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Art theft: Shakespeare, Picasso and grand larceny

Originality is an illusion. Or at least, it is so rare as to be almost non-existent. It is hard to think of any artwork that doesn’t in some way derive from or relate to other works that preceded it. Despite this, we prize originality almost beyond anything else. An original Rembrandt is worth infinitely more than a copy, reflecting the fact that whatever else it is, art is just another commodity. Scarcity adds value.
Painters weren’t always much valued. In early medieval Europe they were seen merely as skilled craftsmen. It took centuries for artists to establish themselves as semi-divine creative forces, the centre of their own celebrity cult. Few enjoyed the role more than Picasso. The son of a professor of art, he had precocious gift and was brought up steeped in European painting. Throughout his life he returned to and constantly re-interpreted the works of the masters, especially Velasquez. Ferociously modern, he was rooted in tradition.
In a Parisian review of 1901, the critic Felicien Fagus described him as a ‘brilliant newcomer’ but wrote of his work, ‘Many likely influences can be distinguished – Delacroix, Manet…Monet, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas... Each one a passing phase, taking flight as soon as caught…Picasso’s passionate surge forwards has not yet left him the leisure to forge a personal style.’
The critique was perceptive. It notes his dynamism, versatility and technical accomplishment but makes clear the young artist had yet to establish his own identity. Egotistical, ambitious and deeply impoverished, Picasso must have seen this and similar comments as a challenge. His response came in 1907 with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon a painting that biographer John Richardson called ‘the first unequivocally twentieth century masterpiece.’ It is therefore ironic that this defiantly modern work should have owed its subject, palette and proto-cubism to Cezanne, as well as his study of African art. Nothing comes from nothing. Or to put it another way, everything has to come from somewhere.
Picasso was an unashamed borrower. It is said that other artists feared his visits to their studios because he would seize their ideas, then adapt, expand and make them his own. His remark that ‘Good artists copy; great artists steal’ has been much discussed. I saw the truth of it when I first visited the Pompidou Centre in the early 1980s and found gallery after gallery stuffed with amazingly dull Cubist paintings by artists of whom I had never heard.
What was obvious was that while the works of Picasso and Braque shone out, those by their followers were mediocre at best and ghastly at worst. What was harder to define was what exactly distinguished the masters from the rest, for although the subject matter, technique, use of colour and collage etc. were similar, the results were pastiche. They were simple copies. Whatever it takes to make great art, they didn’t have it.
Picasso’s genius was early recognized by Felicien Fagus. Interestingly, Shakespeare’s arrival in London had provoked similar, if more contemptuous, comment. In his Groatsworth of Wit, Robert Greene had written, ‘There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Iohannes factotum is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.’
Greene’s hostility is palpable, but the outline of his case is strikingly similar to Fagus’ critique of Picasso.Like Picasso, Shakespeare is described as versatile (‘Iohannes factotum’ means ‘Jack of all trades’), full of self-belief (‘in his owne conceit the onely Shakes-scene in a countrey’) and by co-incidence each passage makes reference to birds. Fagus says of the painter’s restless talent that it takes ‘flight as soon as caught’ while Shakespeare is an ‘upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers.’ And while the artist is said to be dabbling in the styles of other painters, Shakespeare is accused of outright plagiarism.
In a borrowing of his own, Greene’s crow refers to Horace’s Epistles in which a plagiarizing poet is depicted as a ‘little crow’ decked with ‘stolen colours’ (for which information I am indebted to Charles Nicholl). Nicholl points out that Greene’s editor, Henry Chettle, later apologized in print for impugning Shakespeare’s ‘honesty’, but the fact is that the playwright was an omnivorous borrower.
The ‘blanke verse’ style he was said to ‘bombast out’ had been developed by Kit Marlowe and Shakespeare’s early plays contain many resonances of his contemporary’s work. In Henry VI Part 1, for example, the line ‘these arms of mine shall be thy sepulchre’ is a near echo of Marlowe’s ‘my heart shall be thy sepulchre’ and ‘made our footstool of security’ from Henry VI part 3 is distinctly similar to ‘makes his footstool on security.’ Thanks again to Mr Nicholl (this isn’t all original scholarship).
Shakespeare didn’t just borrow lines, of course. He plundered entire libraries. Of all his plays, only three appear to have no obvious source. They mostly derive from Plutarch and Ovid among classical authors, Holinshed and numerous others. Some of his sources themselves have a long lineage of borrowings. Romeo and Juliet, for example, is based on The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet published in 1562 by Arthur Brooke which had been translated from a French version by Pierre Boaistuau of 1559, which in turn was derived from a 1554 story by Italian, Mateo Bandello, which itself was developed from Luigi da Porto’s version of 1530, which was based on a story by Masuccio Salernitano written in 1476 - and he was probably working from a tale with a long oral tradition.
What is important is not where Shakespeare found his plots; it’s what he did with them. Amongst other things, he reduced Juliet’s age from sixteen to thirteen, contracted the timespan from nine months to five days, expanded the minor character of Marcuccio in da Porto’s version into Mercutio’s key role and stripped the play of its moralising, since Brooke felt the lovers had to be punished for leading an ‘unhonest lyfe’.
One of the plays for which Shakespeare had no definite source was The Tempest, though it’s thought to have been inspired in part by William Strachey’s account of the Sea Venture’s wreckage off Bermuda on its passage to Virginia in 1609. Although A True Reportory of the Wracke and Redemption of Sir Thomas, Gates, Knight was not published until 1625, it was written in July 1610 and many academics believe Shakespeare must have seen it in manuscript form. Almost certainly, he would have heard tales of the shipwreck.
Even more certainly, he directly took what he chose from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, probably from a translation by Arthur Golding published in 1567. Prospero’s great speech in which he abjures his ‘rough magic’ is hugely indebted to Golding. There are evident borrowings throughout, its opening line, ‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves’ clearly an echo of ‘Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone’.
In general, as above, Shakespeare compresses the original. Thus the words ‘Our Sorcerie dimmes the Morning faire, and darkes the Sun at Noone’ is cut from twelve to six, ‘I have bedimmed/The noontide sun.’ Golding’s version has its own charm and power, but Shakespeare’s carries more punch. In places, though, he expands on his source, to equally potent effect – Golding’s somewhat prosaic rendition, ‘I call up dead men from their graves’ becoming, ‘graves at my command/Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth’ command especially having much greater strength and impact than call.
It is appropriate that Shakespeare’s last great theft should have been from Metamorphosis since all art is transformational. If Picasso was right that ‘great artist’s steal’ then Shakespeare was unquestionably a grand-scale larcenist. But in stealing from Ovid, Shakespeare had made the lines his own and turned Golding’s silver into true gold.
Stealers are stolen from. TS Eliot dripped references from The Tempest into The Wasteland, Aldous Huxley lifted Miranda’s line as a title for ‘Brave New World’, while John Fowles filched the plot for his novel ‘The Magus.’
In 1940, Picasso visited the newly discovered Lascaux cave. It seems the Stone Age paintings left him somewhat depressed and he remarked, ‘We have invented nothing.’ They were as good as he was and 17,000 years before him. His immense ego was bruised.
Nothing is new. Yet art is like love; however many times you fall in love, it is always for the first time and no-one else has ever been in love before. The world is always brave and new.

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