The Men Behind the Man: 5 Personalities Who Inspired Shakespeare

“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”

― William Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night”

Who are we to argue with the Bard’s words? After all, few have managed to reach the pinnacle of greatness like William Shakespeare. Ever since his rise in the 16th century, he has reigned supreme in the hearts of people. In fact, he is considered to be the most influential writer in the English language. Even today, people are inspired by his works. Many of his quotes have reached cult status. After all, who has not heard the line, ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players..’?

Every educational institution in the world has included Shakespeare’s works in their English curriculum. Hence, at one point or another, we have all read his works. There are many who dedicate their entire lives to studying Shakespeare.

Have you ever wondered what made William Shakespeare such an enigma? Who are the people who inspired him?

If not, now is the time. Let’s have a look at the imminent personalities who influenced the greatest writer of the English language.

Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe

English dramatist, Cristopher Marlowe, had achieved unprecedented fame during his short lifetime. Though he was only a couple of months older than Shakespeare, he was a celebrated playwright when Shakespeare began his career. It was Marlowe who first started using blank verse. He was the one who crafted complex and tragic characters on stage. Shakespeare imbibed all this. Like Marlowe, he used blank verse in all his plays. His characters were complex as well as tragic. After Marlowe’s tragic death in a tavern brawl at the young age of 23, Shakespeare paid tribute to him in a number of his plays. In As You Like It, Marlowe is addressed directly and the circumstances of his death are referred to. One of his poems is quoted as well.

Michel de Montaigne

Portrait of Michel de Montaigne, circa unknown

William Shakespeare’s plays were greatly influenced by the French essayist, Michel de Montaigne. Shakespeare’s plays often addressed the wide gamut of ideas explored by Montaigne in his essays. Let us take the example of The Tempest. Here Gonzalo daydreams about the “commonwealth” he would create if he had the opportunity to rule the island. On closer inspection, we will find that his speech reflects the sentiments of Montaigne’s essay, Of the Cannibals. Shakespeare not only follows the essay’s language but also echoes Montaigne’s sympathy for the cannibals and savages whom he thought to be superior to the Europeans due to their “natural innocence.” This is evident through his depiction of Caliban. The descriptions of the oppression that Caliban experiences under Prospero can move even the hardest of souls. In King Lear, William Shakespeare depicts the terrible fate of an aging father who expects gratitude from his daughters. Montaigne had shed light on a topic of the same vein in his Of the Affection of Fathers to Their Children. In the essay, he emphasized how parents should not expect much from their children.


Altichiero, ritratto di Francesco Petrarca

Petrarch was a 14th-century Italian poet who perfected the art of writing sonnets. Though sonnets originated in the 13th century, it was Petrarch who gave them a new dimension. He strung together a series of sonnets into thematic sequences and presented them to his romantic objects of affection. The sequence of sonnets that he composed as a show of his idealized love for a lady named Laura can be considered his most famous work. In England, poets started using sonnets to convey romantic stories at the beginning of the 16th century. Though we cannot assert for sure that William Shakespeare’s sonnets were inspired by Petrarch directly, we can say that he did play a role in Shakespeare’s works. In his renowned play, Romeo and Juliet, the language Romeo uses to hail Rosaline at the beginning of the play clearly reminds us of Petrarch’s sonnets, though in a satirical manner. Petrarch’s influence can also be felt when Romeo and Juliet exchange dialogues between them in a shared sonnet when they first meet. In the deeply romantic scenes, the lovers provide one half of the rhyming poem and ultimately share a kiss at the end of the fourteen lines.


Latin Poet Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, popularly known as Ovid, is one of the most renowned poets of Ancient Rome. Published in AD 8, the epic poetry, Metamorphosis, explores a wide plethora of themes. Be it tragedy, comedy, love, lust, hate, violence, or didactic, Metamorphosis has it all. The epic consists of fifteen books divided into six sections. Even in Shakespeare’s time, the book was widely studied in schools. So, we can very well presume that William Shakespeare was familiarized with Ovid’s book when he was just a boy studying in a school in Stratford. Whether that is true or not, Shakespeare undeniably had a deep knowledge of Ovid’s work. One of his earliest poems named Venus and Adonis is actually a retelling of one of Metamorphosis’ episodes. The poem also seems to adopt Ovid’s erotic and playful style. Romeo and Juliet, the story of two star-crossed lovers who ultimately die due to a misunderstanding, can be considered to be a version of Ovid’s tragic tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we get another version of Pyramus and Thisbe’s story. In the play, the Mechanicals perform a play-within-a-play. Their play is based on the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. However, their bungles turn the tragedy into a comedy.


William Shakespeare was an avid reader. His extensive library consisted of books in English, Latin, French, and Italian, among other languages. He took inspiration from everything and everyone around him. Naturally, he was able to craft flesh and blood characters who are relevant in today’s world as well.

 Remarkably, the master storyteller continues to live on through his stories centuries after his demise. He is one of the rare few who has indeed managed to attain immortality. No wonder, all writers and readers look up to him and strive to be like him.

Do comment and let me know if you have ever come across any of the works of the great writers who influenced Shakespeare. If you did, who among them is your favorite?

Note: Photos on this page are in the public domain unless indicated otherwise.

2 thoughts on “The Men Behind the Man: 5 Personalities Who Inspired Shakespeare

  1. I can’t say I have read any of them…But your reflection is very interesting, especially pondering how these men also achieved some sort of immortality trough Shakespeare’s work.


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