WhatsOnStage Logo
Home link

Shakespeare may have stolen plot to Cymbeline, marginalia suggests

Researchers have linked Shakespeare's play to a series of annotations by another writer

The Globe's production of Imogen, based on Cymbeline
© Tristram Kenton

New evidence has suggested Shakespeare's work on Cymbeline may have involved quite a bit of help from another writer.

While Shakespeare is certainly one for leaning on a plethora of sources in the development of his own plays, the significance of this new evidence might suggest the Bard was taking from his contemporaries.

A series of findings suggests that Shakespeare was inspired by an unnamed play by writer, translator and intellectual Sir Thomas North (who died in 1604), which was potentially penned earlier in the 16th century.

It comes after a 1533 edition of Fabyan's Chronicle (essentially a history book from the period), owned by North, was found to have notes in the margins that sketched out a plot that was remarkably similar to Shakespeare's play. Plagiarism software has also analysed the marginalia.

Both the Chronicle, the margin notes and Cymbeline chart a specific time in Roman Britain. The book was discovered by one Michael Blanding (in Harvard University's Houghton Library), saying it provided "a point-by-point correspondence with the historical plot of Cymbeline." This wasn't just a mere doodling – in total 53 margin notes were spotted by Blanding, with mispellings of historical figures in North's notes also re-appearing in Shakespeare's folios.

Others, such as Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute, have cast doubt on Blanding's findings, saying it is widely recognised that Shakespeare based Cymbeline on Boccaccio's Decameron.