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 yet … this celebrated description of Cleopatra on her barge was taken more or less verbatim from North’s translation of Plutarch

3. “So what turned me to gooseflesh? The Shakespearean music? Or the words and images written by Sir Thomas North, which are verbally very, very close to Shakespeare?”

–A. N. Wilson

4. “Shakespeare’s obligation is apparent in almost all he has written. To measure it you must quote the bulk of the three plays.”

–George Wyndham

5. “Shakespeare changed the word-music of prose into the word-music of poetry but he did not originate the music nor create the picture.”

–James Hugh Moffatt

6. “In the passages I have cited there is little evidence of any attempt at improvement…

7. “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.” 

–C. F. Tucker Brooke

8. “It has been well said that in North alone among his sources Shakespeare met his match.”

–Felix Emmanuel Schelling

9. “In all this splendour North is Amyot, and Amyot is Plutarch, while Plutarch is but the reporter of events within the recollection of men he had seen living; so that Shakespeare’s Fourth Act is based on old-world realism made dynamic by North’s incomparable prose.”

–George Wyndham

10. “To the end of the play the poet’s fidelity is as close; and North’s achievement in narrative prose is only less signal than Shakespeare’s in dramatic verse. Every characteristic touch, even to Cleopatra’s outburst against Seleucus, is in North….

11. “Indeed, in the Fifth Act, I venture to say that Shakespeare has not transcended his original… I doubt if there are many pages which may rank with these last of North’s Antonius in the prose of any language.” –George Wyndham

George Wyndham, a late 19th century editor of Plutarch’s Lives, was one of the first scholars to glimpse the extent of North’s artistic talents — talents that present as strangely Shakespearean. Indeed, all throughout his analysis of Shakespeare’s debt in Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra, he finds it nearly impossible impossible 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.”[1]

When Wyndham turns to the final acts of Antony and Cleopatra, he finds some of the choicest examples of English verse ever penned–with “flashes of immortal speech which have given the Fourth Act of Antony and Cleopatra its place apart even in Shakespeare.”[2]  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, not only do both North’s and Shakespeare’s accounts of the demise of Antony and Cleopatra surpass essentially everything else written by other English literati, the two works are also intricately entangled and at times identical – North’s prose merely thrown into verse. 

Wyndham, here, is so very close to the truth.  He has on one side of his desk the translations of Thomas North, the multi-lingual, legally trained history-scholar who had travelled throughout Italy, visited the halls of European royalty, and led troops in war in Ireland and the Low Countries. And on the other side of his desk, he has what he believes to be the plays by William Shakespeare, the playwright-actor from Stratford.  As Wyndham looks back and forth between the passages of both writers – two men who could not be more disparate in terms of their background and experiences — he discovers that they manage to become focused on the same ideas, same stories, same phrasings, same pacing. Both men even reach their apex on the same passages.  As Wyndham continues to detail the debt owed to North, the two writers appear to blur together, and he describes Shakespeare as “possessed,” “haunted,” and “spellbound” by the translator’s style and methods.  Indeed, 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….”[4] 

North’s Antonius and the play Antony and Cleopatra, these two magnificent Colossuses of English literature, are, as Wyndham carefully documented, really melded at the base and connected all the way through.  But they do not represent disparate outputs of two completely different minds; they are merely the prose and verse versions of the same masterwork.

Finally, unlike other plays (e.g., Titus Andronicus, Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of Verona) that show a significant amount of reworking by Shakespeare, the Roman plays appear to contain little modification. That would explain why they seem so Northern. It is also interesting to note that Shakespeare never published the Roman plays with his name on them, and he never seems to have tried to take credit for them. They are attributed to him today only because they first appeared in “the First Folio” — a collection of Shakespeare’s works published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare had died.

Had Shakespeare tried to publish the Roman plays, perhaps their title page would have been written in the same way as the title pages for “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (the first play to carry his name) — as “Corrected and Augmented by W. Shakespeare.”


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

[2] Wyndham, xcvi.

[3] Wyndham, xcviiii- xcix

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