Chapter 6 (free sample)
‘Good afternoon,’ began Jim Withers, ‘and my warmest thanks to WP for her kind introduction.’
Taking her seat inches from Jim’s feet, Wendy nodded politely as his bald round head, bordered by fluffy grey tufts, peered down in sarcastic gratitude. Oh, how she’d missed Mr Withers’ withering grin: all wonky yellow teeth and flaky pale lips, upturned in a manner as unbecoming as the ear-ring he sported in his left ear, defiantly affixed in tribute to his hero.
‘As ever,’ continued Jim, ‘it’s an honour to put a case which needs no putting whatsoever: a privilege to explain such simple truths to a delegation so stubbornly blind to the facts.’
Wendy laughed, the condescension ringing in her ears as she marvelled how this sneering specimen could possibly be the same man she’d known at college and, for two years, genuinely believed she’d loved. Honest to goodness, they were like two different people. One, the faithful friend whose wit and dashing handsomeness enraptured her back at Cambridge; the other, an irreconcilable foe who had slid into a bitterness which Wendy proudly ascribed to her army of agitators – combined, of course, with Jim’s continued failure to prove the point that, twenty years before, had driven such an almighty wedge between them.
‘But seriously,’ he went on, ‘I’m as bored as anyone of stating the obvious, so this year I’m doing something different.’
He poured some water and Wendy, squinting through her round brown specs, spied his hand shaking. For all his scornful confidence, Jim was tense. Whatever he had planned, he knew it wouldn’t be easy. He knew that of the thousand-plus gathered in the hall – the most he’d ever faced – every one was itching to disagree with him.
‘This year, I’m not going to repeat why it’s incontrovertibly the case that William Shakespeare, the glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote that to which we ascribe the phrase “Written by William Shakespeare”. I’m not going to bore you by noting that this “Stratford Man”, as you disparage him, left gifts to London actors when he died, thus forging an unarguable link between William Shakespeare, the country bumpkin you love to hate, and the London theatre for which the writer Shakespeare wrote – a link reinforced by poems in the 1623 Folio referring specifically to the “Swan of Avon” and his “Stratford Monument”. And I certainly shan’t worry you with more general points, for instance wondering why Shakespeare’s name appears on fourteen of the fifteen plays published in his lifetime, or why, for hundreds of years, nobody questioned his claim.’
‘Get on with it!’ shouted someone towards the back.
Jim looked sharply to Wendy, imploring her to admonish the heckler but surely knowing he’d get no such pleasure. As if she’d ever make his life easier! Besides, Jim knew better than anyone that the conference was a bear pit for those of his ilk. Surely that was part of the appeal – the challenge that kept bringing Stratfordians back, avid in the vainglorious belief that Wendy’s pride of cynical beasts might one day be tamed.
‘And the reason I shan’t be wasting our time with these inconvenient truths?’ resumed Jim. ‘Because I know what you devils are like. I know, no matter how plain the truth of what I say, you will ingest it into your sordid little conspiracy theories, then spit it straight back at me. You will claim that the ubiquity of William Shakespeare’s name is explained by the Earl of Oxford’s audacious decision to use it as a pseudonym. You will merrily embrace the abundant evidence linking the Stratford Shakespeare with the London Shakespeare, arguing that this indicates the thoroughness with which the actual author orchestrated his – or her – coup de théâtre. And after neutralising my arguments, you will assault me with questions. Why do none of Shakespeare’s letters survive? How could one of such lowly learning have displayed such expertise in foreign languages, science and the law? Why were eighteen of the plays unpublished at the time of his death? Why does the Stratford Man’s will mention no plays, books or letters? You will ask, and at every turn my answer will be “I don’t know”. Which, to those of sound mind, would provenothing, but to you would scientifically signal my wrongness.’
Jim’s words were met by a burst of good-natured jeering, and Wendy rubbed her hands in gleeful anticipation. This was what it was all about: the climax of their big weekend – the grand denouement which would thrillingly reunite them in fervent anti-Stratfordianism after three days cooped up in combat, debating the alternative theories between themselves. For though that internecine warfare was compelling – and how Wendy adored arguing for Christopher Marlowe – there was no greater pleasure than battling a Stratfordian. The first-hand reminder of the injustice they were fighting strengthened their ambition for the year ahead, and doubly so when the Stratfordian was one so eminent and irritable as Withers.
As for Wendy herself, there was no denying that Jim’s conference appearances were extra special, transporting her all the way back to her very own zero hour: that unforgettable moment when, in her third year at King’s College, Cambridge, she sat with Jim by the banks of the Cam, reading sonnets one sunny spring afternoon, only to find herself seized by a compulsive desire to know more about the man whose words spoke to her so personally across four hundred years. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough just to accept Shakespeare’s anonymity and enjoy the poems and plays for themselves. Such was the intensity of her connection, this man – this Shakespeare, this whoever – couldn’t remain a stranger any longer.
And that was it. The moment curiosity kicked in, she saw with breathtaking vividness that nothing – but nothing – in the Stratfordian orthodoxy made sense. From the dearth of biographical information to the vacuum between the Stratford Shakespeare and the London playwright, the illusion was shattered. Manifestly, the man Wendy worshipped was an impostor: a front for another who, for whatever reason, had elected to keep his identity secret.
For someone who had invested so much in Shakespeare – who had cherished every word since her first swoop through the Complete Works aged eleven – this was big news. But even more outrageous than the epiphany itself was the snobbery with which she was roundly attacked. First, she was unceremoniously dumped by Jim for making mention of her doubts. Then, when she voiced her concerns in an essay on Shakespeare’s Latinate allusions – wondering how one of Shakespeare’s education could possibly have filled his plays with such learned asides – she was ignominiously chucked off her course: thrown into the world jobless, penniless and degreeless, with no option nor desire but to fight back.
The solution came swiftly. Rather than join one of the existing campaigns, she would set up a shiny new authorship militia, more energised than its weary predecessors. Its unwavering aim would be to air the debate so widely that Shakespeare’s true identity became a permissible talking point everywhere from the local pub, right up to the loftiest ivory towers of academia. In so doing, they would actually take the discussion forward, such that one day – by hook or by crook – the truth would be revealed.
‘So instead of pursuing more traditional arguments,’ continued Jim, ‘today I’m forcing the spotlight back onto your theories. But I am not merely going to summon the leading spokesperson for each alternative theory and interrogate them with the same wilful suspicion you employ against me. Nor am I going to be so stupid as to list the evidential inconsistencies of your crackpot conspiracies, and demand explanations as thorough as those you expect of me. Why? Well, because, as you are all so very fondof reminding me – ’
‘The true author didn’t want to be known!’ exclaimed Wendy. ‘No proof is proof!’
‘QED. In view of which…’ He glanced to his left, where a computer hummed away. ‘We must resort to a rather more precise form of debate.’ He gave a confident grin. ‘That’s right, ladies and gents. It’s time for a little mathematics!’
A hearty cheer went up as Jim set about fiddling with his computer, the screen behind him turning white with anticipation. Of all the adversaries who addressed them on the final day of conferences, Withers was invariably the biggest draw: guaranteed box office in his combination of eccentricity, originality and futile determination – not to mention the added emotional charge conjured by his and Wendy’s well-known history.
His debut had come just four years after they broke up. Devastated by her Damascene conversion, Jim had made it his life goal to prove her wrong. A mathematician by trade, he began day-jobbing in IT at the Stratford HQ of the Royal Shakespeare Company, using his spare time to seek definitive proof of the Stratford Man’s claim. Such was his all-consuming passion, when Wendy issued her ultimatum that he either appear at their third annual conference or, by refusing, implicitly concede that Shakespeare wasn’t the author, he quickly accepted her invitation – despite having got nowhere with his research.
And that was the joy of Jim: the fact that he kept coming back, no matter how calamitous his most recent presentation. Whether it was a hangover from his former entanglement with Wendy, or simply a pathological conviction that the Stratford Man wrote the plays, failure only made him more determined – making his supposed proofs ever more absurd, and serving only to damage the wider Stratfordian cause. Indeed, many of his comrades downright resented his persistence, since the more he was seen to try, the more he was seen to fail. Better not to engage with the WAC at all, they argued, than keep returning with increasingly foolish theories – like the most recent, which reduced the debate to a series of ludicrous probability ratios – that only seemed to vindicate the dissenters’ claims.
‘May I have a volunteer?’ he asked.
A forest of hands shot up. Jim picked a doddery old fellow, spectacularly attired in double-denim, who Wendy immediately recognised as a Baconian.
‘Name?’ asked Jim.
‘Derek.’ Jim was relishing the descent into magic-show cliché. ‘Derek, name us a play – any play – by Christopher Marlowe.’
Derek’s eyes darted around. ‘Dr. Faustus?’
Jim tapped away. ‘Act and scene?’
‘Three. Act three, scene three.’
‘Lovely.’ The screen filled with the beginning of Act Three, Scene Three of Dr. Faustus. ‘Go on.’ Jim gestured as he scrolled through the text. ‘Pick a passage. Just say when.’
Derek waited a few seconds before shouting ‘Stop!’ as the text approached line 100. The following 50 lines turned black as Jim copied them, after which he switched into a new program, and deposited the chosen Faustus text into one of two adjacent windows.
‘And some Shakespeare?’
Derek hesitated, trying to foresee the catch. ‘Measure for Measure,’ he said tentatively. ‘Act One Scene Two.’
Jim repeated the first process, pasting Derek’s chosen 50 lines so they stood side-by-side with the Marlowe.
‘What I’m about to do,’ Jim declared, ‘is an exercise we all did at school: namely, compare and contrast these two passages. But whereas we were compromised by subjectivity, this technique yields altogether more precise results.’
He navigated through a series of menus. Wendy felt a tingle of excitement as he reached the one called ‘Compare’.
‘Doesn’t it matter that one’s in prose, the other’s in verse?’ came a query from the floor.
Jim chuckled. ‘Oh, this technique addresses subtler factors than such formal superficialities. All that matters is they’re both in English, and both aspire to clear meaning.’
‘And just what is that supposed to mean?’ asked another, who Wendy instantly identified as Keith Cobley – not least because, as a fellow committee member, Keith was right beside her, his cream linen jacket complementing a pink shirt and bright white jeans.
‘It means,’ answered Jim, ‘that the only thing which wouldn’t work is the deliberately obtuse. Abstract poetry, say, where the writer wills it to make no sense. But as long as the intention is to be clear, this works with whatever you like: from discursive, academic prose, right through to drama.’
‘Very well,’ replied Keith, toying the finely-trimmed black goatee that answered the absence of hair on top. ‘And the fact that both are written in character?’
‘Again, not a problem. That’s my big discovery, see? No matter how hard writers try to adapt or camouflage their innate authorial style, a part of it still remains.’
Keith tutted assuredly. ‘Not with greats like Tom Cobley.’
‘Cobley cobblers!’ chorused the delegation, right on cue: their well-worn, affectionate riposte to Keith, who was pathologically incapable of going more than a minute without mentioning his little-known ancestor whom he, uniquely, believed wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
‘You only jest because you know I’m right!’ shouted Keith, taking the banter in his usual good heart. ‘But in any case, my point stands. After all, isn’t that what makes Cobley – or whomever – so unique? His ability to convincingly create any number of characters?’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Jim. ‘This works on a much lower level, assessing patterns to which we’re blinded: word and sound usage, sentence structure – things that automatically appear, however much the writer wishes them away, as soon as he writes more than one sentence. Think of it as the writer’s DNA. The immutable crux of his creativity.’
Wendy pulled up the sleeves of her favourite baggy pullover and leaned forward, amused and intrigued, as Jim pressed ‘Compare’. Seconds later, an ocean of numbers and ratios appeared, separated into two windows, ‘Marlowe’ and ‘Shakespeare’, each with three columns and rows too numerous to count.
‘I’ve not yet labelled everything,’ said Jim, grabbing his umbrella, ‘but hopefully you’ll get the gist.’ He examined the hundreds of digits. ‘So here…’ He pointed the brolly to the three columns in the Marlowe window. ‘You have the three different categories. The first are straightforward.’ He moved the brolly down the screen, tapping each row in column one. ‘Frequency of alliteration, onomatopoeia, similes, and so on. The higher the number, the denser the usage.’ The brolly returned to the top of the screen, this time to column two. ‘The second category analyses the writer’s vocabulary: first, use of imagery, broken into animal, vegetable, mineral subsections, then use of synonyms, relative use of nouns, verbs, etcetera. Another subsection then dissects sentence structure: recurrent orders of words, rhythmic patterns, the extent to which grammar usage varies from one line to the next. Then, finally, we look at instances of rare, exotic or arcane words – arcane at the time of writing, that is.’
‘How do you gauge that?’ asked Wendy.
‘The British Library database. I borrowed a copy and ran parts of this program on all its contents, compiling an accurate database of how language has evolved since Chaucer. Which also comes in handy since I can then express a writer’s word usage in relation to other writing of the time. For this, I entered 1600 as the time of composition, so the program retrieves all the database entries from twenty years either side of that date, comparing our passages with the averages for that era, telling us how each writer is at variance from the norm.’
Jim paused for a moment, letting his words sink in, as a murmur – equal parts disapproval, bemusement and concern – rippled around the hall.
‘But even in column two,’ he picked up, ‘we’re still only considering superficial traits which could, theoretically, be faked.’ He tapped the final column. ‘Section three is where it gets tasty. That’s where we go under the bonnet, taking the results from sections one and two and playing around with them, pinning down the writer’s personal preferences in relation to my all-new probability engine: one which takes a sentence, processes its meaning, and then imagines the thousand different ways that sentiment could be expressed. By doing that, and then analysing the particular option the writer went with, one constructs a model of the writer’s sub-conscious taste: everything he likes, from specific words to different syntactic formulations. For example, when synonyms are either available or necessary, I ask whether he tends to go for words with more consonants or vowels.’
‘Oh, please!’ hooted someone. ‘As if writers ever fret about such things!’
‘But they do,’ insisted Jim. ‘Sub-consciously.’ He stepped to the front. ‘What we’re talking about here is taste: taste as an inherent part of our being; that which makes one man’s meat another man’s poison. You know it’s true. Just as we all enjoy different music, we all have different favourite words. What appeals linguistically to you won’t necessarily appeal to me. Who knows why? Perhaps it’s genetic. Either way, that’s the focus: deciphering writers’ tastes such that one can compare the stylistic imprint of different authors.’ He motioned proudly towards his handiwork. ‘Quod erat demonstrandum.’
A puzzled silence fell upon the hall. Apparently, Jim had nothing to add.
‘Is that it?’ asked Wendy.
‘That is indeed it.’ Jim tossed the brolly away. ‘The two passages have been compared and, as you can see, the figures in each window aren’t even close to matching. Ergo, the two passages were not written by the same individual. Ergo, the man who wrote Doctor Faustus didn’t write Measure for Measure. Ergo, Shakespeare wasn’t Marlowe.’
Jim’s presentation had lurched from impenetrable complexity to suspicious simplicity in the blink of an eye.
‘Still in doubt?’ he went on. ‘Then let’s try some Bacon.’
He dropped his gaze to the front row, where the ten committee members sat side by side: Wendy, Clive, Pat, Keith, John, Felix, Leonard, Colin, Rob and Steve. Each was charged with a different administrative role but – more importantly – each also represented a different authorship candidate, so ensuring that the group was fundamentally unbiased in all its collective workings.
‘Clive,’ he said, picking out everyone’s favourite Baconian, dressed in his faithful tweed jacket, ‘name a passage.’
Clive rocked back in his seat, legs and arms crossed in thought. ‘“Knowledge is Power”, from Meditations.’
Jim summoned Clive’s choice, along with another random slice of Shakespeare. As before, he clicked ‘Compare’ and the screen filled with numbers. Once again, the numbers on either side were at variance.
‘This isn’t proof,’ sniffed Clive. ‘For all we know, the computer’s just plucked those numbers out of thin air.’
‘Very well.’ Jim scanned the front row for a new victim, eventually settling on Wendy herself. ‘Name me some Shakespeare.’
‘Henry V,’ suggested Wendy.
‘Act, scene and line?’ asked Jim.
‘Act Four, Scene Two, line 24.’
Within seconds the passage was up on screen. ‘And another?’ Jim asked, pointing to their treasurer, Pat, bedecked in black from top to toe. ‘More Shakespeare.’
‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ said Pat, his long grey hair quivering as he spoke. ‘Act Five, Scene One, line 70.’
The second extract appeared, with the two results windows following moments later. Looking from one to the other, Wendy shivered. While by no means exact, the two passages had yielded remarkably similar figures.
‘Do you see?’ grinned Jim triumphantly. ‘An extraordinary parity. Proof that the same individual wrote these two passages. Which isn’t, of course, to say that the author was William Shakespeare. But it does provide a benchmark against which the divergences of the two prior comparisons all but eliminate Marlowe and Bacon, proving that neither the author of Dr. Faustus nor that of Meditations was also responsible for the Shakespeare plays.’ He switched off the screen. ‘And thus, ladies and gentlemen, two of your three leading theories are categorically debunked.’
A hush descended on the hall, the delegation dazed by what it had witnessed. Even Wendy herself was strangely speechless: not so much worried as bewildered – much as one feels when a conjuror, through sleight of hand and verbal ingenuity, leads one down blind alleyways of detail and digression, only to turn round and deliver a killer punch from nowhere. You know it’s not for real, you know it’s all a trick – and yet for a moment, before logic engages, the shock leaves you struck, almost to the point of believing, by the apparent truth of what you’ve just seen.
Jim was scrutinising the delegation intently, eyes darting round for signs of success. As the silence lingered, Wendy could just see his cheeks begin to rise above the most tentative of smiles – hopeful like that of a man daring to believe he’s finally seen off an acute bout of hiccups.
‘We don’t believe you!’ came a cry suddenly.
‘It’s a fix!’ yelled another.
‘Where are your workings?’ shouted someone else.
‘I’ll show the workings if you like,’ returned Jim, ‘they won’t make much sense…’
‘It’s tripe,’ proclaimed a voice behind Wendy. ‘The matches on the Shakespeare extracts aren’t even exact.’
‘Don’t be so disingenuous,’ protested Jim. ‘The Shakespeare match is exact enough – compared to the others it’s – ’
‘Never mind the numbers,’ interrupted Clive. ‘Surely the real problem here is that the whole thing is predicated on science fiction – ideas totally at odds with the accepted understanding of artistic endeavour as an act of imaginative skill which can be learnt, honed and nurtured. You talk about these fixed sub-conscious traits, but where’s the proof?’
Jim opened his mouth to reply, but seemed suddenly lost. ‘I…’ he stuttered, sweat bubbling up on his brow as the hope fell from his features. ‘The proof is here. This is what I’ve found. These are the facts.’
‘No,’ answered Clive, ‘these are symptoms. Symptoms of something for which you’ve no proof; which runs against the very fabric of imagination as we know it.’
‘Clive’s right!’ exclaimed Wendy, standing and striding onto the stage. ‘Yes, these results are striking, but to infer any firm conclusions requires creativity to be some kind of bio-chemical absolute – such that no genius, however great, can disguise those innate characteristics.’
‘That’s what I seem to have discovered,’ nodded Jim in mounting desperation.
‘But you haven’t discovered anything. There’s no scientific grounding for the conclusions you’re inferring. Nothing which stands up to the abundant evidence to the contrary: all those great artists who reinvented themselves time and again. Late Beethoven versus early Beethoven, say: proof that artistic identity is the slipperiest thing on earth; that artists change their creative skins at will.’ She motioned to the audience. ‘We need no reminding. It’s that quicksilver quality we celebrate: the fact that someone, most likely Christopher Marlowe, was such a supreme shape-shifter they lived the most amazing double-life, writing both their own masterpieces and those we know as Shakespeare’s, yet to this day defying all attempts to match the two – including your own!’
Jim shook his head. ‘You can’t fake the figures.’
‘But you can. That’s what’s so exciting. Marlowe – or whoever – did.’
‘But why? Where’s the proof that such deception is impossible?’
Again, Jim set himself to reply, but this time there was not even a stutter. His expectant eyes sank down as if suddenly seeing his fatal flaw: the absence of any scientific proof supporting the supposition on which his numerical house of cards had been built.
‘This is the truth of it,’ pressed Wendy. ‘You’ve nothing backing this up but faith. It seems like some big discovery to you because the results chime with your beliefs. But from our viewpoint, these figures only reinforce the true author’s magnificence; expressing, with forensic precision, his astonishing ability to change from one guise to the next.’
Wendy’s words hung in the air, daring Jim to come back at her. After a momentary silence, the hall echoed to the sound of clapping as the delegates, sensing the knockout blow had been landed, started applauding their leader. Moments later, after firing Wendy the bitterest scowl, Jim too accepted the game was up and began gathering his papers.
Head down, ignoring the victorious whoops from the floor, he stuffed his computer into his shoulder bag, grabbed his brolly, and made for the exit without another word.