Plagiarism is impossible to avoid. Unless you speak glossolalicly — “in tongues”— your words, phrases and systems of metaphor are not your private inventions. And if you’ve found yourself saying “cuck” or “double down” or “take a knee” in the last year — as if they just suddenly seemed right — you can be sure you inhaled those devilishly infectious memes like second-hand smoke.
Some information analysts even believe that meme campaigns on social media, especially the tendentious ones circulated by bots and trolls, compromise our cognitive security, exploiting mental vulnerabilities to false and dangerous narratives in the disorientation of the Internet.
It’s well worth protecting yourself against bombardments of propaganda. But have no shame about being derivative. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
On Thursday, literary clickbait broke in the New York Times that Shakespeare, a good poet, had been caught red-handed in some plagiaristic adventuring. (In London, this was gossip hot enough to hit the tabloids.) Using software designed to nab kids who crib from SparkNotes, Dennis McCarthy, a self-taught Shakespearean, found that the language and ideas from an obscure 1576 manuscript pervade some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, including the “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy, from “Richard III.”
JK, as the texters say; that’s short for infinite jest.
It’s well known that Shakespeare built every single one of his plays, except possibly “The Tempest,” from source material. “King Lear,” as Harvard English professor Stephen Greenblatt and others have shown, draws from a 1603 Montaigne essay about clingy old men. Shakespeare also took ideas from Chaucer, Spenser and, above all, Plutarch, whose ideas Shakespeare filched from an English translation by Sir Thomas North.
The difference this time is that the source text is not by a luminary such as Plutarch, but a schmo courtier to Queen Elizabeth named George North. Paying attention? Yes, George North was likely a cousin to Thomas, the Plutarch translator, which is perhaps how Shakespeare found George and vaped his words.
McCarthy says George North’s work informed so much of Shakespeare’s that it seems the poet leaned on it as a go-to resource. Unlike Thomas, though, George never found fame. Better late than never: McCarthy, with the renowned Shakespeare scholar June Schlueter, published North’s “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels” on Friday.
How McCarthy found North’s quirky manuscript is a tale more Victorian than Elizabethan. The short version is that McCarthy, who had developed an interest in Thomas North’s influence on Shakespeare, saw a reference to cousin George’s “A Brief Discourse” online in an auction catalog. A tantalizing note marked the work as potentially similar to Shakespeare. McCarthy called up Schlueter, and together they enlisted a “manuscript detective,” a kind of Inspector Bucket of libraries. The inspector finally dug up the treatise stashed under a weird shelfmark at the British Library. The two fed North and Shakespeare into Wcopyfind — the open-source catch-a-plagiarist software — and voila.
Just one example of what they found: North used the words “proportion,” “glass,” “feature,” “fair,” “deformed,” “world,” “shadow” and “nature” in a passage about ugliness and beauty. A tidbit from North, with modern spellings: “To view our own proportion in a glass, whose form and feature, if we find fair and worthy, to frame our affections accordingly, if otherwise she have by skill or will deformed our outward appearance and left us odible to the eye of the world.”
(Mental note: Use “odible” as soon as possible.)
Then Shakespeare used the same words in almost the same sequence in the opening to “Richard III.” The difference between North and Shakespeare is that North used the words to make a banal point about how homely people ought to cultivate inner beauty, whereas Shakespeare used them to show that Richard, who sees himself as exiled from beauty and pleasure, has doubled down on villainy.
There’s more. “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” “Henry V” and several other Shakespeare plays show North’s influence.
In a field of scholarship generally thought to have been picked clean by critics and historians, McCarthy’s discovery of this manuscript is a monumental contribution to both literary studies and Shakespeare’s biography. Michael Witmore, who directs the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, called it “a once-in-a-generation — or several generations — find.”
At the same time, Ron Rosenbaum, the author of “The Shakespeare Wars,” cautions against making too much of Shakespeare’s influences. “I distrust the tendency of source hunters to say the sources ‘explain’ Shakespeare,” Rosenbaum told me. “Sources are a distraction from the question raised by the plays themselves: what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare?”
Indeed, what makes any of us any of us if not our idiosyncratic interpretation of stock human thoughts, words and deeds?
There’s a difference between making your own poetry from the work of poets past, a sort of compliment, and property theft. This week, a journalist named Julie McDowall published a vivid piece in the Guardian about the dogs of Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear catastrophe. She had paid her own way for the trip, taken risks, won access. Almost as soon as the article appeared, the Daily Mail ripped it off, consigning McDowall’s name to a footnote.
“I paid for my nuclear trip, and the Guardian paid for the story.” McDowall told me. “The Mail have made no effort here. They're simply parasites.”
That’s odible. But years ago, my writing partner came across this sentence in a magazine: “Most plagiarees are secretly pleased.” Even as he knew that wasn’t entirely true — most writers have been burned by a plagiarist at least once — he trimmed out the line, framed it and hung it over his desk. He liked the long “e” sounds. But he also liked the idea — someone else’s idea, which he made his own.
There is little doubt that formerly forgotten courtier George North — now the biggest name in Shakespeare news — is posthumously pleased.