Shakespeare: A plagiarist?
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Life and Arts

Shakespeare: A plagiarist?

Software finds new players

WHAT IT IS

  • Plagiarism software, WCopyfind, matched language from an unpublished piece by writer, George North, to several famous pieces of William Shakespeare [The New York Times].

  • North's “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels” was written in the late 1500's, while Shakespeare's pieces in question were written after 1600 [The Times].

  • This finding suggests Shakespeare may have copied, collaborated, or been influenced by North. 

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  • Direct language and themes from North's “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels” were found throughout 11 famous Shakespeare plays [The Smithsonian].
  • Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter are credited for the finding [The New York Times].

SUSPICIOUS SHAKESPEARE

Romeo and Juliet

English poet, Arthur Brooke, is considered the chief source for Shakespeare's famous tragedy (1597). Brooke published The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet in 1562 [British Library].

Hamlet

In his tale Amlet, Danish author Saxo Grammaticus makes the first reference to Shakespeare's character Hamlet. Grammaticus based Amlet on a Scandinavian oral tale of the legend [University of Pittsburgh].

King Henry VI

4,144 out of 6,033 lines in Parts I, II, and III of Henry VI are either verbatim or paraphrased from various authors, including North [The Smithsonian].

Macbeth

The three witches in Macbeth are almost identical to the three "Fates" featured in Greek mythology.

 

The six words used for dogs (the mastiff, the cur, and the “trundle-tail") originate from North's "A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels" [The Smithsonian].

WHY IT MATTERS

 

“If it proves to be what they say it is, it is a once-in-a-generation — or several generations — find,” says Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. [The New York Times].

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"There’s a difference between making your own poetry from the work of poets past, a sort of compliment, and property theft."

-Virginia Heffernan, [The Los Angeles Times].

HE COPIED

Same, same

North focused on the dangers of rebelling against a king. This is the same theme found in over 20 of Shakespeare’s passages [The Independent].

 

 

99.999%

It is nearly impossible that the findings of WCopyfind are wrong. The odds "would be like hitting a national lottery twice in a row" [The Independent].

 

 

This isn't new

Questions and findings began at the start of 19th century. It is a known fact that Shakespeare "referenced" many sources for all of his works. 

 

Among some Shakespeare experts, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Twelfth Night are considered his only original pieces of work [The Los Angeles Times].

HE WAS INSPIRED

But different.

Scholars McCarthy and Schlueter believe that Shakespeare did not plagiarize, but used “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels” as inspiration for the philosophy of the 11 plays [The New York Times].


 

Tech isn't perfect

Plagiarism software is extremely sensitive and can detect many "false positives," [Plagiarism Today] such as:

  • Common phrasing:  There are many common phrases in the English language in which usage is unavoidable and truly a coincidence. 
  • Non-verbatim: Plagiarism software cannot detect copied ideas or themes. 

 

One of the greats

Regardless of referencing other published works, Shakespeare's plays are still considered some of the greatest of all time.

WHERE WE ARE NOW

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  • Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter published a book detailing their findings [Boydell and Brewer].
  • Many "greats" have been charged with "stealing," plagiarism, or intellectual property theft.
  • This can be common in the music and media industry.  [Billboard], [Time].

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT

  • Artists are typically influenced by other artists. How does this impact "stealing" claims? 

  • Are there any original thoughts left?

  • Should teachers be required to tell students of this finding before reading the plays?
  • Deep dive: Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare - Volume I
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