Not Just a Translator: Extraordinary Praise for Originality and Quality of North’s Writing

Nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars studying Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives were often effusive in their praise of both the originality and quality of North’s prose. They noted that North frequently veered from the original foreign text he was translating in order 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. What is more, they noted Shakespeare seemed peculiarly attracted to the English embellishments of North — not the French, Italian, and Spanish words of the original author. In other words, the passages that ended up in the plays are the ones that North had already started reworking and augmenting in the translation.

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
[Volumnia:]
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)
Volumnia:
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.”

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.”[6]

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.

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. 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. 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:

Shakespeare has taken over North’s vocabulary, and that is much; but it is more that behind that vocabulary he should have found such an intensity of passion as would fill the sails of the highest drama. North has every one of Shakespeare’s most powerful effects in his version of the speech: ‘Trust unto it, thou shalt no sooner march forward to assault thy country, but thy foot shall tread upon thy mother’s womb, that brought thee first into this world;’ ‘Doest thou take it honourable for a nobleman to remember the wrongs and injuries done to him; ‘Thou hast not hitherto shewed thy poor mother any courtesy’: these belong to North, and they are the motors of Shakespeare’s emotion. The two speeches, dressed, the one in perfect prose, the other in perfect verse are both essentially the same under their faintly yet magically varied raiment. The dramatic tension, the main argument, the turns of pleading, even the pause and renewal of entreaty, all are in North, and are expressed by the same spoken words and the same gap of silence.[10]

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.…”[11] 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.”[12] 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:

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…[Examples deleted].”

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. Indeed, in the Fifth Act, I venture to say that Shakespeare has not transcended his original….[13]

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.”[14]


[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), http://www.bartleby.com/214/0106.html.

[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] Wyndham,  lxxxviii.

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

[6] Felix Emmanuel Schelling, English Literature During the Lifetime of Shakespeare (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1910), 280.

[7] Robert Adger Law, “The Text of ‘Shakespeare‘s Plutarch‘”, The Huntington Library Quarterly (1943) 6(2): 197-203.

[8] As quoted by Bernadotte Perrin, ed. Plutarch’s Themistocles and Aristides, (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1901), 21.

[9] Wyndham, lxxxviii, xc.

[10] Wyndham, xcii –xciii.

[11] Wyndham, xciv.

[12] Wyndham, xcvi.

[13] Wyndham, xcviii- xcix.

[14] Wyndham, xcviii- xcix.

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