The Truth Will Out: unmasking the real Shakespeare by Brenda James & William D Rubinstein

Falstaff tucks into an over-egged pudding

Sue Gaisford
Sunday 29 January 2006 01:00

They may be right. Three documents - the Tower notebook, the Northumberland manuscript and the Strachey letter - can be read in such a way as to support the claim. In addition, the chronological parallels are impressive. Several events in Neville's life coincide with incidents described in the plays: for example Henry V, with its famous French scenes, appeared when Neville was in Paris; he was living near Windsor when The Merry Wives of Windsor was first performed, and he was in a strong position to have read the privately circulated letter describing a shipwreck off Bermuda which is thought to have provided the background to The Tempest.

There are, however, problems. For a start, there is little to associate him with genius. Winwood, an efficient man, preserved Neville's diplomatic correspondence. Although we are told that his style was elegant, no very impressive examples are provided and further research reveals that he was capable of truly grim and interminable sentences. Besides, the case for Neville's choosing to hide behind a pseudonym is weak. He did it, we are told, for four reasons: because he was an MP; in order to avoid confusion with a relative of the same name; so that he might not (in the history plays) be seen to be promoting the claims of his own family to the throne; so as to encourage (in the sonnets) a possible marriage between the Earl of Southampton and Burleigh's granddaughter. The first two reasons prove insignificant and the others make little sense when you learn that his Neville ancestor is vilified in Richard III and that the marriage proposed in the sonnets might have been that of Neville's own son.

The pudding is over-egged. There is some fascinating circumstantial evidence here, but too often the authors undermine their own case with mutually contradictory explanations and exaggerated claims, including the implication of Ben Jonson (whose laudatory poem to the "sweet swan of Avon" prefaces the First Folio) in a serious fraud. And, unfortunately, their book is ill-organised, repetitious and inadequately indexed. Although some impressive original research has been done, there is no bibliography and much rests on an unpublished doctoral thesis written in Ohio in 1974.

Shakespeare is not alone in receiving this kind of attention - in France, for example, there is a movement to promote Corneille as the author of many of the plays attributed to Molière - but, because his recorded life is so sketchy, he has become a prime target. It is a relatively harmless game, but it should be played with restraint and decorum. However good a case is presented, it is simply not true to say that Sonnet 29 was "unquestionably... manifestly and assuredly" written by Neville in the Tower, nor that "Shakespeare of Stratford was certainly incapable of writing any of the works that bear his name".

Such certainty, though often asserted in this book, is seldom proved. Perhaps Flaubert was right when he said that Shakespeare was not a man at all. Instead, "he contained whole crowds of great men, entire landscapes... he was a continent."

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