June Schlueter and colleagues discover new sources Shakespeare “borrowed” from for plays

English professor June Schlueter recently made national and international news as a result of her research into William Shakespeare in which she and her colleagues were able to identify several new sources of inspiration for some of his plays.

Initially, Schlueter and her colleagues were researching the North family—and specifically Thomas North—who published a translation of Plutarch’s Lives in 1579.

“It has long been known that that text served as a source for Shakespeare’s Roman plays (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus),” Schlueter wrote in an email.

Further research into the North family led Schlueter and her colleagues to discover a 1576 manuscript by another North: George North. From this manuscript, Schlueter’s team deduced that “treatment of the rebel Jack Cade in 2 Henry VI was very much like the treatment of Jack Cade in the manuscript,” she wrote.

Upon this discovery, Schlueter’s team used online software—such as WCopyfind and Early English Books Online database—to search for other, similar parallels in these works. All in all, they were able to identify similar parallels in 11 of Shakespeare’s plays.

“It was clear to us that the manuscript, which had not been known to Shakespeareans previously, was one of Shakespeare’s many ‘go to’ sources,” Schlueter wrote.

However, before simply accusing Shakespeare of plagiarism outright, Schlueter wrote one should keep in mind the historical context under which his plays were written. In Shakespeare’s time, it was common practice for author’s to “borrow” from each other’s works, she wrote.

Geoffrey Bullough’s eight volume work titled Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare provides a more in-depth study of this “borrowing.” In these volumes, Bullough identifies syntax and plots in Shakespeare’s works that were clearly inspired—or borrowed—from other works.

Further, it’s worth noting that Shakespeare always put his own unique spin on these borrowed works, she wrote.

“When Shakespeare borrowed, he almost always revised and adapted his source, making the borrowings his own,” Schlueter wrote.

While Shakespeare may have borrowed from other sources, this borrowing was not extensive in the slightest. As opposed to copying entire sentences from North’s works, Shakespeare’s works—at Schlueter put it—merely “contain peculiar phrases or word groupings in an identical context.”

Schlueter also wrote that it is neither her nor her colleague’s intention to expose and accuse Shakespeare of plagiarism. They just seek to “identify a previously unexamined source for a number of his plays.”

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