I spent the majority of the weekend finishing Michael Blanding’s North by Shakespeare: A Rogue Scholar’s Quest for the Truth Behind the Bard’s Work. Because I’m cool like that. If you’re unfamiliar with the name Michael Blanding, as was I when I first picked up this tome, Blanding, a journalist by trade, whose articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Slate, among others, was the man behind The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps; as well as The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink. And if those lengthy titles don’t tell you he’s also an academic, who has taught writing at several big-name universities, nothing else will. That said, you may be wondering, what qualifies him to do a deep dive on the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays? To quote Lord Helmet, “Absolutely nothing.” But Blanding’s not the one doing that research. Dennis McCarthy is. In North by Shakespeare Blanding is chronicling McCarthy’s journey.
And who is Dennis McCarthy, you may be wondering. Don’t worry, you’re not the first to ask, though you’ve probably asked it with less of a sneer than the Shakespearean scholars have over the years. Dennis McCarthy is a college dropout polymath (someone with an expert knowledge of a wide variety of topics) who had previously spent many years of his life researching a subject known as ”biogeography”, basically, the study of why we see animals and plants in the places we see them. That research culminated in a book called, Here Be Dragons: How the Study of Animal and Plant Distribution Revolutionized Our Views of Life and Earth. They should have given him a college degree just for that very academic title. Anyway, once McCarthy finished with that topic, he quickly moved on to (became obsessed with) the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. McCarthy’s premise is that Will’s plays were actually written by a man named Sir Thomas North, a man who was sort of a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, though North was thirty years Shakespeare’s senior, and Shakespeare outlived him by twelve years. North was known as a translator, most notably for translating Plutarch’s Parallel Lives into English. North’s work has been known to Shakespeare scholars for years as source material for Will’s plays, one of many such author’s that the Bard borrowed/stole from, depending on your opinion. However, McCarthy went further to say that North was the true author of most of the plays we now attribute to Shakespeare, basically accusing Shakespeare of plagiarism, not that he’s the first to do that.
Given the nature of how the world came to know about Shakespeare, it’s no wonder that the question of the true authorship has been fraught with conspiracy theories and numerous other authors have been put forth as having been the ‘real’ writer. Though I am far from a Shakespeare scholar, I’ve also had my doubts. I, however, was not motivated by the same bias as most of those doubters have been, by the idea that someone with Shakespeare’s lackluster education, a glover’s son, could possibly be smart enough. No, my doubts came upon learning how the plays were collected. For those who haven’t heard the story, during Shakespeare’s lifetime no plays were published as being attributed to him. The first folio (the first gathering together of his plays in book form) was done posthumously by two actors from the theatre troupe he acted with. They gathered together what they could find from the notes left behind, usually scripts used during the production of said plays, and cobbled together the folio, not attributing dates to any of them, forcing later scholars to take their best educated guess. Needless to say, this story gave me pause, but didn’t make me dismiss the idea whole cloth that Shakespeare was the writer of all the plays attributed to him, and possibly more that haven’t been found. Rather, it made me think that Shakespeare, along with other actors in his troupe, could have all had a hand in writing them. Why the actors compiling the folio would attribute them all to one man is anyone’s guess. Maybe he did write the bulk of them, or they were thinking any royalties (if that was even a thing back then) should go to his family. Who knows?
I was never of the “not educated enough” crowd who snobbishly thought Shakespeare couldn’t have been smart enough to write them. One would think that being a self-educated college dropout would give McCarthy more sympathy than most on this matter, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. North was a gentleman’s son, the family had a history of service and favor with Queen Elizabeth I, and North was well traveled. All things Shakespeare was not. McCarthy makes a compelling case for North by pointing out all the ways North was more qualified to write on the subjects Shakespeare wrote about, considering his traveling, his soldering, North’s own books, which scholars agree that Shakespeare used as source material. Where McCarthy loses me is his constant insistence of shoehorning in details of North’s life with scenes from the plays, using his theories as proof that North is the true author. Most of which is supposition based on McCarthy’s flights of fancy. Reading McCarthy’s theories was like listening to those Christians who sweep aside things they have no explanation for with the blanket statement of, “God works in mysterious ways.” And McCarthy is a true believer in North’s divinity, with a zealot’s confirmation bias firmly in tow.
The other thing that makes me skeptical is McCarthy’s method of proof: he used an open source plagiarism software to compare North’s work with Shakespeare, looking for recurring phrases in common that couldn’t be found in other sources from the same period. Now, I have never used plagiarism software so I can’t speak to its accuracy, but at best, it comes across like the lie detector of literary research: inadmissible at best. Like many of the peer reviewers who reviewed the articles McCarthy tried to publish about his work, I’m skeptical of the search parameters used to detect these similarities in the texts, agreeing that they are too broad. Also, though I fully believe that you can become well-educated without the benefit of college, as McCarthy has, it takes years of linguistics study to be able to find all the nuisances of commonly used phrases from one text to another, and I just don’t believe McCarthy is qualified to do so, despite his wide breath of knowledge. This is why we don’t let people who haven’t been to medical school, but have read a lot of books about medicine, operate on us. Does this mean that I too am falling into the trap of thinking someone with a lackluster education isn’t qualified to do something? Yes it does. Could I be wrong? Sure I could. But am I going to change my mind? Not at this time.
McCarthy’s credentials, or lack thereof, aside, Blanding’s book is very readable. He intersperses McCarthy’s theories with Elizabethan history, putting into context the lives of the North family, as well as that of the Court and the little we know about Shakespeare. These were the areas of the book I truly enjoyed, and it made me want to seek out more information on Elizabeth I. Though definitely not the best of them, she surely wasn’t the worst monarch Britain’s ever had. And her refusal to marry makes my little queer heart wonder and hope that she was one of the several queer monarchs, even though I doubt it at the same time. Like a true journalist, Blanding stays mostly neutral throughout, though he does admit to being a bit swayed by McCarthy’s theories. And there is compelling evidence for a few things he posits. I’ll let the reader decide where they fall.
My consensus on the true authorship of the plays attributed to Shakespeare: I think Will did write them. I think, though he lacked a formal education, he was well read. He drew upon the books he read, as well as the stories he heard others tell about adventures they’ve had, as all writers do. This secondhand accounting of far away places and events that he never saw is the reason why one can find so many mistakes, namely geographical ones, in the plays. Will had never been to these places and Google didn’t exist, so he had to go with the information available to him and make up the parts he didn’t know. That, and the fact that there was a high demand for more plays to be performed in the burgeoning theatre scene, he had to churn them out rather quickly to meet audience demand. That doesn’t exactly give one much time for research. And it wasn’t as if the audience cared (nor knew the difference) about the finer details, they just wanted to be entertained. So, I think we need to cut Will some slack and give him the benefit of the doubt and stop looking for better educated men to have written the plays. Besides, does it matter who the writer was? Especially when the play’s the thing.