84 Borrowings in 84 Days

Every day for twelve weeks, we will post a new passage that Shakespeare borrowed from North

The next 12 weeks will see the publication of two books on the scholar-knight, Sir Thomas North: Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare (1/15/2021) and Michael Blanding’s highly anticipated North by Shakespeare: A Rogue Scholar’s Quest for the Truth Behind the Bard’s Work (3/30/2021). Both works provide evidence for North’s authorship of Shakespeare’s source plays. To promote these two works, beginning on January 7th and then every day for the following twelve weeks, we will post a new passage that Shakespeare borrowed from North’s earlier writings. The first week will focus on Shakespeare’s tragedies; the second week on the Shakespearean passages inspired by North’s journal; the third week will examine the English histories; and so on. Each week will bring a new category, and each day, a new passage. The overwhelming majority of these borrowings are unknown to Shakespeare scholars and will be introduced here for the first time.

Over the course of these weeks, we will discover that essentially every play in the Shakespeare canon contains numerous passages that derived from North’s writings and that this blatant and obsessive pilfering exposes a relationship between the two authors that is unique in the history of literature. No other well-known author has lifted more material from an earlier writer than Shakespeare has from North, and it is not even close.

As an example, imagine discovering that something much like the famous concluding passage in A Tale of Two Cities first appeared in the writings of a lesser-known, elder contemporary of Charles Dickens. This would certainly be a point of interest among Dickens’ scholars. Now consider finding five or six more borrowings in A Tale of Two Cities–all taken from the same earlier author. That, of course, would be more startling still. Now imagine finding dozens of recycled speeches, characters, images, maxims, plotlines in his other works — all throughout Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and A Christmas Carol — and that these were also all first written by the same, earlier writer. No, wait, it’s actually hundreds of borrowed passages, and they begin with Dickens’ first work, The Pickwick Papers, and continue through his last, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. On top of all this, we find out that three of Dickens’ novels were even taken wholesale from this little-known write. The entire plot, the complete cast of characters, even many of the speeches were reproduced with little change. Certainly, this would be astonishing.

This is what we will show here over the next 12 weeks (84 posts) with North and Shakespeare. The three Shakespearean plays that were taken wholesale from North’s texts are the Roman tragedies —Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra— a fact well known to scholars. But what was not known is that every play in the canon overflows with loans from North, starting with Shakespeare’s apprentice work and continuing to the later Romances. Many of the corresponding passages include shared lines and word-strings that appear nowhere else in the history of the English language. The only question that will remain is how? Was Shakespeare really so obsessed with North’s texts, even before writing his first play, that he had read and memorized everything North had ever written (including his journal and unpublished writings)? Or was Shakespeare simply adapting North’s plays?

The answer, as will be confirmed in both new books on the subject and on this website, is the latter.

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, andContinue reading “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”

49. North Marked the “Description of Sorrow” in his “Dial” That He Used in “Romeo and Juliet”

In North’s own copy of his translation of the 1582 edition of The Dial of Princes, the translator adds a marginal note highlighting the “description of sorrow (Fol. 296 in 1582 edition; 475 in 1619 ed.) The passage describes how people act when they are depressed: they crave solitude, hate the day, love the night,Continue reading “49. North Marked the “Description of Sorrow” in his “Dial” That He Used in “Romeo and Juliet””

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

47. North’s Marginalia, “Slaunderous Tongues,” & Lightly Weighing Words in “Arden of Faversham”

In this very same chapter of The Dial that North marked in the table of contents and used for other passages in Arden of Faversham (see posts 43-6) — and on this same page (149r) examined earlier –directly beneath the emphasized passage on “the fear of the Gods…and the speech of men,” North underlines theContinue reading “47. North’s Marginalia, “Slaunderous Tongues,” & Lightly Weighing Words in “Arden of Faversham””

45. North Marked Passages in his “Dial” That He Used in “Arden”

As we saw in the previous post, 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. For example, North only marked three of the 177 chapters in the table of contents. All three chapters andContinue reading “45. North Marked Passages in his “Dial” That He Used in “Arden””

44. North’s 2nd Marked-Chapter Relates to “Taming of the Shrew” and “Arden of Faversham”

As noted earlier, 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. For example, North only marked three of the 177 chapters in the table of contents. All three chapters and their titles are relevantContinue reading “44. North’s 2nd Marked-Chapter Relates to “Taming of the Shrew” and “Arden of Faversham””

Week 7: 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 notesContinue reading “Week 7: North’s Marginal Notes (His Personal Workbook for Early 1590s Plays)”

43. In 1592, North Underlined and Wrote Out the Subtitle to “Arden of Faversham” (1592)

North’s note-writing begins early in this copy of Dial of Princes, even in the prologue and table of contents. Importantly, out of 13 pages of table of contents listing 177 chapters, North only adds notes to three of those listed chapter-titles. All three chapters and their titles are relevant to his plays –and two ofContinue reading “43. In 1592, North Underlined and Wrote Out the Subtitle to “Arden of Faversham” (1592)”

35. Joan Pucelle’s and Henry VI’s Ironic Allusions to North’s Disastrous Stories about Caesar

As we have seen, many characters in the Shakespeare canon like to cite various stories from North’s translations–often using them to highlight parallels to their own situation. This especially occurs in the early English histories, with various characters referencing North’s chapters on Julius Caesar in North’s Plutarch’s Lives. This includes Joan Purcelle and Henry VI,Continue reading “35. Joan Pucelle’s and Henry VI’s Ironic Allusions to North’s Disastrous Stories about Caesar”

34. Hamlet as Brutus, Polonius as Caesar, & a Burial in Hugger-Mugger

The full title of Thomas North’s Plutarch’s Lives begins: “The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans Compared Together…” And sometimes this is abbreviated to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, referring to the correspondences that Plutarch drew between Greek and Roman rulers. North then used this same framework for his histories and tragedies, drawing parallels between theContinue reading “34. Hamlet as Brutus, Polonius as Caesar, & a Burial in Hugger-Mugger”

33. Lysimachus, Antiochus, Tyre, Tarsus, Miletum, and the Wise Man Who Wished To Know None of the King’s Secrets

When Thaliard enters in act 1, scene 3 of Pericles, he mentions a story about a wise philosopher who wanted just one thing from a King. As shown, the story comes from “The “The Life of Demetrius” in North’s Plutarch’s Lives. North’s Plutarch Shakespeare’s Pericles and Twelfth Night but he was much more to beContinue reading “33. Lysimachus, Antiochus, Tyre, Tarsus, Miletum, and the Wise Man Who Wished To Know None of the King’s Secrets”

32. Edgar as the Impoverished, Unperfumed Learned-Theban, Who Stands in Esperance and Knows the Cause of Thunder.

Numerous scholars have discussed King Lear’s unswerving focus on the virtues of poverty and charity. Throughout the tragedy, many of the characters are forced into destitution and misery–especially Edgar (Poor Tom) and King Lear – only to end up embracing the impoverished and natural state of the human race. This theme of poverty and charityContinue reading “32. Edgar as the Impoverished, Unperfumed Learned-Theban, Who Stands in Esperance and Knows the Cause of Thunder.”

31. Theseus’s Ravishings, Marriages, and the Mysterious God Who Secretly Helped Him in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Plutarch’s Lives begins with a chapter on “The Life of Theseus,” the fabled King of Athens, describing the various legends associated with him, including his vicious habit of raping and then wedding women. Theseus also famously escaped the minotaur’s labyrinth when the Princess of Crete, Ariadne, had fallen in love with him watching him wrestleContinue reading “31. Theseus’s Ravishings, Marriages, and the Mysterious God Who Secretly Helped Him in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream””

30. Morocco’s Story of Hercules Playing Dice for a Woman in “The Merchant of Venice”

In The Merchant of Venice, Morocco paraphrases a story from Plutarch’s Lives about Hercules playing dice to win a woman. The prose passage appears in “The Life of Romulus,” not in one of the chapters used for the Roman plays. Scholars for a long time were confused about the origin of Morocco’s story, till E.Continue reading “30. Morocco’s Story of Hercules Playing Dice for a Woman in “The Merchant of Venice””

Week Five: North’s Stories in the Canon

As we have seen in prior weeks (including with the borrowings from North in the tragedies, in the English Histories, and those related to North’s journal), characters will frequently recite the humanist wisdom and political metaphors found in North’s earlier writings. For example, when Iago observes that the thief of temporal riches does less harmContinue reading “Week Five: North’s Stories in the Canon”

29. The Fable of the Eagle and the Beetle; And the Art of the Court in Cymbeline

In 3.3. of Cymbeline, Belarius has been unjustly banished by the King, and, in an act of revenge, kidnapped the King’s two sons and raised them as his own in the safety of a remote mountain cave. The playwright has clearly designed the scene on a fable in The Moral Philosophy of Doni of theContinue reading “29. The Fable of the Eagle and the Beetle; And the Art of the Court in Cymbeline”

28. Pages and Pages of North’s Passages in “Julius Caesar”

Julius Caesar is yet another Shakespearean tragedy that has been taken whole from North’s Plutarch’s Lives. The play is a scene-by-scene remake of North’s chapters on Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus. Note in the picture above, not only is the playwright closely following North’s Plutarch, he also borrows material from North’s Dial. We will discussContinue reading “28. Pages and Pages of North’s Passages in “Julius Caesar””

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. AndContinue reading “27. Dozens of North’s Passages in “Antony & Cleopatra””

26. Dozens of North’s Passages in “Coriolanus”

1. Each of the eight attached pictures will show another page of speeches in Coriolanus that clearly derive form related passages in North’s Plutarch’s Lives. 2. Michael Blanding’s North by Shakespeare will explore arguments that North actually wrote the plays on Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra based on his chapters in Plutarch’s LivesContinue reading “26. Dozens of North’s Passages in “Coriolanus””

25. Coriolanus’s Address to Aufidius

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: “[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 littleContinue reading “25. Coriolanus’s Address to Aufidius”

24. The Poetic Description of Cleopatra’s Barge on the River Cydnus

Before many Shakespeareans had learned that the Roman plays actually came straight from North, some would occasionally highlight some of North’s passages in these works as among their favorite, writing long essays on how they demonstrate the playwright’s genius. For example, in an early-twentieth-century series of reviews in Harpers’ Monthly Magazine, the critic James DouglasContinue reading “24. The Poetic Description of Cleopatra’s Barge on the River Cydnus”

23. The Death of Cleopatra

One of the most famous scenes in the canon is the immortal description of Cleopatra’s suicide. This too, like the rest of the play, comes from North: North’s Plutarch’s Lives (1580) Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1607) [H]er other woman called Charmian [stood]half-dead and trembling, trimming the Diadem which Cleopatra wore upon her head. One ofContinue reading “23. The Death of Cleopatra”

22. Volumnia’s Speech to Save Rome (Full Version)

In the post that introduces “Week Four: The Roman Adaptations,” we included a depiction of the opening of Volumnia’s speech to save Rome, but as shown above (and in the table below) the borrowed exchange is actually far more extensive. In fact, as we will continue to see this week, the question of whether ShakespeareContinue reading “22. Volumnia’s Speech to Save Rome (Full Version)”

Week Four: The Roman Adaptations

While many of Shakespeare’s borrowings derive from North’s translations, it is important to stress that it was North’s particular English wording that so captured the attention of the playwright—not the French, Italian, and Spanish words of the original author. Indeed, North frequently veered from the original foreign text to rework it into his own masterfulContinue reading “Week Four: The Roman Adaptations”

19. Griefs of the Inward Soul, Seeing Things Thru Water, & Dissolving the Bands of Life

North began translating both the colossal Plutarch’s Lives (1579/80) and Nepos’ Lives (1602) many years before he would eventually sell them to printers. In the interim, North often used the stories and ideas he found in these unpublished translations as source-material for his plays. For example, in the mid-1590s, North decided to use Richard IIContinue reading “19. Griefs of the Inward Soul, Seeing Things Thru Water, & Dissolving the Bands of Life”

18. The Boy’s Comical Derision of the Cowardice of Bardolf, Pistol, and Nym

In North’s Dial of Princes, the long-term mistress of Marcus Aurelius, Boemia, writes an angry letter to the famous emperor-philosopher, who has just returned from battle. She is furious with him for refusing to see her, so Boemia begins the letter by launching into a hilarious series of insults, deriding him as a braggart coward,Continue reading “18. The Boy’s Comical Derision of the Cowardice of Bardolf, Pistol, and Nym”

17. Richard III Can Change Colors Like the Chameleon And Imitate Homer’s Greeks

In “The Life of Alcibiades” in Plutarch’s Lives, North writes that the subject of the chapter could frame himself after the fashions and manners of anyone at all—from any country. He could, as North wrote, put on more colors than the chameleon—and even be taken for an Achilles while in Sparta. This chameleon-like ability toContinue reading “17. Richard III Can Change Colors Like the Chameleon And Imitate Homer’s Greeks”

Week Three: The English Histories

The main reason that the Shakespeare canon includes so many histories is that Thomas North was an historian and believed that histories constituted the most vital component of an enlightened education. His work on Plutarch’s Lives in the 1570’s especially taught him something new and important about the character of leaders and its relationship toContinue reading “Week Three: The English Histories”

Week Two: North’s Journal, “Henry VIII,” and “The Winter’s Tale”

In Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare (2021), June Schlueter and I explore a newly rediscovered journal that the 20-year-old North kept during his trip to Rome. The young translating playwright had travelled with an embassy sent by the Catholic Queen Mary, who had wanted a formal reconciliation of England with the pope. NorthContinue reading “Week Two: North’s Journal, “Henry VIII,” and “The Winter’s Tale””

Week One: The Tragedies

This first week discusses seven passages from Shakespeare’s darkest plays that derive from North’s earlier writings.

16. Henry IV Worries that Prince Hal Has Vices Like the “Fattest Soil” Has Weeds

In the prior post on English histories, we noted that the gardener’s comparison of commonwealth to gardens in Richard II derives from two passages of two different works of North: Plutarch’s Lives and The Dial of Princes: Notice that in the above exchange, North’s fatness … of the soil refers to its fertility—and, as withContinue reading “16. Henry IV Worries that Prince Hal Has Vices Like the “Fattest Soil” Has Weeds”

15. Nations Are Like Gardens with Noisome Weeds & Wholesome Herbs — & Fruit Trees with Superfluous Branches

Dozens of botanical analogies throughout the Shakespeare canon all have a Northern origin (i.e., come from the works of Thomas North). This includes what is likely the most famous and extended botanical metaphor in the canon: the garden-scene in Richard II (3.4.29-66). In the relevant exchange, a gardener and a servant have a political discussionContinue reading “15. Nations Are Like Gardens with Noisome Weeds & Wholesome Herbs — & Fruit Trees with Superfluous Branches”

12. A Warning for Those Who Creep Into the Bosom of the King

As we note in Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare, at one point, in Cardinal Wolsey’s final scene in Henry VIII, he recites a lesson from North’s Dial of Princes about those who compete for power. His first focus is on two other ambitious court-climbers: Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cranmer: … thatContinue reading “12. A Warning for Those Who Creep Into the Bosom of the King”

11. The Garden of Lombardy, 100 Milch Kine to the Pail, and 6 Score Fat Oxen in a Stable

As shown in Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare, the experiences that the young dramatist documented during his journey to Rome are most relevant to what would become two of North’s first plays: Henry VIII and The Winter’s Tale. But we also find the impressions that North wrote about the various ItalianContinue reading “11. The Garden of Lombardy, 100 Milch Kine to the Pail, and 6 Score Fat Oxen in a Stable”

10. “Exit Pursued by a Bear:” Antigonus, the Banishment to Sicily, the Dark Storm, and the Roaring Bear

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, andContinue reading “10. “Exit Pursued by a Bear:” Antigonus, the Banishment to Sicily, the Dark Storm, and the Roaring Bear”

9. Elder Gossip Who Never Spoke “Word That Might Be To The Prejudice of” Another

In Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey’s defensive claim that he has never slandered the Queen comes from a similar passage in North’s Dial of Princes. Both passages are referring to elderly, malicious gossipers, especially stressing their spleen, heart, and tongue/mouth. Both also include the same unique eight-word word-string: North’s Dial of Princes Shakespeare’s Henry VIII hisContinue reading “9. Elder Gossip Who Never Spoke “Word That Might Be To The Prejudice of” Another”

8. North’s Journal, “Henry VIII,” a Cardinal-Parade, and a Consistory

While Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal examines all the extensive borrowings connecting the journal to Henry VIII and The Winter’s Tale, just the first example described here should be sufficient to prove the diary’s use by the original playwright. As shown in the feature pic above, both North’s journal and Henry VIII juxtapose eerily similarContinue reading “8. North’s Journal, “Henry VIII,” a Cardinal-Parade, and a Consistory”

7. Coriolanus’s Belly-Fable Conflates 3 Fables, All Written by North

In an earlier example, we noted that the playwright of Julius Caesar was able to recall passages from North’s Dial while copying passages from North’s Plutarch. In this example, he intertwines stories from three of North’s translations. As is well known, in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Menenius’s fable, in which “all the body’s members / Rebelled againstContinue reading “7. Coriolanus’s Belly-Fable Conflates 3 Fables, All Written by North”

5. North’s “Dial” and Caesar’s Speech on Death and Cowards

As is well known, Caesar’s speech that “Cowards die many times before their deaths” was hinted at in North’s Plutarch’s Lives. But previously, it was believed that Shakespeare took that hint and then refashioned it himself with many new details. Yet, as we see both above and below, the specific words and notions of theContinue reading “5. North’s “Dial” and Caesar’s Speech on Death and Cowards”

4. Romeo’s Sorrow

In North’s own copy of his translation of the 1582 edition of The Dial of Princes, the translator adds a marginal note highlighting the “description of sorrow (Fol. 296 in 1582 edition; 475 in 1619 ed.) The passage describes how people act when they are depressed: they crave solitude, hate the day, love the night,Continue reading “4. Romeo’s Sorrow”

3. The Miseries of Hecuba and Hamlet’s Play to Catch The Conscience of a King

After Hamlet watches an actor perform a tragic description of Hecuba’s agonies caused by the “tyrant Pyrrhus,” he expresses astonishment at the actor’s abilities to fake such deep sorrow: “For Hecuba! / What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, / That he should weep for her?” (2.2.558-60). In this same speech, the Prince thenContinue reading “3. The Miseries of Hecuba and Hamlet’s Play to Catch The Conscience of a King”

2. Lear’s Poor Naked Wretches Who Must Borrow Clothing From Beasts

In one chapter in The Dial that deals with poverty, North writes that “the author … compareth the misery of men with the liberty of beasts.” The point was that, in contrast to human beings, animals possess a number of natural gifts that help them survive: “to birds she [Nature] hath given wings … toContinue reading “2. Lear’s Poor Naked Wretches Who Must Borrow Clothing From Beasts”

1. Iago’s Speech on He Who Robs Me of My Good Name

Thomas North would publish his first translation, The Dial of Princes, in 1557, seven years before Shakespeare was born. And we do not even complete its first page before we come across something that sounds suspiciously Shakespearean — specifically, a passage that reads much like Iago’s speech on the thief of reputation in Othello. North’sContinue reading “1. Iago’s Speech on He Who Robs Me of My Good Name”


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