North’s Passages in the Canon
An introduction to hundreds of memorable speeches, quotes, and storylines that first appeared in Thomas North’s writings, prior to their reuse in Shakespeare’s plays
Fortunately for literary archaeologists, when Thomas North wrote plays for Leicester’s Men, he frequently recycled stories, images, ideas, speeches, and characters from his latest translations. Sometimes, he did this with his own text open beside him, adopting the passage with little change. Other times, when facing a certain situation about which he had previously written, he would recall that prior passage. Then he would recraft it while echoing his former language, filling the dramatic speech with uniquely Northern lines and phrases that occur nowhere else in the history of English language. The result is that literally hundreds of passages in the Shakespeare canon can be traced back to North’s prose texts. (See full-page of illustrated pics of borrowings)
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 George 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.”
C. F. Tucker Brooke, whose passage is on the left, also agreed with Wyndham’s estimate of the translator’s genius and Shakespeare’s debt.
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.”
In reality, as we shall see, it was North who had originally made plays out of his own chapters from Plutarch’s Lives and reused his own passages.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.
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. The picture on the left only shows the first part of the speech, but as clear, much of it comes from North’s Plutarch.
Yet 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 all the plays of the Shakespeare canon, not just the three Roman tragedies. 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. Hundreds of speeches, exchanges, storylines and descriptions in the Shakespeare plays—including many of the most famous soliloquies—derive from North’s translations.
- Click here to see 84 days of Shakespearean borrowings, in which each week we have posted seven examples of North/Shakespeare parallels in some particular category, whether tragedies, histories, etc.
- Click here to see just a list of all the posts of borrowings.
- And this pdf, shown below, also provides a detailed introduction to all the borrowings:
Some might argue that the borrowings of the passages do not necessitate that North wrote Shakespeare’s source-plays. After all, Shakespeare may have had a lifelong and all-consuming obsession with North’s publications and so would compulsively regurgitate the translator’s passages. But as has been shown in recent publications and will also be discussed here, a considerable amount of evidence, both internal and external, indicate that Shakespeare was simply adapting North’s plays–not recalling passages from North’s translations. First, as noted, the satires of the era repeatedly tell the same story about North’s early authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Second, documents have come to light confirming that Thomas North was a playwright for the Leicester Men—the Elizabethan theater company that produced a number of Shakespeare’s source plays. And it is not particularly parsimonious to suppose that Shakespeare was adapting the plays of some other unknown Leicester Men’s playwright—all the while filling them with obscure material from Thomas North.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence involves the discovery of several North family texts. For example, in 1576, George North, a likely cousin of Thomas, wrote an essay on rebellions and rebels while staying at North’s family estates of Kirtling Hall. In the foreword, George compliments Thomas’s writing abilities and dedicates the treatise to Thomas’s older brother Roger, 2nd Lord North. In 2018, June Schlueter and I published a book confirming that this previously unpublished and little-known essay—a handwritten document signed by the author himself and having no known copies—was an important source for the Shakespeare canon. As noted above, news of this discovery made the front page of The New York Times as well as other major news outlets around the world. It was Thomas, not Shakespeare, who made use of his cousin’s essay, kept in the North family library.
Far more significantly, as shown in Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare, both The Winter’s Tale and Henry VIII, also include a significant amount of material taken from North’s diary of his 1555 trip to Rome—a work that North never published. Likewise, Richard II, first printed in 1597, contains unmistakable borrowings from North’s manuscript translation of Nepos’ Lives, which North would not publish until 1602. In other words, North published the translated source material after it had already been used for a play. It was North, of course, who would have had access to his own personal papers, not Shakespeare, and it was North who was constantly recalling his prior writings and transforming them into memorable soliloquies and scenes.
And perhaps most important of all, in 1592, North wrote comments in the margins of his own personal edition of his translation of The Dial of Princes—a work now kept in the archives of the Cambridge University Library. North’s marks, underlines, and marginal commentary often highlight the lines and passages that he would use when writing Macbeth and re-editing both Arden of Faversham and The Taming of the Shrew. This discovery will be introduced on this website.
While all the evidence presented on this website will confirm that North frequently mined his prose works for dramatic material, his plays were not simply, or even mainly, the by-product of what he had studied and translated; they were also a glorious consequence of what he had lived. Like many great works of literature, these magnificent dramas were not penned by someone disassociated from its characters and events; rather, each play was reflective of the life of the author. Indeed, the life and writings of North so persistently dovetail with the works later adapted by William Shakespeare that to follow North’s life in detail is to reconstruct the entire history of the Shakespeare canon, play by play and subplot by subplot. And this does not refer to the occasional coincidence linking some minor life incident and some trivial detail in a play. Every major aspect of North’s life and every shift in his experiences, whether traumatic or joyous, is reflected in the vicissitudes of his oeuvre. Individual plays are like temporary snapshots, capturing myriad peculiarities of his life circumstances, his friends, family, travels, and his involvement in Marian and Elizabethan politics at the time of its penning—while more significant life changes can be traced through more expansive literary periods. Numerous references and allusions heretofore deemed mysterious have now found explanation in North’s life history.
Biographical treatments of North will soon start to appear—including in Michael Blanding’s North by Shakespeare: A Rogue Scholar’s Quest for the Truth Behind the Bard’s Work and in the forewords to new editions of the plays. These will help show how North first lived the plays before he wrote them. But the well-travelled playwright, while sitting at the inkwell, also always made sure to include some of the most compelling material from his latest prose texts, whether journal or translation. This website and the pdf below will focus more on this — North’s writings–revealing here, for the first time, the origins of hundreds of passages in Shakespeare’s plays.
 Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, “A Shakespeare/North Collaboration,” Shakespeare Survey 67 (2014): 85-101.
 C. A. Greer, “A Lost Play in the Case of Richard II,” Notes and Queries 197.2 (1952): 24-25.
 The Second Part of King Henry IV, ed. Giorgio Melchiori,The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 10.
 James L. Marino, “Middle Shakespeare,” in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare,ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012),324.
 George Wyndham, Introduction to Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans,Englished by Sir Thomas North (London:David Nutt, 1895), lxxxviii.
 The original title of Nepos’ Lives was The lives of Epaminondas, of Philip of Macedon, of Dionysius the Elder, and of Octavius Cæsar Augustus: collected out of good authors, Also the lives of nine excellent chieftains of war, taken out of Latin from Aemelius Probus, by S. G. S. By whom also are added the lives of Plutarch and of Seneca: gathered together, disposed, and enriched as the others. And now translated into English by Sir Thomas North Knight (London: Richard Field, 1602). Cornelius Nepos (110 BCE-25 BCE) was a Roman biographer, who wrote works on the lives of eminent kings, generals, philosophers, and poets. However, in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, scholars believed that the histories were originally written by the fourth-century grammarian Aemelius Probus. In reality, Probus was just a later editor and reviser of the histories. Ironically, a similar confusion would occur involving Thomas North and William Shakespeare.
About the Author
Dennis McCarthy is an independent scholar, whose research subjects include English literature, biogeography, and geophysics.
- Read answers to some of the most common questions regarding North’s relationship to Shakespeare.
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