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 Now, with the help of software typically used by professors to nab cheating students, two writers have discovered an unpublished manuscript they believe the Bard of Avon consulted to write “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “Richard III,” “Henry V” and seven other plays.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 news has caused Shakespeareans to sit up and take notice.
“If it proves to be what they say it is, it is a once-in-a-generation — or several generations — find,” said Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.
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.
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In reviewing the book before it was published, David Bevington, professor emeritus in the humanities at the University of Chicago and editor of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (7th Edition),” called it “a revelation” for the sheer number of correlations with the plays, eclipsed only by the chronicles of Holinshed and Hall and Plutarch’s “Lives.”
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Martin Meisel, professor of dramatic literature emeritus at Columbia University, said in another review that the book is “impressively argued.” He added that there is no question the manuscript “must have been somewhere in the background mix of Shakespeare’s mental landscape” while writing the plays.
Mr. McCarthy used decidedly modern techniques to marshal his evidence, employing WCopyfind, an open-source plagiarism software, which picked out common words and phrases in the manuscript and the plays.
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.”
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“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.”
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Mr. McCarthy found a reference to the manuscript by George North, a likely cousin of Thomas, online in a 1927 auction catalog, which noted it would be “extremely interesting” to compare certain passages with Shakespeare. He and Ms. Schlueter scoured libraries and archives for a year before enlisting the help of a manuscript detective, who studies rare documents and traced it to the British Library, which had purchased it in 1933. (The manuscript was filed under an obscure shelf mark, which made finding it difficult.)
In 1576, North was living at Kirtling Hall near Cambridge, England, the estate of Baron Roger North. It was here, Mr. McCarthy says, that he wrote his manuscript, at the same time Thomas North was there possibly working on his translation of Plutarch.
The manuscript is a diatribe against rebels, arguing that all rebellions against a monarch are unjust and doomed to fail. While Shakespeare had a more ambiguous position on rebellion, Mr. McCarthy said he clearly mined North’s treatise for themes and characters.
One of the most compelling is Jack Cade, who led a failed popular rebellion against Henry VI in 1450. Shakespeare describes Cade’s final days in “Henry VI, Part 2,” in which he says he was starving and eating grass, before he was finally caught and dragged through the street by his heels, his body left to be eaten by crows. Scholars have long thought that Shakespeare invented these details, but all of them are present in a passage from North’s “Discourse” in which he inveighs against Cade and two other famous rebels. Mr. McCarthy and Ms. Schlueter argue that Shakespeare used those details to make Cade into a composite of the three.
The Guardian (which may well be more reliable than the NYT these days) has an article on the same subject and is a bit more skeptical concerning Mr. North’s contribution to Shakespeare: