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Shakespeare’s hidden inspiration

Plagiarism software finds new source for plays

Shakespeare is one the most famous and influential writers to have ever lived, and he remains one of the most commonly read writers worldwide. However, a recent discovery has maybe found the Bard to be less original than has been thought.

Photo credit: Bobby Jones • CU Denver Sentry

Two scholars, Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, used plagiarism detection software, WCopyfind, to compare various Shakespeare plays to an unpublished manuscript from 1576 titled, “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels.”

The plagiarism software found similarities between the unpublished manuscript by playwright George North and eleven of Shakespeare’s plays. This list includes such famous and revered works as Macbeth and King Lear. The software revealed that Shakespeare’s and North’s work use the same key words such as “glass,”  “proportion,” “fair,” “feature,” “deformed,” “world,” “shadow,” and “nature,” in many of the same situations.

McCarthy and Schlueter have published a book about their findings, A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels by George North: A Newly Uncovered Manuscript Source for Shakespeare’s Plays, that was released on Feb. 16. In an interview with the New York Times, both writers discuss that their findings have not been verified by other scholars in the Shakespearean field. Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, came to the defense of McCarthy and Schlueter in saying that “at its core, this remains a literary argument, not a statistical one.” He also points out that having these findings verified by others would merely be “icing on the cake.”

McCarthy and Schlueter’s book presents a fascinating, though unverified, assumption about the creative process of one of the greatest literary figures to ever live. The book has received its fair share of praise and criticism, though most of the reviews are in the former category.

This finding has understandably caused an enormous stir within the literary community, both because of its scope but also because of its validity. There are many scholars who believe that Shakespeare was not plagiarizing the text but had merely read it. McCarthy and Schlueter both agree that, at most, Shakespeare was only inspired by the work; however, disagreeing scholars concur that the discovery of a new source for the Bard’s works is highly unlikely, as the field has already been combed over countless  times.

“This book might well have been read by Shakespeare, but there’s an eight-volume hardback work about sources of Shakespeare,” says English professor John Mullan. “[W]hen you look at a particular play, Henry IV Part I for example, it has nine lengthy chunks from different works. They’re labelled as source, or possible source, or probable source, or historical analogue, or analogue. There are different degrees of sourciness.”

Jody Thomas, an English professor at CU Denver, is excited about the discovery, saying “It’s really cool that something like Shakespeare, that’s been researched to death for 400 years, still has discoveries we can make.”

“This shows how Shakespeare’s genius was in compiling and taking different influences and putting those together in a new way,” said Thomas. “It’s our developing understanding of Shakespeare that he wasn’t a genius working alone in an attic, there were lots of influences and maybe the stuff was so great because it was collaborative.”

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