"North By Shakespeare," | Reviewed by Bill Winkler
When asked to name the greatest playwright in the English language, most people would answer “William Shakespeare.” The plays attributed to Shakespeare, comedies, tragedies, and histories, have been translated into every living language and are performed worldwide thousands of times a year.
Centuries after his death in 1613 questions concerning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays began to arise. Scholars argued that the rich detail about foreign geography and courtly life found in his work suggest authorship by a writer who had traveled extensively abroad and who had ready access to the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts. But there is no evidence that Shakespeare did either of these things.
No one questions that Shakespeare drew upon ancient as well as contemporary resources for his work; this was common practice. But the sources on which he based his plays have remained elusive.
Into this academic fray jumped Dennis McCarthy. A college dropout, McCarthy became obsessed with the question of Shakespeare’s sources. Using plagiarism detection software and access to digitized collections of 16th century literature, McCarthy grew convinced that the source behind the majority of Shakespeare’s work were a series of plays written by a lawyer and justice of the peace named Thomas North, 30 years Shakespeare’s senior.
“North by Shakespeare: A Rogue Scholar’s Quest for the Truth Behind the Bard’s Work,” is Michael Blanding’s account of McCarthy’s obsessive search for the cache of writing he believes to have spurred Shakespeare to write his plays.
Blanding details the method behind McCarthy’s search; tirelessly entering the text of vast amounts of 16th century writing into a database and asking the software to find matching words and phrases. He lays out McCarthy’s argument stating that not only did Shakespeare employ language remarkably similar to that of North, but also that North’s language did not parallel verbiage common to other authors of the day.
McCarthy takes the story one step further. He details the history of Thomas North’s life, a life much better documented than that of Shakespeare, and points out how the plays thought to have been written by North were designed to curry favor with the Elizabethan court by addressing issues important to Elizabeth and her advisors.
The book alternates between McCarthy’s search for evidence to prove his hypothesis as well as his attempts to gain acceptance in the eyes of traditional scholars, and the history of England during the Elizabethan era.
Readers who appreciate the work of Shakespeare will find this book to be a welcome addition to their understanding of his life, times and work. And they will enjoy a recapitulation of many of the plots and backgrounds of his most notable works.