No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
-Luke 6:43-45 (NIV)
Well, no. That’s not right. It isn’t that he plagiarized. But a writer and self-taught Shakespeare scholar in New Hampshire used plagiarism software to identify a previously unidentified source that Shakespeare apparently used in 11 of his plays.
Dennis McCarthy used the software to identify words and combinations of words Will used that also appear, often in the same order, in a work from the early 1500’s written by George North, a minor court official of Queen Elizabeth. North’s work, A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels, shaped the opening soliloquy of Richard III, (“Now is the winter of our discontent...”) “He keeps hitting word after word,” McCarthy says. “It’s like a lottery ticket. It’s easy to get one number out of six, but not to get every number.”
McCarthy shows that the Bard not only uses the same words as North, but often uses them in scenes about similar themes, and even the same historical characters. In one passage, for instance, North uses six terms for dogs to argue that just as dogs exist in a natural hierarchy, so do humans. Shakespeare uses essentially the same list of dogs to make similar points in King Lear and Macbeth.
In Henry VI Part 2, Shakespeare describes a rebel, Jack Cade, who he says he was starving and eating grass before he was finally caught and dragged through the street by his heels and his body left to be eaten by crows. All of those details are present in a passage from North in which he condemns Cade and two other famous rebels. Mr. McCarthy argues that Shakespeare used those details to make Cade into a composite of the three.
Given a little thought, though, it isn’t at all surprising that Shakespeare used sources to help develop and flesh out themes and characters in his plays. No writer sits down to write without bringing influences and sources to the table. Sometimes it’s intentional. Most often, it’s unconscious: wording a writer hears or sees that comes out unbidden later, syntax picked up from another source that finds its way into an author’s work. It isn’t plagiarism, not really. Not when influences affect the heart and make themselves known naturally and freely.
Something like this influence is what Jesus has in mind when he says “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
If there was software to see the sources from which I “plagiarized” my words, I wonder what it would identify. I wonder what would be on my list?
Would there be vocabulary from the language of political debate and partisan loyalty?
Would my syntax be influenced by the tone of media and pop culture?
Would you hear echoes of racism, classism, and ethnocentrism in the things I said?
Would my words be full of obscenity, and innuendo? Would those around me hear the influence of people whose language insults, belittles, or objectifies? Would I speak like the bullies who control much of the world’s corporate and political wealth and power?
Would my words be full of innocence and purity? Would those who heard me speak detect the influence of Scripture, the language of blessing, encouragement, and kindness? Would I speak with the humility of those who have changed the world through sacrifice and service?
Would my words resound with acceptance, tolerance, and grace?
Would the things I said be formed by the worship and prayers of the church?
Would the vocabulary of love, unity, and peace be easily detected?
It’s a good reminder for us, isn’t it, that the things that come out of our hearts when we speak don’t just happen to be there? It’s good to remember that expecting the things we hear and read the most to not influence the way we think and the things we value and, thus, the way we speak is as ridiculous as expecting to get figs from thorn bushes or grapes from briers. It’s as silly as expecting a bad tree to produce good fruit.
So maybe it’s helpful for all of us to do the plagiarism software exercise. What are your sources? What do the people around you hear when you open your mouth? I don’t mean what do they hear in those moments when you curate what you say: in work meetings or church services or formal social occasions where everyone is on their best behavior. I mean what are the sources they’re most likely to identify in those times when your filter isn’t engaged and what’s in your heart comes immediately and directly to your lips? Do they hear the media? Politicians? Do they hear echoes of social media? Or do they hear the words of Scripture? Prayer? Worship? Kindness?
If you don’t like the answer you’re coming up with, then you know that there’s something you can do about it, right? Yep, that’s right: get different sources. If you don’t like what’s happened to your heart as you’ve fixated on what comes out of Washington, or Hollywood, or what’s pumped into you through your broadband connection, then make a change. Start seeking out different sources. Read the Bible more, and some of the authors who write about living as a person of faith. Worship more. Spend more time with the songs of faith that the church has composed over the years. Memorize Scripture — that’s become kind of a lost art, but there’s no better way to get it into your heart. Pray more. Spend more time with the church so you can be influenced by others who are living lives of faith.
This is a long-haul fix, you understand. You might not change everything overnight. But if you’ll seek out the Lord in the sources that influence you, then I promise you that you will change. God’s Word is powerful, living, and at work. The Holy Spirit is active. And the Word made flesh will teach you as you take his words into your mind and heart.
Go ahead and plagiarize from him. To your heart’s content.