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Resolving the irresolvable

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.


When the authorship hits the fan

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:

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.

Fiction and fact: forged from the same DNA

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.

If Shakespeare were alive today…

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.

Death Star Globe

Hat-tip to Framescourer ( for this Episode 7/So Long, Shakespeare-inspired piece of fan-art.

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.

Bringing Shakespeare back from the dead

In my previous posts on the development of my novel, I described how I arrived at the idea, and also why I was so excited – both in terms of the fictional possibilities, and the light it would shed on the Shakespeare authorship debate.

But now I was facing the very problem that ostensibly plagues the debate in real life – how to prove the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, once and for all?

One thing was immediately clear. Whatever I came up with, it needed to be indisputable. Authorship enthusiasts are supremely adept at bending facts to their will, and I needed something which would instantly and convincingly silence protests on all sides of the debate. Something extraordinary, in other words, well beyond the historical discourse and textual study which, with eternal ambiguity, currently dominate the debate. Newly-discovered evidence or cryptographic proof – however seemingly incontrovertible – simply wouldn’t do. I needed something properly scientific.

But what ? How would this proof of proofs reveal itself?

Mathematics offered one potential avenue, and there is indeed a rich seam of real life work being done on mathematical intertextual analysis – both in relation to the authorship question and associated debates. Though still short of being universally accepted, it’s just about possible to imagine such methods one day becoming wholly conclusive. So perhaps that was the key: working up a world in which a new kind of linguistics analysis definitively matched Shakespeare’s plays with the writing of another author?

It was certainly a possibility. But not only was I keen for mathematics to take centre stage in another emerging strand of my plot, there was something about it which sidestepped an important part of the argument. Comparing texts, after all, is only useful when one has, well, a comparator: de Vere’s poems, say, to contrast with the plays we know as Shakespeare’s. In other words, the method can only be used for one of two things: either showing that someone else’s writing doesn’t match the Shakespearean canon; or, as would be the case in my novel, to show it does. The point being that, without a benchmark for the ‘Stratford man’, it’s impossible to determine his role in anything other than an inferential way.

This felt unsatisfactory because it was at odds with the logic flow of sceptics’ arguments. Asserting that Shakespeare himself wasn’t the author is invariably the opening gambit of anti-Stratfordian polemic, so I thought it would be apt to make it the first step in proving the sceptics to be right. And what better way to eke out the hidden tensions on all sides than by making the discovery as gradual as possible?

One way or another, this had to be my modus operandi. First find some way of showing Shakespeare didn’t do it – then use that same mechanism to find out who did.

The challenge was how to prove a negative. Again, any kind of evidential debunking of the ‘Stratford man’ – even, say, the discovery of contemporary testimony declaring that he didn’t do it – would still ultimately be contentious, open to the perennial claims about hoaxes and, even if not, still endlessly contestable.

No. The only option was to somehow bring Shakespeare into my story. Alas, time travel – while the ultimate fantasy for conspiracy theorists – wasn’t quite right, since I wanted my novel to be all about the future, and how the world would change if proof were ever established. By hook or by crook, I needed Shakespeare in the here and now.

I toyed very briefly with summoning a ghost – a Shakespearean conceit, indeed – before realising that nothing could be more untrustworthy and less likely to be universally accepted than a spirit come to admit that his extraordinary legacy had been built on an outrageous falsehood. It would be better to have him resurrected wholesale – perhaps through some feat of DNA cloning – though that, in its way, was every bit as far-fetched as the supernatural option.

Or was it? I thought again, slowly realising that there was something about the idea which chimed with what I was trying to do. Not cloning outright; but rather, harnessing an aspect of his DNA – the creativity, the muse, as it were – and finding some way of transferring it into a living being. Yes, the implications were numerous – I’d basically be suggesting that creativity is a genetic absolute – but this only enthused me further. I’d long-sensed some quality in the authorship debate relating to the self-appropriation of genius – whether belonging to Shakespeare, Bacon, Marlowe or whomever – and was determined to explore this in my novel. What could be better than introducing a plot device whereby creativity became, in its way, an absolute commodity?

This, then, was my solution. Somebody, somewhere, was going to discover the genetic key to artistic greatness and – in so doing – establish beyond doubt the almighty lie of Shakespeare’s authorship.

The question was: where was I going to make this happen – and, more importantly, why?

Shakespeare and the authorship issue: further reading

So Long, ShakespeareAhead of the Christmas break, my novel So Long, Shakespeare is being offered at the super-bargain price of 99p over at Amazon UK. I know I’m biased, but I reckon it’s perfect holiday reading – enough intellectual stimulation to keep your brain ticking over, but also incident, humour and fantastical ideas aplenty. The offer won’t last long, so don’t delay and head over right away.

In associated developments, I’ve just posted a handpicked list of the best Shakespeare authorship websites. There are over 30 in total, categorised by candidate. I figured it would be a useful resource for anyone new to the issue of Shakespeare’s ‘true’ identity, as well as providing useful context for anyone reading – or having read – my novel.

Imagining a world where Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare

In A New Take on the Authorship Saga, I described my long-standing fascination for the Shakespeare authorship controversy, and how it led me to wonder what might happen if the matter were one day settled in the sceptics’ favour.

The conceit – which became So Long, Shakespeare – was rich with fictional possibilities. How would the news break? What would be the implications for cultures saturated by Shakespeare’s influence? Who would ‘own’ the discovery, and what form would that ownership take? What of the centuries of Shakespeare scholarship? How much would still be relevant, and how much would need discarding in light of the ‘new’ author’s biography? What about the Shakespeare industry – Stratford-upon-Avon, say, or Shakespeare’s Globe in London? Above all, what would happen to the plays and poems? Would they still be as rich, as powerful, as well-loved as before – or might a new author change even the works themselves?

As I say: it was a tale worth telling. But in terms of understanding the authorship debate, what really excited me was that my scenario focused on an imagined future – something which crops up surprisingly little in anti-Stratfordian discourse.

You might argue this is simple pragmatism – why bother thinking beyond the immediate challenge of gathering proof? Well, perhaps. But given the stakes, surely even the most determined realist ought to get carried away occasionally? And since most Shakespeare-sceptics are hardly averse to flights of hypothetical fancy, it’s odd that the debate so rarely runs away with itself: that Baconians aren’t continually dreaming of a world in which Francis Bacon becomes the new Shakespeare; or that Oxfordians aren’t busy re-publishing Shakespeare’s plays with Edward de Vere’s name on the cover. It’s like the debate is so fixated on the ever-malleable past that no-one ever stops to process what it all might mean for the future.

Perhaps that’s just a measure of the perceived unattainability of definitive proof – something which, given the murkiness of history, plus the impossibility of time travel, is so unlikely as to censor all thoughts of a future spent gloating in Stratfordians’ faces. But if the debate is indeed irresolvable, why bother arguing in the first place? What is the point of it all?

This was what gave my conceit potential. Faced with a controversy so resolutely focused on the past, I was going to challenge the debate by giving it a future. A future, specifically, which would deliver the one thing anti-Stratfordians least expect: resolution.

What would they feel then? Would their joy be uninhibited, or would there be sorrow amid the celebration? Would those who were wrong about the true author envy those who were right – or would the ‘rightness’ about Shakespeare overcome all? Might they suddenly see that, deep down, they were quite fond of the ‘Stratford man’ after all?

Absorbing questions. But before I could explore this brave new Shakespeare-less world, I needed to do the very thing that seemed so far-fetched: devise a means by which the true author of Shakespeare’s plays could be established.

It was time to head to the land where the impossible comes true: to Hollywood, and to Joe Solix Chronicles Seabright.

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