Sunday, June 6, 2021

Michael Blanding's "North by Shakespeare"

Michael Blanding is a Boston-based investigative journalist, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, WIRED, Slate, The Boston Globe Magazine, Boston magazine, and other publications. He is author of The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps (2014), which was a New York Times bestseller and an NPR Book of the Year; and The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink (2010). A former writing fellow at Brandeis University and The Harvard Kennedy School, he has taught feature writing at Tufts University, Emerson College, and GrubStreet Writers.

Blanding applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, North by Shakespeare: A Rogue Scholar's Quest for the Truth Behind the Bard's Work, and reported the following:
Page 99 of North by Shakespeare throws you right into the maelstrom of court politics and theater in 16th century England! Subtitled A Rogue Scholar’s Quest for the Truth Behind the Bard’s Work, my book follows self-taught Shakespearean Dennis McCarthy in his obsessive search for the sources of Shakespeare’s plays. He has proposed the bold and controversial theory that for many of his greatest works, Shakespeare used earlier source plays written by another writer, Sir Thomas North, adapting them into the works we know today.

When McCarthy first approached me about his theories, I was very skeptical—I’d always thought Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, period. But the more research I did, the more I learned how little we actually know about Shakespeare, and how many mysteries there are about how acquired the knowledge of life at court, travel in Italy, and other elements that have gone into these great works of literature. McCarthy has amassed an impressive amount of evidence to show that he might have acquired it from North, whose life and writings are reflected in the plays to an uncanny degree.

One example I explore is a play called Arden of Faversham, which many scholars today believe was one of Shakespeare’s first plays. (The Oxford Shakespeare today attributes it to “Shakespeare and Anonymous.”) The play concerns a woman named Alice Arden, who murdered her husband Thomas Arden, with the help of her lover and a conspiracy of other townspeople in the English village of Faversham—not a pretty tale! Many scholars have actually seen the play as a major influence on Shakespeare’s bloody murder play Macbeth. In fact, Alice Arden was Thomas North’s sister, and her husband was the right-hand man of Thomas North’s father, making him intimately familiar with everyone involved.

On page 99, I explore another connection between North and the play, involving the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a cataclysmic event in which the Catholic monasteries in England were destroyed. In the play, the Dissolution is featured prominently as a reason why the townspeople would rise up against Thomas Arden, who played a part in the destruction. In fact, North’s father Edward had been in charge of the Dissolution under the Protestant King Henry VIII. By now, however, the crown was held by the Catholic Queen Mary I, otherwise known as “Bloody Mary” for her relentless persecution of Protestants. McCarthy believes that Thomas North wrote the play as a way to apologize to the queen, painting Arden’s murder as a kind of divine justice for his part in the Dissolution.
When Mary came to power, her first instinct was to restore the monks to their homes and undo the pillaging of the religious houses. She quickly realized, however, that such a feat was impossible. Many of the monasteries had already been torn down, their stones repurposed into the homes of the nobles and gentlemen she now needed on her side to rule the realm. That would explain why North might write a play recognizing his family’s complicity in the Dissolution—signaling his desire to make amends. “He’s showing that the North family is totally on the Catholic boat, and have realized their mistakes,” claims McCarthy. “So he’s using that to get into the good graces of the queen.”
Page 99 doesn’t offer a completely accurate view of my book, as it deals with a little-known play and an obscure historical event. The parts of my book that are the most fun are when McCarthy and I are traveling together across England, France, and Italy, tracing the journeys of Thomas North during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and seeing how his life and works relate to well-known plays such as Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth. In one sense, however, the page offers a glimpse of the larger story my book has to tell, about how literature and history are intricately woven together. By viewing the plays through an unconventional lens, North by Shakespeare, we might perceive new insights that could forever change the way we read some of the world’s greatest literary works.
Visit Michael Blanding's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Map Thief.

--Marshal Zeringue