Dennis McCarthy on Thomas North


The Impoverished Knight Who Wrote the Plays Adapted by Shakespeare

In November 2014, Cambridge’s Shakespeare Survey 67 became the first journal to publish an article crediting an early version of a Shakespeare play to the mysterious war-weary, scholar-knight, Thomas North. The essay, “The Shakespeare-North Collaboration: Titus Andronicus and Titus and Vespasian,” reveals numerous independent lines of evidence indicating that North wrote the bloody and lurid Roman revenge tragedy Titus and Vespasian in 1560-61, at the age of 25 or 26, three years before Shakespeare was born. Roughly 30 years later, in the late 1580s or early 1590s, Shakespeare then adapted North’s old play Titus and Vespasian for the public theater in a work we know today as Titus Andronicus. The results of the analysis suggest that many of North’s original passages and phrases still remain in Shakespeare’s tragedy.

It is not particularly revelatory that Shakespeare adapted an earlier play. Scholars have long recognized that many of Shakespeare’s best-known works were not original but revisions of older, now-lost dramas. The article did not create any shockwaves. But it was just a first step in a planned roll-out of far more sensational discoveries—a treasure-trove of Shakespeare-related documents that transforms our understanding of the origin of the canon. For when June Schlueter and I first wrote the paper, we also knew that North had not just written an early version of Titus Andronicus; he was the original author of essentially every play in the Shakespeare canon. And many of these discoveries are just now being published:

Dennis and Michael Blanding will be speaking at SAR on May 8th. Stay tuned!

Explore the Thomas North website.

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2 Comments

  1. William Corbett

     /  March 31, 2021

    Excellent research, undoubtedly a source for Shakespeare’s plays, but as for North being the author, he suffers the same problem as the Earl of Oxford in being dead before a significant number of the plays have been written.
    Tracing a major source for the plays to Leicester’s Men is a seismic shift in placing Shakespeare in his logical place in Warwickshire, but Leicester and his brother are both dead by 1590 and it is Anne, Countess of Warwick who takes over the actors. Anne was lady of the manor of Rowington and landlady to William Shakespeare’s Shottery holdings.

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  2. Do you think that Anne is Shakespeare? 🙂 Please attend the talk on May 8th 2021 by ‘liking’ our Facebook page and there will be time for discussion afterwards.

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