North’s Handwritten Notes in his “Dial” Mark the Passages He Used for his Plays

On March 29, 1591, Thomas North purchased a used, 1582-edition of his Dial of Princes for 5 shillings, signing the back and dating the purchase—a copy now kept at the Cambridge University Library. Then he began rereading or skimming certain sections, skipping from here to there, underscoring certain lines and passages, and adding various notes in the margins. A study of this marginalia helps confirm that North used this edition as his own personal research-storehouse and workbook for adding new material to his Arden of Feversham and The Taming of the Shrew. North also made use of it during his original penning of Macbeth. Not coincidentally, all three plays focus on fierce and (nearly) indomitable wives.

Many independent lines of evidence indicate North first wrote Arden of Feversham, the true-crime tragedy about his half-sister and brother-in-law, in 1556-8.[1] But it resurfaced again, perhaps with Shakespeare’s theater company, in the late 1580s to early 1590s, clearly influencing other playwrights from that time period, especially Thomas Kyd and John Lyly. It was then first published in 1592. North’s marginalia show indisputable connections to this publication, suggesting a final touch-up at this time, especially the addition of certain scenes.

North’s markings begin early in the book, even in the prologue and table of contents. Importantly, out of a large table-of-contents listing 177 chapters (and running 13 pages), North only adds notes to only three of those listed chapter-titles. All three of these chapters and their titles are relevant to his plays. In one of these examples (see figure below), North has underlined a subtitle that North also wrote out in the margin – the same subtitle he would then use within the year, with very little change, for his publication of Arden of Feversham:

As shown on the page on the left, North writes out the subtitle of one of his chapters, “The great malice and little pacience of an evil woman.” The full subtitle that he has also partially underlined reads:  “Wherein is expressed the great malice and little patience of an evil woman.”  (On this same page, there is another marginal note—“Livia”—but that is merely correcting a mistake: “of Libia.”)

The dating of North’s purchase of this copy of “The Dial” –1591–as well as the dating of one of the marginalia as 1592 helps determine a likely date for these markings. This is the same the same year that Arden of Feversham (1592) was published anonymously. As clear, the tragedy reused this same subtitle with little change: 

North’s Dial: “Wherein is expressed the great malice and little patience of an evil woman.”  Arden subtitle: Wherein is shewed the great malice and dissimulation of a wicked woman.” 

This is not a coincidence. It is essentially the same 13-word line, maintaining the same rhythm throughout, and includes a mere three substituted terms. If you were to search Google and its more than 130 trillion webpages for all known books, essays, blogs, articles, etc., that include something like these two lines, you only get The Dial and Arden of Feversham. Indeed, the wording is so peculiar that even if you just search for the shared opening of the subtitle, placing the phrase “wherein is” within 10 words of “the great malice,” you still only get these two results.[2] The figure on the left shows a screen-capture of this Google search, with a column of text boxes added for clarity. The same search on EEBO also only yields The Dial and Arden of Feversham.

In other words, as far as it is possible to tell, no one else has ever put those words together—not in the sixteenth century, not in the seventeenth century, and not since—no one, that is, except for Thomas North and the author of the tragedy about his half-sister.

And remarkably, North also underlines this subtitle and requotes it in the margin of his own copy of The Dial in the same year the play is published.

Moreover, these same chapters that North highlights in the table-of-contents include still other passages that he marked and then worked into Arden of Feversham. For example, in one passage that he highlights with a vertical line running along the margin, and in which he underlines the opening sentences, Marcus Aurelius, the main mouthpiece of North’s translation, complains to his troublesome wife, Faustine, that in most cases, religious teachings and concern for reputation are often enough to keep women virtuous.

But, he says, “if the fear of the Gods, the infamy of the person, and the speech of men do not restrain the woman, all the chastisements of the world will not make her refrain from vice” (149v). Previously, in the beginning of this same chapter, Aurelius counsels Faustine against being “deeply rooted in vices” (147). Thus, in the opening of scene 4 of Arden of Feversham, as Arden talks with his friend Franklin about the uncontrollable Alice, he makes this exact same point about his wife and uses the same language: 

Clearly, this is a unique parallel. Just an EEBO search for a juxtaposition of fear of God (or fear of the Gods) and speech of men yields no results other than Arden of Feversham and The Dial.

Even more incredibly, Google also only shows Arden of Feversham with no other results. The Dial does not turn up because of its use of archaic spelling–“if the feare of the gods.” In contrast, Arden of Feversham appears because many published editions include modernized spelling. However, when we try a Google search for “feare of” within 20 words of “speech of men,” we find only The Dial of Princes and two older editions of Arden of Feversham:

Moreover, the passages share still other conspicuous resemblances. For example, chastisement is a synonym for reprehension, and both are followed by make(s) her…vice. Each passage also makes the same distinctive point.

The playwright has necessarily recalled a passage from North’s translation when writing about North’s half-sister, a passage that North himself had marked in the margins and that appears in a chapter that North had highlighted in the table of contents.

[1] All the evidence related to North’s original authorship of Arden of Feversham –including the fact that this was the cause of his disinheritance and that he got the idea for the play’s final miracle from a story he recorded during his 1555 trip to Italy—has been presented in lectures or at Shakespeare conferences and will be discussed in detail in future works.

[2] A quick way to determine that The Dial of Princes is indeed the only other work to juxtapose these phrases is to subtract out all results that include the word “Arden.” One can use a dash, or minus sign, to do this. That is, enter: “wherein is” AROUND “the great malice” -Arden.

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