Plagiarism software unearths a new source for Shakespeare’s plays

Plagiarism software used to catch cheating students has been put to work on the opus of William Shakespeare, unveiling a new source for many of the playwright’s famous works.

Plagiarism software unearths a new source for Shakespeare’s plays

As The New York Times reports, a pair of academics found a 16th-century unpublished manuscript that they believe the English writer consulted to write plays including King Lear, Macbeth and Richard III.

In a book due to be published next week by the British Library and academic press D. S. Brewer, Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter lay out a case that Shakespeare was inspired by a manuscript titled “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels”, written by a minor figure in Queen Elizabeth’s court called George North.     

The authors of the study do not believe Shakespeare plagiarised work from North, but that he was clearly inspired by the lesser writer’s accounts. “It’s a source that he keeps coming back to,” McCarthy, a self-taught Shakespeare scholar, told The New York Times.

“It affects the language, it shapes the scenes and it, to a certain extent, really even influences the philosophy of the plays.”

Part of the process to validate a connection between North and Shakespeare’s writing involved feeding the texts into the open-source tool WCopyfind, largely used to spot plagiarism in student essays. The software works by identifying common words and phrases between documents, and found a number of passages across Shakespeare’s plays that chime with North’s writing.

In Richard III, for example, the opening soliloquy uses a number of words in a very similar order to the dedication in North’s manuscript. Both pieces also touch on a common sentiment, albeit from opposing angles: North’s passage centres on those who are outwardly ugly being inwardly beautiful, whereas Shakespeare’s lines follow Richard’s logic of acting the villain because he is outwardly ugly.

The details of the death of a minor character in Henry VI Part 2 – the failed rebellion leader Jack Cade – are also similar to a section of North’s manuscript that focuses on the real-life Cade and two other well-known rebels. The researchers believe Shakespeare may have condensed these three figures into the single part of Cade in his play.

Shakespeare is well known for borrowing plots and turns of phrase from other writers, from Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio to his contemporary Christopher Marlowe. McCarthy and Schlueter’s evidence suggests that the writer also mined North’s manuscript when developing some of his most famous work. While the intricacies of influence are nebulous and often hard to trace with any real specificity, the new book strongly suggests that the iconic dramatist borrowed more than a few turns of phrases from the obscure 16th-century document.

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