Borrowing in Literature
October 26, 2004 3:13 PM   Subscribe

I recently found out that Shakespeare based Romeio and Juliet on Arthur Brooke's Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. What are some other examples of artists (both modern and historical) "borrowing" or "sampling" from other artists? I'm interested in any kind of art: writing, painting, musical composition, etc... [MI]

I know that, in general, many classical composers during the Romantic period based some of their compositions on traditional folk music from their native countries. However, I am having a hard time finding some specific examples. Can anyone help me out?
posted by thewittyname to Writing & Language (15 answers total)
one of the sources of Dante's Commedia was the "Navigatio Sancti Brendani"
posted by matteo at 3:36 PM on October 26, 2004

First example that came to mind was a painting: Titian's Venus of Urbino. I'm not sure if it itself was a reference to an earlier work, but it was the basis for at least one work by Manet.

There are a lot of examples of contemporary texts that are fairly faithful reworkings of earlier work (eg "Bridget Jones Diary" and the film "Clueless" both borrow heavily from Jane Austen), but I'm not sure that this is what you are looking for.
posted by arha at 3:36 PM on October 26, 2004

It seems you are specifically looking for music, in which case I am not too helpful, but Shakespeare's material for Othello derived primarily from Giraldi Cinthio's The Moor of Venice.
posted by cohappy at 3:39 PM on October 26, 2004

The most correct example would probably be "everything". I'm not trying to get into an artistic psychology discussion here, but the nature of art is to react to what came before it, and this often happens much more directly than not. Drawing from a source is not the exception; it is the rule.

For instance, staying with the Shakespeare theme, here's a list of the immediate sources for most of Shakespeare's work. (I have no idea how accurate it is; it came to me with five seconds of Google.)

The impressive thing about Shakespeare is not his invention of plot, but his ability to make traditional and well-known storylines stick in our heads much longer than anybody else.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 4:25 PM on October 26, 2004

Besides Shakespeare,there's Chaucer, Boccaccio, John Ford, Andrew Marvel and most of classical literature.. . . Except it wasn't "borrowing" or "lifting" until the start of the 20th century. Part of the reason copyright started was that too many people were publishing work without compensation to the artist (previous to that, we are led to believe, the artist didn't care that his work was utlizied by several people).

Northrop Frye explored a lot of the literary tropes used in literarture. If you get a good copy of the Shakespeare plays, you usually get an introduction on the precedents and earlier work he used to create his play. Also Chaucer used Boccacio's version of folktales quite heavily for the C. Tales. As DrJohnEvans says above a logn time ago it wasn't just about originality but what you did with tales everyone already knew.
posted by rodz at 4:42 PM on October 26, 2004

I agree with those who say pretty well every work of art borrows from others, or reacts to, as it were and Frye's Anatomy of Criticism and Secular Scripture (among others) is a great look into literary structure and models.

Take 1984 for example. The reduction of language is almost a mirror opposite of Frederick Douglass's writings about language. Winston and Julia experience an ironic felix culpa (the happy fall - from grace, as in Adam and Eve.) O'Brien's interrogation with Winston has many similarities to Adam's discussion with Gabriel or God (I can't remember which and it may be another name altogether) in Paradise Lost, particularly the love me freely bit, etc., etc. and on and on.

One has to fear literal interpretations of copyright like literal interpretations of metaphors else new works will be contested in court!
posted by juiceCake at 5:16 PM on October 26, 2004

Much of 1984 is also taken from Evgeni Zamyatin's prescient novel We (published in English in 1924).
posted by languagehat at 6:47 PM on October 26, 2004

The Māori Merchant of Venice.

(now, if we had better copyright law we might also have The Māori Breakfast Club, but that's another story)
posted by holloway at 6:52 PM on October 26, 2004

Golly. Broadway--and theatre in general--is just chock full of examples of this. I suppose the simplest example is that the musical "My Fair Lady" is an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion" which is an adaptation of the classical myth of Pygmalion and Galatea.

The musical "Carnival" is an adaptation of the film "Lili" which is an adaptation of an earlier book. The film's music--specifically its hit song "Hi Lili, Hi Lo"--was a direct inspiration for some of the songs in the musical, in terms of style and key, and yet is not actually in the show because I don't think they could get the rights.

The musical "Cabaret" is an adaptation of the play "I Am A Camera" which is an adaptation of the stories Christopher Isherwood wrote about his experiences living in Germany during the Weinmar Republic (which are themselves an adpatation of what really happened, since Isherwood had to be somewhat circumspect about his homosexuality). Both "I Am A Camera" and "Cabaret" were turned into films, and the latter jettisoned some of the musical's songs and subplot and used a different story of Isherwood's in its place. The late 1990's revival of "Cabaret" in New York then re-combined elements and songs from the film and the original musical. The musical--most clearly in Fosse' film version--also repurposes the whole idea of 1930's cabaret acts, period, including by having actual 1930's German cabaret chanteuse Lotte Lenya sing a song from the musical--but only on a record that we see playing in the corner of the room in a scene in the film, not actually performed live in the film.

The musical "Chicago", which had a nearly-identical creative team to "Cabaret" (Kander and Ebb, and Fosse), does the same thing for vaudeville; every song sung in the show is a specific type of vaudeville act, introduced by an MC. ("Mr. Cellophane" is a clown act, "All That Jazz" is a nightclub act, "I am My Own Best Friend" is two solo acts going on simultaneously, the Hungarian's death is a ballet act, etc.) And "Chicago" the musical was based on a 1920's play by journalist Maurine Dallas Watkins, which was based on the first-person accounts she wrote for a newspaper about the criminal trials of two women, which were themselves post-hoc accounts of the murders, but her play and the later musical was also based on other sappier journalists' takes on the trials. In fact, one of those journalists, played by Christine Baranski in the film version, is called Little Mary Sunshine, which is in reference to the name of whole 'nother operetta/musical. (In the musical, Little Mary Sunshine is revealed to have been played by a man, and is thus a drag act.) Watkins' 1920's play also inspired the more light-hearted 1940's film "Roxie Hart" starring Ginger Rogers. And just to tie everything together, the recent film version of "Chicago" has direct visual references/homages to the film version of "Cabaret" (Roxie singing "Nowadays" is in reference to Sally singing "Maybe This Time", for one example), and lifted material from the previous film "Roxie Hart" for dialogue in the courtroom scene.

The films "The Producers" (directed by Mel Brooks) and "Hairspray" (directed by John Waters), which both had some musical elements in them, both spawned hit Broadway musicals, and are both currently or presently being filmed again, this time as movie musicals. Both shows, but The Producers in particular, have oodles and oodles of deliberate references in them, both textural and musical, to many other Broadway musicals and their scores. I think it was in reference to the musical version of The Producers that one of the newspaper critics said it had "more [Broadway-related] swipes than a deconstructionist's term paper".

"Marie Christine" is based on the story of Medea. Two musical versions of "The Wild Party" exist, both based on the same poem. "Ragtime" is based on the E.L. Doctrow book, which is turn based on some real historical incidents. "Avenue Q" is based on the TV shows "Sesame Street" and "the Electric Company". "Wicked" is based on the book of the same name (which re-imagines the Wicked Witch of the West as a misunderstood heroine), which is based on the 1939 film version of "The Wizard of Oz", which is based on the L. Frank Baum books. "Applause" was originally going to be based wholly on the film "All About Eve", but had to be primarily based on the original magazine story because the rights to the film were acquired late in the game after much writing had already taken place, and the magazine article was based on a true story that happened to a real New York actress.

One could go on and on...but that should be plenty. :-)
posted by Asparagirl at 7:04 PM on October 26, 2004

Oh, and in the classical music vein, many works of Mahler's and Dvorak's were directly based on or were re-interpretations of local folk songs. Definitely check them out.

And the song "Hatikvah", which is the Israeli national anthem, has quite a long history, though not always with the same (or any) lyrics. So does "The Star-Spangled Banner", for that matter, sung to the tune of an old British drinking song, which was in turn the song of a society devoted to praising a sixth century BC Greek poet.
posted by Asparagirl at 7:31 PM on October 26, 2004

From music: Gounod used J. S. Bach's Prelude #1 in C as the accompaniment for his Ave Maria. The main theme from Puccini's Turandot is a Chinese folk song called "Plum Blossom". Saint-Saëns quotes the Can-Can from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman for "Turtles" in Carnival of the Animals. Lots of operas are based off plays that nobody remembers anymore (Le Nozze di Figaro and Il Barbiere di Seviglia are from Beaumarchais); Carmen is a very altered version of a Prosper Mérimée novella, and is itself the basis for Carmen Jones and, er, this. Oh, and Rent==La Bohéme with a rock soundtrack.
And John Williams keeps ripping off himself with each new score.
okay, i'm kidding about the last one, just a bit.
posted by casarkos at 7:40 PM on October 26, 2004

Luciano Berio used the second movement of Mahler's second symphony in the third movement of his Sinfonia. The texts from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana were originally sung in much different settings. Bartók used Hungarian folk music and Stravinsky Russian in the Rite of Spring.

According to M. H. Abrams, Wordsworth's The Recluse would, had it been completed, have been modelled on Paradise Lost.

The keyboard pattern from the track "(mit I) Saure Gurk (aus I urwald gelockt)" from Aksak Maboul's Onze Dances Pour Combattre la Migraine showed up in tons and tons of techno songs.

Erle Loran made a diagram of a painting by Cezanne of his wife, which Roy Lichtenstein more or less copied and displayed as a painting. Loran sued Lichtenstein.

I don't think adaptations between media, of the sort that many people are putting forward (e.g. the movie version of the book) should really count for this question.
posted by kenko at 8:06 PM on October 26, 2004

Agreed with the "everything" comment--although obviously some writers are more directly and avowedly revising or updating or interpreting older works. A great example of this I've learned about recently is Alexander Pope's imitations of Horace: Pope published them with his text on the left page and Horace's Latin on the right, so that readers could see how he'd interpreted Horace so as to refer to contemporary people and events. All sorts of interesting meanings come from the contrast between the two.

This great article by Stephen Greenblatt in the New York Review discusses how Shakespeare changed the precursor play to "Hamlet" into his particularly potent and memorable version. A great read--it makes me want to read Greenblatt's new biography right now!
posted by josh at 8:11 PM on October 26, 2004

Regarding Shakespeare, his contemporary audience would have known the plot of everything before the curtain went up; the Histories (+Macbeth) were part of folklore, and the tragedies and comedies had all been dramatised by others. There's only one surprise in Shakespeare, and that's in The Winters Tale when the character (Hipployta?) reveals that she has been turned into a statue.
posted by Pericles at 12:49 AM on October 27, 2004

Regarding Greenblatt, in addition to Will in the World, the speculative biography, you may wish to check out Hamlet in Purgatory. There, Greenblatt traces the confluence of the history of purgatory as an idea (not as old as you think), a culture in which religious orthodoxy changes with each monarch, and events in William Shakespeare's own life. Less attention is paid to the literary ancestors but it's tremendously well researched and even...moving.
posted by Verdant at 9:59 AM on October 27, 2004

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