The hunt for Shakespeare’s lost source

June Schlueter and I are thrilled with the attention the George North manuscript, “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels,” is receiving, which began on February 8 with Michael Blanding’s article in the New York Times. The recent publication and coverage of this little-known Elizabethan document will ensure that scholars will now be able to access it and analyze the various ways Shakespeare used it for his plays.

Over the last few weeks, June and I have fielded many questions about the finding—from scholars, reporters, and interested amateurs. The most common are: How did you find the manuscript? Why is it important? Are you sure Shakespeare used it? And how did Shakespeare have access to it? We will try to answer all four.

The way I found the manuscript was simple: I just emailed my partner and coauthor, June Schlueter, saying: “We have got to find this manuscript.” And she took it from there. I had found notice of the manuscript’s existence in a 1927 auction catalogue and had probably hit “send” on the email before I had finished reading the blurb. June is a scholar straight out of the pages of a Dan Brown novel. She hunts through the archives of museums and libraries throughout Europe, gently leafing through the yellowing papers of 16th-century manuscripts and reading their faded scrawl. Still, it took more than a year to pinpoint the manuscript’s location. June sent out feelers to other manuscript scholars, and Anthony Edwards located it among the Portland Papers in the British Library.

Scholars study Shakespeare’s sources because they help provide a deeper understanding of the plays. But unfortunately it seemed like all the major sources of the canon that could be discovered had been. These earlier works had all been squeezed for as much information as possible. Now, the George North manuscript gives scholars something new to examine, and it has already provided helpful information. For example, no one really understood why in the middle of a history on King Henry VI, Shakespeare devotes an entire scene to the death of the rebel Jack Cade, inventing numerous details: his followers were forced into halters, Cade felt hunted and fearful of everyone and regretted his decision to rebel, he was starving and forced to eat grass, his limbs were emaciated, his corpse would be dragged by the heels and eaten by crows. But when we read about the death of Jack Cade in North’s “Discourse,” we understand the purpose and origin of the scene: Shakespeare’s Jack Cade represented an amalgam of North’s version of Cade and other rebels—and he and his followers endured indignities and torments that, North argued, all rebels would suffer.

The manuscript also answers why the Fool, who served as a prophet of a world turned upside-down in King Lear, recites a Prophecy of the Poet Merlin. George North also offers a Merlin prophecy, describing Merlin as just such a dystopian prophet and associating him with a list of role-reversals that would eventually inform the Fool’s depictions of a topsy-turvy world. Shakespeare liked to have his characters reference their historical archetypes: Polonius, who would soon be stabbed, notes that he once played the part of Julius Caesar, and Hamlet then alludes to Brutus. In the same way, the Fool was quoting the historical model of his character.

The third question is typically whether we are sure that the George North manuscript was a source for Shakespeare’s plays—and yes, there is little doubt about it. When two passages share a series of peculiar terms or phrases in the same context, whether detailing the same historical event or describing the same distinctive idea, this entails a connection between the passages. Most people understand this instinctively when they are already familiar with the original passage. For example, if some post-Shakespeare writer were to create a story about Mark Antony in which the Roman statesman enters a room and says, “Hey everyone, lend me your ears,” we would naturally assume this author took those last four words from Shakespeare, whether directly or indirectly. We would understand that such a phrase is fairly rare, and so the chances are slim that someone else would dream it up for a similar situation just by happenstance. This is a quick way to understand how scholars determine literary obligation. This same rationale that has been used for centuries in source studies also confirms Shakespeare’s debt to George North. The difference is that the verbal correspondences between manuscript and canon—all reproduced in the same distinctive context—are far more compelling than the “lend me your ears” example. And the relevant passages in George North’s manuscript link to parallel passages in at least eleven of Shakespeare’s plays.

Finally, we are left with the question of how Shakespeare had access to “A Brief Discourse.” June and I have been researching the North family for several years, and we believe we have the answer. It will be central to the argument of another book, which is well underway.

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