We all love underdogs: the urban breakdancer that one day makes it on Broadway; the business school dropout that becomes a millionaire; the single parent who takes on the school board and wins; the whistleblower who exposes corporate or governmental corruption. Yet few of us have the stamina to undertake such a role. We might feel passionate about something we’ve discovered, or invented, or developed, or exposed, but most of us aren’t willing to dedicate years of our lives pushing against powerful people that find our obsession threatening. Not so for my brother-in-law, Dennis McCarthy, who for more than a decade has been trying to convince literary scholars that Shakespeare based nearly all of his plays on lost works, written by a man never known to have written a play.
Last March, I was happy to announce a new book by the prominent journalist and author, Michael Blanding. North by Shakespeare, A Rogue Scholar’s Quest for the Truth Behind the Bard’s Work. The Rogue Scholar, referred to in the title, is Dennis. Earlier this summer, I finished reading Blanding’s excellent account of Dennis’ work and I share some of my impressions below.
Wordsmith Yes, Originator No
I don’t know much about William Shakespeare other than having riffled through Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in college and having seen a few Shakespearean films and stage productions. Over the years, however, I had heard rumblings that the esteemed bard might not have written all of the plays that are attributed to him. So, when Dennis told me several years ago that he believed that a 16th-century translator, named Thomas North, had provided the groundwork for most of Shakespeare’s plays, I wasn’t entirely surprised. In fact, I wondered if what Dennis felt was a great discovery was even anything new.
Dennis’ exuberance, however, quickly softened my skepticism. I’ve known Dennis for about 30 years and the first adjective I’d use to describe him is “smart”. If he was that excited about the investigation he was doing into Thomas North, there was probably solid research behind Dennis’ claim. Dennis went on to disclose, however, that despite uncovering dozens of pieces of evidence linking North to Shakespeare, he was fighting an uphill battle when it came to convincing Shakespearean scholars that he was on to something.
Without a college degree, Dennis’ credibility was close to zero in the eyes of academics. Here was a man, who barely graduated from high school, floating the idea that North (well known as a translator and unknown as a playwright) had penned dozens of lost plays that Shakespeare later adapted into verse. According to Dennis, none of Shakespeare’s plots were original. Lamentably, the experts seemed to feel that crediting such a massive finding to an autodidact whose evidence hinges on the persistent scrutiny of online data sources was like tethering the Goodyear Blimp to a pup tent stake.
Spreading a New Gospel
After years of frustrating rejection, Dennis and his daughter, documentary filmmaker Nicole Galovski, decided to look for a different sort of champion. At the suggestion of a colleague, they tracked down the accomplished journalist and author, Michael Blanding, and convinced him to read a paper that Dennis had written. The paper revealed a previously unknown manuscript that Dennis had discovered. It showed how the ancient document might well have provided source material for several of Shakespeare’s plays. Blanding was initially skeptical, but the paper’s systematic and plausible account sparked his curiosity. He agreed to further meetings and slowly, Blanding’s interest grew. He spent the next 5 years periodically interviewing and traveling with Dennis, as well as conducting his own research to verify Dennis’ claims. The result is North by Shakespeare.
It’s hard to overstate Blanding’s talent as a journalist and author. This book coherently and engagingly presents a great deal of disparate information. As I mentioned, I have only a rudimentary knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays. To understand Dennis’ hypothesis, however, one must be familiar with the plays’ plotlines, a timeline of Shakespeare’s life, a timeline of North’s life, and the significant historical events and figures of 16th-century England. Blanding skillfully interweaves all of these elements with two other storylines: Dennis’ attempts to present his findings to Shakespearean bigwigs; and, Dennis and Blanding’s travels to England and Europe, retracing North’s known footsteps.
Blanding’s writing is never dull. He’s a master at producing short sections of text that lead up to an unexpected outcome, a cliffhanger, or a satisfying conclusion. For me, the least interesting part of this book was the summaries of Shakespeare’s plays. I was fascinated, however, by the story of North’s life set against the historical backdrop of 16th-century England. Equally absorbing but entirely frustrating were Dennis’ mostly fruitless efforts to secure favorable recognition from academic scholars.
Write What You Know
One of the arguments made throughout the book is that Shakespeare’s plays mirror events and experiences from Thomas North’s life. North was born 30 years before Shakespeare. He was multi-lingual, traveled extensively, and was conscripted into Queen Elizabeth’s army. Shakespeare was far less worldly. Dennis is hardly the first to question the belief that Shakespeare single-handedly wrote about places he’d never visited, borrowed storylines from books that hadn’t yet been translated into English, and convincingly portrayed the horrors of war and imprisonment when he had no firsthand experience of either of these conditions.
Successful authors draw from personal experience. Yet many scholars believe that Shakespeare, perhaps the most successful author to have ever lived, somehow came up with dozens of narratives that had little to do with the events of his life or the lives of his contemporaries. In contrast, Dennis shows time and time again the events in North’s life that would have provided ample fodder for each of Shakespeare’s storylines.
May I Have Your Attention?
Granted, some of the cases that Dennis presents are stronger than others. But the sheer quantity of data linking North’s experiences to Shakespeare’s plays is certainly worthy of consideration. If Dennis had the letters P-h-D following his name, he’d undoubtedly have a distinguished seat at the academic round table. As is, he’s rarely been granted an opportunity to present his work and only then been given a very short window in which to speak.
The heralded astronomer, Carl Sagan, is credited with saying “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The question remains, does Dennis’ work constitute extraordinary evidence? Perhaps a mathemetician is needed to show that the probability of so many matches between Shakespeare’s plays and North’s life well exceeds the realm of coincidence. Yet, even a statistically-backed analysis might fall upon deaf ears. Too often, Dennis’ detractors choose to dispute his findings by spewing faith-based declarations such as “I believe in William from Stratford-upon-Avon” [end of conversation]. When people’s beliefs are grounded in intuition, popular opinion, and community, an outsider has little chance of upsetting the adhered-to dogma.
Truth Withstands Scrutiny
Since the publication of North by Shakespeare, Dennis continues to make discoveries that support his apparently radical thesis. His ongoing work brings to mind the vision of a literary archeologist. Each lettered relic that Dennis manages to unearth seems to support rather than refute his hypothesis just as newly discovered fossils serve to reinforce Darwin’s theory of evolution rather than proving it wrong. I’m hardly an unbiased observer but I’ve learned at least two things with certainty: after nearly 2 decades of fastidious research, Dennis McCarthy fervently believes that Shakespeare derived his plays from those previously written by Thomas North; and, Michael Blanding knows a great underdog story when he sees one.