Acknowledgments: February

Every month I wrangle up some of the more interesting things around the blogosphere and present them to you in a neat and tidy package. But first, a diatribe about Shakespeare as a potential fraud…

In his novel The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips had the audacity to challenge the infallibility of Shakespeare. He put the Bard on blast, then aimed the gun at the thousands of automatons critics who willfully, stubbornly, and perhaps even negligently evangelize the following dogma: Shakespeare as an irrefutable deity.

As it is taught, Shakespeare is perfection, he is without fault, blemish, or equal, and as a result, to challenge his greatness is to not understand him, to reveal one’s own incompetence, because, surely, he did not make even a single mistake.

Yet, his body of work–which supposedly captures the entire human experience in less than 40 plays–contains hundreds of strange turns, missteps, and jokes gone awry. As Phillips pointed out in his novel, Shakespeare is far from perfect. Was he brilliant? Of course he was. Was he infallible? No one is.

But for some reason, people have been covering for him for hundreds of years. Phillips points it out like so:

“…you have a weak spot where Will’s not thinking very clearly, and the character rambles on, and Will sticks in a joke that he like about flowers that look like wieners. It plainly doesn’t belong there. Any editor would cut it. It breaks the rhythm and the logic of the scene. And your sweet old Gertrude noticed it and rightly points out the weak spot. Anybody else, we’d say, ‘Whoops. Not buying it, Will.’ If I wrote it, they’d send me home to rework it. Instead, what do you all do? You all talk it out until you make it make sense for him. He wrote it, so it must be right. You six very intelligent people form a committee to offer him your help, and when you’ve done the best you can, consulting old books of other would-be helpers, when you actually come up with some very clever solutions, you marvel at him for composing such a subtle moment.”

I bring this up because, once again, people are coming to Shakespeare’s defence, and once again, they are bending so far backwards for him that even the folks at Fox and Friends would roll their eyes and cry “sycophant” (should they even know what that means).

Earlier this week, a New York Times article revealed that new plagiarism software has discovered inarguable links between several Shakespeare plays and a newly found, unpublished manuscript, “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels,” written in the late 1500s by George North (a minor figure in the court of Queen Elizabeth).

Martin Meisel, professor of dramatic literature emeritus at Columbia University, said that
there is no question the manuscript “must have been somewhere in the background mix of Shakespeare’s mental landscape” while writing the plays “King Lear”, “MacBeth”, “Richard III”, “Henry V”, and more.

From the New York Times article:

“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 realize how rare these words actually are,” said Dennis McCarthy, the man who discovered the similarities using WCopyfind, an open-source plagiarism software. “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.”

McCarthy’s findings are detailed in the upcoming book A Brief Discourse of Rebellion & Rebels: A Newly Uncovered Manuscript source for Shakespeare’s Plays. 

“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.”

And if you scoff at such examples as mere coincidence, McCarthy did the work to show that a coincidence seems unlikely.

“To make sure North and Shakespeare weren’t using common sources, Mr. 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.”

This is an incredible, important find worth investigating. It doesn’t mean that Shakespeare was a fraud, it doesn’t mean he copied everything he wrote, but it does put into question how much of his “genius” is actually his. Much of what was written in the late 1500’s/early 1600’s hasn’t survived. Who knows what Shakespeare borrowed, or outright stole.

And yet, this is how the article talks about the new discovery:

  • “…the find suggests that while scholars may have exhausted print sources, there may be other unpublished manuscripts that inspired the Bard that remain to be discovered.”
  • “The authors are not suggesting that Shakespeare plagiarized but rather that he read and was inspired by a manuscript.”
  • “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.”

The crux of The Tragedy of Arthur is that precarious line between fact and fiction, how easily it can be blurred, and the degree to which the truth even matters.

If a lost play is found–as it does in the Phillips’ novel–reported to be written by William Shakespeare, does that inherently make the play better, or more valuable? Had it been written by one of his contemporaries, would we love it any less? Would we be more apt to find fault, to discredit its importance? Does a man’s fame determine his greatness, or does a man’s greatness determine his fame?

Genius should be attributed as it’s deserved, not as it’s supposedly deserved. No one is above criticism, everyone makes mistakes. There are reasons why Shakespeare wasn’t universally lauded in his day. He was appreciated, sure, but he was just one of many successes in that time.

Was his habit of being “inspired” one of them?

If you’re interested in reading more, check out the full NYT article here.

February Acknowledgments

1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower author, and personal hero of mine, Stephen Chbosky, has just announced that he has finally written his second novel, almost 20 years after Perks was published. But it’s not what you think it would be. Imaginary Friend, as it’s called, will go something like this:

The story “focuses on Kate Reese, a single mother fleeing an abusive relationship by starting over in a new town, with her young son Christopher. Her world begins to unravel after Christopher vanishes into the Mission Street Woods — where 50 years earlier an eerily similar disappearance occurred. When her son emerges six days later unharmed but not unchanged, he brings with him a secret: a voice only he can hear and a warning of the tragedy to come to the real world if he fails to protect it. Soon Kate and Christopher find themselves in the fight of their lives, caught in the middle of a war playing out between good and evil, with their small town as the battle ground.”

Sadly, it won’t hit bookshelves until Fall 2019. [Entertainment Weekly]

2. Is there not enough smut in your smut? Then say hello to Harlequin’s new imprint, Dare. Books under the Dare name will have “female agency and pleasure are at the forefront”. Euphemisms “have been ditched for graphic terms” and “rose petals and candlelight have been replaced by blow jobs in moving cars.” [The Globe and Mail]

3. New incredible book alert: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert. It’s got reclusive old authors, dark fairy tales, terrifying estates, a murder mystery, and more than a hint of the supernatural. Fans of The Magicians should be excited. [NPR]

4. Not sure what to read next? Or next month? Or in six months? Have you checked out The Millions’ Great 2018 Book Preview? [The Millions]

5. In this week’s “how did it take this long” moment, DC announces a new YA imprint of its comic book titles, called DC Ink. It will feature some of the biggest YA authors going: Laurie Halse Anderson, Melissa de la Cruz, Ridley Pearson, and more. Brilliant idea, I can’t believe it hadn’t happened yet. [NYT]

6. Joel over at I Would Rather Be Reading wrote a great post about the non-horror titles of Stephen King. Did you know he wrote a classic, pure high fantasy novel called Eyes of the Dragon? Check it out.

7. Canadian playwright, director, and now author Jordan Tannahil’s new book Liminal sounds fascinating. It exists within a single second, when the protagonist walks into his mother’s bedroom and doesn’t know whether she’s alive or dead. A momentary eruption of his entire life occurs, and suddenly its about “his entire life, his entire coming of age, his entire relationship with his mother and his entire relationship with consciousness itself.” [CBC]

8. Penguin Young Readers just announced a new imprint, Kokila, which focuses solely on diverse books. According to Penguin, the imprint’s mission is to “add depth and nuance to the way children and young adults see the world and their place in it.” [Publisher’s Weekly]

9. If you can’t get enough of “most anticipated” lists, here’s another good one by Publisher’s Weekly [PW]

10. Are you participating in Adam’s Bible as Literature challenge this year over at Roofbeam Reader? Then you might want to check this article out, “The Bible as Literature, Literature as Scripture.” [Granta]

11. Another new book shoutout: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. It “reportedly secured Imogen Hermes Gowar a six-figure advance for her debut novel, said to have been inspired by exhibits at the British Museum where she worked as a gallery assistant. Comparisons have been made to The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry due to the feminist and magical realist aspects, and Golden Hill by Francis Spufford in its historical accuracy and attention to period detail.” [A Little Blog About Books]

12. Say what you will about Laura at Reading in Bed: she’s never boring. Check out her review of The Autobiography of Gucci Mane. [Reading in Bed]

13. A few years ago (on a defunct book blog) I started an event called Novellas in November. Then I disappeared, as I used to do all the time, but Laura and some others have kept it alive. bless their hearts. I fully plan on diving back in this year, and Hannah just wrote a great primer for it: a novella reading list. [I Have Thoughts on Books]

14. Can you enjoy a piece of art without enjoying the artist who wrote it? Roxanne Gay takes a swing at this controversial topic. [Marie Claire]

I wrote a piece about this on (another defunct) blog a few years ago, and got lambasted for it. My stance was that I can’t bring myself to read books by horrible people (unless it is pure scholarship, of course). Gay said what I wanted to say, but 10 times more eloquently:

“It is not difficult to dismiss the work of predators and angry men because agonizing over a predator’s legacy would mean there is some price I am willing to let victims pay for the sake of good art.”

15. My favourite line of the week: “Scripture, after all, is simply the literature that people are willing to kill each other over.” [The Millions]

10 thoughts on “Acknowledgments: February

  1. Such an interesting post! There was no such thing as plagiarism or copyright during Shakespeare’s era so I think we need to stop using that word as a way to cause controversy. All plays and poetry from the era usually have a least one source, if not several, and I’m surprised that people are shocked by this ‘discovery’. I love Shakespeare’s work but some of it is awful (especially the Henry VI plays) and we need to stop putting him on a pedestal.


      1. That’s a great question! It was actually fairly common and you can see examples of where Shakespeare copied almost word for word from his sources in plays like Anthony and Cleopatra. A speech from act 2, scene 2 in A&C is taken directly from a translation of Plutarch’s ‘Life of Mark Antony’. Other playwrights from the era did it too and I wonder if it was about creating something that would be familiar to their audience. I don’t have an answer for that but it was fairly common to just copy from other texts of the time, particularly translations of Italian works.

        I didn’t mean to go on and on about it like that. Sorry 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, what a great post! Also, thank you for the shout-out AND for letting me know about Novellas in November which a) perfect title (I do love alliterations) and b) I will definitely participate in this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Rick, a boring blog is my biggest fear 🙂

    In the meantime, I keep reading novellas in the wrong month!! I just finished Leaf Storm (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, great, especially if you’ve read 100 Years of Solitude) and Love Enough by Dionne Brand (just… the worst, most boring things about “literary” fiction, but still something compelling about it??)


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