Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving,” wrote Shakespeare in Othello. The Bard’s legacy, dogged for centuries by allegations of plagiarism, is today vulnerable to becoming testimony to this. Two writers, using a plagiarism-detection software, have discovered that Shakespeare may have drawn significant “inspiration” from an unpublished tome to script some of the most memorable lines from his finest plays—King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, Henry V and seven others. Ever since the 19th century, literary circles have fiercely debated if Shakespeare plagiarised, or if he was a real person at all—and not a nom de plume. Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter report in their new book, the striking similarities of content between 11 of Shakespeare’s plays and A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels, written by George North, a minor diplomat of the Elizabethan era, in the late 1500s.
NYT reports that North urges “those who might see themselves as ugly to strive to be inwardly beautiful, to defy nature”. Using many of North’s words, in strikingly similar sentence structure, Shakespeare gets his Richard III, in the eponymous play, to argue the opposite: since he (Richard) is outwardly ugly, he must live up to his appearance with cultivated villainy. McCarthy/Schlueter argue that Shakespeare has not only often used the same words as North, but also in very similar contexts and even via the same historical figures. Ajuxtaposition of “dog hierarchy” with hierarchy among humans to argue that hierarchy is natural, made by North in his book, is repeated with the same list of dogs in both King Lear and Macbeth.
But, as McCarthy/Schlueter argue, it would be wrong to see Shakespeare as a plagiarist. North may or may not be the “middling writer” that McCarthy finds him to be, but there is no disputing Shakespeare’s genius in explaining human nature, with all its hues and shades, lucidly and poignantly. Shakespeareans may have to tip their hats to the pantheon that influenced the Bard’s works, but rabid Shakespeare-baiters will be doing the world a great disservice by just serving him up as a textbook plagiarist. Shakespeare is a literary magpie—he “drew inspirations” here and there, sure, but what he created is as wondrous as it is original.