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 poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote that Shakespeare’s works arose purely from the “depths of his own oceanic mind”. In reality, Shakespeare actually had a bit of help.

And that fact has been emphasised after scholars used computers to discover a previously unknown source for 11 of his plays.

The text is called A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels by George North.

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.

But Shakespeare’s adaptation of other’s work extends beyond the odd speech. For example, the plot of Romeo and Juliet was taken from a poem by Arthur Brooke.

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

But this culture has changed. In the 18th century Romantic poets revelled in the creative power of the lone individual.

This idea stuck, with many people now more likely to celebrate art if it is the original work of one person.

So does that make Shakespeare a cheat for using 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.

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.

You Decide

  1. Is Shakespeare the greatest writer in history?

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 from his plays. How many of these have you actually said?

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.
What do we not know?
Some persist with a theory that William Shakespeare is not the true writer behind the plays. 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.
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”.
Writers
Shakespeare collaborated with several other playwrights of the era including John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, and George Wilkins.

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