The Roman Adaptations

While many of Shakespeare’s borrowings derive from North’s translations, it is important to stress that it was North’s particular English wording that so captured the attention of the playwright—not the French, Italian, and Spanish words of the original author. Indeed, North frequently veered from the original foreign text to rework it into his own masterful style, punching up speeches, embellishing the images, and electrifying the narrative. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature describes North’s version of Plutarch’s Lives as a bold and original tour-de-force: “It is not Plutarch. In many respects, it is Plutarch’s antithesis. North composed a new masterpiece upon Plutarch’s theme.”[1] R. H. Carr, an editor of an early twentieth-century edition of Plutarch’s Lives, agreed about the originality and tenor of his prose: “But isolated quotations can give no adequate idea of the fluent splendour of North’s language. The whole temper of the Elizabethan age, with all its poetry, its enthusiasm, its love of adventure, its eager hero-worship, is incarnate in his pages.”[2] George Wyndham, another editor of Plutarch’s Lives, expressed even more flattering praise for North’s writing abilities: “Of good English prose there is much, but of the world’s greatest books in great English prose there are not many. Here is one, worthy to stand with Malory’s Morte d’Arthur on either side of the English Bible.”[3]

North then transferred many of the stories, images, ideas, speeches and characters from his translations directly into his own plays, and many of them still remain in Shakespeare’s adaptations. The result, as shown throughout this webpage, is that literally hundreds of passages in the Shakespeare canon can be traced back to North’s prose texts. And scholars are already aware of a small fraction of these borrowings. At least since the eighteenth-century, researchers have contended that when Shakespeare wrote his three Roman tragedies—Julius Caesar, Coriolanus,and Antony and Cleopatra and, to a lesser extent, the Greek tragedy Timon of Athens—he had North’s Plutarch’s Lives open beside him, closely following the relevant source-chapters and subsuming many of North’s passages with little change:

“Shakespeare, the first poet of all time, borrowed three plays almost wholly from North,” wrote Wyndham about the Roman plays. “Shakespeare’s obligation is apparent in almost all he has written. To measure it you must quote the bulk of the three plays.”[4]

In reality, it was North who had originally made plays out of his own chapters from Plutarch’s Lives and reused his own passages. Shakespeare then adapted these dramas. But the upshot in either case is the same: it is currently conventional that the storylines, characters, scenes, and even many of the speeches of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies all first came from the pen of Thomas North.

Tucker Brooke also agreed with Wyndham’s estimate of the translator’s genius and Shakespeare’s debt. He noted that a study of North’s chapters on Mark Antony and the warrior-general Coriolanus “shows that the dramatist was satisfied in no small number of cases to incorporate whole speeches from North with the least change consistent with the production of blank verse.”[5] One of Tucker Brooke’s examples appears in the climax of Coriolanus, in which Volumnia begs her son Coriolanus not to lead his army into a vengeful attack on their home-city of Rome. It is an historical moment in the early years of the Roman republic, and her successful appeal preserves the city-state, allowing it to evolve into an empire. In a recent film version of Coriolanus (2011), starring Ralph Fiennes as the Roman general, Vanessa Redgrave plays Volumnia, and her power and gravitas help intensify the speech. But as shown in the table below, Redgrave was really delivering a monologue from North’s Plutarch’s Lives (1580), which Shakespeare would not stage until ~1607, some 27 years later:

North’s Plutarch’s LivesCoriolanus
If we … [were] not to speak, the state of our poor bodies, and … our raiment would easily bewray to thee what life we have led at home, since thy exile … (T)hink now with thyself how much more unfortunately than all the women living we are come hither …    
If I cannot persuade thee
rather to do good unto both parties
than to overthrow and destroy the onetrust unto it—thou shalt no sooner march forward to assault thy country, but thy foot shall tread upon thy mothers womb that brought thee first into this world. (256)
Should we be silent and not speak, our raiment
And state of bodies would bewray what life
We have led since thy exile. Think with thyself
How more unfortunate than all living women
Are we come hither …      
If I cannot persuade thee
Rather to show a noble grace to both parts
Than seek the end of one, thou shalt no sooner
March to assault thy country than to tread—
Trust to ’t, thou shalt not—on thy mother’s womb
That brought thee to this world. (5.3.94-97, 120-25)

After listing five such examples, Tucker Brooke concluded with a significant remark:

“[T]hese passages, all of which rank among the special treasures of Shakespearean poetry, come straight and essentially unaltered out of North…

“In the passages I have cited there is little evidence of any attempt at improvement; indeed, it may be held in regard to several of them that the palm belongs rather to North’s prose than to Shakespeare’s poetry. That this should be so is a fact worthy of all wonder and attention, for the like can be said of no other of Shakespeare’s rivals or assistants.” — Tucker Brooke, Shakespeare’s Plutarch.

This is an astonishing fact that has gotten too little attention. The passages that Shakespeare borrows from North, as numerous scholars point out, also seem peculiarly “Shakespearean” and do not differ in quality from the rest of the play. In fact, many of the borrowings are, in the words of Tucker Brooke, “among the special treasures of Shakespearean poetry.”

This, in and of itself, establishes a unique literary relationship between North and Shakespeare. After all, we do not find Fyodor Dostoevsky, Émile Zola, Charlotte Brontë, or other renowned authors routinely appropriating paragraphs, again and again, from the same contemporary. Nor do we find such pilfering in the works of other Shakespeare-era literati—such as Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, or John Fletcher. What is more, as we have seen, prior scholars have uncovered only a small fraction of Shakespeare’s debt to North’s translations. For when North wrote his plays, he did not confine his attention to three or four relevant chapters from his Plutarch’s Lives; he mined every part of it. He also borrowed extensively from his three other translations, allowing us to trace the influence of North’s prose works throughout the Shakespeare canon, starting with the first play and continuing to the last.Plagiarism software—the same kind of software that is the bane of cheating students—has been indispensable in helping establish the pervasiveness of these borrowings.Literally hundreds of passages in the Shakespeare plays—including many of the most famous soliloquies—can now be traced back to North’s translations.

Some might suggest that Shakespeare may have had a lifelong and all-consuming obsession with North’s publications and so would compulsively regurgitate the translator’s passages. But the plays also include a significant amount of material taken from North’s travel-diary of his 1555 trip to Rome—a work that North never published. Likewise, Richard II, first printed in 1597, contains unmistakable borrowings from North’s manuscript translation of Nepos Lives, which North would not publish until 1602. It was North who would have had access to his own personal papers, not Shakespeare, and it was North who was constantly recalling his prior writings and transforming them into memorable soliloquies and scenes.

Yet North’s plays were not simply, or even mainly, the by-product of what he had studied and translated; they were also a glorious consequence of what he had lived. Like many great works of literature, these magnificent dramas were not penned by someone disassociated from its characters and events; rather, the works were deeply and persistently reflective of the life of the author. Michael Blanding’s North by Shakespeare: A Rogue Scholar’s Quest for the Truth Behind the Bard’s Work, available March 30th, provides a brilliant introduction to the biographical connections between North and the plays, while Thomas North’s 1555 Travel-Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare shows how North used the experiences of the trip as inspiration for Henry VIII and The Winter’s Tale.

28. Pages and Pages of North’s Passages in “Julius Caesar”

Julius Caesar is yet another Shakespearean tragedy that has been taken whole from North’s Plutarch’s Lives. The play is a scene-by-scene remake of North’s chapters on Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus. Note in the picture above, not only is the playwright closely following North’s Plutarch, he also borrows material from North’s Dial. We will discuss…

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27. Dozens of North’s Passages in “Antony & Cleopatra”

1. Each of the 11 pictures will showcase another page of passages in Antony & Cleopatra that clearly derive from related material in North’s Plutarch’s Lives. Each will also include a scholar’s quote related to North’s “incomparable prose” and Shakespeare’s debt to it. 2. “The music of that play’s language still has this effect upon me. And…

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26. Dozens of North’s Passages in “Coriolanus”

1. Each of the eight attached pictures will show another page of speeches in Coriolanus that clearly derive form related passages in North’s Plutarch’s Lives. 2. Michael Blanding’s North by Shakespeare will explore arguments that North actually wrote the plays on Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra based on his chapters in Plutarch’s Lives…

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25. Coriolanus’s Address to Aufidius

After listing a series of dramatic passages in Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra that were taken almost verbatim from North, the editor Tucker Brooke wrote: “[T]hese passages, all of which rank among the special treasures of Shakespearean poetry, come straight and essentially unaltered out of North… “In the passages I have cited there is little…

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24. The Poetic Description of Cleopatra’s Barge on the River Cydnus

Before many Shakespeareans had learned that the Roman plays actually came straight from North, some would occasionally highlight some of North’s passages in these works as among their favorite, writing long essays on how they demonstrate the playwright’s genius. For example, in an early-twentieth-century series of reviews in Harpers’ Monthly Magazine, the critic James Douglas…

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23. The Death of Cleopatra

One of the most famous scenes in the canon is the immortal description of Cleopatra’s suicide. This too, like the rest of the play, comes from North: North’s Plutarch’s Lives (1580) Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1607) [H]er other woman called Charmian [stood]half-dead and trembling, trimming the Diadem which Cleopatra wore upon her head. One of…

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[1] The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes, Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton, I. Translators; 6 Sir Thomas North’s Plutarch (1907–21),

[2] R. H. Carr, Introduction to Plutarch’s Lives of Coriolanus, Caesar, Brutus, and Antonius in North’s Translation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906), xiv.

[3] George Wyndham, Introduction to Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Englished by Sir Thomas North (London: David Nutt, 1895), ci.

[4] George Wyndham, Introduction to Plutarch’s Lives,  lxxxviii.

[5] C. F. Tucker Brooke, Shakespeare’s Plutarch: The Main Sources of “Antony and Cleopatra” and of “Coriolanus” (New York: Duffield & Company, 1909), 2:x.

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