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Photo: Wikimedia.
Above, the portrait of William Shakespeare that was long thought to be the only one with any claim to have been painted from life — until the Cobbe portrait was revealed in 2009.

A week ago I saw that the Globe Magazine had a cover story on a newly discovered source for Shakespeare, but I didn’t think I was interested. Like others who have read theories about Shakespeare, I thought, “Here we go again.” And I have an extra reason to roll my eyes. A great uncle I never met was known for trying to prove that Francis Bacon was Shakespeare. His theory was put to rest by his own codebreakers.

But then blogger Carol got in touch to tell me the article was about her brother-in-law, and I got interested.

Michael Blanding, a Boston-based journalist, has written a book about self-taught Shakespeare researcher Dennis McCarthy and his quest to uncover a possible Shakespeare source. The Globe article was an excerpt.

It seems that McCarthy, a polymath with no academic credentials but with expertise in deep internet searches, has identified a 16th century writer called Thomas North as the source of a lot of Shakespeare themes and even some phrases. North was already known as a writer, but his plays are no longer in existence. Nevertheless, 16th century references to his work are a treasure trove if you know what you’re looking for. No one else has done McCarthy’s deep dive into North. Blanding’s aim seems not only to cover the new ground but to make a sort of scandal out of it by using words like “plagiarism.”

Blanding recounts his first reaction to McCarthy: “Oh, he is one of those, I thought to myself — a conspiracy theorist who thought Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. But McCarthy hurriedly added that in fact he believed the Bard of Avon wrote every word attributed to him during his lifetime. He also believed, however, that Shakespeare had used the earlier plays written by Thomas North for his ideas, his language, and even some of his most famous soliloquies.” Blanding is eventually persuaded.

My reaction: Sure, why not? If the guy has proof of Shakespeare using similar language to North’s, so what? Proof is proof. The importance lies in its newness. Blanding’s emphasis on McCarthy’s — and Darwin’s — lack of standard credentials strikes me as irrelevant.

After all, this is what writers do. They build on previous writers.

Look. Here is T.S. Eliot writing “Ash Wednesday”:

“Because I do not hope to turn again
“Because I do not hope
“Because I do not hope to turn
“Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope …”

And here’s Eliot’s source, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29: “Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope.”

Would anyone accuse Eliot of plagiarism for that? Just because so many centuries have passed and manuscripts have been lost, does that mean Shakespeare was hiding a deep, dark secret? And just because McCarthy has no PhD or scholarly cred, does that mean he can’t notice things?

I admit I don’t have a PhD either and I’m often accused of being gullible, but I have no problem with research into a possible inspiration for some of Shakespeare’s art, especially as no one is saying he didn’t write the plays and poetry himself. For me, the only problem that McCarthy and Blanding could have would be over-hyping and using words like “plagiarism.” I really wish them success getting the word out, though.

More at the Globe, here.

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