Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2018 Issue

Software Used to Catch Plagiarizing Students Nabs Shakespeare

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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>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>
  • <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>South Polar Times.</i> 1st edition, limited issue. from the library of Michael Barne. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. $30,000 to $50,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> After Fra Egnazio Danti. <i>L'Ultime Parti not:e nel Indie Occid:ntli" [The last known parts of the Western Indies].</i> Painted Map of California, Western Mexico, and Japan. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Ptolemaeus, Claudius. <i>Geographie opus nouissima...</i> 1513. The most important edition of Ptolemy, containing the Admiral's Map. $250,000 to $350,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> De Arellano, Don Alonso. Manuscript, his <i>"Relación mui singular y circunstanciada... Capitán del Patax San Lucas,"</i> manuscript copy from the Sir Thomas Phillips collection. $50,000 to $80,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Purchas, Samuel. <i>Purchas his Pilgrimes.</i> First edition. With John Simth's engraved map of Virginia. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. $2,000 to $3,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Franklin H. Brown, <i>State Sovereignty, National Union,</i> Chicago, 1860. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Thomas Paine, <i>The American Crisis,</i> Fishkill, NY, December 1776. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b><br>The Aitken Bible, Philadelphia, 1781. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francisco Loubayssin de Lamarca, probable first edition of the first novel set in the Spanish New World, Paris, 1617. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Juan de la Anunciación, <i>Sermonario en lengua mexicana,</i> first edition, first book of sermons in Nahuatl, Mexico, 1577. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Maturino Gilberti, <i>Thesoro spiritual en lengua de Mechuacá,</i> first edition, Mexico, 1558. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Commission of William O. Stoddard as secretary to the president, signed by Lincoln, Washington, 1861. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> <i>Clay and Frelinghuysen,</i> flag banner, circa 1844. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Daguerreotype of a man believed to be Frederick Granger Williams Smith, son of Joseph Smith, circa late 1850s. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> John C. Wolfe, <i>Portrait of Abraham Lincoln,</i> oil on board in period wooden frame, circa 1860s. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francis W. Winton, manuscript on pow-wows with indigenous Canadians, 1881. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Family letters from two young daguerreotype artists, 1826-79. $10,000 to $15,000.

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