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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.

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It’s made of paper, and it’s got a back

I’m very proud to say that my first novel, So Long, Shakespeare, is now available as a paperback from Amazon.

A genre-busting mash-up of Shakespeare, Star Wars and The Famous Five, ‘SLS’ tells the tale of an Oscar-hungry Hollywood film-maker who accidentally makes a world-changing discovery about Shakespeare. With global culture thrown into disarray, it falls to a maverick group of British eccentrics to put things right. In so doing, they discover that not everything is quite as it seems…

The novel grew out of a fascination with those who argue about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But it soon evolved into a fast-paced adventure mystery which has already had several readers complaining to the author after the book caused them to miss their tube stops.

So Long, Shakespeare is also available as Kindle eBook, priced at a measly £1.99. What’s more, for a limited time, Amazon Prime members can borrow it for free. The paperback is a trifling £7.19.

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 (framescourer.blogspot.com) 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.

Bard to the future

One of the weird things about writing a novel set in the near-future was watching real life catch up with the imagined world of my story. It’s probably not a problem for more outlandish visions, but since So Long, Shakespeare depicts a future just one or two steps advanced from where we are now, there was always a slight fear that reality might overtake fiction if I didn’t get a move on.

The two most susceptible strands of my plot related to the discovery that artistic creativity is a genetic absolute. As yet, of course, there is nothing but speculation as to the possibility of this, or indeed its potential implications. In my novel, however, the discovery happens pretty much at the start, before being dramatically addressed in two ways. There’s the mathematical angle, whereby a stubborn Stratfordian accidentally uncovers the numerical manifestation of the creative gene at work – a constant which occurs throughout every writer’s oeuvre, which he dubs the ‘Muse Ratio’. And then there’s the more direct approach, whereby an acclaimed geneticist not only discovers the creative gene but deduces how to transfer it from one human being to another.

In the end, by treating the ‘creative gene’ as a given, I created a firewall which prevented any present-day developments from overlapping too closely with the events of my book. Instead, those news stories which did resonate – for example Brian Vickers’ 2009 Pl@giarism analysis on the likely authorship of Edward III – spurred me on. A degree of realism, after all, was exactly what I was aiming for; as long as it didn’t make my central premise redundant, I was more than happy to embrace it.

Now the book is out in the big wide world, I can relax at last. Henceforward, whatever truths are discovered about the nature of creativity need not concern me. My story is of its time. Even if its predictions are shown to be way off the mark, it will still have merit as a historical artefact, to be filed alongside hoverboards and Judgement Day as remnants of imagined futures that never came to pass.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying I no longer experience that creeping dread when a news story touches on ideas explored in my novel. Quite the contrary. When yesterday I heard of David Reid’s report on the BBC’s ‘Click’ programme about computer programmes that replicate the styles, and arguably even souls, of great artists, I was only too happy to track down the link, take a look for myself, and simply savour the possibilities of what it had to say.

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.

Dulwich Books of West Dulwich - 6 Croxted Road, SE21 8SW - 020 8670 1920

Winner Best Independent Bookshop UK & Ireland 2014

Transpontine

NOVELIST

Lonely Shopping

Shopping and socialising in Croydon in the '70s and '80s

Palace Stories

The Crystal Palace Podcast

THE CRYSTAL TRIANGLE

A LONDON VILLAGE WITH SIMILAR POWERS TO THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE. ALSO KNOWN AS SE19

Self-publishing adventures

practical tips from Karen Inglis

Campbell Edinborough

theatre-maker, writer, teacher

CATHERINE RYAN HOWARD

She turns coffee into books so she can afford to buy more coffee. And more books.

colleen e. kennedy

shakespeare & smells

1 Story A Week

Short stories to make you laugh or think. The world needs more of both.

shakespeareauthorshiproundtable

The play's the thing... but not the only thing.

IanVisits

NOVELIST

CheyneyK

NOVELIST

Cheyney Kent

Working in singing