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:
Another editor Felix Emmanuel Schelling also put the translator and dramatist on equal footing: “It has been well said that in North alone among his sources Shakespeare met his match.”[i]
But perhaps it is George Wyndham who most clearly recognized the genius of North and his importance to the Roman plays: While many researchers have noted the extraordinariness of North’s Plutarch, with Robert Adger Law, for example, referring to it as “one of the great monuments of English prose,”[ii] Wyndham goes further and marks it as one of the three greatest examples in the English language. As Wyndham wrote about North’s translation: “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.”[iii] Indeed, he identifies North’s extraordinary style as so thoroughly infused into the “Shakespearean” dramas that, when it comes to the Roman plays, it becomes well-nigh impossible for him to tease apart the differences in abilities and contributions of the two writers: “Shakespeare’s obligation is apparent in almost all he has written. To measure it you must quote the bulk of the three plays.”[iv]
In an analysis of the climactic scene in Coriolanus, Wyndham emphasizes how the vocabulary, rhythm, and structure of Volumnia’s moving soliloquy all belong to North:
In examining the origins of Antony and Cleopatra, Wyndham portrayed Shakespeare as “possessed,” “haunted,” and “spellbound” by the great translator: “Shakespeare, indeed, is saturated with North’s language, possessed by his passion. He is haunted by the story as North told it.…”[vi] His marginal comment next to this analysis is “Shakespeare possessed by North.”
When Wyndham then turns to the final acts of Antony and Cleopatra, he finds some of the greatest English verse yet penned –- with “flashes of immortal speech which have given the Fourth Act of Antony and Cleopatra its place apart even in Shakespeare.”[vii] But even in this, Wyndham recognizes, the work is dependent upon and follows quite naturally from the supremacy of North’s imagery and language. “I doubt if there are many pages,” wrote Wyndham about the translation, “which may rank with these last of North’s Antonius in the prose of any language.” In Wyndham’s view, North’s and Shakespeare’s accounts of the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra surpass essentially everything else written by other English literati, and they are melded at the base and connected all the way through.
As Wyndham continues to detail the debt owed to North, the two writers appear to blur together:
Consider precisely what Wyndham is admitting when he first identifies the last acts of Antony and Cleopatra as among the best in Shakespeare’s canon, yet then goes on to describe the work as thoroughly soaked with North’s influence, dripping with his phrases and language. Consider what he is admitting when he says that even at the highest flights achieved in these final acts, still “Shakespeare has not transcended his original.”[ix]
[i] Felix Emmanuel Schelling, English Literature During the Lifetime of Shakespeare (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1910), 280.
[ii] Robert Adger Law, “The Text of ‘Shakespeare‘s Plutarch‘”, The Huntington Library Quarterly (1943) 6(2): 197-203.
[iv] George Wyndham, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Englished by Sir Thomas North, With an Introduction by George Wyndham, David Nutt (London: David Nutt, 1895), lxxxviii, xc (88, 90).
[v] Wyndham, xcii –xciii (92-93).
[vi] George Wyndham, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Englished by Sir Thomas North, With an Introduction by George Wyndham, David Nutt (London: David Nutt, 1895), xciv.
[vii] Wyndham, xcvi (96).
[viii] Wyndham, xcviii- xcix (98-99).
[ix] Wyndham, xcviii- xcix (98-99).