Sleuth uncovers Bard’s ‘rebellion inspiration’
A 16th-century manuscript hidden in the British Library and decoded using plagiarism software has been pinpointed as a previously unknown source for Shakespeare’s plays.
A Brief Discourse of Rebellion & Rebels by George North, a minor figure in Queen Elizabeth’s court, is, according to its finders and decoders, the source of more than 20 passages by the Bard.
They claim it inspired Richard III’s villainous determination and other characters.
While Shakespeare was known to have borrowed from numerous sources, scholars say such as Holinshed’s Chronicles, if the Discourse is authenticated it would be a once-in-several-generations discovery.
Dennis McCarthy, who analysed the linguistic and thematic similarities, said he had no doubts Shakespeare had sought inspiration from the Discourse. “For rebellions, this was his go-to work,” he said. “It seems like this work was digested from the opening dedication to the final pages.”
Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro said the claims implied a “radical rewriting of how Shakespeare wrote”. “The claim being made is that specific words (and in some cases, in some kind of order) stuck in his head over a dozen years later,” he said. “Until now, no scholar has ever claimed that Shakespeare ever kept recalling a specific source in this way. That is the remarkable claim that needs to be explored, defended and explained.”
Mr McCarthy said he had first seen a reference to the Discourse in a 1927 catalogue of rare books that had a “tantalising” description about its parallels with Shakespeare’s treatment of Jack Cade in Henry VI Part 2. He found the Discourse in the British Library. He typed out the manuscript, prepared the Early English Books Online database, which has 60,000 early modern English texts, and deployed plagiarism software.
He said: “The Discourse’s opening speech — looking in the mirror and seeing yourself deformed and how you should act accordingly — is just like the opening monologue of Richard III.”