Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes


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PLUTARCH (NORTH, Thomas, translator). The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes… Translated out of Greeke into French by Iames Amiot… and out of French into English, by Thomas North. London: by Richard Field for Bonham Norton, 1595. Folio (8 1/2 by 12 1/2 inches), early 20th-century full brown morocco by Hayes, Oxford; raised bands, boards and spine elaborately decorated in gilt and blind, gilt dentelles, marbled endpapers, all edges gilt.

Second edition in English of Plutarch's Lives, translated by Thomas North—a major source for Shakespeare, and the specific edition that scholars have argued he was most likely to have consulted—with woodcut medallion portraits within ornamental borders at the head of each Life, as well as woodcut initials, head and tailpieces, beautifully bound by Hayes.

"During Plutarch's lifetime eleven Roman emperors came and went. The vicissitudes of the great must have suggested his peculiar moralistic method of comparing similar lives, a method which gave this work a scope greater than that of a mere collection of biographical facts…. The Lives are works of great learning and research, and Plutarch is careful to quote his authorities, whose number indicates a formidable amount of reading… Early translated, by Amyot into French and by North into English, the influence of Plutarch's method has been constantly manifest in the biographies of the modern great and in the authors who have been inspired by it. Shakespeare relied almost exclusively on Plutarch for the historical background of ancient Rome" (PMM 48). "North dedicated the book to Queen Elizabeth, and it was one of the most popular of her day. It is written throughout in admirably vivid and robust prose. But it is as Shakespeare's storehouse of classical learning that it presents itself in its most interesting aspect. To it (it is not too much to say) we owe the existence of the plays of Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra, while A Midsummer Night's Dream, Pericles, and Timon of Athens are all indebted to it" (DNB).

Four editions of North's translation were published during Shakespeare's life, though the 1612 fourth edition appeared after Shakespeare had written the historical plays based on Plutarch. So which of the first three editions—1579, 1595, 1603—did Shakespeare consult? "It is of considerable interest to Shakespearean scholars that the identity of the particular edition used by him should be established… The case presented by F.A. Leo for the second edition, 1595, is more convincing. In fact, one might consider his case as proved… However, it is entirely probable that Shakespeare used more than one edition" (Pforzheimer 801).
There are two issues of the imprint, one for publisher Bonham Norton (as in this copy) and one for publisher Thomas Wright; STC lists the Norton imprint first. Without initial blank. STC 20067. See PMM 48. Early owner signatures ("Wm. Price," "Sarah Oliver") to title page. Title page also stamped "George Walker No. 33." Penciled note on title page verso reads: "From Halliwell Phillips [sic] Library." Shakespearean scholar James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (1820-1889) in 1852 presented his collection of more than 3000 items to Chetham's Library, the oldest surviving public library in Britain.

Title page previously backed and mounted, early expert restorations to a few corners and margins, interior otherwise generally quite clean with some light marginal dampstaining and browning. A near-fine copy, beautifully bound.

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