A Master Among Master Thieves

13 Oct

In the Times Online, there is a piece about plagiarism detection software “proving” that Shakespeare didn’t write The Reign of King Edward III by himself:

What about the tomcat’s meow an’ milk cow’s moo?

What about the tomcat’s meow an’ milk cow’s moo?

The Shakespeare matches came from four scenes, about 40 per cent of the play. The remaining scenes had about 200 matches with works by Kyd, best known for The Spanish Tragedy, a play known to have influenced Shakespeare, indicating that he wrote the other 60 per cent of the play.

This is fascinating to me for a number of reasons. Imagine the nerve of using the kind of tool usually employed to detect lowly student thefts on The Bard himself! What messages are people getting from this? That, alas, Shakespeare was a common thief (et tu, Billy?) and somehow a lesser writer? Or that perhaps we should stop making criminals of students for doing what “the greats” do themselves? Should we instead study the uses of influence along with our students in order to show them how to employ these methods appropriately instead of just banning them outright? Shall we encourage collaboration and imitation as an early and necessary stage in their development as writers?

These issues were explored in the Master Thief series about Bob Dylan and plagiarism.

Here are a few words from Shakespeare himself (I think) on thievery:

Do villany, do, since you protest to do’t,
Like workmen. I’ll example you with thievery.
The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea: the moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun:
The sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears: the earth’s a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
From general excrement: each thing’s a thief:
The laws, your curb and whip, in their rough power
Have uncheque’d theft.    (Timon at IV, iii)

In “My Life in a Stolen Moment,” Dylan said something similar:

I can’t tell you the influences ’cause there’s

too many to mention an’ I might leave one out

An’ that wouldn’t be fair

Woody Guthrie, sure

Big Joe Williams, yeah

It’s easy to remember those names

But what about the faces you can’t find again

What about the curbs an’ corners an’ cut-offs that drop out a sight an’ fall behind

What about the records you hear but one time

What about the coyote’s call an’ the bulldog’s bark

What about the tomcat’s meow an’ milk cow’s moo

An’ the train whistle’s moan

Open up yer eyes an’ ears an’ yer influenced an’ there’s nothing you can do about it

I wonder what the plagiarism detection program would say about that? Read the Times article here.

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2 Responses to “A Master Among Master Thieves”

  1. Leigh October 13, 2009 at 10:18 pm #

    Damn, even beat samplers have the integrity (honesty? self-awareness?) to make it an obvious and purposeful nod to the other texts.

  2. the peddler now speaks October 13, 2009 at 10:27 pm #

    Leigh–you mean the beat samplers didn’t invent those sounds? I’m so disillusioned . . .

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