Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2018 Issue

Software Used to Catch Plagiarizing Students Nabs Shakespeare


Did this obscure 1927 catalogue listing lead to the discovery of a Shakespearean source?

Poor Shakespeare. For centuries, people have claimed he didn't actually write his plays. Various names have been put forth as the real author of Shakespeare's plays by people who cannot believe an obscure commoner could possibly have written Shakespeare's masterpieces. While it is somewhat surprising such a person could produce the greatest literature ever written in the English language, the sheer number of names put forth as the "real" author makes the claim of any pretender all the more dubious. Shakespeare has held his own against all challengers.


But now, a new type of claim against Shakespeare's authorship has arisen – that he plagiarized his work. Actually, despite the word "plagiarize" that appeared in the headlines (including the one for this article), that is a gross exaggeration of the claim made by two researchers in a new book. The authors are Dennis McCarthy, an independent researcher who has been sleuthing around about Shakespeare for years, and June Schlueter, a professor emeritus at Lafayette College, to whom he brought his findings. And here is where we need to be fair to the authors despite the headlines. They do not accuse Shakespeare of plagiarizing any of his work. What they noticed are similarities in words and sentence structure to a virtually unknown 16th century manuscript that led them to believe it provided inspiration for some sentences in various Shakespeare works.


This is how the story unfolded. In his research, which must have been extensive, McCarthy came across a description in an old bookseller's catalogue as obscure as the work which seemingly inspired Shakespeare. The source was An Illustrated Catalogue of Fine and Rare Books published by Myers & Co. of London in 1927. The proprietor was Albert Myers, a veteran of at least four decades in the book business, who somehow obtained the manuscript in question. Myers dated the manuscript to 1576, based on a comment within it that Queen Elizabeth had reigned for 17 years at the time. So, the manuscript had been hanging around somewhere for 350 years when Myers put it up for sale.


The manuscript was written by George North, a minor official in the court. He wrote three obscure books that were printed, served as Ambassador to Sweden, and little else is known of him. Birth and death dates are missing. It is only known that he was active at least from the 1561 – 1581, based on the dates of his three published works. The title is A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebells, wherin is showyd ye treasar ye Traytors in ye execution of theyr treason, by tym attayne to. The dedication mentions Thomas North, perhaps a relative, who translated Plutarch's Lives, itself an inspiration for some of Shakespeare's material. George North's manuscript is an apology for the monarchy. It describes the terrible but well-deserved fate of some traitors and includes a couple of poems.


While the subject matter of the manuscript would not have grabbed McCarthy's attention, one sentence in bookseller Myers' description of it did. It reads, "It is extremely interesting to compare this earlier Elizabethan, George North's poems on Owen Glendower and Jack Cade with Shakespeare's treatment of the same subject in Richard II, and Henry VI., Part II." North's manuscript ended up in the British Library, and apparently no one, until McCarthy, took up Myers' suggestion to compare North's poems to Shakespeare's works. Most likely, Myers' suggestion was long ago forgotten, and it took McCarthy a year just to figure out where the obscure manuscript was located to do a comparison. He found it in the British Library, not clearly described.


McCarthy had an advantage not available to Myers to undertake a comparison - software. Specifically, he had Wcopyfind, one of those programs that professors use to catch cheating, plagiarizing students. He ran Shakespeare's plays past North's manuscript and voila! He found similarities. He did not find whole sections copied verbatim, the way students copy. He did not even find complete sentences. What he found were combinations of words, including some rarely used, that appeared in North's work also found in Shakespeare's. Sometimes, they came in the same order. He likened this to picking the numbers in a lottery. You might get one or two or three, but getting six in a row is a millions-to-one proposition. McCarthy also ran the manuscript past a database containing 17 million pages of pre-1700 works to see if possibly both authors used a common source, but found none.


Not everyone is certain about the validity of this software induced claim, but computers do have skills the rest of us lack. If Shakespeare somehow had access to a copy of this obscure manuscript, he only "borrowed" some words. And after all, everything we write uses words "borrowed" from the dictionary. Or perhaps, since we don't know what happened to George North after 1581, he is the real writer of Shakespeare's plays.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Jenner (Rev. George Charles). <i>The Evidence at Large...Respecting Dr Jenner's Discovery of Vaccine Inoculation,</i> presentation copy from Edward Jenner to Rev. Rowland Hill, 1805. £4,000 to £6,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Houdini (Harry).- Maggi (Girolamo). <i>De tintinnabulis liber postumus...de equuleo liber,</i> Harry Houdini's copy, Amsterdam, H. Wetstein, 1689. £600 to £800
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Meyer (Henry Leonard). Coloured Illustrations of British Birds, and their Eggs , 7 vol. in 2 plus Illustrations of British Birds, 4 vol., 1842-50 and [1835-51]. £5,000 to £7,000
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Dickens (Charles). <i>An Entirely New Romantic Drama, in Three Acts, by Mr. Wilkie Collins, called The Frozen Deep,</i> 1857. £3,000 to £4,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Lighthouses and Islands of Ireland, c. 125 drawings, 1867. £6,000 to £8,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Shelley (Lady Jane). Diary, 1853 & 1860. £1,500 to £2,000
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Scottish Binding.- The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, bound in contemporary brown polished calf decorated with the figure of a Chinese spearman, by ?James Scott of Edinburgh, 1778. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Greene (Graham). <i>The Man Within,</i> first edition, signed by the author, 1929. £4,000 to £6,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Mellan (Claude, 1598-1688). The Holy Face, or the Veil of St Veronica, [c. 1649 and later]. £800 to £1,200
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. March 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Desaguliers (John Theophilus). <i>A Dissertation concerning Electricity,</i> W. Innys, and T. Longman, 1742. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Le Jeune (Paul). <i>Relation de se qui s'est passé en la Nouvelle France en l'anné 1636 enuoyée au R.Pere Provincial de la Compagnie de Iesus en la Province de France,</i> 1637. £2,000 to £3,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Mar. 22:</b> Stumpf (Johann Rudolph). <i>Gemeiner loblicher Eydgnoschafft Stetten, Landen und Völckern Chronicwirdiger thaaten beschreibung, </i> Zurich, Froschauer, 1586. £3,000 to £4,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22: Autographs</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22:</b> George Washington, Letter Signed to General James Clinton, preparing for the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign, 1778. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising to send reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22:</b> Thomas Edison, Autograph Letter Signed, to Western Union President William Orton, 1878. $10,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22: Autographs</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22:</b> William, Bishop of Coventry, vellum charter granting the church of Rochdale to the Cistercian Abbey of Stanlaw, in Latin, 1222. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22:</b> FDR, Photograph Signed & Inscribed, framed with wood removed from the White House roof, 1927. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22:</b> Jean Dubuffet, archive including many letters written while painting in NYC, 1951-72. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22: Autographs</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22:</b> Mohandas K. Gandhi, Autograph Letter Signed, describing the source of his patience, 1939. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22:</b> Lithograph portrait of Albert Einstein by Hermann Struck, signed by both, 1923. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22:</b> Charles The Bold, Duke of Burgundy, Letter Signed to Johann IV of Nassau, in French, 1470. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22: Autographs</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22:</b> Jean Cocteau, Autograph Letter Signed, in French, 1919. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22:</b> Louis Armstrong, two Autograph Letters Signed to Erich Kauffmann, his lip salve purveyor, 1965-70. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 22:</b> Wernher von Braun, Autograph Letter Signed to Jonathan Cross, 1975. $5,000 to $7,500.
  • <b>Bonhams: Fine Books and Manuscripts. March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. $80,000 to $120,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. $100,000 to $150,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. $100,000 to $150,000
    <b>Bonhams: Fine Books and Manuscripts. March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. $200,000 to 300,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. $80,000 to $120,000
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>

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