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.
Alternative theories regarding the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays have a fundamental affinity with high-concept Hollywood blockbusters: both can be pitched in a single sentence – ‘Jaws in space’ for Alien; ‘Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays’ for Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous – after which, the rest pretty much writes itself. You might have to bandage over the odd plot hole, tweak any awkward historical facts, and pace things judiciously to suspend audience disbelief, but, in the spirit of Dr. Johnson’s critique of Gulliver’s Travels, ‘once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest’.
Yet while Anonymous, coming from the director of Godzilla and Independence Day, is a natural successor to its Oscar-laden forebear, Shakespeare in Love, the film’s appearance also chimes with the recent intensification of the authorship debate. Democratised by the internet, authenticated by two dedicated university courses, and advocated by knowledgeable, high-profile adherents, the controversy has been energised like never before. In this context, Anonymous represents a pivotal moment, dreamt of by some, dreaded by others: an unprecedented opportunity for the issue to leap into the mainstream, possibly even the classroom.
If that sounds overstated, the reaction of the Shakespeare establishment suggests otherwise. Many scholars have traditionally held their tongues on the authorship issue – to defend Shakespeare is to doubt Shakespeare – but the release of Anonymous, and mischievous promotional stunts like the distribution of an educational pack on the subject to US schools, has proved a call to arms. The battle is on for the hearts and minds of the masses.
Spearheading the Shakespearian fightback has been the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, fronted by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Their brutal campaign began on 1st September, two months before the film’s release, and unfolded on several fronts. First came a web conference in which sixty luminaries (including the Prince of Wales, Stephen Fry and Roland Emmerich) responded to the film’s tagline ‘Was Shakespeare a Fraud?’. This was followed by an online seminar, e-book and several articles (including one in these pages) refuting the claims of anti-Shakespearians, with a myth-busting essay anthology from Cambridge University Press to follow in 2013. There was even a slightly counter-intuitive prank, just before the film’s release, involving the covering-up of Shakespeare’s name on pub and road signs.
It has been a passionate defence, but what of its impact? Well, media coverage of the film has been rampant, and the Trust’s pre-emptive strike – stealing a march on the enemy in order to shape the tone of reporting – seems to have paid dividends. A quick trawl through Stuart Ian Burns’ excellent @shakespearelogs Twitter aggregator confirms that the majority of mainstream opinion pieces have rejected Emmerich’s historical meddling, while also throwing up little gems like the story of the students who gathered outside a Pasadena cinema to defend Shakespeare’s honour. By contrast, most anti-Shakespearian coverage has emanated from those associated with the film – typically Emmerich himself, Rhys Ifans (who portrays the Earl of Oxford), and screenwriter John Orloff – or dyed-in-the-wool anti-Shakespearians, defending themselves in the comments below pro-Shakespeare web articles.
The saga is, of course, far from over – there’s still the Blu-Ray to come, and Mark Rylance is promising an in-kind riposte to the SBT’s web conference – but Anonymous feels unlikely to prompt a mass defection to the sceptics, and may even reinforce popular sympathy for Shakespeare’s claim. This impression is strengthened by the film faltering on release, with Sony stemming back its American distribution after poorly-received previews, and takings on both sides of the Atlantic well below par. The latter will doubtless prompt rejoicing at the SBT, even if nothing quite undermines the anti-Shakespeare cause as effectively as the film itself.
Beautifully designed, with sumptuous costumes, sets, and tremendous ‘money shots’ of Elizabethan London, Emmerich’s well-acted, potentially entertaining tale of convoluted court intrigue is hamstrung, simply and fatally, by having to make sense of the Oxfordian theory – a flight of high-concept fancy which proves that not all such stories unfurl as easily as Gulliver’s Travels, or indeed the far fleeter-footed Shakespeare in Love. The film does its valiant best, with a fractured chronology, steady drip of far-fetched revelations, and dutiful ticking-off of motivations for every character, but the illusion doesn’t last beyond the end credits. The house of cards imploded as I walked away, drawing attention to the very improbability of the premise. I emerged thinking it would be fun to believe Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays but, even as I fantasised, I felt ever more certain that he didn’t.
Tags: anonymous, christopher marlowe, david thewlis, earl of oxford, edward de vere, john orloff, mark rylance, mary sidney, paul edmondson, rafe spall, roger manners, roland emmerich, shakespeare, shakespeare birthplace trust, stanley wells, vanessa redgrave, william stanley