Photo illustration by Slate. Image by National Portrait Gallery.

Plagiarism Software’s New Discovery About Shakespeare Is an Opportunity to Rethink His Genius

The Bard of Avon wasn’t a plagiarist, but genius isn’t born in a vacuum.

This week, scholars Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter announced that they had discovered a new major source of Shakespeare’s plays. Using plagiarism software and literary analysis, McCarthy and Schlueter are preparing a new book in which they argue that the forgotten A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels by the even-more-forgotten George North was a key point of inspiration for 11 of his major works. As reported by the New York Times:

The book contends that Shakespeare not only uses the same words as North, but often uses them in scenes about similar themes, and even the same historical characters. In [a] passage, North uses six terms for dogs, from the noble mastiff to the lowly cur and “trundle-tail,” to argue that just as dogs exist in a natural hierarchy, so do humans. Shakespeare uses essentially the same list of dogs to make similar points in “King Lear” and “Macbeth.”

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The article, and the book, have many more examples of places where the words of Shakespeare and North intersect. Even though plagiarism-detecting software was used to make this discovery, McCarthy and Schlueter want to make clear that they are not accusing Shakespeare of plagiarism. Instead, they’re simply arguing that North’s writings were an inspiration for him.

They needn’t bother. By our standards, Shakespeare, who lived before modern ideas of authorship, plagiarized constantly. The discovery of North’s influence on Shakespeare is a welcome opportunity to remember how the Bard of Avon’s genius actually worked, and how much his methods are at odds with our own ideas of artistic greatness.

Shakespeare is not Western literature’s great inventor but rather its great inheritor. The Bard borrowed plots, ideas, characters, themes, philosophies, and occasional passages from sources ranging from Plutarch’s Lives and Holinshed’s Chronicles to Montaigne’s Essays and plays by his contemporaries. He returned again and again to ancient Rome, finding inspiration in Ovid, Seneca, Plautus, and others.

His inheritance also goes beyond the textual. When he began working in the London theater scene, its component parts were there waiting for him. There were already professional theater companies, outdoor amphitheaters, plays in five acts, iambic pentameter, and conventions surrounding comedies, tragedies, and history plays.

None of this should make us think less of Shakespeare’s achievements and neither should the increasing evidence that he sometimes used uncredited collaborators and occasionally served as one himself. Shakespeare didn’t just faithfully reproduce his sources—he argued with and subverted them, he combined them in unconventional ways, and he made substantial changes to them. King Leir, the anonymous source text for Shakespeare’s King Lear, ends with Leir restored to the throne and everyone still alive. Shakespeare frequently expands roles for women in his plays and removes many passages where characters share their motivations. Shakespeare also often makes his plays more complicated than his sources, both ethically and logistically. He even went so far as to add an extra set of identical twins to The Comedy of Errors.

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This is, generally speaking, not how we think about Shakespeare or, given limited classroom time and the emphasis on close textual reading, how he is taught. Many of his predecessors’ plays are lost, and his peers among Elizabethan playwrights aren’t read, taught, or produced nearly enough, making it harder to see the connections between his work and his contemporaries. Even when Shakespeare’s sources are mentioned, rarely is much time spent on reading them to see the influence clearly.

Thus, we look at Julius Caesar and marvel at the incredible rhetoric but don’t see it as in dialogue with plays about Rome by other Elizabethans such as Thomas Lodge’s The Wounds of Civil War, and we don’t look at Plutarch’s accounts of Brutus and Mark Antony’s lives, which served as the source for both Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The result is that our understanding of both Caesar and Shakespeare is impoverished. By looking at his sources, we can see what he kept and cut and changed. By looking at his context, we can see the debates and cultural moments that he was responding to.

What emerges when you do this is a richer appreciation of the plays and a more down-to-earth view of their writer. Shakespeare wasn’t a God, and he wasn’t unique, even if he was the best. He was an artist responding to his time the way artists actually do, through opening themselves up to influence and creating out of the materials around them. There’s a practical side to his work as well. He wrote for a company, which means he wrote to the particular skills and limitations of his actors. He wrote prolifically, which necessitated recycling ideas, themes, and bits of dramatic business. As a part owner of his company, he also had to respond to practical matters like trends, government censorship, and the need to fill up to 3,000 seats a night.

A grubby businessman furiously writing plays and ripping off whatever he could get his hands on hardly fits our model of artistic genius. We think of geniuses as tormented rock stars, breaking new ground with sui generis innovations that spring from their minds like Athena from the brow of Zeus. In movies like Amadeus, this myth of artistic genius makes for delicious art in its own right, but it’s not how artistic creation really works. Creating a work of art is part of an endless dialogue that reaches both back thousands of years and out into the world around us. This is what Shakespeare did, and he didn’t do it alone. If it worked so well for him, perhaps we should stop being attached to ideas of originality that have no bearing on how art is actually made.

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