A 16th century broadside ballad recently found in Glamorgan reveals that William Shakespeare stole some of his best-loved and most famous lines from a song he must have known in his youth. The broadside ballad sheet was found folded into the back leaf of a household book, circa 1574. The book itself includes no music. This article includes a video performance of the ballad and an account of the plays in which the Bard’s borrowed lines appear.
It’s not unusual to borrow
England’s greatest playwright fell in love with the power of language in English, Latin and Greek while still a child. As a grammar school boy, he was excited by Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the original Latin verse, and this collection of stories left an indelible mark on young Shakespeare’s imagination. It is now well-established that there is nothing original in the basic plots of William Shakespeare’s plays. Ovid’s account of tragic lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, for example, would have been William’s first contact with a tale that influenced a tradition of stories, including Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet in 1562. Brooke’s work was a long and plodding poem that itself was based on previous adaptations in French and Italian during the preceding decades, and which Shakespeare then adapted for the stage as Romeo and Juliet, three decades after Brooke, improving it no end in the process. The Pyramus and Thisbe tragedy was clearly a favourite for Shakespeare, as it also appeared in his comic play-within-a-play performed by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In an era which knew no copyright, this was neither new nor controversial.
Shakespeare’s particular genius was his language, creating magical theatre by driving a plot with a well-turned phrase, the means by which so many of today’s everyday idioms entered the English language. It’s not unusual now to hear “neither here not there”, “foregone conclusion”, “vanish into thin air” and “wear your heart on your sleeve” from Othello; “mum’s the word”, “eaten out of house and home” and “dead as a doornail” from Henry VI, Part II; “There’s method in my madness” from Hamlet; “The world’s mine oyster” from The Merry Wives of Windsor; and dozens more.
The song the Bard borrowed
It may still come as a shock that even some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines turn out to have been borrowed from a single recently discovered source. William took a line from a song in his youth and adapted it as “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east …” and placed it in Romeo and Juliet. From the same song, an adapted line becomes “That light we see is burning in my hall. How far that little candle throws his beams!” in The Merchant of Venice. “The course of true love never did run smooth” is taken almost verbatim from the song and inserted into A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” and “Out, damn’d spot! Out, I say!” both appear in Macbeth, only slightly adapted from the ballad.
The source is, indirectly, the recently discovered Thomas Jones Woodward manuscript, a household book found in a disused glover’s workshop in Glamorgan. The manuscript is written in a mixture of 16th century English and another language difficult to decipher, which appears to include almost no vowels. Among its contents, the handwritten book includes recipes for crempog (like thick crepes), cawl (stew), and bara brith (speckled bread or fruit loaf); a very odd page which appears to be about a sport, consisting of women throwing their underwear at a singing man on an elevated platform; and a single broadside ballad, folded into the final leaf, with the printed words to the song and an indication of the melody.
Shakespeare scholar Dr. Spurioso Fraudini and Professor of English, Faye King, both of Montague University, have given the date of the manuscript as 1574. Since there are no entries in the book after 1574, it is safe to assume the broadside is from the same era. At this time, Shakespeare was just 10 years old and first excited by the possibilities of language. Broadside ballads were the pop music of the day, mass-produced by printers and hawked in the street by bawling ballad-mongers, singing their wares at the tops of their voices. Such songs began to be printed and popular in the early 16th century and sold continuously until the 19th century. While there’s no evidence that Shakespeare ever left England – it seems he preferred the green, green grass of home – the influence and significance of this Welsh source cannot be exaggerated.
From its scattered references through his writing career, the song appears to have had a profound and lasting influence upon the boy Shakespeare, in a similar fashion to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It is easy to see why the song excited the playwright enough for him to borrow from it multiple times. One might even call the plot of the song Shakespearean, including as it does the dramatic and tragic themes of love, sex, betrayal, murder, regret and impending punishment.
You can hear a reconstruction of the ballad performed by The Night Watch in the video below.