The workings of the mind of a genius — and where that genius comes from — are forever fascinating.
What made Monet paint the way he did?
Where did Lincoln get his political acumen?
Why did Einstein travel into the realms of relativity?
Who gave Shakespeare the ideas for his plays?
None of these questions ever has a single answer, of course. But part of the answer to the last one — what inspired the Bard — may have been found by a computer nerd living in New Hampshire.
Dennis McCarthy, the nerd, and June Schlueter, a Shakespearean scholar, have co-authored a book (Rebellion and Rebels) identifying George North, an obscure writer in Elizabethan times, as a possible source for what ultimately became some of Shakespeare’s most memorable speeches.
McCarthy says he did it using some open source plagiarism software — but quickly adds that Shakespeare didn’t plagiarize. Like all of us, he used the ideas and information of others to form his own creative works. (The headlines about this have emphasized that it was “anti-plagiarism” software that helped uncover this finding. The implication is that Shakespeare may have plagiarized, which he did not — even by today’s standards. That implication obscures the real importance of this finding.)
What the authors found is that a passage from an obscure anti-rebellion document written by George North used some of the words and ideas that later showed up in some of Shakespeare’s soliloquies. For instance, North uses “proportion,” “glass,” “feature,” “fair,” “deformed,” “world,” “shadow” and “nature” in the dedication of his treatise. Those words, in almost the same order, show up in the famous opening lines of Richard III.
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Insights into the mind of a genius are always fascinating and instructive.
Because Leonardo da Vinci kept a vast quantity of journals (See Leonardo’s Journals: A large window into the mind of a genius here on JPROF.com), we have a good idea about how his mind worked, what he was thinking about, and what he saw.
With William Shakespeare, we have no such record. Other than his plays and poems, we have little or nothing that Shakespeare wrote. To gain insight, we must look at the world around him to come to a greater understanding of his words.
As critic Isaac Butler explained in an article on Slate.com:
. . . we look at Julius Caesar and marvel at the incredible rhetoric but don’t see it as in dialogue with plays about Rome by other Elizabethans such as Thomas Lodge’s The Wounds of Civil War, and we don’t look at Plutarch’s accounts of Brutus and Mark Antony’s lives, which served as the source for both Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The result is that our understanding of both Caesar and Shakespeare is impoverished. By looking at his sources, we can see what he kept and cut and changed. By looking at his context, we can see the debates and cultural moments that he was responding to.
What emerges when you do this is a richer appreciation of the plays and a more down-to-earth view of their writer. Shakespeare wasn’t a God, and he wasn’t unique, even if he was the best. He was an artist responding to his time the way artists actually do, through opening themselves up to influence and creating out of the materials around them. There’s a practical side to his work as well. He wrote for a company, which means he wrote to the particular skills and limitations of his actors. He wrote prolifically, which necessitated recycling ideas, themes, and bits of dramatic business. As a part owner of his company, he also had to respond to practical matters like trends, government censorship, and the need to fill up to 3,000 seats a night.
All of this is important — extremely important — because without William Shakespeare, we would not have the English language as we know it today.
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