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William Shakespeare authorship debate

If memory serves, I was in tenth grade when I was introduced to the William Shakespeare authorship debate.

The instigator was Ms. Williamson, and the work in question was Macbeth: it seems there’s considerable doubt as to whether or not Shakespeare wrote one of the witch scenes. It’s widely agreed that the scene reads like a bizarre imitation of Shakespeare, and it doesn’t advance the plot in any way. (I don’t remember which act this scene is found.) Most scholars believe that the scene was added for atmosphere, and instead of cutting it entirely, they’ve left it in the play, with a caveat.

Since college, though, I’ve always taken it for granted that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The reason is quite simple: I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream during my freshman year, and the professor teaching the class was dismissive of the authorship debate. "Who wrote Shakespeare? William Shakespeare." And he left it at that, with the implication–rightly so, perhaps–that ultimately, the debate is pointless, even distracting. The fact is, Shakespeare’s works exist, and if that was good enough for my professor, then it was good enough for me.

Most people familiar with the debate–and with Shakespeare in particular–know that Shakespeare left behind very little evidence about who he really was. Aside from a few trivial legal documents, there’s a virtual silence from the Bard. But this hasn’t stopped biographers: Stephen Greenblatt, in his book Will in the World, used the plays and sonnets to illuminate the author. It made for a fun book, and an interesting examination of his works, though it was entirely speculative–more a love letter to Shakespeare than a serious biography. Yet Greenblatt’s book highlights the problem with finding out anything about Shakespeare: with so little information–correspondence, contemporary accounts–it’s impossible to pin down the man behind the works, so biographers have been forced to speculate (at worst) and deduce (at best).

And so it is with Brenda James and William D. Rubinstein’s The Truth Will Out. They contend that the real Shakespeare was Sir Henry Neville.



The Truth Will Out is ostensibly a biography of Neville, who, even without the Shakespeare attachment, led a pretty interesting life. Born in 1562, Neville matriculated at Oxford and served as a member of Parliament for twenty-eight years. He also served as ambassador to France, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his role in the so-called "Essex Rebellion," wherein the Earl of Essex–one of Queen Elizabeth’s favorites–tried to usurp the throne. Upon the ascent of King James I to the throne, Neville was released from prison, his titles and property were restored to him, and he went about his business, which included supporting the London Virginia Company, which sent out the first British colonists to America. Along the way, he earned the nickname Falstaff; kept company with people like Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon, Henry Wriothesley (the Earl of Southampton and Shakespeare’s supposed patron), and King Henri IV of France. He pissed off Queen Elizabeth I so much that she almost ordered his head chopped off. In the meantime, he managed to get married, raise a large family, learn a bunch of languages (including Italian, Latin, and French), read a slew of obscure, foreign books, and–why the hell not?–write an average of two or three plays a year. (And you thought you were busy.)

It’s interesting, the whole Neville-as-Shakespeare theory, and might even be completely convincing. There are aspects of Neville’s life that conceivably explain a few of Shakespeare’s plays. Of course, the theory isn’t bulletproof, and remains just that: a theory. Neville, given his title and his prominence in English politics, left behind quite a lot of material for any biography: there are contemporary accounts of him and his family tree, and some correspondence still survives. (The authors believe that a page in the so-called Tower Notebook, kept by Neville during his imprisonment, served as a rough draft of sorts for Henry VIII.) Yet even James and Rubinstein, by their own admission, aren’t immune from the speculation that makes up any book about Shakespeare. By examining Neville’s life and matching it with their interpretation of Shakespeare’s works, they believe they’ve found the real Shakespeare.

But have they? Well–not conclusively. The Truth Will Out is thought-provoking, but James and Rubinstein string out such an elaborate case that it’s almost laughable and, at worst, incomprehensible. If the authorship debate was reduced to a Dan Brown novel, The Truth Will Out is what you’d get. The authors applied a code-breaking technique to the strange dedication at the front of Shakespeare’s Sonnets–go ahead and snicker–to back up their case, and they refer, several times, to the "conspiracy" behind keeping the true author of Shakespeare’s works a secret. (The reason? So as not to bring scandal to the Neville family name. Elizabethan playhouses were only one step removed from whorehouses. Imagine a major literary author–Cormac McCarthy, say, or José Saramago–writing a novelization of a pornographic film and you have a good idea of how Elizabethans might’ve viewed Neville’s playwriting.) Despite the documentation regarding Neville’s whereabouts and actions during his lifetime, there’s nothing that irrefutably casts him as the real Shakespeare (Neville never published anything under his own name, for example). Instead, the authors rely on circumstances to make their case. Most notably, they argue that Neville’s imprisonment, lasting from 1601 to 1603, accounts for the "great divide" found in Shakespeare’s works, in which he went from merriment (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor) to profound darkness and introspection (Hamlet, Macbeth). No scholar has been able to definitively explain how Shakespeare’s life–what little we know of it–could produce something like Hamlet, but "posit Neville as the candidate," they write several times, and everything is explained.

Which all makes for interesting interpretation, even if they have to stretch things to make Neville fit. But, as when they describe Ben Jonson’s involvement in organizing the First Folio of 1623, one realizes how much the authors rely on coincidence to show that Neville is Shakespeare: "… [W]hen, in all likelihood, Ben Jonson wrote the preliminaries to the First Folio, he was resident at, and probably employed by, the college founded and endowed by, and named for, Neville’s great uncle" (emphasis theirs). It’s almost certain that Jonson and Neville knew each other–indeed, they may have been good friends–he seems present only to give Neville literary credibility. The authors believe that Jonson may have known that Neville was masquerading as Shakespeare, and that the two men even made a joke of it. Their overall theory doesn’t exactly collapse–they make some good points–but it does get bogged down by the sheer weight of coincidence and digression. As the authors write (unironically), "Without … evidence, it is not surprising that virtually every educated, reasonably well-born man and woman in Elizabethan England has been proposed as an authorship at one time or another." This might be true, but the authors fall into the very trap they disparage: namely, that they have no evidence proving that their candidate is the author of Shakespeare’s works. Their book rests largely on elaborate hypotheses and the questionable dating of the plays–none of which makes for an entirely convincing theory. James and Rubinstein have a good grasp of the authorship debate, but in presenting their case, they reveal the ridiculous lengths scholars will go to find the real Shakespeare.

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