Geoffrey Chaucer's distinctively English spins on such genres as dream vision, fabliau and Breton lai, as well as his liberal citation of authorities in Troilus and Criseyde, offered early modern English poets the license to mingle sources and authorities within their work, rather than bend their writing to fit the format. Few authors took such productive advantage of Chaucerian permissiveness as William Shakespeare, whose narrative poems defer to Chaucer's distinctively English authority with a regularity comparable to his uses of Homer, Ovid, Virgil and Plutarch. This free-associative approach to auctoritee, the whetstone of the poet-playwright's dramatic imagination, suggests that he favored his literary memory over the open book in his approach to adaptation.
Key sources for A Midsummer Night's Dream have been well elucidated, but Shakespeare's memory of Chaucer runs deeper. We can trace threads of sexual self-awareness from The Wife of Bath's Prologue through Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, then back through Dame Alisoun's tale where they emerge to embroider A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare externalizes inner states, most profoundly those of Venus and Hermia, provoking other characters to look within. Complimenting this aesthetics of the inside-out, derived from the Wife of Bath, Shakespeare's characterization of Bottom echoes Chaucer's clueless Sir Thopas in the doggerel verses and drama interruptus of his "Pyramus and Thisbe."
With The Rape of Lucrece, a prerequisite for his mastery of metatheatrical forms, Shakespeare established Lucrece as Chaucerian interpreter and active spectator. The poet-playwright's intertextual approach transcends mere character centrality or point of view--Lucrece is a master observer and contextualizer, viewing "Troy's painted woes" (1492) selectively, in emotional rather than narrative order, fitting what she sees to how she feels, much as the adapting poet shapes source material. The "painter" to whom she frequently refers, if he does not precisely correspond to Chaucer, certainly exemplifies the aesthetic and emotional intersections of artist, work and audience that formed Shakespeare's sense of the Chaucerian.
Had Shakespeare been merely interested in a formal skeleton on which to hang his Troilus and Cressida, William Caxton's Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, possibly in conjunction with John Lydgate's Troy-Book, would have been an apt framework. Their references to Troilus as a noted warrior present sufficient foundation for Shakespeare's dilatory gifts, if only the young knight's abortive romance with Criseyde--"Englisshed" and fully defined by Chaucer--were not central to the poet-playwright's explorations of love, duty and honor. With these disjunctions of narrative authority and poetic agenda in mind, Shakespeare engaged his memory of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, which renders the Trojan War insignificant to the poet's purpose and yet indivisible from his narrative, establishing a reflexive relationship between works separated by two centuries.
The contradictions of style and content in Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen derive in part from Chaucer's (and John Gower's) readings of the antique world, filtered through Shakespeare's conception of medieval literary auctoritee. Further difficulties stem from uneasy, however well-intended, collaborations. Shakespeare's need to repurpose the well-worn theatrical tropes and static modes of interpretation relied upon by many early modern playwrights, including George Wilkins and John Fletcher, characterizes his dramatic approach from his earliest work. His collaborative contributions reveal their singularity by assimilating narrative verisimilitude and poetic authority into character. More than theatrical pomp or a winking familiarity with audience expectations, Shakespeare sought emotional resonance--to rouse human feeling rather than manufacture it. The willingness and facility to serve both source and audience while negotiating between them may be the unquantifiable something that makes Shakespeare "Shakespeare" and Chaucer "Chaucer."
Mediating generic commonplaces with Chaucerian poetics, Shakespeare revealed a bottomless comprehension of literary forms and their evocative potential. Developing these approaches and devices throughout his career, regardless of dramatic genre and parallel to his Ovidian proclivities, the poet-playwright honed his profound sensibility on dialogues with the past.