Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Bard

Is sin the only original thing left?

I'm not sure why the discovery of a likely source for some of Shakespeare's works and characters is not getting more attention. Probably because Shakespeare is pretty much forgotten these days?

There are people I expected to see Tweets from regarding the news that an unemployed 53-year-old non-academic (his wife works) has found wording in another text that strongly suggests Will got some ideas from someone else. And really, what would be wrong with that. He didn't write in a vacuum. Everyone is influenced by things they've read. Take people on Twitter. Will would have loved Twitter. Especially the birdie logo.

The story did break on page one of Thursday's NYT, below the fold, but its placement might have only been caused by a slow day at the White House. I must say, despite whatever the NYT is about, they are at least about the arts and sciences as well.

No one is outright accusing The Bard of flagrant plagiarism, but apparently Dennis McCarthy, using anti-plagiarism software, has identified several passages from a few works of the great man that come nearly word-for-word, and sometimes are word-for-word from a text written by George North, 'A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels' in the late 1500s.

Bill and George were contemporaries, and perhaps Bill picked up a copy of George's manuscript at the corner herb store. I'm sure Bill liked to read.

The story is a great read for anyone who has had to read anything from The Bard. So Will really did have his own set of Cliffs Notes like the rest of my contemporary high school buddies who consulted Cliffs Notes for explanations as to what the hell was meant by "out, damned spot, out."

I can still see those yellow and black covers of Cliffs Notes. With all the online sources these days, my guess is no one shells out their lunch money for these things anymore.

As for myself, Shakespeare and I got along well enough that I actually did read the assigned texts when Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet were being trudged through in class. I always did like Macbeth the best, and once saw Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson in a production of Macbeth on Broadway.

I never saw a staging of Hamlet, but did watch Mel Gibson, I think, on television take on the role. And Othello. Saw the Lawrence Olivier 1965 movie with Maggie Smith no less. The same Maggie Smith that we would see tapping her cane on 'Downton Abbey' as the Earl of Grantham's mum, Dowager Princess Lady Violet. That's durability.

My only failure to read something through to completion was when we were assigned to read 'The Scarlet Letter' by Nathaniel Hawthorne. At some point reading the book I fogged out and went into class thoroughly unprepared to discuss the book. When it became apparent to me during the discussion that Reverend Dimmsedale knocked up Hester Prynne, I leaned over to the kid next to me and expressed disbelief. "You mean the priest knocked her up?" To which my now unknown classmate responded, "You didn't read the book, did you?"

This failure didn't seem to cost me anything gradewise since I always did pretty good in high school. It was a bit embarrassing though to have missed what might have really been the good part, I still didn't go back and then read it.

The story of Mr. McCarthy's quest to see if Shakespeare's works could be traced to contemporary sources reads a bit like a forensic detective tale. Mr. McCarthy used open source anti-plagiarism software, called Wcopyfind and compared Bill's works against a digital file of every published work in English from 1473 to 1700, a scant 17 million pages of text.

Mr. McCarthy found several instances of passages in Will's works that corresponded to text written by George North. Mr. McCarthy teamed up with a bona-fide academic, Ms. June Schlueter, professor emerita of English at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Together, he and Professor Schlueter and a "manuscript detective" traced a 1927 mention of George North's 'Rebellion and Rebels' to a mislabeled shelf space in the British Library and found the manuscript.

Is all this a fluke? Not when you consider that Mr. McCarthy found 8 words in an opening soliloquy of Richard III that are part of the hunchback's speech: proportion, glass, feature, fair, deformed, world, shadow and nature. He also found 6 words to describe dogs, words like "noble mastiff" and "trundle-tail" from North's work that appear in King Lear and Macbeth.

Matching these words, especially a word like "trundle-tail," is like hitting a Pick 6 honestly with  Valponi on Breecders' Cup Day in 2002 and taking home the entire pool. And a Pick 8? They don't even have those.

Based on preliminary reviews from other academics it would seem Mr. McCarthy and Professor Schlueter are going to be considered spot-on. Software in the past has revealed some other sources for Shakespeare's works, so this is just the latest, but perhaps the biggest mining so far.

We always knew Shakespeare had help.

1 comment: