(Dalya Alberge’s article appeared in the Observer, 4/24; PhotoTom Hiddleston as Posthumus and Jodie McNee as Innogen in Cymbeline at the Barbican in 2007. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)

Notes from a 1533 book put Sir Thomas North in the frame for one of the bard’s later plays

A rare 16th-century book offers “compelling evidence” that William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline was inspired by a now-lost play by Sir Thomas North, an Elizabethan courtier and writer, new research claims.

A 1533 edition of Fabyan’s Chronicle, a compendium of British and French history from Roman times to Henry VII, bears notes in the margin in North’s hand that have been linked to the plot and other details of Shakespeare’s tragicomedy, set in Roman Britain.

Michael Blanding, who unearthed the book in Harvard University’s Houghton Library, said the marginalia could not have been based on Shakespeare’s play because North died about six years before the conventionally accepted date of its first performance, 1609-10.

“It is a revolutionary discovery that is hard to interpret in any other way than that North used the book to write notes for his own play, which Shakespeare later adapted,” he said.

The marginalia have been analysed by an independent researcher, Dennis McCarthy, who since 2005 has used plagiarism software to reveal links between Hamlet, among other plays, and North’s writings. His research inspired Blanding’s book North by Shakespeare, published by Hachette last year and to be released shortly as a paperback, retitled In Shakespeare’s Shadow.

Since then, Blanding has tracked down dozens of 16th-century books once owned by the North family. Several bear North’s marginalia.

Blanding said that, while North is known as the translator of Plutarch’s Lives, a recognised source for Shakespeare’s Roman plays, the marginalia in Fabyan’s Chronicle “often provides a point-by-point correspondence with the historical plot of Cymbeline”.

“For example, both the marginalia and the play refer to Julius Caesar’s repeated attempts to invade Britain, and display an obsessive focus on the theme of tributes being paid to Rome by British kings,” Blanding said. “In addition, both focus on Cymbeline’s sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, include a strategy of a character disguising himself to kill an enemy, and incorporate a battle by a ‘wall of turfs’, historically fought in Scotland.”

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