Sunday, February 11, 2018

Shakespeare, Plagiarist?

A page from the George
 North manuscript that
starts the poem about
Jack Cade. The last stanza
lists terms for dogs,
which Shakespeare used
in King Lear and Macbeth.
(New York Times)
In a field as deeply explored as textual studies of William Shakespeare's work, it might seem as there were little more to be said. But if you think that, you would be wrong, as independent scholar Dennis McCarthy demonstrated in conjunction with Professor Emerita June Schlueter of Lafayette College. In the forthcoming "A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels” by George North: A Newly Uncovered Manuscript Source for Shakespeare’s Plays (D.S. Brewer, an imprint of Boydell & Brewer, with the British Library), out next week, they discuss how they used WCopyfind software, which English, composition and other faculty members sometimes employ to find out whether students have committed plagiarism, to discover that the source of at least 11 of Shakespeare's plays, including several of his most famous, such as King Lear, Richard III, Henry V, and one of my favorites, the verbal and dramatic masterpiece Macbeth, was the eponymous tome by the obscure writer George North.

According to Michael Blanding's New York Times report, McCarthy does not believe that Shakespeare actually plagiarized North's unpublished work, which he somehow acquired, but as was the case with other sources of his borrowings, North's text served as a crucial guide and source, down to words deployed in the exact same order, but repurposed in style and often, it seems, meaning.  A self-taught Shakespearean and magazine journalist, McCarthy was inspired both by the idea of evolutionary development, which he had already written about, and practically by former ETH Zurich Professor Sir Brian Vickers' use of similar software in 2009 to establish that Shakespeare had co-written Edward III. McCarthy began sussing out the sources of Shakespeare's work, and followed that led him to George North's volume. Next, the Times notes

To make sure North and Shakespeare weren’t using common sources, Mr. McCarthy ran phrases through the database Early English Books Online, which contains 17 million pages from nearly every work published in English between 1473 and 1700. He found that almost no other works contained the same words in passages of the same length. Some words are especially rare; “trundle-tail” appears in only one other work before 1623.

In the past, some scholars have identified sources for Shakespeare from a few unique words. In 1977, for example, Kenneth Muir made the case that Shakespeare used a particular translation of a book of Latin stories for “The Merchant of Venice” based on the word “insculpt.” In recent years, however, it’s become rare to identify new sources for Shakespeare. “The field has been picked over so carefully,” [former University of Chicago Professor David] Bevington said.

I would add that back in 2013, I blogged about Saul Frampton's assertion that the Renaissance scholar and translation John Florio not only edited Shakespeare's works, but enriched them linguistically, adding to the Bard of Avon's already rich trove of innovative language. I found his argument quite convincing, and when I have taught the foundational course in literary studies, it is one of the essays I share and discuss with students.

Before Florio got to Shakespeare, though, Shakespeare was gleaning all kinds of gems from North, and polishing them up, McCarthy and Schlueter will suggest in their study. In the Times article, McCarthy points out how North's preface contains a unique series of terms, many familiar to us today--"proportion," "glass," "feature," "fair," etc.--to urge those who seem themselves as unattractive instead to create an inner beauty, against the stamp of nature; as it turns out, Shakespeare uses the exact set of words, in the same order, to make a different statement in the opening soliloquy of one of his unforgettable villains, the hunchbacked and unloved Richard III. What McCarthy and Schlueter divined was that this is not a one-off case; Shakespeare repeatedly not only borrowed exact terms from North, but also employed in similar series and scenes, as well as similar figures from history.

For example, in Macbeth, Shakespeare has his protagonist declaim,
"Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept
All by the name of dogs (Macbeth, III, 1)
In King Lear, Edgar says:
Tom will throw his head at them. Avaunt, you curs!
Be thy mouth or black or white,
Tooth that poisons if it bite;
Mastiff, grey-hound, mongrel grim,
Hound or spaniel, brach or lym,
Or bobtail tike or trundle-tail,
Tom will make them weep and wail:
For, with throwing thus my head,
Dogs leap the hatch, and all are fled. (King Lear, III, 6)
This list, McCarthy and Schlueter argue, is almost a mirror of North's text, with the ultra-rare "trundle-tail" a term appearing only in the source text, Shakespeare's play and one other early 17th century text. The playwright spins these borrowings out into something memorable in both plays. In another example, the reference to Merlin's speech in King Lear diverges from any previously known prophecy by the wizard, yet McCarthy and Schlueter found a version of Merlin's speech in North's text, and that it not only influenced what Shakespeare later wrote, but also the figure of the "Fool," who delivers it.

In Henry V, McCarthy finds many correspondences, as Quartzy demonstrates in the following chart:


According to reports, including one in Atlas Obscura, scholars have praised McCarthy and Schlueter's work, and it suggests that digital humanities scholars and students looking at texts might do well to utilize all the software at hand, including a tool often used to catch potential miscreants, to learn even more about the roots of key works of the past. Mr. McCarthy, it appears, certain intends to do so. His book hits bookshelves this Friday, February 16.

No comments:

Post a Comment