Shakespeare Was an Aggregating Social-Media Pirate

Portrait of Shakespeare

Aargh?

In yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, theater critic Charles McNulty wrote a marvelous column inspired by his objections to the Roland Emmerich movie, Anonymous. Though he disputes the movie’s thesis that no one with Shakespeare’s lower middle class roots could have written such great masterpieces, that wasn’t his aim in writing. His goal, rather, was to remind us that the Bard’s works were not simply the output of an individual, but the result of a collaboration with a crowd of other writers, actors, scholars, and editors.

Nothing McNulty tells us would surprise even a casual student of Shakespeare. But without perhaps meaning to, he offers some enlightening arguments against those who doubt the validity or value of social media.

While Shakespeare “is indisputably the master architect of his work—the genius in chief, if you will,” McNulty writes, “his plays took a literary village.” His plays, that is, were the result of collaboration and conversation with predecessors, contemporaries, and even later generations. His plots and characters were frequently borrowed, his words undoubtedly shaped by interactions with his actors, and the final form of his output determined by later scholars and editors.

He was a master aggregator, one who would certainly be accused of plagiarism if he was a 21st-century artist. But the accusation would be false. As McNulty writes, what “we would call plagiarism today was considered borrowing back then, a practice cradled in the curriculum.” Shakespeare didn’t simply borrow, though: “Whatever he touched, he alchemized. His poetic and dramatic instincts could spin gold out of dross.” A useful reminder, perhaps, that the best aggregators improve the things they borrow.

Not only would our age treat a contemporary version of Shakespeare as a plagiarist, it would also spurn him as a copyright pirate. The Renaissance, McNulty notes, was “an age unconstrained by modern copyright laws.” As Mike Masnick asked earlier this year, would Shakespeare today “be able to produce any of his classic works, since they’d all be tied up in lawsuits over copyright infringement”?

No, I’m not defending plagiarism, or opposing copyright. But I am saying that an excessive focus on those issues is bad for our culture. Accordingly, I will borrow as my own McNulty’s eloquent conclusion: “Shakespeare’s legacy is pretty much assured. That of our own age is still up for grabs.”

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