(NYTimes) - For years scholars have debated what inspired William Shakespeare's writings. Now, with the help of software typically used by professors to nab cheating students, two writers have discovered an unpublished manuscript they believe the Bard of Avon consulted to write King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, Henry V and seven other plays.
The news has caused Shakespeareans to sit up and take notice.
"If it proves to be what they say it is, it is a once-in-a-generation - or several generations - find," said Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.
The findings were made by Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter, who describe them in a book to be published next week by the academic press D.S. Brewer and the British Library. The authors are not suggesting that Shakespeare plagiarised but rather that he read and was inspired by a manuscript titled A Brief Discourse Of Rebellion And Rebels, written in the late 1500s by George North, a minor figure in the court of Queen Elizabeth who served as an ambassador to Sweden.
"It's a source that he keeps coming back to," said McCarthy, a self-taught Shakespeare scholar, during a recent interview at his home in North Hampton, New Hampshire. "It affects the language, it shapes the scenes and it, to a certain extent, really even influences the philosophy of the plays."
In reviewing the book before it was published, David Bevington, professor emeritus in the humanities at the University of Chicago and editor of The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (7th Edition), called it "a revelation" for the sheer number of correlations with the plays, eclipsed only by the chronicles of Holinshed and Hall and Plutarch's Lives.
Martin Meisel, professor of dramatic literature emeritus at Columbia University, said in another review that the book is "impressively argued". He added that there is no question the manuscript "must have been somewhere in the background mix of Shakespeare's mental landscape" while writing the plays.
McCarthy used decidedly modern techniques to marshal his evidence, employing WCopyfind, an open-source plagiarism software, which picked out common words and phrases in the manuscript and the plays.
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 realise how rare these words actually are," 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."
Scholars have used computer-assisted techniques in the humanities for several decades. Most of that scholarship, however, uses function words such as articles and prepositions to create a "digital signature" of a writer that can be used to identify them as author or co-author of another work, rather than using comparatively rare words to locate a source.
McCarthy was inspired to use plagiarism software by the work of Sir Brian Vickers, who used similar techniques in 2009 to identify Shakespeare as a co-author of the play Edward III. While the book has been received favourably, the statistical techniques used have not yet been subjected to a rigorous review by other scholars in the digital humanities field.
Those techniques may only be the "icing on the cake", said Witmore, who briefly examined an advance copy. "At its core, this remains a literary argument, not a statistical one."
The book contends that Shakespeare not only uses the same words as North, but often uses them in scenes about similar themes, and even the same historical characters. In another passage, North uses six terms for dogs, from the noble mastiff to the lowly cur and "trundle-tail", to argue that just as dogs exist in a natural hierarchy, so do humans. Shakespeare uses essentially the same list of dogs to make similar points in King Lear and Macbeth.
To make sure North and Shakespeare weren't using common sources, McCarthy ran phrases through the database Early English Books Online, which contains 17 million pages from nearly every work published in English between 1473 and 1700. He found that almost no other works contained the same words in passages of the same length. Some words are especially rare; "trundle-tail" appears in only one other work before 1623.
In the past, some scholars have identified sources for Shakespeare from a few unique words. In 1977, for example, Kenneth Muir made the case that Shakespeare used a particular translation of a book of Latin stories for The Merchant Of Venice based on the word "insculpt". In recent years, however, it's become rare to identify new sources for Shakespeare. "The field has been picked over so carefully," Bevington said.
McCarthy is an unlikely literary scholar. Originally from Amherst, New York, he studied computer science and theatre at the University at Buffalo, but never graduated. He began writing for magazines and newspapers and published a book in 2009, titled Here Be Dragons, about the geographical underpinnings of evolution.
That interest led him to wonder if literary ideas could propagate the same way, and starting in 2006 he began to explore the sources of Shakespeare. McCarthy focused on Thomas North, a translator of Plutarch's Lives, whom Shakespeare relied on heavily for his dramas.
In April 2011, McCarthy brought some of his findings to Schlueter, professor emerita of English at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and a founding editor of Shakespeare Bulletin, a scholarly journal. She admired his diligence and natural affinity for scholarly research. "Dennis is the Steve Jobs of the Shakespeare community," Schlueter said, referring to the self-taught Apple founder.
McCarthy, 53, works behind three computer monitors on the dining room table of his home. Supported financially by his wife, a biotechnology executive, he spends 12 hours a day or more at his computer.
McCarthy found a reference to the manuscript by George North, a likely cousin of Thomas, online in a 1927 auction catalogue, which noted it would be "extremely interesting" to compare certain passages with Shakespeare. He and Schlueter scoured libraries and archives for a year before enlisting the help of a manuscript detective, who studies rare documents and traced it to the British Library, which had purchased it in 1933. (The manuscript was filed under an obscure shelf mark, which made finding it difficult.)
In 1576, North was living at Kirtling Hall near Cambridge, England, the estate of Baron Roger North. It was here, McCarthy says, that he wrote his manuscript, at the same time Thomas North was there possibly working on his translation of Plutarch.
The manuscript is a diatribe against rebels, arguing that all rebellions against a monarch are unjust and doomed to fail. While Shakespeare had a more ambiguous position on rebellion, McCarthy said he clearly mined North's treatise for themes and characters.
One of the most compelling is Jack Cade, who led a failed popular rebellion against Henry VI in 1450. Shakespeare describes Cade's final days in Henry VI, Part 2, in which he says he was starving and eating grass, before he was finally caught and dragged through the street by his heels, his body left to be eaten by crows. Scholars have long thought that Shakespeare invented these details, but all of them are present in a passage from North's Discourse in which he inveighs against Cade and two other famous rebels. McCarthy and Schlueter argue that Shakespeare used those details to make Cade into a composite of the three.
For his part, McCarthy is already planning future volumes based on his electronic techniques, hoping to present more discoveries that shed light on how Shakespeare wrote his plays.