North began translating both the colossal Plutarch’s Lives (1579/80) and Nepos’ Lives (1602) many years before he would eventually sell them to printers. In the interim, North often used the stories and ideas he found in these unpublished translations as source-material for his plays. For example, in the mid-1590s, North decided to use Richard II as a vehicle for discussing the teachings on grief that he found in Nepos’ Lives. This is why this particular history play seems practically obsessed with the subject. As Rolf Soellner writes, “Richard II focuses on one passion, grief, and makes it the prime mover of tragic sympathy … Grief imagery penetrates the play.”
Examples of these include the discussions between Bolingbroke and John of Gaunt (1.3), the Queen and Bushy (2.2), Richard II and the Bishop of Carlisle (3.3), and Richard II and Bolingbroke (4.1). These exchanges on sadness share a number of similarities. Several times, one character expresses his or her grief, then another character counsels a more stoic attitude. Remarkably, all of these exchanges—both the description of grief and the ascetic solution to overcoming it–derive from the same three pages in Nepos’ Lives, 113-15, appearing in the chapter, “The Life of Seneca.”
That a Shakespeare play includes extensive borrowings from a translation of North is not surprising. As we have seen, everything Shakespeare ever wrote shows a remarkable and persistent fluency with everything North every wrote. But what makes this particular debt especially compelling is that North would not publish Nepos Lives until 1602—five years after the publication of Richard II (1597). Thus, as this post shows, the original playwright of Richard II had to have access to North’s personal drafts of chapters of Nepos’ Lives long before they were printed.
In other words, these examples constitute another smoking gun, confirming that Shakespeare was not constantly recalling passages from North’s prose translations but simply adapting North’s plays.
A full discussion on all the passages on grief and passion in Richard II is beyond the scope of this essay, but just one example will be sufficient to confirm the playwright’s reliance on North’s text. After giving an account of Seneca’s life, North’s chapter discusses the four causes of an unhappy life, which includes fear of death, pains of the body, psychic torments or “griefs of the soul,” and finally overwhelming passion:
After this listing of griefs, North’s translation then details Seneca’s stoic advice on how to shun these feelings. The playwright, in turn, then uses this list of passions – and the stoic homilies that they precipitate — as a thematic blueprint for the play, reproducing them in four different exchanges.
In confronting the “griefs of the soul,” North’s chapter observes that it is the result of loss of perspective, plaguing those who “see things as in the water and with a corrupt eye.” Once we gain the proper perspective, we can overcome such griefs. The translation then discusses those whose “inward griefs” are so significant that they would willingly “dissolve the bands of this life,” thus abandoning hope and preferring death.
Remarkably, in Richard II, the exchange between Queen and Bushy (2.2) repeats these same ideas in the same order while frequently using the same language. The Queen first agonizes over the grief of her inward soul. Bushy then offers stoic counseling, explaining such agonies are the result of a loss of perspective, seeing things with a false eye as through the water of tears. The Queen responds that she has now abandoned hope and prefers death, which would gently “dissolve the bands of life.”
|North’s Nepos’ Lives (1602)||Shakespeare’s Richard II (1597)|
|Griefs of the inward soul, seeing things in water, and dissolving the bands of life||Griefs of the inward soul, seeing things in water, and dissolving the bands of life|
|The first cause is death, that is to say, the and imagination to lose this earthly and corruptible life. For where there is fear…it is not a pleasant life, but a sorrowful life and a torment of the mind. The second is the bodily grief, lingering diseases… Besides all this, there are the griefs of the soul … If the grief of the body affecteth the rest and contentment of the mind—much more doth the inward grief and anguish. And finally there are passions, as joy and pleasure, which hinder and abolish the feeling of a happy life….|
to remedy the griefs before named … Seneca … sheweth the wrong which men of understanding do, and the error of their judgment—
who see things as in the water and with a corrupt eye…. [dissolve the bands-of-life addendum]
He would have this wise man put himself to death, and of his authority and power dissolve the bands of this life without leave of the sovereign Captain and with a testimony of a strange cowardliness and distrust of the doctrine of the eternal Providence: the which would have us keep a steadfast hope and confidence, yea even when things seem to be most desperate. (113-115)
Looketh awry upon (108)
| Bushy: Madam, your majesty is too much sad: |
You promised, when you parted with the king,
To lay aside life-harming heaviness …
Queen: Yet I know no cause
Why I should welcome such a guest as grief…
Some unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune’s womb
Is coming towards me, and my inward soul…
Bushy: Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so;
For sorrow’s eyes, glazèd with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects,
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon
Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry
Distinguish form. So your sweet Majesty,
Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,
Find shapes of grief more than himself to wail
Which, look’d on as it is, is nought but shadows
Of what it is not. Then, thrice-gracious Queen,
… weep not. More’s not seen,
Or if it be, ’tis with false sorrow’s eye,
Which for things true weeps things imaginary….
Queen: [dissolve the bands-of-life addendum]
Who shall hinder me? I will despair, and be at enmity
With cozening hope. He is a flatterer,
A parasite, a keeper-back of death
Who gently would dissolve the bands of life
Which false hope lingers in extremity. –2.2.1-72
*looketh wry upon appears in another stoic speech in the same chapter of Nepos’ Lives (108)
|North’s Nepos’ Lives||Richard II|
|Sorrowful, life, |
griefs of the soul, the inward grief
|Life, grief, sorrow, |
my inward soul, grief
|see things as in the water |
and with a corrupt eye
|eyes, glazèd with blinding tears / Divides one thing … seen … with false sorrow’s eye … things|
|He would … dissolve the bands of this life, death, keep, which… hope||He … would dissolve the bands of life, keeper, death, which … hope|
|Imagination, lingering, hinder, shadows, Looketh awry upon*||imaginary, lingers, hinder, shadow, |
looking awry upon
*looketh wry upon appears in another stoic speech in the same chapter of Nepos’ Lives (108)
Both passages frequently repeat the word grief. It appears seven times in the first 36 lines of this scene in Richard II –and seven times in the relevant section of North’s Nepos Lives (113-15). As North describes first describes griefs of the soul and the inward grief, the Queen first describes the grief of her inward soul. Then, just as North’s Seneca claims that such grief is the result of loss of perspective, affecting those who “see things as in the water and with a corrupt eye,” Bushy responds analogously, again blaming the visual distortions that affect eyes that see things through the water of tears. Importantly, both passages are not simply referring to the psychological influence of sadness; rather, they are referring to the physical alteration of vision by water or tears. The playwright even echoes other content-words from these same Northern discussions on grief, including imagination, lingering, hinder, shadows. In another stoic speech in this same chapter on the stoic counseling of Seneca, we find: “Envy looketh awry upon me” (108) which is also echoed by Bushy: “Looking awry upon your lord’s departure.” Nowhere else in the canon does Shakespeare use look awry in any form–and nowhere else in the translation does North use the word awry.
Finally, the Queen then quotes North’s concluding lines, referring to the abandonment of hope among those who would choose death and would dissolve the bands of (this) life. The Queen is just such an example, and we can prove with just this parallel alone that the dramatist is following North’s translation. Indeed EEBO confirms that dissolve the bands of (this) life is, in and of itself, nearly unique; only two other works have something similar, and both are quoting the same little-known prayer. We know the playwright is not working from this obscure prayer as it does not come in a stoic conversation on grief and includes none of the other distinctive echoes. For example, just searching EEBO for the “dissolve the bands of…life” line near death or grief again confirms the uniqueness of the parallel.
The same is true with a Google and Google Books search for “dissolve the bands of” within 20 words of both life and death. All results on all the pages are Richard II, excepting a few quotes of North’s Nepos Lives, which had been published under various titles in the nineteenth century. This cannot be a coincidence. It is of course wildly improbable that two writers would independently craft such similar passages on grief, expressing the same distinctive ideas while using the same language, which includes the same peculiar quote.
This particular parallel is especially telling because, as noted, North would not publish Nepos’ Lives till 1602, five years after Shakespeare published Richard II. And one cannot argue that North was, at this point, borrowing from Shakespeare, for, with much of this language, North was carefully following Simon Goulart’s French version of Nepos’ Lives. It is not from the play but from Goulart’s despestrer des liens de ceste vie that North first got dissolve the bands of this life. Similarly, one cannot argue that Shakespeare, himself, was also coincidentally working from Simon Goulart’s French text because the passage repeatedly echoes North’s idiosyncratic word choices. For example, a more likely translation of Goulart’s despestrer des liens would have been disentangle or untie the bonds –rather than North’s dissolve the bands. Likewise, North always translated Goulart’s tristesse as grief, not sadness, and interieure as inward, not interior, etc. And in every case, the playwright’s word-choice matched North’s word-choice.
In summary, it is simply impossible to deny that the original author of Richard II was extremely familiar with North’s English translation of the stoic discussions on grief in Nepos Lives – and was familiar with it before North ever published it.
 Rolf Soellner, Shakespeare’s Patterns of Self-knowledge (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972), 98.
 Bevington’s edition substitutes “bonds” for “bands,” but “bands” is the original word in both the first quarto and First Folio versions of Richard II.
 This search was done on the old EEBO. On EEBO-Proquest, it is no longer easy to search for word-strings near other words or word strings (for example “dissolve the bands of” NEAR life). But it is still possible. In this case, one must search for dissolve PRE/0 the PRE/0 bands PRE/0 of PRE/1 life, and you find only North and Shakespeare. If you use PRE/2 life, you find that one other little known prayer, first published by Thomas Bentley in 1582 and then later quoted, but these passages have nothing to do with grief.
 The precise search phraseology used for Google and Google Books is: “dissolve the bands of” AROUND(20) life AROUND(20) death. Hundreds of quotes of Richard II appear—as do a few quotes of North’s Nepos Lives, though under different titles.
 Simon Goulart, Les vies des hommes illustres grecs et romains, comparees l’vne auec l’autre par Plutarque de Cheronee. Translatees par mr Iaques Amyot … Plus yont esté ajoustees de nouueau les vies d’Epaminondas, de Philippus de Macedoine, de Dionysius l’aisné tyran de Sicile, d’August Cesar, de Plutarque, & de Senecque, tirees de bons auteurs. Item les vies des excellens chefs de guerre, prises du latin d’Emilius Probus. Le tout disposé par S.G.S. (Lyon: Paul Frellon, 1605), 791.