The Impoverished Knight Who Wrote the Plays Adapted by Shakespeare

In November 2014, Cambridge’s Shakespeare Survey 67 became the first journal to publish an article crediting an early version of a Shakespeare play to the mysterious war-weary, scholar-knight, Thomas North. The essay, “The Shakespeare-North Collaboration: Titus Andronicus and Titus and Vespasian,” reveals numerous independent lines of evidence indicating that North wrote the bloody and lurid Roman revenge tragedy Titus and Vespasian in 1560-61, at the age of 25 or 26, three years before Shakespeare was born. Roughly 30 years later, in the late 1580s or early 1590s, Shakespeare then adapted North’s old play Titus and Vespasian for the public theater in a work we know today as Titus Andronicus. The results of the analysis suggest that many of North’s original passages and phrases still remain in Shakespeare’s tragedy.

It is not particularly revelatory that Shakespeare adapted an earlier play. Scholars have long recognized that many of Shakespeare’s best-known works were not original but revisions of older, now-lost dramas. The article did not create any shockwaves. But it was just a first step in a planned roll-out of far more sensational discoveries—a treasure-trove of Shakespeare-related documents that transforms our understanding of the origin of the canon. For when June Schlueter and I first wrote the paper, we also knew that North had not just written an early version of Titus Andronicus; he was the original author of essentially every play in the Shakespeare canon. And many of these discoveries are just now being published:

North by Shakespeare

Written by investigative journalist Michael Blanding, “North by Shakespeare” tells the the true story behind the stunning discovery that North wrote the plays later adapted by Shakespeare. The book also examines many of the connections between North’s life and the plays.

North’s Travel-Journal

Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter explore a copy of North’s personal journal of his trip to Rome in 1555, showing how the entries and related experiences provided North with important material that he would use to write early versions of The Winter’s Tale and Henry VIII. In fact, the journal is a kind of Winter’s Tale.

New York Times, Front Page Article

This is Michael Blanding’s article on the discovery by McCarthy and Schlueter of a previously unknown, original manuscript that was an important source for Shakespeare’s plays. The unique, handwritten document was kept in Thomas North’s family library, and its discovery led to news reports around the world.

Proofs

These three works, however, do not reveal the full extent of the discoveries that confirm North was the author of Shakespeare’s source-plays. These proofs may be divided into six categories.

  1. North’s Life in the Canon: As shown in Michael Blanding’s North by Shakespeare, 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.
  2. North’s Writings in the Canon: While North wrote his plays, he frequently recalled and then recycled many of the stories, images, ideas, speeches, and characters from both his published and unpublished writings. He almost assuredly did this from memory, paraphrasing a passage or scene he had written about before — and in the process he would repeat the same language he used earlier. And many of these recycled passages still remain in Shakespeare’s adaptations. The result is that literally hundreds of passages in the Shakespeare canon can be traced back to North’s prose texts (read pdf). These borrowed passages derive from everything North ever wrote and involve nearly every act of every play — not just the Roman tragedies. And many of the links between the passages cannot be disputed as they include identical lines that no one else in the history of English has used — not at the time and not since.
  3. Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: In Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare (link to book is above), June Schlueter and I explore a newly rediscovered journal that the 20-year-old North kept during his trip to Rome and which he then used to help him write early versions of his very first plays, Henry VIII and The Winter’s (1555-1557). In this video and this webpage, I explore some of the connections among these plays, the travel-journal, and North’s Dial of Princes (1557). As we shall see, North also echoed the journal and used these experiences in other plays too.
  4. Thomas North’s 1591-2 Marginal Notes: His Workbook for 1590s Plays: In 1591-2, North started underlining and underscoring certain passages in his recently-purchased, personal copy of a 1582 edition of his Dial of Princes. He then reused and reworked many of those same lines and passages into plays he was either revising at the time, e.g., Arden of Feversham and The Taming of the Shrew–or was crafting for the first time, e.g., Macbeth. In other words, North used his own copy of his translation as his own personal research-storehouse and workbook for adding new material. This discovery, perhaps even more significant than his travel-journal, was introduced here for the first time on 3/18/21 and will continue to be detailed thru March and April of 2021, times with the March 30th release of North by Shakespeare.
  5. The Contemporary Satires (Coming Soon). From the 1580s to early 1600s, the literary insiders Thomas Nashe, Gabriel Harvey, Henry Chettle, Thomas Lodge, and Ben Jonson frequently spoofed their fellow-writers in their satires. This included making extensive references to Thomas North and his original authorship of the plays adapted by Shakespeare. Their allusions to North were not subtle. As was the standard practice of satirists, they would pun on his name, quote his works, and relate many personal details about him. In the preface to Menaphon, Nashe identified North as “English Seneca,” the original author of Hamlet. In Groatsworth of Wit (1592), Nashe and Chettle included a long history of the North family, explaining precisely how Thomas ended up writing plays for Shakespeare. Ben Jonson also spoofed North on the stage and again described in detail how he wrote Shakespeare’s original plays and even tutored the young dramatist about the theater and the habits of the nobility.
  6. The Many Smaller Smoking Guns: While the above discoveries — like North’s journal, his marginal notes, the satires, and the many hundreds of North’s passages in Shakespeare’s plays — may be considered large smoking guns, or even smoking cannons, we have also made other important finds–albeit smaller in scope–related to individual plays.
    1. For example, the playwright of Richard II, which was first published in 1597, somehow managed to borrow material from North’s personal translations of Nepos’ Lives (1620), five years before North published it.
    2. Likewise 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. As indicated above, 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. News of this discovery made the front page of The New York Times as well as other major news outlets around the world.
    3. This list will continue to grow with future posts.

Finally, with many plays, it is the consilience of proofs that ends all reasonable doubt about North’s authorship. For example, the earliest allusions to some particular source-play will indicate its origination in a certain year– and we then find both the experiences of North’s life and the passages of his latest translation from that same year intertwined throughout the play. And this occurs play after play, year after year.


Common Questions

The North discovery certainly prompts many questions. Fortunately, they all have simple answers that may be found in the in the ever-growing FAQ. But here are a few quick answers to the most common ones:

But perhaps most importantly, these questions are actually all moot. For the truly troubling question people have is: “How can anyone have the audacity to claim that Shakespeare would adapt older plays!?” But as shocking as it may seem, that is not even a point in dispute. We know Shakespeare’s source plays existed; no source-scholar denies this. We know that there were early versions of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, etc. So the question is not whether they existed, but, who wrote them? And we now have proof upon proof that the answer is Thomas North.


About the Author

Dennis McCarthy is an independent scholar, whose research subjects include English literature, biogeography, and geophysics.

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