Shakespeare exposed by plagiarism detector

Copycat: A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels was a source for some Shakespeare plays.

Is the world's greatest writer a cheat? Software normally used to outwit exam fraud has disclosed an obscure manuscript that was the source of many of the Bard's most famous lines.

The great Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote that Shakespeare’s works arose purely from “the unfathomable depths of his own oceanic mind”. In reality, Shakespeare actually had a little more help than is often acknowledged.

And that fact has been emphasised after scholars used anti-plagiarism software to discover a previously unknown source for 11 of his plays, including King Lear, Macbeth, and Richard III.

The text is called A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels by George North, who was a minor courtier in the service of Elizabeth I. North may not have had a lasting impact on history, but his book struck a chord with Britain’s most famous writer.

It seems Shakespeare often flicked through it for inspiration. For example, in one section North urges people who see themselves as ugly to focus on inner beauty, using words like “proportion”, “feature”, “deformed”, and “shadow” to make his case. Shakespeare uses the same terms in the same order in the opening soliloquy of Richard III (except here the king claims that his ugliness makes him an evil villain).

But Shakespeare’s adaptation of other writer’s work extends well beyond the odd speech. The plot of Romeo and Juliet was largely taken from a poem by Arthur Brooke. And several of his history plays were adapted from a book called Holinshed’s Chronicles.

Modern readers celebrate the “originality” of contemporary artists, but in Shakespeare’s day collaboration was a good thing — whether that meant building on the work of past masters, or teaming up with other writers.

However, this culture gradually changed. In the 18th century the Romantic poets revelled in the creative power of the lone individual. Picture William Wordsworth as he “wandered lonely as a cloud” singing of the “bliss of solitude”.

According to the scholar Marjorie Garber, this “cult of the natural genius” has stuck, meaning we are more likely to celebrate art if it is the completely original work of one person.

So does that make Shakespeare a cheat for using so many sources?

Much ado

Of course not, some argue. The point is what Shakespeare did with his source material. The philosophical depths and linguistic beauty with which he reshaped old stories truly is the work of a genius. And besides, all artists are influenced by other people's work regardless of how "original" they may seem.

We should take him off his pedestal, others respond. "Cheat" may be pushing it a little far, but we must recognise that Shakespeare's plays came alive through the imagination and labour of more than just one man. Viewing him less like a lone genius lets us celebrate the oft forgotten power of collaboration and the value of passing ideas on.

You Decide

  1. Is Shakespeare the greatest writer in history?
  2. Does a work of art need to be totally original to be great?

Activities

  1. Did you know that people quote Shakespeare every day without realising? Click on the last link in Become An Expert. It shows some popular sayings which come direct from his plays. How many of these have you actually said?
  2. Do some research into Shakespeare’s use of sources. What types of books did he use? How many languages would he needed to know to read these texts? How do his plays differ from their sources?

Some People Say...

“Shakespeare was more original than his originals.”

Walter Savage Landor

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Shakespeare’s use of sources is well known and discussed among scholars. The few plays for which a written source for the plot has not been found are Love’s Labours Lost, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare is thought to have contributed to other plays not typically included within his canon, including Edward III and Sir Thomas More.
What do we not know?
Some persist with a theory that William Shakespeare is not the true writer behind the plays. Other authors suggested include Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. However, no clear proof of this theory has ever been put forward.

Word Watch

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
British poet (1772 — 1834). He is most well know for his poem The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.
Unfathomable
Impossible to be fully explored or understood.
Scholars
The discovery was made by June Schlueter and Dennis McCarthy — a self taught Shakespeare scholar known by some as “the Steve Jobs of the Shakespeare community”.
Anti-plagiarism
The software is called WCopyfind, which works by picking out common words and phrases shared by different texts.
Originality
Some modern scholars believe that it is impossible for texts to be truly original, and that authors are always unwittingly quoting past writers and thinkers. For example, the French theorist Roland Barthes has said that all texts are a “tissue of quotations”.
Writers
Shakespeare collaborated with several other playwrights of the era including John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, and George Wilkins.