Can the crossovers between North’s Plutarch and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus be explained by Oxford translating this section of North’s book?
It’s a set piece of literary history that for the Greek and Roman plays, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s main source was Sir Thomas North’s English translation of Amyot’s French version of Plutarch’s Greek Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. Having found similar repetitions in other supposed sources and apocryphal works where the likelihood is that Shakespeare, i.e., Oxford, was not stealing, but was simply repeating what he himself had written earlier, when years ago I read that in certain places, Shakespeare repeated North’s language word for word, it struck me that he might have prepared himself to write these plays by reading and translating Amyot’s Plutarch into English, then publishing it as someone else’s who could use the money.
We know from Burghley’s records that Oxford owned a copy of Amyot’s French translation since it’s one of the books he bought from Seres in 1569. He would have been well-acquainted with Plutarch even then, from eight years with his tutor’s library where it’s listed in both the original Greek and Latin translation. In all probability, Smith followed standard procedure by using Plutarch to teach young de Vere good language use and ancient history. Himself a Platonist, Plutarch’s Platonism would have been another plus for Smith. Geoffrey Bullough, in his chapter on Coriolanus, includes the ancient Titus Livius and Dionysius of Halicarnasus as possible sources, both on Smith’s library list: Livy in the original Latin and Dionysius in the original Greek as well as Latin translation. Because there was no English version of the latter in Shakespeare’s time, Bullough has to dismiss it as a direct source except as it influenced Plutarch, though he does include it, I suppose for that reason. He attributes Shakespeare’s knowledge of Livy to a 1600 translation by Philemon Holland.
Plutarch was one of the major voices for the European Renaissance. As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it:
His Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, translated in 1579 from Jacques Amyot’s French version of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, has been described as one of the earliest masterpieces of English prose. Shakespeare borrowed from North’s Lives for his Roman plays—Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Timon of Athens, and Coriolanus—and, in fact, he put some of North’s prose directly into blank verse, with only minor changes. (2006)
And as North’s ODNB biographer puts it:
North’s fame, since Samuel Johnson’s contention that Shakespeare had read Plutarch in North’s translation . . . has rested in the dramatist’s having, among very much else, thrown “the very words of North into blank verse.” Shakespeare’s acquaintance with North’s translation probably derived from the printing house of Richard Field, whose presses may have been at work on a 1595 edition of [North’s] Plutarch at the same time that they were printing Shakespeare’s Lucrece in 1594 . . . . North’s translation influenced profoundly not only the larger narrative structures of Shakespeare’s Roman plays but innumerable local shapings of their language . . . .
Jacques Amyot’s 1559 translation of Plutarch came from studying manuscripts in the Vatican. North’s English translation, published by Vautrollier in 1579, was based on Amyot’s third edition, published in 1574. Richard Field, Vautrollier’s former apprentice, published the second edition of North’s verson in 1595, and a third in 1603. As we know, it was Field, whose print shop was spitting distance from Oxford’s Blackfriars theater school, who, two years earlier, had published Venus and Adonis, the first published work to bear the Shakespeare name.
Nothing directly connecting Oxford with North has come readily to light (although it’s clear the author of his ODNB bio found their names linked in a 1591 document with that of Sir Julius Caesar). The younger brother of the first Baron North, Thomas North (his knighthood came later) appears to have struggled throughout his life with that bane of a second son, poverty, which is not to say that he wasn’t a genuine translator, though according to the author of his ODNB bio, his influential 1557 English translation of de Guevara’s Diall of Princes did have some authorship issues:
It seems likely, . . . from comments made by North in the second, revised, edition of The Diall (1568), that the first edition was not altogether well received for more literary reasons: “detracting tongues,” he wrote, had given out that the translation “was no work of mine, but the fruit of others’ labor.” (Lockwood)
If North was not the real or sole translator of Diall of Princes, published in 1557, the real author could not have been Oxford, who at age seven was still living with Smith in Buckinghamshire. (If nothing else this comment shows the kind of suspicions that were rampant at that time about the authorship of so much literature of the imagination.) During the period that the Diall of Princes was translated, North was enrolled at Lincoln’s Inn, where he remained until sometime before 1568, where, like so many other Inns of Court gents, he may have crossed paths with Milord during Oxford’s years at Cecil House (1562-68). Oxford’s senior by 15 years; North’s nephew, Lord North’s son John, was Oxford’s contemporary, but he died before his father so the title passed to his son, North’s grandson, in 1600.
Lord North was a client of Leicester’s, and therefore not likely to have been particularly concerned with the young Earl of Oxford’s interests or welfare, but that’s not to say that his relations followed suit. His grandson, Dudley, 2nd Baron North, was a member of the literary circle surrounding Prince Henry. It’s worth mentioning that, during the Elizabethan era, Lord North owned the most gorgeous of all Chaucer manuscripts, the Ellesmere Chaucer, created in the 14th century as a gift for the 12th Earl of Oxford.
Shakespeare and Coriolanus
One of the Plutarch biographies from which Shakespeare borrowed most heavily, Coriolanus was probably written originally for the winter holidays, late 1582 to early 1583, the period when Walsingham and Sussex were engineering Oxford’s return to Court. This required that he make amends to the Queen and his in-laws, for which the story of Coriolanus must have seemed ideal, providing a graceful mea culpa for the Court while for the public it functioned as a moral tale addressing the current civil unrest over rising food prices and the increasingly harsh punishments being meted out to followers of the Old Faith.
This would not be the first time Oxford had used Plutarch. Following his return from Italy in 1576, freaked out by the realization of just how much trouble he was in financially, he had turned to Plutarch’s biography of Timon of Athens, pouring his bitter disillusionment with the Court and his fair-weather courtier friends into the earliest version of what someday would be known as “Shake-spear’s” most angry protagonist. Then, following his banishment, aware that some were still contented to believe he was a two-faced traitor, he turned again to Plutarch to explain himself via Coriolanus.
Because Oxford’s enemies wanted him seen as a traitor, they promoted the story that he had been planning to run away and fight for Spain. Coriolanus is evidence that this may be true, or at least, that he had talked rather recklessly about doing it. Recall that following the untimely birth of his son, he was stopped on the road to Dover in an obvious attempt to flee the country. To Spain, they said, where he intended to take advantage of an offer to lead a contingent of the Spanish army. Though not in exactly the same situation as Coriolanus, he too was being charged with treason, something that, unlike the ancient Roman general, he had no means of confronting openly. Like Hamlet and Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy (both first written about the same time) a play was his way of explaining himself to the Court and his West End community, with the onstage murder of the protagonist in the final act a form of symbolic suicide.
In the inevitable effort to place Coriolanus as late as possible, Bullough tries to connect public unrest in Republican Rome with that of 17th-century England, not all that convincing, public unrest having been endemic throughout the reigns of both Elizabeth and James. Because the time period he’s chosen, 1605, falls just when England finally made peace with Spain, Bullough makes no effort to make the most obvious connection, namely the similarity of the threat to England from Spain throughout the 1580s and ’90s to the fears of the ancient Roman authorities over the threat from the Volscians. He also ignores the startling relevance of the martyrdom of the aristocratic Coriolanus at the hands of the hoi polloi to the calls for more freedom of speech from puritan members of Parliament. The skewed dating forced on historians by William’s biography won’t permit even the most logical and obvious questions to be given consideration.
It struck me long ago that the role of Menenius could easily be one of Oxford’s more benign depictions of Burghley, while the realistic family scenes with Volumnia and Virgilia just might be snapshots of life at Cecil House. If the militant Volumnia was meant to represent Mildred Burghley, it reinforces Peter Moore’s take on Oxford’s relationship with his mother-in-law. Perhaps she represents a combination of all four of the Cooke sisters, including the ferocious Elizabeth Russell, whose proximity to the little Blackfriars theater school gave Lady Russell the power to torment Oxford during the period he was fighting to keep the little stage going, the same period when this play was probably written.
All of this is just the most cursory glance at what seems to me to be an important area of inquiry. Has some scholar compared North’s biographies with each other to see if they display the same high level throughout? Are some better than others, those perchance that were the ones used by Shakespeare? Has anyone capable of the French involved compared the French of Amyot with the English of North to see how much North’s skill depends on Amyot, and how much was his alone? We’re told the 1595 edition varies in some respects from the 1579 original. In what way ? What has been added, and to which of the biographies? Shakespeare refers to incidents in a number of the Lives in his works, but only these four were the basis for individual plays.
Finally, there are two prefaces to North’s Plutarch, both signed Thomas North, January 1579, one dedicating it to the Queen, the other the traditional letter “To the Reader.” Both sound for all the world like Oxford’s dedicatory letters, the one in English to Bedingfield’s 1573 translation of Cardanus Comforte, and the one in Latin for Bartholomew Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier. The same kind of points are made, the same opinions about what is important in literature, even his daring use of the word love. I’ve read an awful lot from this time––in my opinion, no one else writes like this:
To the Reader
The profit of stories and the praise of the Author are sufficiently declared by Amyot in his epistle to the reader, so that I shall not need to make many words thereof. And indeed, if you will supply the defects of this translation with your own diligence and good understanding, you shall not need to trust him; you may prove yourselves, that there is no profane study better than Plutarch. All other learning is private, fitter for universities than cities, fuller of contemplation than experience, more commendable in students themselves than profitable unto others. Whereas stories are fit for every place, reach to all persons, serve for all times, teach the living, revive the dead, so far excelling all other books as it is better to see learning in noblemen’s lives than to read it in philosopher’s writings. Now, for the author, I will not deny but love may deceive me, for I must needs love him with whom I have taken so much pain, but I believe I might be bold to affirm that he hath written the profitablest story of all authors. For all other were fain to take their matter as the fortune of the countries where they wrote fell out; but this man, being excellent in wit, in learning, and experience, hath chosen the special acts of the best persons, of the famousest nations of the world. But I will leave the judgement to yourselves. My only purpose is to desire you to excuse the faults of my translation with your own gentleness, and with the opinion of my diligence and good intent. And so I wish you all the profit of the book. Fare ye well. The four and twentieth day of January, 1579.
To the Most High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth
By the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland
Queen, Defender of the Faith, etc.
Under hope of Your Highness’ gracious and accustomed favor, I have presumed to present here unto Your Majesty, Plutarch’s Lives translated, as a book fit to be protected by Your Highness and mete to be set forth in English. For who is fitter to give countenance to so many great states than such an high and mighty Princess? Who is fitter to revive the dead memory of their fame than she that beareth the lively image of their virtues? Who is fitter to authorize a work of so great learning and wisdom than she whom all do honor as the muse of the world? Therefore I humbly beseech Your Majesty to suffer the simpleness of my translation to be covered under the ampleness of Your Highness’ protection. For, most gracious Sovereign, though this book be no book for Your Majesty’s self, who are meeter to be the chief story than a student therein, and can better understand it in Greek than any man can make it English, yet I hope the common sort of your subjects shall not only profit themselves hereby but also be animated to the bettter service of Your Majesty. For among all the profane books that are in reputation at this day there is none (Your Highness best knows) that teacheth so much honor, love, obedience, reverence, zeal and devotion to princes as these Lives of Plutarch do. How many examples shall your subjects read here, of several persons and whole armies, of noble and base, of young and old, that both by sea and land, at home and abroad, have strained their wits, not regarded their states, ventured their pesons, cast away their lives, not only for the honor and safety, but also for the pleasure of their princes.
Then well may the readers think, if they have done this for heathen kings, what should we do for Christian princes? If they have done this for glory, what should we do for religion? If they have done this without hope of heaven, what should we do that look for immortality? And so adding the encouragement of these examples to the forwardness of their dispositons, what service is there in war, what honor in peace, which they will not be ready to do for their worthy Queen?
And therefore that Your Highness may give grace to the book and the book may do his service to Your Majesty, I have translated it out of French and do here most humbly present the same unto Your Highness, beseeching Your Majesty with all humility, not to reject the good meaning but to pardon the errors of your most humble and obedient subject and servant, who prayeth God long to multiply all graces and blessings upon Your Majesty.
Written the sixteenth day of January, 1579.
Your Majesty’s most humble and obedient servant,