Poetry News

Software Unlocks a Secret Behind Shakespeare's Dramas

By Harriet Staff
William Shakespeare

Michael Blanding contributes to the New York Times Books section an illuminating article about a source that informed many of William Shakespeare's plays and the plagiarism software that highlighted this surprising relationship. To foreground, Blanding explains: "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 Now, with the help of software typically used by professors to nab cheating students, two writers have discovered an unpublished manuscript they believe the Bard of Avon consulted to write 'King Lear,' 'Macbeth,' 'Richard III,' 'Henry V' and seven other plays." Let's pick up there and learn more about their process: 

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.

“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.”

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.”

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.

Read more at the New York Times.

Originally Published: February 9th, 2018