not necessarily jibe with that of the copyright holder, or with that of any judge deciding the issue of infringement. But given our penchant for sacrificing the old in favor of the new – indeed, what some would say is a preoccupation with newness at the expense of almost anything else, including virtue – it is unsurprising that some dare to fly where others fear to tread. The re-mixers, samplers, mash-up artists and liberal borrowers are not only a force to be reckoned with but also a force for good. For there can be no doubt that we lose beautiful language, apt turns of phrase and broad flights of fancy if we are obliged to leave them untouched in dusty library tomes, where they will die unseen by a generation that demands that its content be hot off the press, fresh, newborn like Adam on the first day of creation.

Truth be told, borrowing is an essential part of the creative process, transforming the old into the new, making matter out of dust, gold from glitter, a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. We would do well to remember that appropriation is neither misappropriation nor misattribution, but sometimes just another form of genius.


  1. Being “influenced” and writing “similar” copy is totally different from downright “stealing.” As someone who has had her blog copy stolen, I can tell you, it’s no fun. In my case, a simple legal tactic did the trick but copying and pasting is still a no-no. We are all influenced by others and may even write similar pieces but plagiarism is still plagiarism.

    • Thanks for weighing in. I agree, when someone cut-and-pastes your entire post and republishes under his own name as if he were the original author, that is bad news, and that’s the paradigmatic horror story of plagiarism, which no one I know supports. My point is that it’s not plagiarism to borrow a bit and make it your own — that’s the genesis of many new works, and is neither plagiarism nor copyright infringement. [And, of course, in Shakespeare’s case, there can be no copyright infringement, since his work has been in the public domain for several hundred years].

  2. Ann says:

    I don’t see how a person can be totally original. I don’t think I have ever invented a blog without at least having experiences that I share with thousands of people. In the process of learning new things, I have had to research them and used my research to try to come up with a different way of saying the same thing. I suppose some people are so original or creative that they do come up with something new under the sun, but more than likely they just have a new way of stating something old.

    • Thanks for the comment. There’s a great sci-fi story called Melancholy Elephants from the early 1980s that talks about what happens to artists when the term of copyright is extended forever. And an earlier one by Jorge Luis Borges called the Library of Babel, where every book that ever could be written was found. When there’s nothing new under the sun what are we to write?

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