Plutarch's Lives of the noble Grecians and Romans

One of Shakespeare's major sources with a fascinating history

Plutarch’s Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes

Written originally in the late 1st century this English translation by Thomas North was published in 1579 and is the major source used by William Shakespeare for his Roman and Greek plays, including Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens.

This particular copy of the first edition has an intriguing provenance or history.The title page inscriptions record that the book was given to Henry Stanley, 4th Earl of Derby by William Chaderton, who became Bishop of Chester in 1579; the book passed to the 5th Earl, Ferdinando, Lord Strange, whose company of players presented some of Shakespeare’s first plays, including Titus Andronicus. A second inscription, later deleted and obscured, but which can be read by ultra-violet light, is by Ferdinando’s widow, Alice, who presents the volume to ‘William’. A third inscription ‘Edw:Stanley 1611’ indicates that the book later came back to the Stanley family.

One can speculate whether or not the ‘William’ referred to was Shakespeare himself. What we do know is that the printer Thomas Vautrollier took another boy from Stratford-upon-Avon, Richard Field (1561-1624), as an apprentice shortly before the Plutarch was published. Richard Field was Shakespeare’s life-long friend and it is possible that the young Field shared proof-reading the work with the future playwright, and this introduction led to his extensive use of the book in later years. Field went on to print the first four editions of Venus and Adonis and the first quarto of The Rape of Lucrece, possibly with Shakespeare’s direct involvement.