A rare 16th-century book offers “compelling evidence” that William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline was inspired by a now-lost play by Sir Thomas North, an Elizabethan courtier and writer, new research claims.
A 1533 edition of Fabyan’s Chronicle, a compendium of British and French history from Roman times to Henry VII, bears notes in the margin in North’s hand that has been linked to the plot and other details of Shakespeare’s tragicomedy, set in Roman Britain.
Michael Blanding, who unearthed the book in Harvard University’s Houghton Library, said the marginalia could not have been based on Shakespeare’s play because North died about six years before the conventionally accepted date of its first performance, 1609-10.
“It is a revolutionary discovery that is hard to interpret in any other way than that North used the book to write notes for his own play, which Shakespeare later adapted,” he said.
The marginalia has been analysed by an independent researcher, Dennis McCarthy, who since 2005 has used plagiarism software to reveal links between Hamlet, among other plays, and North’s writings. His research inspired Blanding’s book North by Shakespeare, published by Hachette last year and to be released shortly as a paperback, retitled In Shakespeare’s Shadow.
Since then, Blanding has tracked down dozens of 16th-century books once owned by the North family. Several bear North’s marginalia.
Blanding said that, while North is known as the translator of Plutarch’s Lives, a recognised source for Shakespeare’s Roman plays, the marginalia in Fabyan’s Chronicle “often provides a point-by-point correspondence with the historical plot of Cymbeline”.
“For example, both the marginalia and the play refer to Julius Caesar’s repeated attempts to invade Britain, and display an obsessive focus on the theme of tributes being paid to Rome by British kings,” Blanding said. “In addition, both focus on Cymbeline’s sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, include a strategy of a character disguising himself to kill an enemy, and incorporate a battle by a ‘wall of turfs’, historically fought in Scotland.”
Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s later plays, is about an ancient king of Britain. It revolves around a bet about the faithfulness of his daughter, Innogen, to the man she marries in secret, Posthumus Leonatus, and builds into a confrontation between the Britons and the Roman army. The character of Cymbeline is based on a Celtic king referred to by contemporary historians and an important figure in later histories of Britain by writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth.
McCarthy, whose research has involved June Schlueter, professor emerita at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania, said: “I think [North] was writing it as an outline for a play … collecting historical instances that he would use. They are all based on the same theme … Britain versus Rome.”
He pointed to documentary evidence that connects North to the theatre troupe of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, with a payment to North for a Leicester’s Men play at court.
Although McCarthy is not a Shakespeare denier, and he acknowledges that scholars have credited Fabyan’s Chronicle as a source, he said that North’s marginalia “strongly suggest that the creative genius behind Cymbeline was, in fact, Thomas North”.
In a study of the marginalia, to be published today, he writes that these copious notes relate to the background, characters and language of Shakespeare’s play: “Of North’s 53 distinct marginal comments, more than half relate to characters and events referenced in Shakespeare’s play – and nearly all the others have thematic or substantive relevance.”
He points to details such as the misspelling of Cassibellan as Cassibulan: “In the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, the play’s first known publication, the Queen refers to an earlier British king who fought the Romans as ‘Cassibulan’. The playwright’s Cassibulan is a misspelling of Cassibellan … There is no known historical text prior to the First Folio that also uses that spelling … It is clear from North’s annotation that he is responsible … for the misspelling of the name.”
McCarthy said that some scholars are unsettled by such discoveries: “With discovery after discovery, this is becoming very difficult to ignore … We have incontrovertible proof.”
But Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, said that while the discovery of North’s annotations was “significant” in its own right, “I don’t think the evidence … comes anywhere near substantiating the claim that North was using Fabyan’s Chronicle as the basis for a play about Cymbeline.
“Nor does there seem to be any reason for thinking that Shakespeare would have needed to know about these annotations, or the otherwise completely undocumented and unknown play which North is here alleged to have composed out of them.”
He added that spelling evidence in the First Folio was “never strong” because it recorded the spelling of those who transcribed playhouse documents rather than that of Shakespeare. The main plot of Cymbeline came from Boccaccio’s Decameron, rather than Fabyan or other chroniclers, he said.
Richard Dutton, author of the forthcoming book Mastering the Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of Early Modern Drama, said: “The discovery of Thomas North’s marginalia relating to the subject matter of Cymbeline is intriguing and I would not rule out the possibility that Shakespeare was somehow familiar with it. But the argument that he knew about it from an unknown play that North himself wrote … is implausible.”