Did Oxford translate some of Plutarch’s Lives?

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,
Thomas North.

31 thoughts on “Did Oxford translate some of Plutarch’s Lives?

  1. I agree that this is an important and neglected avenue of inquiry for Oxfordians. There is, of course, Dennis McCarthy’s book, North of Shakespeare, in which he makes the case for Thomas North as Shakespeare. I was initially impressed with McCarthy’s argument. However, after looking deeper into North’s writings and the word parallels with Shakespeare, I concluded that McCarthy had considerably exaggerated the evidence and arguments. The number of precise word parallels (indicating borrowing or plagiarism) are, as best I can tell, quite few and don’t represent Shakespeare at his best. Moreover, McCarthy’s argument for the exceptionally high and Shakespeare-like quality of North’s prose was not borne out (in my opinion) by an actual reading of North. North’s bio is interesting and he is not an entirely bad candidate. What I found particularly interesting are the parallels pointed out by McCarthy between North’s biography and Greene’s Groatsworth.

  2. From what little I’ve read so far it looks like North, or whoever actually did the translating, stuck very close to Amyot, a genuine Greek scholar, so widely applauded that it seems more likely that Oxford would have translated directly from Amyot, probably referring also to Plutarch in Greek, as it’s clear he tended to do when he could. (Either that or the chapters on Caesar, Antony and Coriolanus are actually his own translation.) Oxford was certainly capable of translating from both French and Greek. He might not have been as accurate with his declensions as a Greek scholar, but he could certainly read it well enough to translate it.

    What were the similarities between North’s bio and Groatsworth? Can you explain?

  3. Thomas North (per McCarthy) is represented by Roberto, the poor scholar, and North’s older, wealthy and titled, brother by Lucanio. Like Roberto, Thomas North struggled on the edge of poverty. The Roberto storyline seems to fit quite well to Thomas North. McCarthy claims the Groatsworth was talking about North.

  4. I see. Thanks.

    It sounds to me like McCarthy is another member of the rather large community of blind literary historians who have the Shakespeare elephant by the leg or the tail and so think he’s some sort of tree or snake.

    The “tales” in the Greene pamphlets from the 1590s, the so-called prodigal son or renunciation pamphlets, are all parables of Oxford’s own life, as he admits in Groatsworth. By the ’90s it’s unlikely that Oxford had anything more to do with Thomas North, whose years at Lincoln’s Inn suggest he was an associate from Oxford’s teens at Cecil House up to and through his early years at Fisher’s Folly. By 1592 North was a JP in Cambridgeshire, and although it may have been possible to be a JP somewhere else while living in London, it seems unlikely, especially for a poor man like North. London was expensive, even then.

    Where North actually fits in to this story is in his resemblance to several other early Oxford standins like George Gascoigne or Thomas Underdowne, men who lived on the fringes of Court society, who were strapped for cash, and who would have been completely forgotten by history if their names were not connected to one or two bits of ground-breaking literature.

    It may be that what to you sounds like absurd enthusiasm for North’s style comes from academics so used to the turgid styles of that period that it sounds to them like rain on the roof after a long drought. Which it probably was. The only question is, who sent the rain? North, or someone who was already using other names to get his work published?

    I must add that it seems unlikely that Oxford would or could have done all the translating of this immense work himself. What seems most likely is that he was involved in getting it published, much as (I believe) he was responsible back in the 1560s for publishing the collection of translations by members of his Cecil House coterie of the French and Italian tales known as Painter’s Palace of Pleasure. Whether the translator was North or several courtiers contributing a few each (Bacon? Raleigh? Buckhurst?) with Oxford doing the ones that interested him, that the prefatory letters were his writing seems to me to be beyond question.

  5. …[S]upply the defects of this translation with your own diligence and good understanding…And so I wish you all the profit of the book…For who is fitter to give good countenance…teach the living, revive the dead…and can better understand it in Greek than any man can make it English…

    These prefatory letters seem to issue from the very pen of the nobleman who introduced Cardanus Comforte, and who became that right great playwright Shakespeare: “and that,” as his Henry the Fifth was to say, “is good English.”

  6. Hi Steve, I am sorry you felt that “North of Shakespeare” didn’t include enough examples of plagiarism or verbal echoes in the Shakespeare plays of North’s work. My next book on the subject will rectify that weakness. For example they will include these 50 plagiarized passages of North: http://northofshakespeare.wordpress.com/shakespeares-plagiarisms-of-north/ And North’s writing is so filled with “Shakespearean phrases” that it is eye-widening. Consider as an example this passage here: http://northofshakespeare.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/hello-world/ — which contains nine “Shakespearean” expressions in one brief exchange in North’s ‘Doni.” This same blog also shows numerous verbal echoes linking the two writers. These verbal fingerprints of North occur in every play.

  7. Indeed, we don’t even have to leave this webpage to find extremely obvious verbal fingerprints of North found in the plays. The blogger quotes the opening dedication of North’s Plutarch’s Lives, which starts: “To the Most High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth / By the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland… “Henry VIII has this salutation to the same woman: “to the high and mighty princess of England, Elizabeth!”
    HVI, part 3 has “Edward the Fourth, by the grace of God, king of
    England and France, and lord of Ireland, &c.”
    That’s “to the…high and mighty princess…Elizabeth” and “by the grace of God…of England France and Ireland.” Dead on.

    The suggestion here is that Oxford actually wrote North’s dedications — but of course it is Thomas North who was known as the writer. Indeed, he is considered by many as the greatest writer of prose of the era. And the quality of Plutarch never flags. It is considered “a masterpiece” and “One of the great monuments of English prose.”

  8. I assume I’m speaking to Dennis McCarthy. ? I await your next book with the additional evidence. However, considering what I’ve seen of North’s prose, I feel that you’ve considerably overstated the case for North’s ‘Shakespearean prose’.

    1. Hi Steve, this very blog post was written by an Oxfordian who believes North’s “history of Coriolanus” as well as his dedications are so “Shakespearean” that he is trying to attribute them to Oxford. Let me give some examples from North:
      “They nourished against themselves, the…seed and cockle of insolence and sedition, which had been sowed and scattered abroad…”

      [Volumnia:]”Thou shalt no sooner march forward to assault thy country but thy foot shall tread upon thy mother’s womb that brought thee first unto this world.”

      It is very difficult to argue this writing above — or any of the 50 other examples I link to above — are not “Shakespearean” as they are, by definition, Shakespearean as they appear in Coriolanus with very little change. Let me give another example: In the following brief exchange between the ass and the mule from the beast fables of North’s Moral Philosophy of Doni, we find nine “Shakespearean” expressions, all marked by asterisks.

      “All is well that endeth well,* say I.* Mark the end. Thou rejected’st my counsel, it skilleth no matter:* I say naught but mum.* If any mischief light on thee,* at thy peril be it…”*

      “Brother mine,”* said the mule, “no more words,* I pray thee.* That that is done cannot be undone.*”

      – Thomas North, Moral Philosophy of Doni, (1570)

      Analysis: In the passage from Doni (1570), we have what almost appears to be a spoof on Shakespearean writing. It contains nine Shakespearean quotes or expressions shoved together — many of which would later become popular because of their appearance in the canon. There is no other work in the English language that contains all these Shakespearean phrases other than North’s Doni and the First Folio. Indeed, many of these phrases are so rare, there is not even any other known work that contains just two of these rare phrases.

      1) “All is well that endeth well” is, of course, the name of a Shakespeare play — and a phrase also appears in that work. Despite the fact that the phrase was proverbial, it was an extremely rare saying in literature. EEBO records only three works other than North’s Doni that use it in the sixteenth century — and no work used it in the 1580′s or 90′s.

      2) “Say I” — A number of characters in the canon end a saying or pithy comment with “Say I”. Examples include: “Now, my masters, happy man be his dole, say I” from Henry IV, part 1 –or “But omne bene, say I” from Love’s Labour’s Lost.

      3) “say naught but mum” has a parallel in “give no words but mum” in Henry VI, part 2. It occurs in the works of only two other writers prior to Doni.

      4) The extremely rare expression, “mischief light on,” appears in Henry VI, Part 1: ”A plaguing mischief light on / Charles and thee.” The phrase is original to North’s Doni and occurs in only one work after Doni and before the conventional date of Henry VI, part 1. A search of the entire EEBO database for works written at any time (i.e. between 1473-1900) that include both “mischief light on” AND ‘but mum” yields only two results, North’s Doni and Shakespeare’s First Folio.

      4) “at thy peril” occurs in only two works in the sixteenth century, North’s Doni and The Merchant of Venice (1600).

      5) North used both “it skilleth no matter” and “it skills not much” as a phrase to mean that “it is of little import.” We also find “it skills not much” in Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. Also, “it skills not greatly” occurs in Henry VI, Part 2.

      6) “Brother mine” appears in The Tempest.

      7) “no more words” would become a very familiar expression as a plea for silence in the canon, appearing nine times in eight works: (T&C, MAN, MND, 3H6, 2H4, MM, A&C, Cor.) EEBO confirms that by the end of the Shakespeare era, only two works include both “brother mine” and “no more words” — Doni and the First Folio. Indeed, a full EEBO search for works printed at any time that include both those phrases yields only one other result.

      8) “I pray thee” was a commonplace in the Shakespeare era, but was particularly common in the canon — occurring 72 times. The full expression: ”No more words, I pray thee” has a close parallel in Coriolanus’s “No more words, we beseech you.”

      9) “That that is done cannot be undone” is original to North’s Doni and did not become a popular expression until after its appearance in Shakespeare’s productions of Macbeth (“What’s done cannot be undone”). True, the notion that we cannot change the past is a commonplace — but this particular expression of it was rare. Both also are stated in the same context — by a guilty party about a murder.

      All of these seemingly “Shakespearean” phrases — many of which appear in combination in only two works in the English language — are the phrases of Thomas North.

      Finally, regarding the quality of North’s prose, many critics and scholars do agree that he was one of the greatest writers of prose in history. Now, I do agree this is somewhat difficult to see today as this was prior to the evolution of careful sentence construction — and so nearly all prose of the time consisted of run-on sentences. But once you get past that the prose is considered of the first rank. Here for example are some quotes, emphasis added:
      1. George Wyndham, on suicide of Cleopatra, “I DOUBT IF THERE ARE MANY PAGES WHICH MAY RANK WITH THESE LAST OF NORTH’S ANTONIUS IN THE PROSE OF ANY LANGUAGE. They are the golden crown of his Plutarch, but their fellows are all a royal vesture wrapping a kingly body…”

      2. Robert Adger Law, on North’s Plutarch: “ONE OF THE GREAT MONUMENTS

      3. C.F. Tucker Brooke: “The extent and precise nature of Shakespeare’s debt to North is
      not easily calculated….A comparison of the many passages in the lives of Antonius and of Coriolanus …shows that the dramatist was satisfied in no small number of cases to incorporate whole speeches from North with the least change consistent with the production of blank verse. The description of Cleopatra’s first visit to Antony, the dying speech of Antony, and the few noble lines that glorify the passing of Cleopatra, the address of Coriolanus to Tullus Aufidius when he throws himself upon the latter’s hospitality, and the last all- decisive speech of Volumnia to her son — these passages, ALL OF WHICH RANK AMONG THE SPECIAL TREASURES OF SHAKESPEAREAN POETRY, COME STRAIGHT AND ESSENTIALLY UNALTERED OUT OF NORTH.

      5. According to the Cambridge History of English and American Literature, “The most famous, and, perhaps, the best, of Elizabethan translations is Sir Thomas North’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579). That Shakespeare used it in patient obedience, borrowing words as well as plots, is its unique distinction. But if Shakespeare had never laid upon it that hand of Midas, which transmuted whatever it touched into pure gold, the version had yet been memorable. It is not Plutarch. In many respects it is Plutarch’s antithesis. NORTH COMPOSED A NEW MASTERPIECE UPON PLUTARCH’S THEME.”


      7. Henry Cabot Lodge: “WRITTEN THROUGHOUT IN THE BEST PROSE OF THE ELIZABETHAN PERIOD, North’s version will have another and very special interest as the storehouse from which Shakespeare obtained his knowledge of antiquity.” — “The Best of the World’s Classics,” Vol. 1, Funk and Wagnall’s, New York, fn. 190-1,

      8. William Ernest Henley: “For the editor of the volume makes no extravagant claim when he asserts the book’s right to rank as an English classic. SIR THOMAS NORTH… WAS NOT ONLY THE BEST OF THE EARLY ELIZABETHAN PROSE WRITERS; HE WAS ONE OF THE BEST PROSE-WRITERS ENGLAND HAS SEEN.” Review of “The Fables of Bidpai,” The Scots Observer, 1889, 304.

      9. Felix Emmanuel Schelling: “It has been well said that IN NORTH ALONE AMONG HIS SOURCES SHAKESPEARE MET HIS MATCH.”

      10. T.J.B Spencer: “Shakespeare was also appreciative of North’s language and he adapted many of his best passages to his own dramatic purposes. He made no effort to go beyond North for many important speeches in the plays, and it is natural for us to regard these borrowings from North as a compliment to his literary merits. CERTAINLY, HE PAID NO OTHER OF HIS BOOKS THE SAME RESPECT AS HE DID TO NORTH. ”

      11. “Indeed, NORTH WAS A MAN WHO WROTE SUCH PROSE THAT SHAKESPEARE EMBODIED WHOLE SENTENCES AND PERIODS OF IT IN HIS NOBLEST POETRY, AND WE DO NOT PERCEIVE THE SEAM. For it was to this noble translator of a noble translation that Shakespeare turned to revive in his imagination
      the life of Greece, and especially Rome, and not merely for facts, as he turned to Hall or Holinshed… NO OTHER BOOK HAS HE SO HONORED. ”
      — Review of Plutarch’s Lives, The Nation, 61(1659), 70.

      12. George Wyndham: “In all this splendour North is Amyot, and Amyot is Plutarch, while Plutarch is but the reporter of events within the recollection of men he had seen living; so that Shakespeare’s Fourth Act is based on old- world realism made dynamic BY NORTH’S INCOMPARABLE PROSE…[More examples deleted].” “To the end of the play the poet’s fidelity is as close; and NORTH’S ACHIEVEMENT IN NARRATIVE PROSE IS ONLY LESS SIGNAL THAN SHAKESPEARE’S IN DRAMATIC VERSE. Every characteristic touch, even to Cleopatra’s outburst against Seleucus, is in North. INDEED, IN THE FIFTH ACT, I VENTURE TO SAY THAT SHAKESPEARE HAS NOT TRANSCENDED HIS ORIGINAL….”

      13. Snyder and Martin: “IT IS THE BEST PROSE WRITTEN UP TO ITS TIME.” (“A Book of English Literature”)

      14. C. F. Tucker Brooke: In the passages I have cited there is little
      evidence of any attempt at improvement; indeed, it may be held in

      So in the above, most of these scholars are depicting North as the
      greatest writer of prose of the era — and a number are clearly
      claiming one of the greatest of all time.

  9. I thank you for the additional information and I do believe the possible link to North deserves careful study (much more than it has gotten) and I must add that I am by no means well-enough read on this to risk much further comment. That said, while the comments you provide from many sources are to be respectfully considered, my own limited reading of North does not lead me, in general, to the feeling that I am reading Shakespeare. So again, I think the case is being overstated. But I will read further and I think your efforts are to be respected.

    1. Steve, thanks so much for the comments and interest and open mind. And I do sort of agree with you as in my opinion, North reached his apex with the mature blank verse plays — and outdid his prose. But there are two points — to put something into blank verse is to elevate its style. Things are going to sound better within the structure of blank verse, as each line is going to have to be consciously arranged to match the meter. And the second thing is, with translations North is anchored to the original work. Yes, he did “create a new masterpiece” on the work, but the tether is always there. With the plays, he was let free. I will hope to show this also in the next installment, particularly by focusing on the non-dramatic prose of the canon and showing the exact match between that and North.

  10. I recently went back and reread Sobran. I had forgotten the number and quality of verbal parallels he had identified between Oxford’s poetry and Shakespeare. So it occurs to me that a stronger connection can be made to Oxford than to North using essentially the same kind of evidence and that this points in the direction of Stephanie’s argument. Just a thought. But again, let’s get the evidence on the table and see where it leads.

  11. McCarthy’s diligence is noteworthy, but all this says is that North has a connection to Shakespeare much like that of Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, George Gascoigne, and so forth. It does not prove that North wrote the Shakespeare canon. And again, is the same expertise seen in all 50 biographies? Are all of them Shakespearean in nature? And how closely did the translator stick to Amyot’s language. From what I’ve read, Amyot was considered a master of French prose.

    1. Hi Hopkinshuges, those are important questions. Yes, the same expertise — same language, same style, same expressions — appears all throughout Plutarch’s Lives, which is the reason for all the cited quotes above about it being one of “the great monuments of English prose” or this example from Wyndham: “Of good English prose there is much, but of the world’s greatest books in great English prose there are not many. Here is one, worthy to stand with Malory’s Morte D’Arthur on either side of the English Bible.” This is because of the (Shakespearean) quality all the way through.
      And yes, Amyot was great, but North was better and, more importantly, different. It is important to stress that any foreign language sentence can be translated in innumerable ways — using different words, sentence arrangements, etc. But this was particularly true of Elizabethan translation — and particularly true of North, who really added innumerable personal touches and images to his translations.
      And, as numerous scholars have made clear, it is the writing of Thomas North – not Plutarch, not Amyot – that has so captivated the Author of the canon. According to the Cambridge History of English and American Literature,

      “The most famous, and, perhaps, the best, of Elizabethan translations is Sir Thomas North’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579). That Shakespeare used it in patient obedience, borrowing words as well as plots, is its unique distinction. But if Shakespeare had never laid upon it that hand of Midas, which transmuted whatever it touched into pure gold, the version had yet been memorable. It is not Plutarch. In many respects it is Plutarch’s antithesis. North composed a new masterpiece upon Plutarch’s theme.”

      In an essay in Shakespeare Survey 10 that analyzes Shakespeare’s debt to North in Coriolanus, Hermann Heuer also describes North’s captivating style:

      “The stylistic features of [North’s] translation have been aptly described by MacCallum, who mentions his “full-blooded words,” his “phrases racy of the soil…” A close scrutiny of North’s version of Volumnia’s speech undoubtedly confirms this general impression. The modifications introduced by North throw into stronger relief the concrete, the factual, the sensuous. Colourless expressions are replaced by crisp pictorial ones.”

      Significantly, Heuer notes MacCallum’s observation that in the Volumnia speech used in Coriolanus, “there is a minimum of Plutarch and a maximum of North.” In other words, it is the style and words of Thomas North, in particular, that the author of Coriolanus believed to be of sufficient quality so as to warrant little to no change.

      This may also help show that the words are coming from North — and not Amyot. Consider these lines about Timon’s epitaph,

      “Here lie I, Timon; who, alive,
      all living men did hate:
      Pass by and curse thy fill,
      but pass and stay not here thy gait.’”

      “Here lies a wretched corse,
      of wretched soul bereft:
      Seek not my name: a plague consume you
      wicked wretches left!”

      It is essentially an exact quote from Plutarch, the only difference being the substitute of the word “caitiffs” for “wretches” in the last line. I don’t think this could come from two different efforts to translate by two different people.
      The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes, Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton, I. Translators; 6 Sir Thomas North’s Plutarch (1907–21), http://www.bartleby.com/214/0106.html

      Hermann Heuer, “From Plutarch to Shakespeare: A Study of Coriolanus,” Shakespeare Survey 10, The Roman Plays, ed. Allardyce Nicoll, Cambridge University Press, 2002.) (Originally published in 1957.), p. 52.

      George Wyndham, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Englished by Sir Thomas North, With an Introduction by George Wyndham, David Nutt – London, 1895,

  12. You’ve got me convinced, Dennis, not that North wrote Shakespeare, but that the same person who translated those portions of Amyot’s Plutarch that ended up in the history plays wrote both the plays and the “North” translations. Like so many others whose works ended up as “sources” for Shakespeare, North doesn’t have enough of a biography. In fact, his biography matches in many ways those of the other names that this hidden writer used, Robert Greene, John Lyly, George Gascoigne. I hope you’ll find time to read some of the material on this issue on this blog, perhaps beginning with The University Wits.

    Meanwhile the question remains, what about the bios of those Greeks and Romans that Shakespeare didn’t use? Is the quality of the translation of these equal to those of Caesar, Timon, Coriolanus, etc.? That’s the question that needs resolving. Until there’s some consensus on that, we’re at a stalemate on Plutarch.

    Stephanie Hopkins Hughes

    1. A third possibility comes to mind, reinforced, for me at least, by the fact that the lines you quote from Timon do not sound particularly like Shakespeare, or not Shakespeare at his best. I suspect that much of Shakespeare, particularly Timon, was heavily redacted. Middleton has been often proposed as the other hand in Timon. Middleton, or Jonson, or whoever (even North) may have been using North for rewriting Shakespeare.

      1. Steve, One of the advantages of thinking of the author as Oxford is that those plays that standard interpretation, stuck by the word “Shakespeare” requires to remain at a level of constant perfection, sees as “sources,” or written by someone else, we can easily recognize as simply the author’s early work. When we think of Shakespeare in terms of the masterworks, we lose sight of the author as as developing artist in a time of great change. The period he was born into is now known as the “drab era,” it was so dreadful. From that he moved through one phase to another, from his teenage poems to the euphuistic John Lyly phase to the pre-Shakespeare period of Robert Greene, until, with the Sonnets and Venus and Adonis he broke through to the mature voice we recognize as Shakespeare. Timon is an early play, obviously written shortly after his return from Italy when he was first feeling the financial pinch that would have him in real trouble by the end of the 80s. No one else could write rage like that. Certainly not Middleton.

        1. Stephanie, I think there are very compelling reasons to believe that what was published in the FF was redacted. Co-authorship (I use the term reluctantly) is widely suspected and well-argued for several plays. Timon seems to me a very problematic and defective play. I discuss this in my book, and propose that it was roughly 1583 that Timon appeared and out of great frustration dealt with Oxford’s feeling of betrayal by Elizabeth and the system of wardship. I am not making the case for Middleton, but I suspect the original Timon was much different, much more coherent.

  13. I agree that the First Folio was edited, but you have to give the editors credit for treating with sensitivity the work of a man they realized by then was a genius. The First Folio was produced while the plays were still being produced regularly. Why would they not include the versions that were still being produced? If there were redactions, as you say, they would have been the product of years of performing. With the author dead, no one was going to take any kind of great liberties with his text, particularly when they were still being acted by actors, many of whom had known the author personally. Great liberties were taken later, when the first generation of actors was dead and gone, but in 1623, that was still a long way off.

    Have you seen Timon of Athens performed? If not, I suspect it plays better than it reads. I thought poorly of The Jew of Malta when I read it, but when I saw it acted by an expert crew at the Old Vic in London, I was impressed, and came away with an entirely different opinion of Marlowe and of how he must have been seen in his own time by his fellow playwrights and actors.

    1. I have not seen Timon performed. You may be right. However, Timon has been heavily criticized by many scholars as a notably defective play and it certainly does have many un-shakspearean passages. That may be a sign of young author peeking through or another hand. I think the latter. I think we agree that most of the canon was written 10-30 years earlier than conventional dating. Redaction probably began quite early, by Oxford and other hands. The redaction of Timon, I believe, took place prior to it’s performance ca 1600.

      1. Hi Steve, I just used the Timon line to prove that Oxford couldn’t have taken it from Amyot himself but got it from North. But even the best passages of the Roman plays (some of the best in the canon) come from North. I quote the Shakespeare editor, C.F. Tucker Brooke: “The description of Cleopatra’s first visit to Antony, the dying speech of Antony, and the few noble lines that glorify the passing
        of Cleopatra, the address of Coriolanus to Tullus Aufidius when he throws himself upon the latter’s hospitality, and the last all-decisive speech of Volumnia to her son — these passages, ALL OF WHICH RANK AMONG THE SPECIAL TREASURES OF SHAKESPEAREAN POETRY, COME STRAIGHT AND ESSENTIALLY UNALTERED OUT OF NORTH.”
        Now, of course, you can always claim that you disagree — that these passages are mediocre — but that’s somewhat beside the point. The more important point is that, as I showed with the 50 plagiarized passages, the author of the canon believed North’s writing — and his writing alone– to be of sufficient quality to warrant placement in the canon.

        1. Hi 4,

          Well, I do find it interesting. Thank you for the additional info.

      2. Any disagreement we have is probably just semantics. The plays as published, whether in quarto or folio, were not the same as the plays performed.

        Shakespeare’s company were entertaining three audiences, the Court, the Inns of Court, and the public. There had to be adjustments for each of these audiences. The plays were rewritten over time, the comedies to eliminate outworn characters and references, the history plays to address new challenges of policy and events. As the history of the publication of Richard III shows, the published plays were for another audience, an audience of readers, some of whom would not have seen the plays.

        Coming out of the folk tradition where a play was more or less just a situation and a collection of characters, like the Italian Comedia, what we have in the quartos and the folio are snapshots of each play at a particular point in time. If it’s the author himself doing the rewriting, or the actors who have changed a scene to make it more playable, with his acceptance, is that “redaction”? Basically it’s the way all plays get written, even today. They get trial runs out of town so the author/s can continue to tinker with them. With a repertory company like the LCMen, this tinkering was probably fairly constant.

        Yes, of course the plays had to be edited to some extent for the First Folio, eliminating too obvious references to important Court personalities and anything that pointed too obviously to the true author. Perhaps in some cases an entire scene was eliminated. But, again, this was done while some of the actors were still alive who knew the author and respected his voice. True redaction didn’t come until the Restoration when Davenant and Cibber cut the plays up in radical ways, moving scenes around, combining scenes from two plays to make a different play altogether. Before then it was just the normal way of using a play to entertain or inform a particular audience. There’s evidence that A Midsummer Night’s Dream had scenes in it that originated from a couple of early plays. As for Timon‘s being a bad play, it’s no worse than Pericles or Titus Andronicus. These were plays that never got that final rewrite during Oxford’s mature period.

        The critics are stuck on Shakespeare as an individual with certain characteristics, when what “he” is really is is the final phase in a lifetime of the true author’s development, following the Gasoigne, Pettie, Lyly and Greene stages, all steps in his progress toward the final stage they labelled Shakespeare for the same reasons that the earlier stages got labelled with the names they still carry, so they could be published. Shakespeare is Oxford in his forties and fifties. Timon was written in his late twenties or early thirties at the latest. If nothing else it’s a great vehicle for an actor who can really tear the scenery. Imagine one of the great actors doing Timon going mad. The Elizabethans loved this kind of thing.

        Timon is not a bad play, it’s simply not a great play. If seen as having been written shortly after his return from Italy, as an unpolished example of that stage of his development it’s an immensely important play for those of us who deal in literary forensics.

        Recently I saw an exhibit of the collection of Gertrude Stein, including many early works by Picasso and Matisse. If we didn’t honor these two for their mature works, nobody would ever hang some of these paintings, nor would you ever connect them with their creators, based on the image of what we carry with us as the Picasso or Matisse style. It took time and experimentation for these painters to become what we think of as Picasso and Matisse. It was the same for Shakespeare.

        Shakespeare scholars suffer from two ailments that make their conclusions next to worthless: presentism, which judges things past by things as they are today; and the Stratford bio, which puts the cart before the horse in almost every approach to the history of the Elizabethan Stage. Dates, documents, hard facts, yes. Conclusions, almost never. It’s better to ignore them. They just get you off the track. It’s better to start from scratch, with just the facts.

  14. We also find many famous Shakespearean phrases in other parts of North’s writings: “remembrance of things past, all’s well that ends well, to take arms against, a sea of troubles, dissolve the bands of life, a pound of flesh, the ides of March, what’s done cannot be undone, an office of the Gods,” etc. All these come from North. And it’s hard to claim that they are not Shakespearean….
    Also, yes, all of the biographies in Plutarch’s Lives are of the same elevated quality — which is why the book is routinely described as one of the “Great monuments of English prose.”
    And finally, it’s hard to argue that the Lives of Antonius, Caesar, Brutus, Coriolanus — and even North’s dedications were actually written by Oxford. North’s name is at the bottom and he dates it. Was North really a stooge for Oxford as well?

  15. Thanks all, for discussing North and inviting him into this conversation! And we are all agreed Shakespeare did not write the original masterpieces.

  16. Actually, Shakespeare did write them. William of Stratford did not. The man who made the name famous deserves it, not the man who traded it for a big house, a crest, and a bust in the local church.

  17. The factual connection between Oxford and Thomas North is the brother Sir Roger North, who was in Paris in 1574-75 and possibly still there when de Vere visited. See my article ‘Edward de Vere in France’ DVS Newsletter Vol. 18 No. 3 Nov. 2011. Roger was close to Oxford at court and in 1578 on the royal progress that year. The next year Thomas’s translation appears (!).
    I do not claim that Oxford wrote any of the translations, but he is welll placed to have suggested to Roger that his brother translate them.
    Jan Cole
    De Vere Society UK

  18. Here is the extract from my article: ‘We know that Oxford had a copy of Amyot’s Plutarch in 1569. That he may have met Amyot in 1575-76 is therefore very interesting, as is the fact that Thomas North appears to have been at the French court, accompanying his brother, the diplomat Roger, Lord North (at the same time). As we learn from Sidney Lee in ‘The French Renaissance in England’ (1910): Sir Thomas North was a country gentleman whose only public service apart from local county administration was to accompany his elder brother Roger on a special embassy to Paris to congratulate Amyot’s pupil, Henri III, on his accession to the French throne in 1574/75.’ (p.156)… That Oxford knew Roger North is certain. He was a courtier and a diplomat, a lifelong friend of Queen Elizabeth and a supporter of the Earl of Leicester with whom he had family connections, marrying the widow of Leicester’s brother in 1555. Two years after Oxford’s return to England on the queen’s summer progress of 1578….Oxford and Roger North are together in the queen’s entourage (in East Anglia)..’
    If Thomas North was with Roger in Paris in 1575 (with Amyot also present for the coronation celebrations) this places Amyot, Oxford and Thomas North together at the same time and in the same place. It seems possible that Oxford suggested to Thomas that he attempt the translation of Amyot’s Plutarch into English at this time, and that on the progresss of 1578, Oxford may well have congratulated Roger on the impending publication of his brother’s translation. Does four years sound about the right length of time for a country gentleman to complete the translation of Plutarch’s Lives (almost word for word) from Amyot’s French? I would think so. This doesn’t make Oxford the translator, but it could make him the initiator and encourager, which was very much his role as a patron in the 1570s. JC

  19. I would be happy to see someone use on North’s Plutarch the kind of forensics that Albert Feuillerat used on the early history plays with an eye to proving who actually translated it. Right now, considering how important Oxford was at this very early stage in creating the English Literary Renaissance, both as a publisher of important works, as a translator himself and as a writer of original works, my guess is that he definitely acted as North’s publisher (the letters to readers are totally in his style), and probably as his editor as well, so that the crossovers between North and Shakespeare were, as is usually the case, Oxford repeating himself. (That he took the time to do all the translating of this massive work himself is not very likely.)

    One big problem has to do with our perception of Oxford’s status at that time. His own caution, plus the activities of the Cecils to eliminate any connection between their family and his works, plus the inability of scholars to understand the nature of genius and of great artists, plus our own hesitation to make the necessary radical move away from the scenario that surrounds the Stratford dating, leaves us with an image of him as just a little bit better than his contemporaries. This is not the case. Oxford shows his true stature by the very growth that so many find impossible to grasp. He began at the level of his friends at Cecil House, Barnabe Googe or George Turberville, and by translating and experimenting, leaped forward to the level we see in Euphues, and when that got old, leaped forward once again to the level of Friar Bacon and James IV, and when that got challenged by Marlowe (Tamburlaine) and Sidney (Astrophil and Stella), leaped forward again to the level of Venus and Adonis and the Sonnets, and as age came upon him, and he was freed of the Court, he moved again to the level of the Folio versions of Hamlet, Othello, As You Like It, and King Lear.

    As long as he had any credit at all he contributed to the English Literary Renaissance by paying for the publication of important books, probably most of those dedicated to him (when will scholars realize that most of these dedications were the author’s way of acknowledging the publisher?), the later ones dedicated to patrons who would supply the supposed author with the kind of donation that Oxford himself could no longer afford.

    I can’t see the publication of the books that he relied on so heavily for his plays, Goldings Ovid, North’s Plutarch, Painter’s Pallace, etc., as anything but his own doing. Hidden for political reasons, he was the leading figure in the development of the ELR throughout his entire life. He knew it, the poets of the time and other writers knew it. He did it partly because he could (who else had the power to do such a thing?) and because he needed to find some way to justify his heritage as the nation’s Lord Great Chamberlain.

    It’s time we quit dipping our toes in the water of the Authorship Question and came out strong for what has to be the truth, not only about who he was, but what he did, which went way beyond writing 36 plays and inventing a few thousand words. Jan suggests that “Alexander” was a byword for Oxford. What if Alexander the Great had been hidden from history by politics, so that his conquests were divided up among his lesser generals, his brilliant strategies assigned to a variety of lesser figures, the progress of his army across Eastern Europe to India attributed purely to the enthusiasm of his troops, the spread of Greek and Greek policies across the Middle East to some appetite of the people of the time for something new. If Oxford’s friends and fellow poets called him “Alexander,” we should pay attention.

    Yes, he was a human being, yes he had faults, any number of them, yes he could weep like a girl, hate like Richard III, and seek revenge like Hieronymo (as did Alexander). But he was also, as history has proven, the Colossus of Early Modern Literature, not only of English but of all languages. With the help of his cousin Francis Bacon, he wrote, edited, and published most of the important works from the early 1560s through the first decade of the 17th century. He was indeed the Alexander the Great of European Renaissance Literature and, much like Alexander, of all that has followed. Let’s begin to see him in that light. If we don’t, we’ll never get anywhere. Who would hit the mark must aim high.

    Jonathon Swift’s great novel, Gulliver’s Travels, is a parable about a genius (himself no doubt), who was so huge that he was driven to hide parts of himself so the terrified Lilliputians wouldn’t put him to death. What Swift meant of course was that Gulliver was huge in intellect, humor, artistry, and the power that goes with them. If this was not about Oxford it certainly could have been.

    If Oxford relied on a translation, if in one of his incarnations he echoed phrases from it, if the letters to the reader are in his style, the overwhelming likelihood is that, like the Little Red Hen, it was he himself who translated it, edited it, wrote it, borrowed from it, and/or published it, “Shakespeare” being nothing more than the last name he used to get his works published, having lost or rid himself of all that went before. Nothing less than that makes any sense.

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