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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Dennis McCarthy’s discovery of a new, important Shakespeare allusive source

In Janeites, Jane Fox wrote: 
“In this group's discussions of what Austen read, I don't remember seeing reports of anyone using the software mentioned in this article, or similar software. You may find description of the technique interesting.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/07/books/plagiarism-software-unveils-a-new-source-for-11-of-shakespeares-plays.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur

Diane Reynolds replied: “This article is quite fascinating and I am very glad, and frankly not surprised, to see McCarthy is a self-taught scholar.”

Thank you very much, Jane, for posting that link, I was not aware of McCarthy’s research and I am as interested in all things Shakespeare as I am in all things Austen. This really is a big deal, for exactly the reasons stated in the article – there may well be more unpublished sources for Shakespeare’s plays than have previously been identified, some as significant as North’s book, and knowing those sources could shed fresh light on Shakespeare’s sometimes cryptic authorial meanings.

I have a couple of additional comments:

First, as Diane pointed out, it is indeed extremely gratifying to see another “eccentric” self-taught independent scholar (who, per the article, spends 12 hours a day on his research—that’s more than I’ve spent over the past 13 years, but not by that much) make an impact. It gives inspiration to the rest of us!

Second, in terms of scholarly approach, I really resonated to the following excerpt from the article:

“Mr. McCarthy used decidedly modern techniques to marshal his evidence, employing WCopyfind, an open source plagiarism software, which picked out common words and phrases in the manuscript and the plays. In the dedication to his manuscript, for example, North urges those who might see themselves as ugly to strive to be inwardly beautiful, to defy nature. He uses a succession of words to make the argument, including ‘proportion’, ‘glass’, ‘feature’, ‘fair’, ‘deformed’, ‘world’, ‘shadow’ and ‘nature’. In the opening soliloquy of Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent…”) the hunchbacked tyrant uses the same words in virtually the same order to come to the opposite conclusion: that since he is outwardly ugly, he will act the villain he appears to be.
“People don’t realize how rare these words actually are,” Mr. McCarthy said. “And he keeps hitting word after word. It’s like a lottery ticket. It’s easy to get one number out of six, but not to get every number.”

That is exactly the kind of argument I’ve made a hundred times regarding the importance of very specific verbiage in establishing a non-explicit allusion by Jane Austen to a prior author. It’s all about the clustering of relatively common words around a related theme, and it is as much an art as a science in determining if the allusion is real or not, and what it means.

That’s why I am so certain, e.g., that Jane Austen, via the wording of her “Henry and Emma” allusion in Persuasion, was very specifically alluding to the passage in Sarah Fielding’s “Remarks” about the character of Richardson's Clarissa, in which Fielding’s fictional readers discuss “Henry and Emma” vis a vis Clarissa. There is common verbiage and content which takes us out of the realm of lucky coincidence and into intentional allusion, via a kind of “tagging”. Here’s what I wrote in that recent post:

“I assert that Austen seized upon Mr. Dellincourt’s statement that
nothing less than the lovely Emma's Passion for Henry would be any Satisfaction to [LOVELACE], if he was a Lover",”
and tweaked it into noticeably parallel phraseology in Anne Elliot’s passing thoughts in Persuasion:
"Without emulating the feelings of an Emma towards her Henry, she would have attended on Louisa with a zeal above the common claims of regard, for [Wentworth's] sake." 

McCarthy’s discovery illustrates that Shakespeare did much the same thing – it is not plagiarism, it is deliberate tagging, so that anyone familiar with the source text would read through the lens of the work alluded to – and as the examples listed in the article illustrate, that lens is often ironic.

I really look forward to reading McCarthy’s (and Schlueter’s) book, so thanks again, Jane, for bringing it to our attention!

Cheers, ARNIE

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