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Stories, characters and themes from novels, plays and poetry have been among the most important subjects of art. Once written down, myths, legends and fables also become literature. They shared some of the traditional functions of art, to educate and to provide inspiration and moral guidance.

The myths of ancient Greece, the fables of the Roman writer Ovid, medieval poetry, and the great novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have all inspired artists. In the Renaissance, classical literature was the most important inspiration but from the eighteenth century contemporary novels and plays began to provide subjects. Johann Zoffany became a specialist in theatrical subjects and the publisher Boydell Shakespeare Gallery bravely attempted to create a market for literary subjects.