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>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, <i>El Ingenioso Hildalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha . . . Nueva Edición,</i> first Ibarra edition, Madrid, 1780. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Illuminated Prayer Book in Latin and French, France, 1530-40s. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin, France, mid-15th century. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b><br><i>Die Ernsthaffte Christenpflicht,</i> earliest known edition of the first complete Mennonite prayer book, 1708. $300 to $500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Georg Agricola, <i>De ortu & causis subterraneorum Lib V.,</i> first edition, Basel, 1546. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Frederick Ruysch, <i>Icon durae matris in concava [convexa] superficie visae,</i> with 2 mezzotints by Jan Ladmiral, first edition, Amsterdam, 1737. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, <i>Eine Neue Art von Strahlen,</i> Würzburg, 1895. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Pietro Carrera, <i>Il Gioco de gli Scacchi,</i> first edition, Militello, 1617. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> William Lithgow, <i>The Totall Discourse, of the Rare Adventures</i> [etc.], London, 1632. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Michel de Nostradamus, <i>The True Prophecies or Prognostications,</i> first complete edition in English, London, 1672. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Pseudo-Methodius, <i>De revelatione facta . . . beato Methodio,</i> Basel, 1504. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, Mar 7:</b> Hrabanus Maurus, <i>De laudibus sancte crucis opus,</i> Pforzheim, 1503. $1,000 to $2,000.
  • <b>Chiswick Auctions: Autographs & Memorabilia. February 28, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> Autograph album featuring signatures by prominent actors, politicians, musicians and authors, including Rudolph Valentino. £1,000 to £1,500
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> An extremely rare working radio script for Crazy People No 29, the first series of <i>The Goon Show.</i> £600 to £800
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> Manuscript prayer book, in German. 8vo, 1755 £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 28:</b> Italian Manuscript on Geometry, with diagrams, 18th century. £500 to £700
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Ornithology, Zoology & Voyages. February 27, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Thorburn (Archibald). Sparrowhawk, original watercolour & gouache, signed & dated lower right, 1917. £1,500 to £2,000
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Burton (Sir Richard Francis). <i>Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah.</i> 3 vol., FIRST EDITION, 1855-56. £1,000 to £1,500
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> [Mount (Richard) & Page (Thomas)]. <i>The English Pilot. Describing the Sea-Coasts…</i> 31 engraved maps, W. & J. Mount, T. Page, 1756 £4000 to £6000
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Ornithology, Zoology & Voyages. February 27, 2019</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> D’apres De Mannevillette (Jean-Baptiste Nicolas Denis). <i>Le Neptune Oriental.</i> Paris & Brest, [1775 – 1781]. £10,000 to £15,000
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Loring (Josiah). Terrestrial Globe Containing all the Late Discoveries and Geographical Improvements. Boston, Gilman Joslin, 1846, £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Feb 27:</b> Shelley (G. E., Capt.). <i>A Monograph of the Nectariniidae, or Family of Sun-birds,</i> FIRST EDITION, by the Author, 1876-80. £4,000 to £6,000
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    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Broadside. A Poem Upon the Bloody Engagement That Was Fought on Bunker's-Hill. 1775. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Early, full printing of the Star-Spangled Banner in The Yankee, October 7, 1814. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Paul Revere. Engraving, “The Boston Massacre Perpetrated on March 5, 1770," in <i>Massachusett's Calendar 1772.</i> $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Bonhams: Treasures from the Eric C. Caren Collection: How History Unfolds on Paper, Part VII (Online). March 6-14, 2019</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Earliest known newspaper coverage of Babe Ruth, "a St Mary's schoolboy," Baltimore, April 4, 1914. $6,000 to $9,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Franklin, Benjamin. <i>The Independent Whig.</i> First Magazine Published in America, Philadelphia: Keimer, 1723-4. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Smith, Joseph. <i>The Book of Mormon.</i> Palmyra: Printed by E.B. Grandin for the Author, 1830. First printing. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Last Words of Joseph Smith. Autograph Letter Signed from a Mormon disciple, conveying a contemporary account of the Prophet's final words, Nauvoo, July 27, 1844. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> John Brown's Body. Autograph Letter Signed from the daughter of John Brown attempting to arrange the return of her father's body, North Elba, Essex Co, NY, November 29, 1859. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar 6-14:</b> Powell Expedition. Autograph diary of Rhodes C. Allen kept during the Powell Expedition of 1868, June 29, 1868 - November 16, 1868. $20,000 to $40,000
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