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Neither a borrower nor a lender be: But how many ideas did Shakespeare himself ‘borrow’?

The game is afoot! It seems Shakespeare borrowed language from his contemporaries more directly than we previously realized. 
A man dressed as William Shakespeare takes part in the Shakespeare Birthday Celebration Parade on April 23, 2016 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. (Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)

Software designed for university professors to detect pay-for-paper schemes, where students purchase their writings from the web (or simply copy them), as well as good old-fashioned diligence and research, has led to one conclusion: Shakespeare borrowed several of his themes and ideas from one of his contemporaries. Or, at least…was inspired by reading some of his words.


In the new book, authors Dennis McCarthy and June Schlueter establish the links between The Bard and a man named George North, who wrote an unpublished manuscript titled, “A Brief Discourse Of Rebellion And Rebels.”

A self-taught Shakespeare scholar, McCarthy told the New York Times, “It’s a source that he keeps coming back to. It affects the language, it shapes the scenes and it, to a certain extent, really even influences the philosophy of the plays.”

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It might not have even been blatant or intentional; much like music that’s highly influential in a given culture, the concepts were simply embedded into Shakespeare’s subconscious mind and lay dormant until he wrote something new.

English dramatist William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) lifting a cap, the symbol of fame, off the head of Bacon, circa 1610. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Using open-source plagiarism software, “WCopyfind,” McCarthy found that there were phrases in parts of North’s writing that included the same words in the same order as Shakespeare later used. Words such as ‘proportion,’ ‘glass,’ ‘feature,’ ‘fair,’ deformed,’ ‘world’ and ‘shadow’ are used in the opening soliloquy of Shakespeare’s “Richard III”. They’re also found in North’s manuscript. 

“People don’t realize how rare these words actually are. 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.” asserted McCarthy.  

To be clear, the authors aren’t accusing Shakespeare of plagiarism. The point is simply that, like all good artists, he combined ideas from many different sources to create his own worlds. 

Which is kinda what we all do, isn’t it?


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