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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.

Film review: Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous

(NOTE: This review first appeared in the winter 2011 edition of Around the Globe. I’m including it here as an addendum to my novel, So Long, Shakespeare.)

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.

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