February 12, 2018

“Listen to many”: Another source of inspiration for Shakespeare has been revealed


To any student readers out there, tempted to plagiarize their midterm essay on Aphra Behn, be warned. Professors have a new tool in their authenticity arsenal: software. And while you may be thinking, “Pfft, I can outsmart a computer,” … well, this program just caught William Shakespeare.

OK, so WCopyfind didn’t exactly catch the Bard in a big academic lie, or throw into question the legitimacy of his authorship. But the open source software did let two researchers find, with surprising ease, an unpublished source of inspiration for eleven—that’s right, eleven—of Big Will’s plays.

As Michael Blanding reported last week in the New York Times, professor emerita June Schlueter and self-taught Shakespearean scholar Dennis McCarthy used the program to check on some of Shakespeare’s language, and found that it had clear antecedents in “A Brief Discourse on Rebellion and Rebels,” written by George North in the late 1500s. Blanding writes:

 “It’s a source that he keeps coming back to,” said Mr. McCarthy, a self-taught Shakespeare scholar, during a recent interview at his home in North Hampton, N.H. “It affects the language, it shapes the scenes and it, to a certain extent, really even influences the philosophy of the plays.”

Schlueter and McCarthy have detailed their findings in a new book, released this week by D.S. Brewer, an imprint of the academic publisher Boydell and Brewer. The authors make a case that this text, which they uncovered at the British Library, provided language that Shakespeare used in plays from Richard III to Henry V, Macbeth to Coriolanus.

WCopyfind picks out common words and phrases and searches for them where instructed—in this case, the database Early English Books Online, which over seventeen million pages catalogues almost every work published in English between 1473 and 1700. By this method, McCarthy—who brought his findings to Schlueter, the managing editor of the Shakespeare Bulletin—was able to confirm that Shakespeare and North weren’t both using the same source for their writing, and thus deduce that Shakespeare was influenced by North’s earlier manuscript. Not only did the two works address similar themes, but they use the same words, in strikingly similar patterns.

For instance, both North’s text and the opening soliloquy of Richard III use, in almost the same order, and in discussing the same theme of ugliness, inner and outer, the words  “proportion,” “glass,” “feature,” “fair,” “deformed,” “world,” “shadow” and “nature.”

“People don’t realize how rare these words actually are,” McCarthy tells the Times.“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.”

Needless to say, Schlueter was impressed, telling Blanding that McCarthy is “the Steve Jobs of the Shakespeare community.” And McCarthy isn’t done with his electronic research. The author and erstwhile computer scientist told the Times that he is planning several follow-up works to this book, based on his method of electronic research, and hopes to bring more Shakespeare discoveries to the world.

The two scholars are quick to point out that they don’t believe this finding diminishes any of Shakespeare’s work — an important detail, picked up expertly by Isaac Butler in Slate. “The discovery of North’s influence on Shakespeare is a welcome opportunity to remember how the Bard of Avon’s genius actually worked, and how much his methods are at odds with our own ideas of artistic greatness,” Butler writes. “Shakespeare didn’t just faithfully reproduce his sources — he argued with and subverted them, he combined them in unconventional ways, and he made substantial changes to them.”

This is a super-cool story, especially since it upends conventional wisdom that the era of Shakespeare discovery was over (as David Bevington, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, told Blanding: “New sources for Shakespeare do not turn up every day”). It is decidedly exciting to imagine that there are as-yet-undiscovered headwaters for the words Shakespeare gave us. And, beyond that, to reexamine the very nature of authenticity, and what we think of as the ideal of the “great writer.”

As for this George North character? Our info on him is pretty sparse. He was an English diplomat in the court of Queen Elizabeth, and published three volumes in addition to the unpublished “Brief Discourse.” Our guess is he probably wouldn’t be too bummed that WCopyfind has brought Shakespeare’s borrowing into the light.



Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.