Quotes and Descriptions of North’s Plays That Appeared Long Before Shakespeare Adapted Them (1-4)

Frustratingly, when Elizabethan writers often referred to plays performed by Leicester Men’s–including all of Thomas North’s plays–they never named the playwright. This is why it has taken so long to determine who wrote them. Still, many writers did do the next best thing: They often quoted the play.

To those innocent of the fact that Shakespeare often adapted North’s plays, the quotes in these next few posts may be quite surprising. For they are disturbingly close quotes, echoes and descriptions of “Shakespearean” plays long before Shakespeare, who was born in 1564, and did not start his playwrighting till 1589-90, could have written them.

1. In 1572, George Gascoigne, a fellow Leicester Men’s playwright, paraphrases and echoes Romeo and Juliet when addressing the Viscount Montagu

In 1555, North traveled with Viscount Montague to Italy and would pen an early version of Romeo and Juliet, likely all in rhyme, within a few years of his return. North’s respect for Montague explains the change in the name of the protagonist from Romeo Montecchi to Romeo Montague, and his authorship explains why we find passages that North marked in his Dial of Princes (1557) that he then used in the tragedy. Also, Arthur Brooke referred to this English play on Romeo and Juliet in 1562, so we do know such a play existed.
Then ten years later, George Gascoigne wrote a masque for Viscount Montague clearly referencing the opening of the tragedy, necessarily associating the play with North’s fellow-traveler, and confirming the language of the play was much like the extant version:

George Gascoigne, Leicester Men’s Playwright, addressed to Viscount Montagu (1572) Romeo and Juliet

“This token which the Montacutes (Montagues) did bear always, for that
They covet to be known from Capels [i.e. Capulets] where they pass,
For ancient grutch which long ago ‘twene these two houses was.
Then took me by the hand…”[1]
Romeo and Juliet on Montagues and Capulets:
Two households both alike in dignity
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
2. In 1579, Edmund Spenser signed a letter to Gabriel Harvey (both of whom were in Leicester’s circle and had recently attended North’s entertainments for the Queen at Kirtling Hall) with a knowing reference to The Merchant of Venice:

Chapter of Michael Blanding’s “North by Shakespeare,” explores considerable evidence that Thomas North wrote an early version of The Merchant of Venice for the Queen’s visit in September of 1578 to North’s Kirtling Hall. Thomas had needed a dinner-masque in which he could present gifts to the other noble guests and a fabulous jewel to the Queen. This is why the play includes references to and even set-up of a dinner-masque (which in the extant version is bizarrely canceled at the last minute), costumed masquers carrying a chest of jewels, and there is such focus on Portia’s ring. Also, the Princes of Morocco and Aragon would have had particular relevance to North’s French and English noble guests in 1578.

More, North was now writing Plutarch’s Lives at the time which is why we find so many seemingly incongruent borrowings from that history text in Merchant of Venice. For example, the name of the main female character– “Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued / To Cato’s daughter, BrutusPortia” (1.1.165-66) –comes from North’s “Life of Marcus Brutus,” in which we find the marginal note: “Portia, Cato’s daughter, wife unto Brutus”(1060). Other passages that link the Italian comedy to Plutarch include the story of Hercules playing dice for a woman.

The attendance of Spenser and Harvey at the 1578 Kirtling Hall entertainments helps explain why Spenser, in a 1579 letter that acknowledged he was in Harvey’s debt, signed it:

“He that is fast bound unto thee in more obligations than any merchant in Italy to any Jew there.” [2]

This describes the major plot of The Merchant of Venice, and it’s stressing of the fact that Antonio, the Italian merchant, “shall be bound.” To which Shylock responds: “Antonio shall become bound; well.”

3. In 1579, Stephen Gosson both describes an early version of The Merchant of Venice (a play he called “The Jew” ) and paraphrases one of its passages:

In School of Abuse (1579), a tract attacking plays, Stephen Gosson singles out a few exceptional dramas, including two works, “The Jew & Ptolemy, shown at the Bull.” These were likely plays performed by Leicester’s Men as they were the only troupe to be able to perform within the city. Gosson describes The Jew as portraying “the greediness of worldly choosers and bloody minds of usurers.”[3] Many scholars agree that Gosson, here, is referring to the source-play for The Merchant of Venice (aka as The Jew of Venice), and that Gosson has even summarized both the comedy’s plot (i.e. the Jewish usurer and his “bloodydesires) and subplot (the greedy, world-traveling suitors who must choose between the caskets.) Indeed, even the full title of Shakespeare’s 1600 publication of the comedy echoes Gosson’s dual description, referring to both the “the extreme cruelty of Shylock, the Jew” and “the obtaining of Portia by the choice of three chests.”

Gosson then seems to quote/paraphrase a passage in the play as he warns, just like Shylock warns, that you must resist temptations that will even reach you in the house, and you must “stop your ears” to the music enters the windows:

Gosson, after explicitly referring to the play, “The Jew” Merchant of Venice:

When you are grieved, pass the time with your neighbours in sober conference…
lest that laboring to
shun Scylla you light on Charybdis…
need not go abroad to be tempted, you shall be enticed at your own windows … keep homeAnd if you perceive yourselves in any danger at your own doorsassaulted with music in the night; close up your eyes, stop your ears, tie up your tongues; when they speak, answer not.”[4]

Thus when I shun ScyllaI fall into Charybdis (3.5.14-15).
What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica:
Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum
And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife,
Clamber not you up to the casements then…
But stop my house’s earsI mean my casements.
Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter
My sober house. (2.5.29-37)

J. C. Ross, who discovered these verbal similarities, had to assume that Shakespeare was the borrower or else admit that these passages originally appeared in the source work: “It is as if Shylock has been reading Gosson, and is applying this advice to his daughter.”[5] But of course it is Gosson who had just admitted that he had seen Shylock. See more detailed treatment here.

4. In his 1584 introduction to Pan, His Syrinx, William Warner refers to an early play on Timon of Athens and clearly echoes it:

Warner:  “let the Athenian Misanthropos or man-hater bite on the stage.”

Timon of Athens: “I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind…/Is this the Athenian minon?” (4.3.54, 79)

As is clear from these examples (and as will be shown in the next few posts), plays much like those now attributed to Shakespeare existed before he began crafting plays in the late 1580s or early 1590s. And this is one of the many reasons why most Shakespeare scholars agree that Shakespeare frequently adapted old plays. It’s also why his contemporaries complained that Shakespeare got too much credit for old plays that he was adapting, and why rumors persisted, even until the 18th century, that he had adapted an older historian’s plays.

[1] George Gascoigne, A Hundreth sundrie Flowres bounde vp in one small Poesie…(London: Richard Smith, 1573), 390. See also, Roger Prior,  “Gascoigne’s Poesies as a Shakespearian Source,” Notes and Queries 245 (2000): 444-9 and Brian Gibbons, ed., Romeo and Juliet: The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1980). Gascoigne originally wrote the masque for a 1572 wedding of Anthony Browne, the Viscount Montagu’s daughter, but it would not be published till the following year.

[2] Quoted in Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, Introduction to The Merchant of Venice (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1904), 104. See also James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 98.

[3] Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse, Conteining a plesaunt invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Jesters, and such like Caterpillers of a Comonwelth; Setting up the Hagge of Defiance to their mischievous exercise, overthrowing their Bulwarkes, by Prophane Writers, Naturall reason, and common experience: A discourse as pleasaunt for Gentlemen that favour learning, as profitable for all that wyll follow virtue (London: Thomas Woodcocke, 1579), 22. The “bloody minds of usurers” alludes to Shylock’s effort to extract a bloody penalty on the defaulting Antonio. In fact, Gratiano even refers to his bloody mind: “thy desires/ Are wolvish, bloody, starved and ravenous” (4.1. 137-8). Gosson’s other comment — “The greediness of worldly choosers” —refers to the covetous nature of the world-traveling suitors (“all the world desires her/ From the four corners of the earth they come” 2.7.) who had to choose correctly among gold, silver, or lead caskets in order to win the hand of Portia. The greed of the Princes of Morocco and Aragon lead them to the mistaken choice of the gold and silver caskets, respectively. The romantic local hero, Bassanio, observing that “The world is still deceived with ornament” (3.2.74), opts for the sturdy lead casket and thus wins Portia

[4] Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse, F3v-F4v

[5] J. C. Ross, “Stephen Gosson and The Merchant of Venice Revisited,” Notes and Queries 50 (2003): 36-37. See also Ramon Jimenez, The Date of The Merchant of VeniceThe Evidence for 1578; The Oxfordian, (13), 2011, 50-75; 53.

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