Life and Arts

Shakespeare: A plagiarist?

Software finds new players

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  • Plagiarism software, WCopyfind, matched language from an unpublished piece by writer, George North, to several famous pieces of William Shakespeare.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 1500s, 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]


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]


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]


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]


“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].


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]




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]


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.


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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.
  • Accusations are common in the music and media industry.  [Billboard], [TIME]
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