Welcome to Episode #48 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

I believe that if you want to understand Shakespeare's plays, then understanding the life of William Shakespeare, the man, is essential. This podcast is designed to help you explore early modern England as Shakespeare would have lived it by interviewing the historians, performers, authors, and experts that know him best.

Good artists copy, great artists steal. That’s the line they tell us about what it takes to be great at art, but was it true for William Shakespeare? The bard borrows heavily from sources like Holinshed, Ovid, and others in the writing of his plays but does it impact how we understand the story? This week we welcome our guest, JM Pressley of the Shakespeare Resource Center to walk us through the history of sources as it applies to Shakespeare’s plays. Turns out, the reality of life in 16th century England might surprise you when it comes to examining how to bard developed his plot lines

JM. Pressley has a B.F.A. in Theatre Arts and an M.A. in Writing, both from DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. He has been the author, designer, content editor, and webmaster of the Shakespeare Resource Center since it began, over 20 years ago.

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J. M. Pressley has a B.F.A. in Theatre Arts and an M.A. in Writing, both from DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. He has been the author, designer, content editor, and webmaster of the Shakespeare Resource Center since it began, over 20 years ago.


In this episode, I’ll be asking JM about :

  • What sources did Shakespeare use in addition to Ovid’s Metamorphoses?

  • Was the Bible one of his sources?
  • Where did Shakespeare get his sources? Would he have gone to a library?
    …and more!
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Enter Hamlet, reading on a book.

Stage Directions

Hamlet, II.2

The Bodleian Library, Oxford, England [Public Domain]

The Bodleian Library

The Bodelain was first established in the 14th century by a bequeath from the will of Thomas Cobham, a Bishop of Worcester. It was not yet called the Bodleian, but was the first library in Oxford to be built for the purpose of being a library,  It opened as a public library in 1602, built to house books donated by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, the brother of Henry V, and a man who appears as a character in Shakespeare's history plays Henry VI Part 1 & 2, and is a minor character in Henry IV Part 1 as well as Henry V.

Join the newsletter to download a diagram of Shakespeare's History Characters. 

Originally the library started as a room, which still exists, that was used as a vestry and meeting room for the Church of St Mary the Virgin in 1320. By 1488, the room was taken over by the library known as Duke Humpfrey's library, the oldest part of the Bodleian. 

Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester was the younger brother of King Henry V, and he donated his personal library of more than 281 manuscripts to the University to use to start a public library. His collection included several classical texts. The University decided to build a new building to house their new library, which opened in 1488. 

With the rise of a fear of Catholicism in England, the Dean of Christ Church removed all the books from the library and burnt many of them in an effort to remove any trace of what he called “superstitious books and images.' 


Thomas Bodley

The Bodleian became known as such because of a man named Thomas Bodley. He is responsible for rescuing the library. As a diplomat of Queen Elizabeth I's court, he married a rich widow, and, in his retirement, decided to ‘set up my staff at the library door in Oxon; being thoroughly persuaded, that in my solitude, and surcease from the Commonwealth affairs, I could not busy myself to better purpose, than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students’. (Source)

By 1598, Bodley saw the library reinstated, donating many of the new 2500 books himself. They even hired a formal librarian, named Thomas James, and the Bodleian Library officially opened in 1602. 


In 1602, Bodley struck an agreement with the Stationer's Company of London that a copy of every book recorded published in England at the Stationer's Register would be stored at the Bodleian. That would include many of Shakespeare's plays, which were registered and copies published at The Stationer's Register, many of which are how we know what we do about Shakespeare today. 

In my youtube series on Shakespeare, I covered the question of “Did Shakespeare Study at a Library?” including history of the Bodleian and the Duke of Gloucester, in two parts. You can watch those episodes here or subscribe to the YouTube channel here. (New episodes every Saturday #ShakespeareSaturdays)

Macbeth and Banquo Encountering the Three Witches. A woodcut from Holinshed's Chronicles. Source

Comparisons of Shakespeare to Holindshed's Chronicles

Here are some side by side comparisons of Holindshed to Shakespeare that JM shares in this week's episode. The striking resemblance of the text between Shakespeare and Holindshed is how historians are able to conclude Shakespeare leaned heavily on Holinshed's work when crafting his plays. 

Henry V

Nor did the French possess the Salique land 
Until four hundred one and twenty years 
After defunction of King Pharamond, 
Idly supposed the founder of this law; 

Henry V Act I Scene 2

Nor the Frenchmen possessed the land Salike, till foure hundred and one and twentie yeares after the death of Pharamond, the supposed maker of this Salike law, for this Pharamond deceassed in the yeare 426, and Charles the great subdued the Saxons, and placed the Frenchmen in those parts beyond the riuer of Sala, in the yeare 805.

Holinshed (1587)


MacbethSpeak, if you can: what are you?

First WitchAll hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis!

Second WitchAll hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!

Third WitchAll hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!

Macbeth Act I Scene 3

There met … thrée women in strange and wild apparell, … [and] the first of them spake… All haile Makbeth, thane of Glammis … The second of them said; Haile Makbeth thane of Cawder. But the third said,  “All haile Makbeth that héereafter shalt he king of Scotland”

Holinshed (1587)

And let the angel whom thou still hast served tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd.

Macbeth Act V Scene 8

‘It is true Makbeth, and now shall thine insatiable crueltie haue an end, for I am euen he that thy wizzards haue told thée of, who was neuer borne of my mother, but ripped out of her wombe

Holinshed (1587)

King Lear

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty According to my bond, no more nor less.
King Lear Act I Scene 1

Knowing the great love and fatherly zeal that you have always borne toward me…I protest unto you that I have loved you ever and will continually…love you as my natural father. And if you would more understand of the love that I bear you, ascertain yourself that so much as you have, so much you are worth, and so much I love you and no more.

Holinshed (1587)

And now I will unclasp a secret book
And to your quick-conceiving discontents 
I'll read you matter deep and dangerous, 
As full of peril and adventurous spirit 
As to o'er-walk a current roaring loud 
On the unsteadfast footing of a spear.

Earl of Worcester

Henry IV Part 1, I.3

Why the Bible Isn't Considered a Source


To be considered by modern scholars as a source, Shakespeare needs to have used the plot or story line from the work. For example, when he retells Holinshed's histories, he is using the exact words and phrases, and having his characters follow the same plot as the book. 

When it comes to the Bible, there are allusions to Biblical phrases and quotes, as well as places where he very closely refers to the Bible. As a popular book of the time, and a regular church attendant at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford Upon Avon, Shakespeare would have read, and owned, a Bible himself. However, because none of Shakespeare's works tell the biblical stories in play form, the Bible is considered an influence on Shakespeare's plays, rather than a source.




Portrait of Alice Barnham and her sons Martin and Steven, 1557 by Hans Eworth Source  It appears they are reading either a Bible or a common book of prayer, but I am not sure on the book. 


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Books & Resources JM Recommends:

Most of the links to these books are affiliate links. Part of the way we generate the income needed to support a show like ours is through affiliate sales. If you're going to purchase a new book about Shakespeare's history anyway, please consider purchasing here as a way to support the show.

JM reccomends Shakespeare and His Sources by Joseph Statin as well, but I was unable to find a good picture of that book so I'm including the Amazon link here. It is an affiliate link.

Shakespeare and His Sources


The internet can be a crazy place, particularly if you are trying to find out information or do research. To help you sort through the clutter, JM recommends a few places for trusted information on Shakespeare and His Sources, including JM's own Shakespeare Resource Center at BardWeb.Net (linked below).

Before Shakespeare (https://beforeshakespeare.com/)
Internet Shakespeare Editions (https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/)
Shakespeare's Globe (https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/)
Royal Shakespeare Company (https://www.rsc.org.uk/)
Chicago Shakespeare (https://www.chicagoshakes.com/)
Shakespeare Resource Center (http://www.bardweb.net/)

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