Plagiarism software finds Shakespeare plundered cool words from a little-known book

Shakespeare was a creative-commons powerhouse – he borrowed tons of plots for his plays, happily plundering from the writings of Plutarch, contemporary Italian authors, and more.

Now there's evidence of a new source: A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels, a book written in the late 1500s by Elizabeth court figure George North. It looks like Shakespeare read it and found some of the language so shiny that he reused it, often quite directly, in his own plays.

Even more fun is how the discovery was made: With plagiarism-detection software!

Dennis McCarthy – a writer, college dropout, and self-taught scholarly historian of English – had heard of the North book via an auction-catalog listing. The listing suggested it'd be interesting to compare it to Shakespeare's work. McCarthy and English prof June Schlueter digitized the text of North's book, then compared it against Shakespeare's plays by using WCopyfind, open-source software used by profs to check if students are ripping off other words.

Bingo. As the New York Times reports:

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,” Mr. McCarthy said. “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.” [snip]

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.”

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)