A New Source for Shakespeare.

Michael Blanding reports for the New York Times on an exciting discovery for Shakespeareans:

For years scholars have debated what inspired William Shakespeare’s writings. Now, with the help of software typically used by professors to nab cheating students, two writers have discovered an unpublished manuscript they believe the Bard of Avon consulted to write “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “Richard III,” “Henry V” and seven other plays. […]

The findings were made by Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, who describe them in a book to be published next week by the academic press D. S. Brewer and the British Library. The authors are not suggesting that Shakespeare plagiarized but rather that he read and was inspired by a manuscript titled “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels,” written in the late 1500s by George North, a minor figure in the court of Queen Elizabeth, who served as an ambassador to Sweden. […]

In the dedication to his manuscript, for example, North urges those who might see themselves as ugly to strive to be inwardly beautiful, to defy nature. He uses a succession of words to make the argument, including “proportion,” “glass,” “feature,” “fair,” “deformed,” “world,” “shadow” and “nature.” In the opening soliloquy of Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent …”) the hunchbacked tyrant uses the same words in virtually the same order to come to the opposite conclusion: that since he is outwardly ugly, he will act the villain he appears to be.

“People don’t realize how rare these words actually are,” Mr. McCarthy said. “And he keeps hitting word after word. It’s like a lottery ticket. It’s easy to get one number out of six, but not to get every number.” […]

Those techniques may only be the “icing on the cake,” said Mr. Witmore, who briefly examined an advance copy. “At its core, this remains a literary argument, not a statistical one.” The book contends that Shakespeare not only uses the same words as North, but often uses them in scenes about similar themes, and even the same historical characters. In another passage, North uses six terms for dogs, from the noble mastiff to the lowly cur and “trundle-tail,” to argue that just as dogs exist in a natural hierarchy, so do humans. Shakespeare uses essentially the same list of dogs to make similar points in “King Lear” and “Macbeth.”

Seems convincing, and I look forward to many more such discoveries — not necessarily about Shakespeare but about literary history in general — as the techniques become more widely used. (Of course, they will also be badly used, and there will be ridiculous claims made by incompetents that get tail-wagging press coverage, but what else is new?) Thanks, Trevor!


  1. If someone could prove that the Earl of Oxford read the same book it would explain why two people, working independently, were able to create a whole bunch of plays that seem to have been written by one person.

  2. I’m not sure I quite understand this story. He sees a reference to a manuscript sold at an auction in 1927, which after great effort he tracks down at the British Library, where it has been misshelved.

    Then -DESCRIPTION OMITTED- after which plagiarism software detects similarities to Shakespeare.

    Presumably someone types it in to a computer, among other things.

    Plagiarism software like TurnItIn normally compares a document to a vast database of previously scanned documents. In this case he’s only looking at a single document. Why does he need the software? It seems that someone already picked up on this in 1927.

    It’s interesting that it only existed in manuscript up until now, which means that Shakespeare must have read this exact volume or perhaps one of a very few copies. However it doesn’t sound as if there’s any history of who owned it. Otherwise it could indicate that Shakespeare was very close to some particular person at court.

    It seems the real story is that hardly anyone has read the manuscript since the era it was written. Just the person in 1927 and these people now. And if wasn’t for that person in 1927 these people wouldn’t have known where to look.

    Who knows what else is sitting in misshelved manuscripts in the British Library?

  3. David Marjanović says:

    Or in misshelved crates in the British Museum…

  4. See Stephen Jay Gould’s essay “In a Jumbled Drawer” in Bully for Brontosaurus (unfortunately not on line in full, but with a large fragment at Google Books).

  5. marie-lucie says:

    Shakespeare read a lot of history books in order to write and stage historical dramas, so it is not surprising that he would use the same words in the same scenes as those described in the books. People who came to see the plays having read the books would expect to see and hear on the stage the major characters, episodes and even memorable words that they already knew about, along with products of the author’s imagination. Similarly today with books and films dealing with actual people or well-known fictional ones.

    Perhaps the surprise is the confirmation that Shakespeare did not “invent” a lot of the otherwise unattested words he used, but picked them up from various sources, both oral and written.

  6. How do they rule out Shakespeare and North using a common source? (If Shakespeare descended from North, then how come we still have North?)

    Apropos, has anyone here read “The Testament of Shakespeare” in the “New Adventures of Blake and Mortimer”?

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Sili, True, Shakespeare and North could have used a common source, which is lost. But the simplest cause for the similarities is indeed that Shakespeare had read North. But Shakespeare is not “descended from North”, he was only influenced by him. Their respective works are of a very different nature and meant for different readers or viewers.

  8. I assumed Sili was making a little historical-linguistics joke.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    LH, Thanks, you know I tend to be literal-minded!

  10. Shakespeare’s two main sources for the history plays and the quasi-historical Macbeth and King Lear were the chronicle of Raphael Holinshed (with collaborators) and the earlier chronicle of Edward Hall. Hall was also a major source for Holinshed in those days before copyright laws and anti-plagiarism standards. Parts of Hall were in turn taken from individual sources such as Thomas More’s history of Richard III.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Could Holinshed etc also have been a source for North’s work, later read (and perhaps hand-copied) by Shakespeare?

  12. maidhc: You bring up the question of the history of who owned this manuscript. I don’t have the book in hand yet, but from the table of contents, I anticipate that the authors will discuss what they have discovered in this respect in the first chapter, titled “George North and the Kirtling Hall Manuscript”. See: https://boydellandbrewer.com/a-z/quot-a-brief-discourse-of-rebellion-and-rebels-quot-by-george-north-hb.html

    I have looked at the 1927 bookseller listing, which is extremely interesting in itself, and which is accessible via GoogleBooks: Search: Catalogue of manuscripts and rare books shakespeare george north. It gives the manuscript as being “from the Wroxton Abbey Library, with the North bookplate.” Wroxton Abbey, it turns out, was an estate of the North family in Oxfordshire, whereas Kirtling Hall, where it is said to have been written, was the North family estate in Cambridgeshire. I look forward to what the book may say about the relation between these two estates, and how it got from one to the other, etc.

    About the use of plagiarism software, McCarthy says he typed out the manuscript in order to test it with WCopyfind. A photo in the Feb 7 NYT feature “Plagiarism software unveils a new source for 11 of Shakespeare’s plays” (the print edition headline did _not_ highlight the use of plagiarism software) shows a tab labeled “Open Source Shakespeare” – which may have been used as the other side of the comparison. That is, MCarthy used the software specifically to compare the George North text to an open source edition of Shakespeare’s collected works. Then, when commonalities were discovered, these were further tested against the database of old English books (to 1700).

    However, while it is true that the use of plagiarism software features in the new research, it needs to be stressed that its employment may only be “icing on the cake,” as it was put by Michael Whitmore of the Folger Shakespeare Library in the New York Times piece. “At its core, this remains a literary argument, not a statistical one,” he is reported as saying of the new research. Essentially, the professional dealer in old manuscripts in 1927, with a good working knowledge of Shakespeare’s works (a copy of the Second Folio was also offered for sale in the same catalogue) was doing the same sort of thing, if only to evaluate the worth of the manuscript in his or her possession, and without having conducted a full study of the comparisons he/she thought it would be “extremely interesting” to make between “this earlier Elizabethan, George North’s poems on Owen Glendower and Jack Cade with Shakespeare’s treatment of the same subject in Richard II. and Henry VI., Part II.”


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