North’s Marginal Notes (His Personal Workbook for Early 1590s 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.[1] 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. In the middle of the book, he dates one personal comment as 1592, helping confirm that this used-copy did not just sit for years unopened; he made use of it immediately and continued flipping through it for the next year or so, perhaps longer. North’s commentary and markings are especially important as they confirm that he 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. Interestingly. all three plays relate to fierce and (nearly) indomitable wives.[2]

All three plays also have clear links to the early 1590s. North first wrote Arden of Feversham, the true-crime tragedy about Alice Arden’s murder of her husband with her lover Mosby, in 1556-8. The reason the subject had interested him is that Alice Arden was his half-sister; Thomas Arden, his brother-in-law; and Alice’s lover, Mosby, was a North-family servant. North was quite familiar with all the main characters of this true crime tragedy.

The tragedy resurfaced again, perhaps with Shakespeare’s theater company, in the late 1580s to early 1590s, clearly influencing other playwrights from that time period. It was then first published in 1592. North’s marginalia show indisputable links to this publication, suggesting a final touch-up at this time, especially the addition of certain scenes. Still other evidence suggests North wrote The Taming of the Shrew in 1570 while he was in or near Padua, but then in 1591-2 used his recently purchased Dial to rework it, especially editing Katherine’s final monologue. A close adaptation of the play, The Taming of a Shrew, was published in 1594.

Finally, North also used this old copy of The Dial to write Macbeth, the witches of which were partly inspired by the Scottish witchcraft trials of 1591. Many of the famous images and scenes involving Lady Macbeth were partly based on the true-life circumstances of Alice Arden.

Other plays influenced by North’s highlighted passages include A Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Coriolanus, and Richard II. The extensiveness of this relationship between North’s marginalia and Shakespeare’s plays precludes a thorough discussion here, but the posts for this week should help serve as a useful introduction.

We can break down North’s markings into three categories. The first comprises normal large-tome marginalia, the same type we see in many texts of similar size. North would write out certain words or phrases in the margin to identify the subject of the passage that it bordered, e.g., “Pliny” or “The praise of Demosthenes.” Their purpose, of course, is to facilitate later skimming. North did this mostly in the first of the four “books” (i.e., sections) that comprise The Dial.

The translator also frequently made corrections throughout the text. Sometimes, the printer had made a mistake, or North did not like the language he had originally used. So he would cross out the offending text and write out the substitution in the margin. Both types of jottings in a work by North are unsurprising: We also find the same type of corrections and subject-based marginalia in his unpublished journal of his trip to Rome, which he wrote in 1555 at the age of 20.[3]

The third type of markings, and the ones that are by far the most revealing, are the personal ones: the underlining of certain sentences, vertical marginal lines that emphasized certain passages, his highlighting of certain chapters in the table of contents, and his stressing or writing out of certain quotes or ideas. As opposed to the corrections or normal marginalia, these scribblings help identify what particular quotes and ideas interested North in the early 1590s, which were often the same ones that he then reused in the plays adapted by Shakespeare. This will be shown in the next seven posts below:

50. “Exit Pursued by a Bear:” The Nobleman Antigonus, the Banishment to Sicily, Being Eaten Alive by A Bear, the Sky-Darkening Storm that Kills the Mariners, and the Clamors, Cries, and Roars

Perhaps, the most famous stage direction in the Shakespeare canon occurs in The Winter’s Tale and involves the doomed character Antigonus. He leaves the play abruptly after abandoning the banished baby Perdita on the shores of a distant land: “Exit pursued by a bear,” reads the stage-direction. We soon discover that Antigonus doesn’t survive, and…

48. North’s Marginalia in “Arden/Shrew” Chapter: The Battle of the Sexes.

In this very same chapter on how to deal with Shrews of North’s Dial that North, himself, marked in the table of contents –what we call here the Arden/Shrew chapter (see posts 43-6) –North underscores the last line in a passage stressing the contrarian nature of women. This is in Aurelius’s speech to his wife,…

46. More of the “Arden” Passage in North’s Marked Chapter

As we saw in the previous posts, in 1591-2, North marked up his own copy of The Dial of Princes, using it as a workbook for plays he was either revising or writing at that time, especially working from chapters that he underscored in the table of contents. In one of these chapters, on page…

[1] I must thank investigative reporter and author Michael Blanding for taking pictures of all the pages in The Dial with North’s markings and sending them to me. Even more importantly, he also was the one who alerted me to a number of connections between North’s comments and the Shakespeare canon. This includes the story of Antigonus, used for The Winter’s Tale, and many of the connections to Macbeth (see next chapter.)

[2] This may or may not have to do with the fact that North had likely been recently married at this time. While we still have not been able to uncover the precise date of North’s marriage to his second wife, Judith Bridgewater (nee Vesey), we do know it had to occur sometime after her first husband, Richard Bridgewater, died in 1588.

[3] Since North did highlight some of his corrections in the margin, he also likely had some idea that he could return to this copy to help him correct a possible future edition. However, to have been useful to a printer, North would have either had to transfer these corrections to a clean copy or at least tell the printer to ignore all his personal notes and markings. 

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