Category Archives: Authorship
I feel a lot of goodwill towards Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, which goes on sale in the UK tomorrow. A very different endeavour to my own Star Wars-meets-Shakespeare effort, the new book nonetheless originates from the same starting point as key elements of So Long, Shakespeare. Indeed, one of my first impulses to take the Shakespeare authorship mystery to Hollywood was the conviction that many of the greatest big-screen classics – Star Wars chief among them – shared more a little in common with Shakespeare’s blockbusters.
The theme comes to the surface in Chapter 3 of SLS, when Joe Seabright’s producer tries to persuade the high-minded Lester Howells to unleash Shakespeare’s creativity on Seabright’s all-conquering sci-fi saga:
‘Fact is, Shakespeare would be wasted on The Solix Chronicles.’
‘I disagree,’ returned Jerry. ‘Chronicles is right up his alley.’
‘Really? You reckon if Shakespeare were alive today—’
‘He’d be writing The Solix Chronicles?’ Jerry nodded emphatically. ‘Damn right I do. You of all people should know that theatre was the popular culture of Shakespeare’s day. He wrote to make money, so he gave people what they wanted: big, passionate blockbusters about love and war. Universal stories, just like Chronicles.’
Howells was staring at his feet.
‘I’m serious,’ urged Jerry. ‘If Shakespeare was alive today do you really think he’d squander his talent writing plays for audiences in the hundreds? Or would he write for the masses, for the millions: channel those talents to maximum effect?’
All of which made me smile when I read John Walsh’s take on Doescher’s new book in yesterday’s Independent:
Doescher points out the closeness of Obi-Wan Kenobi to Prospero in The Tempest, of Chewbacca to Caliban, of Jabba the Hutt to Falstaff, of R2-D2 and C-3PO to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He teases out the complex weave of parent-child and mentor-student relationships in Henry IV, The Tempest and Hamlet, and the Vader-like evilness of Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear. He notes that, if Star Wars were an actual Shakespeare play, it would be classified as a fantasy – but with elements of history, comedy and tragedy. Don’t you hate it when you’ve spent years failing to notice something as obvious as that?
April is nearly upon us, bringing with it Shakespeare’s birthday and, just before that, the publication of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy – a major addition to the bibliography surrounding the vexed question of who really wrote those amazing plays and poems.
Edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (true masters of forbearance), the new volume aims to establish itself as the go-to defence of Shakespeare’s claim. Summoning over 20 of the world’s top scholarly minds to their cause, Edmondson and Wells’ anthology tackles the issue from numerous angles – literary, scientific, biographical – while enlisting experts in Marlowe, Bacon and the Earl of Oxford to oversee a thorough dismantling of the three most persistent alternative theories.
There’s a lovely little piece in today’s Observer trailing the book. As someone who has spent many years untangling the passions and preoccupations of Shakespeare authorship sceptics, I found the following paragraph particularly resonant:
James Shapiro of Columbia University in New York, says that doubters will not disappear, but adds: “This volume will make responding to the next film, or the next campaign, or the next question posed about Shakespeare’s authorship that much easier.”
There’s a refreshing realism here; a sign of how far the Stratfordian establishment has come from its former state of denial. Now, not only do they recognise the necessity of mounting some kind of defence, they realise that such a defence – no matter how scientific or mathematical – will never quite be enough to put the issue to bed. Why? Because, on its most basic but important level, the authorship debate isn’t about facts and reason – it’s about people’s passions, and their irrational entanglement with great and seductive art. What one side wants (clarity and closure) isn’t the same as what the other side wants (speculation and subjectivity). The authorship question won’t go away because people don’t want it to go away.
None of which, of course, means one shouldn’t try. So Long, Shakespeare is my fictional attempt, exploding the hidden passions into a transatlantic adventure-mystery; Shakespeare Beyond Doubt is its factual counterpart. Neither will put an end to the speculation, but hopefully – as Shapiro says – both will make the Stratfordian defence that little bit easier.
I’m very proud to say that my first novel, So Long, Shakespeare, is now available as a paperback from Amazon.
A genre-busting mash-up of Shakespeare, Star Wars and The Famous Five, ‘SLS’ tells the tale of an Oscar-hungry Hollywood film-maker who accidentally makes a world-changing discovery about Shakespeare. With global culture thrown into disarray, it falls to a maverick group of British eccentrics to put things right. In so doing, they discover that not everything is quite as it seems…
The novel grew out of a fascination with those who argue about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But it soon evolved into a fast-paced adventure mystery which has already had several readers complaining to the author after the book caused them to miss their tube stops.
This week sees the conclusion of the Globe’s acclaimed double-bill of Shakespearean transfers – Richard III and Twelfth Night – at the Apollo Theatre in London’s (possessive obligatory) West End.
It saddens me that I’ve missed them both. Although I was lucky enough to see Tim Carroll’s Twelfth Night, and in particular Mark Rylance’s Olivia, during its first outing at Middle Temple Hall in 2002, I’m especially sorry to have missed Stephen Fry’s Malvolio – a new addition to this most recent revival.
But more than that, I’m sorry not to have been a fly. Specifically, a fly on the wall backstage. Because ever since Stephen Fry’s involvement was revealed, I haven’t been able to shift the thought that he and Mark Rylance – both utterly beloved and deserving of their belovedness – are at diametrically opposing ends of the Shakespeare authorship debate.
Mark Rylance is among the most high-profile disputers of the ‘Stratfordian’ claim, while Stephen Fry contributed a magnificently jaded Audioboo to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s 2011 riposte to Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous. To throw together these two passionate men, not only on stage, not only in Shakespeare, but at Shakespeare’s Globe itself, seemed like holding a flame to a stick of authorship dynamite. That Twelfth Night then transferred into a cooped-up pressure-cooker of a West End theatre only made the decision more intriguing. When exactly would the fireworks kick off?
Well, to the best of my knowledge, they never have, and I wonder if Messrs Fry and Rylance – Frylance? – didn’t agree a temporary cessation of hostilities before entering the comedic cauldron. It may well have been the only way to make it work, especially since Mr Fry’s Stratfordian steward had to endear himself, at all costs, to Mr Rylance’s anti-Stratfordian noblewoman – and such a thing would scarcely have been possible, let alone credible, had each actor been continually airing his authorship laundry backstage. (That said, one might well imagine Mr Rylance, as Olivia, secretly summoning thoughts of Mr Fry’s Stratfordianism to bolster his disdain and disgust at Malvolio’s actions in Act 3, Scene 4.)
Perhaps one day a show insider will lift the lid on a winter of discontent, during which neither actor could stand the sight, let alone the thoughts, of the other. Or perhaps the selfsame whistleblower will instead describe a protracted backstage colloquy, remarkable in its breadth, open-mindedness and intellectual rigour, in which one or other of the men gave crucial ground to the other: Mr Rylance, emerging from the greasepaint-scented shadows a convinced Stratfordian; or Mr Fry, stepping out of stage door a bona fide Baconian, Oxfordian, Marlovian or, erm, collaboratician. With the outside world aware of nothing more than a gentlemanly silence, the bean-spilling possibilities of ‘what really went on’ remain as fantastical as they are unknowable.
Or do they? Well, maybe not. For the gentlemanly silence, if that’s indeed what it is, was suddenly and dramatically breached last Friday evening, when Stephen Fry tweeted the following:
I’d rather have a Jehovah’s Witness at my door than an anti-Stratfordian in my dressing room: “I can prove Shakespeare was Sicilian” Sheesh
— Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) February 1, 2013
Now let us be clear: I have no light to shed on this. And although I’m fairly certain the ‘pro-Sicilian anti-Stratfordian’ in question is not Mr Rylance, my subsequent attempt to elicit any backstage gossip from Mr Fry fell on deaf ears.
Nonetheless, it’s fun – if potentially slanderous – to speculate. What if Mr Rylance is making a daring play, with just a week of the run to go? What if he’s started dispatching advance parties of anti-Stratfordians into Mr Fry’s dressing room, prior to making a more protracted personal assault in the days to come? Could all that pent-up tension, silently accumulated over several months, be about to explode in a sustained-and-very-firm exchange of views? And if so, could this be the week in which two of our greatest luminaries settle this most vexed of issues once and for all – thereby shaping all future discourse on the subject?
Could this be the week when the authorship finally hits the fan?
Well, probably not. But it’s possible. Just about possible.
Last year, this Freshly Pressed post described the fear of reality catching up with imagination as I wrote my near-future novel So Long, Shakespeare – a comedy thriller that throws together the worlds of Shakespeare and Star Wars-style space opera.
Well, this week, another couple of news stories emerged which have a weird affinity with events depicted in my novel.
First, it was noted on TheForce.Net that Random House are preparing a Trade Paperback for publication in August which – well, throws together the worlds of Shakespeare and Star Wars. The blurb for Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars goes as follows:
“May the verse be with you! Inspired by one of the greatest creative minds in the English language—and William Shakespeare—here is an officially licensed retelling of George Lucas’s epic Star Wars in the style of the immortal Bard of Avon. The saga of a wise (Jedi) knight and an evil (Sith) lord, of a beautiful princess held captive and a young hero coming of age, Star Wars abounds with all the valor and villainy of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Reimagined in glorious iambic pentameter, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars will astound and edify learners and masters alike. Zounds! This is the book you’re looking for.”
Yesterday, meanwhile, there was extensive coverage of developments in DNA storage. As reported in Nature, scientists at the Hinxton European Bioinformatics Institute have succeeded in accurately encoding and storing vast amounts of data in microscopic double-helix form. Among their literary guinea pigs were the Sonnets of one William Shakespeare – leading to the creation of a single speck of DNA which, quite literally, contains every one of Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets.
An amazing thought, and one which put me in mind of the following passage from Chapter 4 of my novel:
“Though he didn’t understand a single detail of the formula, which just listed a load of different chemical agents and the quantities required, Joe was still wowed by what he was holding. Here, amazingly, was Shakespeare’s genius, reduced to a chemical recipe.”
Of course, neither of the two real-world parallels matches exactly with my story. In the excerpt above, the concoction Joe is about to swallow represents not Shakespeare’s creations but Shakespeare himself; and what he goes on to create is not Star Wars but a vaguely similar kind of space epic. And yet, in an odd way, both these real-life developments are almost truer to the spirit of my novel than the novel itself.
How so? Well, let me put it this way. In developing my story, I found myself exploring two major ‘what ifs’: ‘What if Shakespeare’s genius could be harnessed in DNA-form?’ and ‘What if Shakespeare were to write a Star Wars-style blockbuster?’ And ever since finishing the book, I’ve felt that my answer to those two imponderables – inventing the ‘genetic muse’, thereby enabling Shakespeare’s creativity to be channelled into a sci-fi screenplay – was a fairly obvious, almost literal way of handling things; but equally, the only real means of responding to what were strictly hypothetical questions.
How wrong I was. For not only has reality now successfully given birth to both seemingly impossible scenarios, it’s achieved the feat by taking them even more at face value than I did – trick answers, if you like, to sincere questions. The DNA scientists have addressed the first by overlooking Shakespeare-the-creator, and taking his ‘genius’ to mean the works themselves; and Ian Doescher has achieved the second by simply re-writing Star Wars in the manner of Shakespeare.
Real life, eh? Not just stranger than fiction but slipperier, too.
In my last post on the gestation of So Long, Shakespeare, I recounted the search for a fictitious solution to the seemingly unanswerable Shakespeare authorship conundrum. Inexorably, I arrived at the idea of using Shakespeare’s DNA to bring him back from the dead. Someone, somewhere, would devise a genetic means of transferring one person’s creativity into the body and mind of another. In so doing, they would discover – or at least, so it would seem – that the ‘man from Stratford’ was indeed an impostor.
The question was: who would achieve this world-changing feat, and why?
One option, clearly, was to make the cloning of Shakespeare’s DNA exclusively a question of authorship attribution – something designed to prove the point once and for all. But since my whole conceit was about disruption – shaking up the existing foundations of the authorship debate on all sides – this felt a little obvious. Instead, I wondered what would happen if the DNA resuscitation occurred for other reasons, in a totally different environment, and the associated authorship discovery were made entirely by accident? Wouldn’t that shake things up a treat?
I began thinking who else might want to harness Shakespeare’s talent, if such a thing were possible – and the answers came cascading in. Foremost in my mind was memory of that perennial debate: What would Shakespeare be doing if he were alive today?
The most popular answer is also the one to which I subscribe: namely, that he’d be in Hollywood, or at least big budget TV, writing for the masses, rather than a theatregoing minority. The stage, after all, was the mass culture of Shakespeare’s time. Like the great baroque composers, our latter-day perception of him as belonging to ‘high culture’ is not only precious but anomalous. First and foremost, he wrote not to enlighten but to make a living. The profound, life-enriching power of his plays was secondary to the requirement of entertaining as many people as could be attracted to watch them. Given which, it’s no surprise that many of his dramas explore precisely the same themes as the grandest Hollywood blockbusters – history, family and romance. The affinity, in many ways, is absolute.
But even if I hadn’t agreed with all this, Shakespeare-in-Tinseltown was still an irresistible fit. Here was a setting where talent talks, meaning the demand for his manifestly incomparable services would be automatic and unthinking. Moreover, it was a world where the financial firepower and hubristic imagination required to engineer such extraordinary genetic magic was readily available. In every sense, it was a credible scenario: Hollywood mogul tries to harness Shakespeare’s writing power for profit and artistic gain – only to discover, inadvertently and inconveniently, that Shakespeare didn’t really write the plays. His next step, quite naturally, would be to round up the DNA of the alternative candidates – which would require the assistance, in some form, of the established authorship fraternity. Soon enough, a fascinating mix would be coming to the boil, and we’d be well on our way to changing the flagship face of western culture.
There was just one big choice left to make. What kind of films would my mogul be making – and why would he feel the need to enlist Shakespeare’s help?
It was at that point that the two dominant Hollywood franchises of the time fused in my mind: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.
George Lucas’s original trilogy had given me some of the happiest moments of my childhood, and I didn’t think the prequel series was that bad. The design was glorious, the storyline wasn’t bad, and John Williams’s music was as powerful as ever. The problem, purely and simply, was with the prosaic, lifeless and entirely earthbound dialogue. That, and the impact it had on the acting.
Meanwhile, Peter Jackson’s epic re-telling of J R R Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga was ticking every box, dialogue included, such that, by the time Return of the King came around, the popular demand for Oscar recognition was met by precisely that.
So I set to wondering: what if there were a sci-fi auteur, whose films were terrifically successful but who harboured an over-riding yet unfulfilled ambition to have his populist achievements recognised by his establishment peers with victory at the Oscars? And what if the barrier to achieving this wasn’t, in fact, the snobbery of the elite, but the quality of his screenplays’ dialogue? Wouldn’t such a man be more than a little keen for some help with his writing? Wouldn’t he just love to have someone of Shakespeare’s calibre come to his aid, and help him attain his dream?
The answer, quite obviously, was yes – and so, indeed, it was to be.
Tags: academy awards, christopher marlowe, DNA, earl of oxford, earl of rutland, edward de vere, francis bacon, genetics, henry neville, john williams, lord of the rings, mary sidney, oscars, prequels, roger manners, shakespeare, So Long Shakespeare, star wars, william stanley
One of the weird things about writing a novel set in the near-future was watching real life catch up with the imagined world of my story. It’s probably not a problem for more outlandish visions, but since So Long, Shakespeare depicts a future just one or two steps advanced from where we are now, there was always a slight fear that reality might overtake fiction if I didn’t get a move on.
The two most susceptible strands of my plot related to the discovery that artistic creativity is a genetic absolute. As yet, of course, there is nothing but speculation as to the possibility of this, or indeed its potential implications. In my novel, however, the discovery happens pretty much at the start, before being dramatically addressed in two ways. There’s the mathematical angle, whereby a stubborn Stratfordian accidentally uncovers the numerical manifestation of the creative gene at work – a constant which occurs throughout every writer’s oeuvre, which he dubs the ‘Muse Ratio’. And then there’s the more direct approach, whereby an acclaimed geneticist not only discovers the creative gene but deduces how to transfer it from one human being to another.
In the end, by treating the ‘creative gene’ as a given, I created a firewall which prevented any present-day developments from overlapping too closely with the events of my book. Instead, those news stories which did resonate – for example Brian Vickers’ 2009 Pl@giarism analysis on the likely authorship of Edward III – spurred me on. A degree of realism, after all, was exactly what I was aiming for; as long as it didn’t make my central premise redundant, I was more than happy to embrace it.
Now the book is out in the big wide world, I can relax at last. Henceforward, whatever truths are discovered about the nature of creativity need not concern me. My story is of its time. Even if its predictions are shown to be way off the mark, it will still have merit as a historical artefact, to be filed alongside hoverboards and Judgement Day as remnants of imagined futures that never came to pass.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying I no longer experience that creeping dread when a news story touches on ideas explored in my novel. Quite the contrary. When yesterday I heard of David Reid’s report on the BBC’s ‘Click’ programme about computer programmes that replicate the styles, and arguably even souls, of great artists, I was only too happy to track down the link, take a look for myself, and simply savour the possibilities of what it had to say.