A new take on the authorship saga

So Long, Shakespeare throws together the worlds of Shakespeare and Star Wars to provide a definitive answer to the vexed question of who really wrote ‘Shakespeare’s’ plays and poems. But where did the idea first come from?

In the early 2000s, I was lucky enough to work at Shakespeare’s Globe as part of a fantastic communications team. It was an unforgettable period, not least because the Globe is so compact behind-the-scenes. My department was stationed next door to the artistic team, the main stairwell led both to the offices and onto the stage, and the Green Room was a melting-pot democracy, meaning I regularly unloaded Flavia coffee capsules next to an actor, mid-performance, in full period regalia.

My experiences weren’t without occasional tension. Spanning the full range of the Globe’s activities – its education work, exhibition, theatre and international brief – I frequently found myself at the centre of arguments passionate discussions about the right way to develop the organisation. In the vacuum left by the untimely passing of Sam Wanamaker, people were still trying to fathom what the place was actually for. Period or contemporary costumes? Blanket Shakespeare or new writing too? Tourist attraction or uncompromising indie arts venue?

Of all the issues that arose, the one that really intrigued me was the authorship debate – vocalised most keenly by the Globe’s founding Artistic Director Mark Rylance. For Mark, the question of Shakespeare’s true identity, and his conviction that it couldn’t possibly have been the ‘Stratford man’, was and remains deeply important.

The challenges that this posed were fascinating. Was it right that the Globe’s leading light – arguably the finest Shakespeare actor of his generation – was an outspoken advocate of what, in many quarters, was a reviled heresy? Did the elitist connotations of questioning Shakespeare’s claim sit comfortably with the Globe’s image as an inclusive ‘people’s’ theatre? To what extent should questions about the playwright’s identity be featured in the Globe’s exhibition and education activities?

In marshalling these debates, I became enthralled by the landscape of the authorship discussion. For a start, there were the numerous authorship theories themselves, offering some fantastical post hoc rationalisation of fanciful premises (like Wendy Preston in my novel, the Christopher Marlowe conspiracy was always my favourite). Then there was the unforgiving stand-off between Shakespeare-sceptics and Stratfordians, and the two camps’ contrasting approaches: the forensic detail worship of the sceptics, massaging the facts to make watertight theoretical sense, alongside the sublime disregard of the establishment. The latter refused to countenance the idea that the authorship question even existed, lest it be seen to legitimise to the doubters’ case – but at a time when the unmediated internet was exploding into life, their inertia only fanned the heretics’ flames. Add to that the logical inconsistencies of the sceptics’ stance – the total negative consensus around Shakespeare versus the lack of any positive consensus regarding the alternative  – and the whole thing was crying out for dramatic expression.

I stepped back and gave it some thought. The individual ‘alternative author’ theories lent themselves to fiction (cf. last year’s Anonymous, right), but I didn’t feel the spark to run with any single one. Indeed, I didn’t really feel inclined to take sides. My fascination wasn’t with the rights and wrongs of the debate. My fascination was with the debate itself – the question of why people cared so passionately, both in challenging and defending Shakespeare’s claim.

What was it that compelled people to set such stall by the authorship question? Was it a simple, honourable case of wanting justice to be done – or was it something more? A sense of connection with the ‘true’ author? A desire to  lay claim to something which might set oneself apart from the crowd? An urge to add yet more layers of meaning to plays which are already peerlessly rich?

And what of the unthinking defenders of Shakespeare’s claim? Why so unwilling even to argue their supposedly flawless case? Was there something they were trying to protect? An investment – intellectual, emotional, spiritual – which needed to be guarded? An elusiveness in the idea of ‘William Shakespeare’ – about whom so little is really known – that needed to be preserved, for fear of what might happen if it weren’t?

One by one, these thoughts accumulated in my mind until finally crystallising into an overarching question:

What if, one day, somebody proved beyond all doubt the true author of Shakespeare’s plays – and it wasn’t the man from Stratford?

At last I had it: the imponderable that could only be addressed through fiction.

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