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

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.”