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Michael Blanding on Researching the Fascinating Mystery Behind Shakespeare’s Plays

by Brendan Dowling on June 29, 2021

When Dennis McCarthy approached Michael Blanding after an author event for Blanding’s last book, the journalist little knew that he was about to embark on a research project that would take him all over Britain and Italy in pursuit of an unconventional theory about the source material for Shakespeare’s plays. McCarthy, a charismatic independent Shakespearean scholar, was eager to investigate the life of Thomas North, a sixteenth century courtier and scholar who McCarthy believed wrote a series of plays that Shakespeare later used as the basis for his own work. An initially reluctant Blanding was persuaded to follow McCarthy when part of McCarthy’s prodigious research was published in a book he co-wrote with Shakespearean scholar June Schlueter. Blanding and McCarthy found themselves in England and Italy, retracing different trips North took that McCarthy believed influenced the plays he wrote and investigating firsthand documents in libraries. The resulting book, North by Shakespeare: A Rogue Scholar’s Quest for the Truth Behind the Bard’s Work, is a wildly entertaining read that illuminates a forgotten figure in British history and brings the political intrigue of sixteenth century England to rip-roaring life. Critics have been equally enthusiastic over North by Shakespeare as they were with Blanding’s last book, the NPR Book of the Year The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps. The Christian Science Monitor raved, “The book likewise does a virtuoso job of evoking both the realities of Shakespeare’s world and the twists and turns of the whole Shakespeare question” and Publishers Weekly praised it, saying, “Shakespeare fans and readers who enjoy the thrill of a good bibliographic treasure hunt will want to check this out.”

Can you start by talking about Dennis McCarthy? How did the two of you first meet?

I met Dennis about six years ago. He approached me after a book talk I gave for my last book and we started talking. We hit it off and he invited me out for drinks. After about the second drink, he leans across the table and says, “I have a story for you.” As a journalist, I’m always eager for a story, but then he says, “I’ve got a new source for Shakespeare that no one’s ever heard of before. And by the way, Shakespeare never used this source, it was this other writer, Thomas North.” At that point, I started getting very skeptical and thinking, “What have I gotten myself into here? Here’s somebody with this crazy conspiracy theory that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare.” (laughs) Eventually he started sending me information and I could really see the rigor of his scholarship. I started feeling more and more that there was something there that needed to be explored, and it ended up being this book.

Dennis is a self-taught scholar, right?

That’s what’s really impressive about him. He was a college dropout and he basically taught himself Shakespeare studies over the course of fifteen years. Even more impressively, it was the second discipline he taught himself. Before [his Shakespearean studies], he was doing all this research into science and evolution and publishing papers on that. He’s one of these people who is maybe not good in a formal educational setting, but when he’s interested in something, he just has amazing focus, memory retention, and, frankly, perseverance. He’s just willing to spend however long it takes to get to the bottom of these questions and mysteries. That makes for a very fascinating and fun character to write about.

He seems to have this very curious mind, plus an ability to parse a lot of information about a lot of different topics.

The other thing I like about Dennis is that you think “Shakespeare scholar” and you immediately think this stuffy, grey-haired, library denizen. He’s not that. He’s young and charismatic and very personable—just very fun to hang out with. We had a good time traveling through England and France and Italy together. We just had a lot of fun and a lot laughs at the same time we were mutually investigating this really fascinating mystery. It was really interesting for me to pursue as an author.

Initially, Dennis’ theories must have seemed pretty far flung. Was there a turning point where you decided to go along with Dennis in his pursuit to research his claims?

I’m always openminded as a journalist. I always give people the benefit of the doubt. I also told him upfront that I was not willing to go ahead with this unless he was able to show that he could get some work published and get some other scholars to believe in him. I wasn’t going to go out on a limb and be the only person to follow him on this Quixotic quest. I was impressed by the fact that he was really able to do that. He was able to publish this manuscript that no one had ever seen before as a source for Shakespeare. He was able to get endorsements from some pretty big Shakespearean scholars for it. Even though it wasn’t the entirety of his theory about Thomas North and these source plays that he believed Thomas North wrote, it really showed me that there was something to his research. That was what I wrote about for The New York Times. That was really what led to the book. Once I saw that he could follow through and get other people on board, I was willing to take more of a leap with him, and think, “Okay this is someone who’s a serious scholar and who’s really on a search for the truth and not just creating stuff out of thin air.”

Can you talk about who Thomas North was and what kind of writer he was?

Dennis’ theory, as you know, is that Shakespeare wrote the plays, but he wrote them based on these source plays by this other writer, Thomas North. North was best known as the translator of this book, Plutarch’s Lives, which is this collection of Greek and Roman biographies that scholars have long known that Shakespeare used as a source for his Roman plays. But he ends up being this fascinating character who lived this really colorful life. He was a soldier in the Netherlands and Ireland, a diplomat to France and Italy, and a courtier who was right up close to the center of power in Elizabeth’s court. I call him the Zelig or the Forrest Gump of the sixteenth century; he was always at the right place and the right time to witness these amazing events of the age. There’s always been a question about Shakespeare and how he could have written these plays with the background and knowledge he had. Yet here’s this other writer who did have all these other experiences that could have led to the writing of these plays, or at least these source plays that Dennis believes once existed. For that reason, he was a really interesting character to look at.

It’s fascinating to see Thomas North’s creative work but also his political savvy in terms of struggling through these tumultuous times.

It was really fun for me to immerse myself in English history—which I knew a little about—but I really dove in with both feet. It was just a crazy time in which saying the wrong thing to the wrong person could get you killed. It was a really treacherous time to navigate all of these various factions and alliances. It was interesting to watch Thomas North trying to navigate that world. Sometimes he did it well and sometimes he did it not so well. It really shows you how the politics of Shakespeare’s plays and all these English histories—but also all these plays about kings and queens and factions like Macbeth and King Lear and Hamlet— that could really come out of the lived experience of someone who was really moving in the highest court circles of the time. It gives you a new insight into the plays that maybe they were based on the life and written works of this other writer.

North came from a very powerful, well-connected family. Seeing him wrestle with his own family’s complicities in historical events was fascinating.

As a narrative writer, I really wanted to bring Thomas North off the page. It’s difficult to do when you’re dealing with a sparse historical record—there are very few documents about him. I really wanted to succeed in telling a story about Thomas North’s life, not just a dry story about documents and literary analysis. Reading about the history of the time and the other characters involved, going to the archives and finding every scrap of paper I could, and narrowing in on the story about it really became crucial to me. So this where I can put a big plug for libraries, because I put in a lot of time at a lot of libraries. At home, I went to the Boston College library and the Harvard library. I also spent about a month in London at the British Library. I went to Oxford and Cambridge. All of these archives were essential in finding the details to really bring the story to life.

One of the fun elements of the book is reading about your and Dennis’ complementary research styles. Can you talk about how the two of you approach your research?

It was really amazing to me when I first met Dennis. I was first really impressed by just the amount of material evidence he had found, then I was shocked to discover that he barely goes into libraries himself. He sits at his dining room table in New Hampshire and is able to find this wealth of information digitally in all these databases, scanned images, and Google books. All these techniques that he uses with the computer software, the digital scholarship, is super impressive. For me personally, I just love going in and seeing the primary sources myself: actually going to the documents and holding them in my hands, feeling the paper. There’s something very rich and tactile about it that I really enjoy. I also feel like there are some things you can’t find any other way. Not everything’s been scanned and digitized. Going to these archives, looking through these folders and these books really enabled me to find some things that Dennis didn’t even know about that strangely accentuated and supported his findings that he discovered on the computer. I think you’re right, we did end up complementing each other at the end and build off each other’s investigations.

And you went to great lengths in your research. You taught yourself English Secretary Script to read documents, right?

I tried! I’m by no means an expert. (laughs) I thought I could waltz into these archives and look at these historical documents and be able to read them. When I first started, it really looked like another language or another kind of writing entirely. Even though it was all English and the spellings weren’t that different, the script itself was indecipherable to me. I realized that if I was going to be able to make discoveries on my own that I would need to put in a significant amount of time to train myself in this script. I went online to different websites and videos, and then I got a book. I would take the documents from the archives, take a photograph of them, and take them home. It was almost like when you’re a kid and you’re trying to solve letter substitution codes. I was trying to decipher, “Okay, that’s an ‘r,’ that’s an ‘e.’” They’re written differently depending on where they are in the word. I got pretty good towards the end, particularly with certain people. I could decipher Edward North’s handwriting, because I was looking at a lot of documents by him. Or Roger North, who had a very messy scrawl. There were certain people I could read better than others. It was a fun skill to learn as I went along, although not the one that I’d ever expect.

You and Dennis also retrace some of the key trips that Thomas North took that Dennis theorizes inspired Shakespeare’s plays. What was that like?

There was kind of a challenge to me, thinking about how to write the book. I knew I could bring alive the story of Thomas North by writing a historical narrative. Most of what Dennis does is this really intense computer stuff where he’s doing this analysis of the plays and Thomas North’s writing with computer analysis. It just seemed that it would be incredibly boring to be sitting at a table and watching Dennis on the computer for eight hours. (laughs) So I proposed to him that we combine the two stories, go on a couple of trips together, and retrace Thomas North’s steps to see some of these locations that Dennis believes inspired the plays. As it so happened, his daughter is a documentary filmmaker and she is actually working on a film about her dad. We joined forces and we all traveled together. It ended up being an amazing way to see these locations, to be a fly on the wall, and envision the travels that Thomas North had gone on. Some of these specific locations that Dennis believes inspired some of the plays, like this palace in Italy that he believes inspired The Winter’s Tale. It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s another thing to stand in this magnificent room with these frescoes of Greek gods and goddesses on the walls that surround you 360 degrees. You can imagine what it would be like to be a diplomat traveling there in the sixteenth century and how it would be really inspirational and might inspire this pastoral wedding with Greek gods and goddesses that occurs in The Winter’s Tale. Being in the locations and seeing them firsthand really brought them alive in a way that I could better understand how they might have inspired the plays.

How has Dennis’ theories and the research you all have done shaped how you appreciate Shakespeare’s work?

Dennis’ research is interesting because he uses textual analysis on the computer to compare Shakespeare’s works to Thomas North’s works and finds all these connections in the writings. But then the layer on top of it is all these events of Thomas North’s life, or the life his patron, the Earl of Leicester, who’s a longtime suitor of Queen Elizabeth. When you look at the plays through that lens, it really opens them up in a way that I was not expecting. For me, it really enriches the plays to think that Thomas North was participating in a really bloody war in Ireland at the time he might have been writing the play for Henry V. Or that he was experiencing extreme poverty himself when he was writing about King Lear, which is all about a king who’s dethroned and wandering in the storm. Or to think that he had a real conflict with his brother, and you see these brotherly conflicts in so many of the plays, whether it’s As You Like It or The Tempest or the history plays. Viewing the plays through that lens adds this emotional depth and complexity that really brings them alive and causes you to think about them and read them in new ways. I don’t think it takes anything away from Shakespeare, but it adds a new depth to think about Thomas North.

It’s so intriguing how you and Dennis are able to place the plays in the political context of the time they were written also. It made me make connections that I hadn’t made before.

That’s the other thing. The scholars have long speculated that the plays have a more allegorical meaning, or that the plays might be commenting on current events. You look at Julius Caesar and it’s all about the dangers of a tyrant. But Shakespeare really didn’t swim in that world. He was a glovemaker from Stratford and he didn’t attend university. Whereas Thomas North was educated at the Inns of Court, where he and his contemporaries were struggling with the ideas about what makes a good ruler and what makes a bad ruler. So many of the plays are about that question, whether it’s Macbeth or Richard III or Henry V. It’s all about these rulers, they’re good or in most cases bad, for very specific reasons they’re very flawed. This is what all of Thomas North’s translations were about. This was what all of his own prose writing was about. It really makes sense that somebody swimming in that world would be obsessed with that idea, dramatize it, and put it on stage like that. As you say, it causes you to see new connections, not only to Thomas North’s time, but also to our own time, those age-old questions that we struggle with today about what makes a good politician.

And finally, what role has the library played in your life?

I’ve always loved libraries, just from being a kid. As a journalist, it wasn’t until my last book, The Map Thief, which was about a thief stealing from libraries, that I really started spending a lot of time in them. That experience was such a pleasure for me: to go into the libraries, do the research, look at these maps in these rare book libraries, and speak with the librarians, who were incredibly generous talking to me, not only about the maps themselves but also about security measures and some of the dangers that happen when library materials aren’t taken care of. I really fell in love with library research during that book and so it was such a pleasure with this book to be able to revisit that and n go into it in a deeper way. I loved going into the British Library and looking at these documents with Henry VIII’s signature, going into the Bodleian and reading these rare documents, and examining the marginalia in the Cambridge University library of Thomas North’s own script in rare books. It always amazes me at how accessible these materials still are. Even given the dangers in some places—I well know from my last book that still libraries have such a mission to make these materials available to researchers. I’m so grateful that I can go into a library, request a book, and have it in my hands a half hour later. That access provides the opportunity to make some discoveries or find some insights that no one has seen before. I’ve really fallen in love with doing this kind of research and hope that I can continue doing it with all of my books.

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