Just as new theories about who really killed John F Kennedy seem to materialise as often as a re-release of the Beatles greatest hits, so too does the thorny question of who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Hot on the heels of Professor James Shapiro’s Contested Will, came the film Anonymous which maintained that the true author of Shakespeare’s plays was not the bearded wonder from Stratford on Avon but Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
Could one man really have written all 38 plays and more than 100 sonnets? Was it likely that a man who, as far as we know, never set foot outside London, write so authoritatively about Italian cities, Danish court life and Roman politics? How could the son of a lowly glove maker be as familiar with the Elizabethan courts as he was with the works of Plutarch and Hollinshed? These are just some of the questions posed by the Anti-Stratfordians. Surely, they argue, all these plays were actually the output of a man from a less humble background — maybe an aristocrat like the Earl of Oxford or another playwright (specifically they point to Christopher Marlowe).
These are questions that David Lawrence-Young uses as the basis for his ‘literary mystery’ novel Will the Real William Shakespeare Please Step Forward. It begins with a bold declaration from a university lecturer that William Shakespeare was a con man, a faker and a forger. Those words are enough to compel Daniel Ryhope, a fellow lecturer in English literature, to embark on a quest to uncover the truth about the authorship of all those plays and sonnets. Rhyope engages his wife and two friends in his campaign. They meticulously gather information on each of the possible candidates, dissecting and analysing the arguments for and against before reaching some conclusions.
It should have made for a fascinating read. Lawrence-Young is an English literature lecturer himself and a voracious collector of books on the Shakespeare authorship conundrum. So he does know his Shakespeare inside out. We get the benefit of that knowledge through multiple quotes from the plays that are woven into the narrative along with the short resumes of the key points for and against each theory.
The problem is that all this knowledge weighs too heavily in a book which pays only slight attention to the principles of good fiction writing. So we get large chunks of factual information written in a style that could easily have been lifted from an encyclopaedia and introduced in a rather clumsy way — for example, as a list of facts or potted histories of certain historical figures. This problem is compounded by the fact the ‘action’ consists of little more than a bunch of people who do some research, then sit around a kitchen table, drinking coffee and eating cake while they discuss their latest discovery. Daniel and his chums are only sketchily drawn and keep uttering impossibly unrealistic dialogue in which they address each other by first name as if to remind the other person of their identity. Here’s a fairly typical passage:
Twenty minutes later, four of us, Beth having driven over to join us, were sitting around the table tucking into home-made vegetable soup, scrambled eggs, bens and toast and Jenny’s delicious apple pie for which Beth immediately requested the recipe.
‘Not a fantastic meal for my first as a hostess,’ said Jenny but I promise to do better next time when I have more advanced warning.’
‘Fear not, gentle hostess,’ I said, quoting Sir Hugh Evans in the Merry Wives of Windsor. ‘I will make an end of my dinner; there’s pippins and cheese to follow.’
‘No Daniel, there isn’t. There are biscuits and coffee or Earl Grey tea.’
And so, after clearing away the dishes from the table I brought the meeting to order.
Are you still awake after that riveting section of narrative?.
To be fair, Lawrence-Young does try to vary the pace by having some historical figures speak in their own voice; like one of the potential authors, the Earl of Rutland or the Reverend Wilmot the man who first cast doubt about Shakespeare’s authorship. But their voice doesn’t come across with any authenticity.
I wasn’t looking for a fast paced novel in the mode of Jennifer Lee Carrell’s 2007 mystery novel Interred with Their Bones (a dire book in my view). But the initial promise of the first chapter of Will the Real William Shakespeare Please Step Forward, just never materialised and the more I read, the more tiresome the experience became. This would have been much more effective as a work of non fiction; the artifice of a fictional ‘search for truth’ just didn’t work. Now if Lawrence-Young were to write a more academic book about the theories about likely contenders, it would be one I would definitely want to read.
Note: my version of the book was a review copy provided by the publishers via NetGalley