Boyd Tonkin: The confederacy of dunces returns

The week in books

In 1593, animosity in London to the city's rising number of immigrants and asylum-seekers led to rioting. Around this time, the dramatist Anthony Munday co-wrote an epic historical play about Sir Thomas More for Lord Strange's Men, with a heavyweight title role tailor-made for Edward Alleyn.

At its turning-point scene, based on events in 1517, our hero faces down a similar racist mob of rioters. In a wonderful speech, More asks the bigots to put themselves in "alien" shoes, confronting them with the outcome of their prejudice: "Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,/ Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,/ Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,/ And that you sit as kings in your desires.../ What had you got? I'll tell you: you had taught/ How insolence and strong hand should prevail."

As usual, in the fast-moving, co-operative hubbub of the London theatre, other playwrights chipped in with sections of the play: Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, Henry Chettle and the author of this great scene, identified by his manuscript as "Hand D". Now, Hand D has been studied by expert after expert since the early 1870s with a microscopic concentration. The most amazing result of their toil saw the light only this spring. Sir Thomas More has appeared in a new scholarly edition, part of a renowned series. Which series? The Arden Shakespeare.

Actors and audiences have surmised for decades that the Hand D fragments of the play sound exactly like Shakespeare. Now a consensus of specialists backs that attribution, although some dissent lingers. If you care to get technical, the quarrel resolves around the statistical reliability of the Elliott-Valenza attribution tests against other mathematical tools, such as Bayesian coefficients. The methods involved, by the way, have links with the probability theorems that guide the study of false positives and false negatives in medical testing.

But hey, folks, the truth sucks! Why bother your fluffy little heads with this geeky stuff? Hollywood, in the shape of director Roland Emmerich, has spoken. That old Will was just a brainless fraud of a minor-league ham actor. As Emmerich's new film Anonymous claims, a proper English toff wrote all the "Shakespeare" plays: Sir Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

Why do otherwise sane people not only believe total poppycock, but give over so much time – in some cases, their whole lives – to defending their delusions? The non-existent Shakespeare "authorship controversy" only dates from the 1850s. At first it appealed to grisly snobs, when Francis Bacon was the fantasists' preferred candidate to supplant the glover-maker's son from the Midlands who never went to university. Since the 17th Earl took over as the shadowy scribe of choice, this madness has a second motive. De Vere now features as the lonely romantic genius doomed to voice his troubled soul via a clod-hopping puppet from Stratford.



Last year, James Shapiro's superb book Contested Will (Faber) dismantled brick by brick the vast edifice of folly, ignorance and stupidity built up by Baconians and Oxfordians alike. Shapiro kept up a superhuman good humour and forebearance in the face of their systematic denial of the evidence.

He also made clear that a real revolution has transformed our grasp of Shakespeare and his world, via the ever-deeper study of the dramatist as a lifelong collaborator and team-player. From the Henry VI trilogy to Henry VIII, 20 years later, he often wrote with others, and regularly crafted specific roles or complete plays with the resources of his colleagues and his companies in mind. Shapiro doesn't even mention one intriguing hypothesis, from the radical revisionist editor Gary Taylor. He proposes that the swift, gloomy intensity of Macbeth as we have it may be a brilliant director's cut by Thomas Middleton of the longer draft that Will (who did tend to go on a bit) first wrote.

This tumultous reality of lightning-fast teamwork in the backstage (or pub-bench) hothouse of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre strikes me as far more fascinating, and more subversive, than the piffle of conspiracy buffs. For the record overwhelmingly shows that Shakespeare's art not merely tolerated but throve on constant interplay with workmates he needed and esteemed. This is hot news, and big news: the towering genius craved not solitude but solidarity. In this light, the Globe's drama workshop feels more like Steve Jobs's Apple than a plebeian front for some aristocratic closet scribbler. Now there's the premise for a movie I would watch.

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