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Scholars Identify a New Influence on Shakespeare’s Works, With Help From Plagiarism Software

Jonathan Douglas holds a skull as he portrays a futuristic Hamlet at the Shouson theatre in Hong Kong.
Richard A. Brooks/AFP/Getty Images

It may be time to move George North’s sixteenth-century manuscript, “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels,” to the very top of your reading list (assuming, of course, that it wasn’t already there). Two scholars have identified the treatise written by North, a minor Elizabethan diplomat, as a likely influence on William Shakespeare, since several of Shakespeare’s plays not only cover the same themes but also use many of the same distinct words found in North’s manuscript. Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter explained their methodology for the discovery to the New York Times, which included checking Shakespeare’s works against plagiarism software WCopyfind to identify unique words and phrases found in other sources.

Here’s how they drew their conclusions, via NYT:

In the dedication to his manuscript, for example, North urges those who might see themselves as ugly to strive to be inwardly beautiful, to defy nature. He uses a succession of words to make the argument, including “proportion,” “glass,” “feature,” “fair,” “deformed,” “world,” “shadow” and “nature.” In the opening soliloquy of Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent …”) the hunchbacked tyrant uses the same words in virtually the same order to come to the opposite conclusion: that since he is outwardly ugly, he will act the villain he appears to be.

“People don’t realize how rare these words actually are,” Mr. McCarthy said. “And he keeps hitting word after word. It’s like a lottery ticket. It’s easy to get one number out of six, but not to get every number.”

Other telltale signs include a passage in North’s manuscript that uses the rare “trundle-tail” while talking about dogs, a term which later crops up in King Lear. See, it turns out that plagiarism software is good for something other than your English teacher making sure you didn’t steal your essay from the internet. (Hi, Ms. Coleman!)

The article is careful to clarify, however, that despite the use of the software, Shakespeare is not actually being accused of plagiarism. Rather, he was inspired by North’s work. Good luck using that one as an excuse, high-school students of the world.