Shakespeare and Vergil Wrote FanFiction (my Senior Honors Thesis Proposal)

I was scrambling for a Senior Honors Thesis topic last month when I decided to apply, and then I had one of those glorious moments of revelation which only come after doing something totally unrelated to a problem: why not write about fanfiction? I mean, I’ve been reading it since I was 11, I hosted an amazing series on it last fall, and I love the moral, artistic and legal issues it stirs up.

I have been fascinated by the intellectual property issues of fanfiction since I interned at the Electronic Frontier Foundation when I was 15. Fanfiction is original fiction written in the world of another creator. To most fanfiction writers, it is simply a continuation of millennia of authorial borrowing (1). To many copyright holders, it is a clear violation of their artistic, moral and legal rights to their intellectual property.

Publius Vergilius Maro (known in English as Vergil) wrote the Aeneid as the Roman response to Homer’s Odyssey to tell the story of the founding of Rome by exploring the lives of minor characters in the original story. William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida draws not only from the myth of the fall of Troy, but also his contemporaries’ portrayal of the eponymous doomed couple. I believe that if these two authors had published their works today on, and if The Odyssey was under copyright protection, their works would be considered unauthorized uses of copyrighted material (2) and would be vulnerable to lawsuits (3). I want to discover how Western concepts of authorial originality became so entrenched in our creative, ethical and legal culture, with fanfiction as a focus.

Using Vergil’s Aeneid and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida as case studies I would like to trace the history of authorial originality. I expect to make the argument that these two works are fanfiction and discuss why their use of other authors’ works was acceptable within their historical contexts. I will then examine  how this designation can inform our understanding of modern fanfiction, now placed within a broader historical context. Because my goal is to come to a stronger understanding of why authorial originality has the place in our culture it does today, I am completely flexible as to which works I use and the methods I use in exploring them. My final product will be a research paper on why fanfiction authors today are considered artistically inauthentic, morally suspect and legally culpable, while their historical predecessors were not.


1. The appropriate definition of fanfiction is yet another area of significant debate.
2. Whether fanfiction is Fair Use, that is, an unauthorized use of copyrighted material that is legally permissible, is another fascinating question.
3. Most legal sources I have found believe most fanfiction is inherently violative of U.S. Copyright. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Chilling Effects Clearinghouse has a particularly lucid discussion of the legal issues involved:

Ok, so maybe it is a sign I have been writing too many papers when I footnote my applications. But I doubt anyone will reject my thesis proposal because it looks too academic. And now, to read about infectious diseases over a dinner of reheated pasta.

Inspirational Quote:

Many people, other than the authors, contribute to the making of a book, from the first person who had the bright idea of alphabetic writing through the inventor of movable type to the lumberjacks who felled the trees that were pulped for its printing.  It is not customary to acknowledge the trees themselves, though their commitment is total.  ~Forsyth and Rada, Machine Learning


  1. This is a fascinating topic to explore. As a writer myself, (though generally non-fiction), I can appreciate the complexities.

    I look forward to hearing anything more you may say on this subject.

  2. You know me Jess, I’m nitpicky.

    I think you’d have a stronger, and more interesting argument if your source wasn’t based in Classical myth. I need to get my book on the archaeological history of Helen and the Trojan War back from Izzy, but I can tell you right now that Homer’s Iliad/Odyssey was one of many competing versions of the story of the elopement (or if you’re a male Medieval, “abduction”) of Helen and the fall of Troy. Homer’s work gained lasting fame because of its writing style, not its plot, the elements of which could be found in the work of Euripides, Sophocles, and many other Greek tragedians and epic poets, and in the mouths of Greek peasants and priests long before and after “Homer” the bard may have lived. It’s one of the many reasons that both epic poems’ authorship is in dispute. (Not to mention the fact that myths vary widely from city-state to city-state. The Spartans, for example, contend that Helen just went to Egypt for ten years and the Trojan War was just a land war (which, frankly, just makes more sense.) Medea wasn’t reported as killing her kids until Euripides made her do so in his play. Who’s to say that the character of Aeneas has a creator, when we have archaeological record of some of the major players in the Trojan War?

    Legend and myth do not have authors. They are communally created, and in no way analogous to copyrighted creations like Sherlock Holmes, Captain Kirk, and Jack Sparrow, precisely because they have people who can authoritatively take credit for the idea.

    You might ask then, well, does copyright outlaw the creation of new myth? No, because most myth is based in forgotten fact. We mythologize real people every day, just look at the new off-Broadway show “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which presents Jackson as an emo anti-hero.

    Even if you accept these facts about Greek cultural history as given, it makes your comparison to contemporary fanfiction writers overly complicated. You’d have to qualify everything with an asterisk, plus research the whole literary and archaeological history of the Trojan War.

    What about Bible stories? They’ve got a limited list of authors, right? Why is Jesus Christ Superstar any more fair use than fanfiction?

  3. Also Shakespeare did an adaption of Romeo and Juliet. A story that had already existed before him and with the same or similar titles. In fact there are other versions before him.

Get in touch

%d bloggers like this: