I am afraid this is simply a (surprisingly lengthy) apology – and a promissory note.
I am still hard at work trying to write you a simple summary of those who Shakespeare based his plays on, and all I have for my pains is a headache and a spreadsheet so large it won’t comfortably on my computer screen (or even A3 paper). The two are probably related!
The truth is, Shakespeare’s sources are as diverse as you can possibly imagine a Tudor Londoner to have access to. He draws on the Classics*, old British sources**, historic and contemporary continental writers***, his fellow British playwrights**** and his own imagination*****.
In many cases the sources are hypothesised rather than certain – Shakespeare didn’t exactly leave a list of footnotes, and as my pieces on Shakespeare’s false and lost plays showed, the London printing scene was chaotic and didn’t leave perfect traces for us to follow. And he mixes them in dizzying (literally, given that spreadsheet of mine) blends of old and new, and feeds off himself when the same works inspire parts of two or more very different plays. This does not lend itself to a simple summary – more the kind of red-string-and-blurry-photo mess you find hidden in the psycho’s room in a slasher movie…
I can’t deny I’m enjoying the work (even if the limit, so far, of my research is Wikipedia and what I remember of my Latin A-level) – but it’s nowhere near ready for the page yet. Sorry. On the plus side, I’ve got 5 shows in the next 6 weeks (if you include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – which I will be writing about I am sure), so there should at least be plenty going on here in the meantime…
* Ovid and Livy, among others.
** Chaucer, Holinshed, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and anonymous ballads and mystery plays.
*** From France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain – some available contemporaneously in translation, and some not…
**** Although in some cases it’s hard to tell which play came first.
***** Ha ha, reference that one, academic suckers!