BOOKS SHAKESPEARE: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by John Michell

Who Wrote Shakespeare? by John Michell, Thames & Hudson pounds 16.95. The Man from Stratford left not a single manuscript, literary relic, or even a book in his will; his tomb effigy originally clutched a sack (the quill-pen was added during 18th-century renovations); his death, unlike those of Jonson, Spenser, Fletcher and Chapman, inspired no public lamentation or dedicatory verses. Afterwards, no one thought to interview his surviving relatives. Records left by his friends and collaborators are frustratingly opaque, but then we are dealing with the greatest riddlers, wits and punsters of the age, or of any age. Ben Jonson wrote a fulsome elegy for the First Folio, unhesitatingly attributing the plays to the Man from Stratford (here called Shakspere), but even this is full of ambiguities. "Thou Starre of poets", Jonson called him, but Poet + aster (Greek for star) = Poetaster. Other oddities outlined, if not resoved, in this hugely entertaining and non-committal survey include: the status of the "birthplace" (the Trust was once sued under the Trades Description Act); the Stratford cult ("a pious fraud"); the clues in the plays (was Shaggers a lawyer, a seaman or a soldier?); the other candiates - Oxford, Marlowe, Bacon, Queen Elizabeth I, ad infinitum; and whether the Droeshout portrait in the First Folio shows two left arms and a mask. So do the Stratfordians have a case to answer? Undoubtedly. There's something here to amuse, infuriate and perplex even the most devout Bardolater.

Right: Henry VIII staged in 1831, taken from The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre, ed John Russell Brown, pounds 25

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