January 24, 2009

The Shakespeare Secret

2 out of 5 stars

People sometimes get mixed up when I tell them I'm working on Shakespearean authorship. Rather than working on the academically fascinating matter of collaborative authorship, early modern repertory practice, the rise of Shakespeare's cultural status and so on, they assume I'm working on the loony fringe: the anti-Stratfordian conspiracy theories, as perpetuated by Mark Rylance et al, that someone else wrote the plays: Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere (the current favourite), Mary Sidney, the Earl of Derby, a conglomerate of some or all of the above.

Well, here's the pulp page-turner which, in all fairness, gives the conspiracies the medium they deserve. The theories make for a good story, and here J.L. Carrell gives them exhaustive treatment while also drawing in the other great 'secret' - the mystery of Cardenio.

In the style of The Da Vinci Code, a modern day scholar finds herself on a treasure trail left by an authority who is murdered in suspicious circumstances. While trying to track down the treasure - the long-lost manuscript of Cardenio - she uncovers evidence of the authorship conspiracy that points towards the plays being written by the conglomerate of four candidates. Meanwhile, a killer tails her, leaving corpses inspired by some of Shakespeare's bloodiest scenes.

The writing isn't the best, even for this genre. It's a stop-start narrative, spending most of its time in libraries; yet these are the most fascinating scenes. The action sequences, and the deaths, feel almost arbritrary, not really providing the sense of danger that they attempt to. Far more effective is the idea that the hidden villains are trying to reach the manuscript first in order to destroy it, in order to prevent any evidence against the Stratford man being a dramatist coming to light. In some ways, this could have worked far better without the shadowy murderer. Oh, and if you've read The Da Vinci Code, the bad guy couldn't be any more obvious.

The research also has some irritating holes. For one: how is it possible that a scholar who wrote her PhD on authorship conspiracies and has such an indepth knowledge of Shakespeare that she even knows the day of the week the Globe burned down, has never even heard of Cardenio? For another, despite having researched at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford, Carrell still claims that there are no First Folios in the town. I also find it amusing to imagine a Shakespeare's Globe that features, in a single cast, leading international movie stars and knighted theatrical legends. Carrell is far more effective, though, in her presentation of the 'evidence' surrounding the authorship controversy, pulling together compelling links and ideas that, however ridiculous, present an undeniably fascinating story.

The book is also rather bardolatrous, in that it's extremely uncharitable towards the writing skills of John Fletcher and the scholarship of Lewis Theobald. It falls into the standard traps that anti-Stratfordians usually do - those of overestimating the plays to such an extent that the hands of 'lesser' people can't be involved in them, and that anything a lesser person touches is immediately worse. Anti-Stratfordianism is a story of cultural and social snobbery, and this book displays similar snobbery towards Shakespeare's contemporaries.

So, why read the book? Well, as an introduction to the authorship conspiracy, and to Cardenio (Carrell has some interesting discussion of the play's social context and possible original plot which, while almost entirely unfounded, is not uninteresting), it's accessible enough and at the very least managed to keep me reading. It also occasionally suggests links and ideas that might have some foundation. I was rather intrigued by Carrell's understanding of Theobald's preface to Double Falsehood, in which he refers to the play being written for Shakespeare's "natural daughter". Carrell reads "natural" as meaning "illegitimate", which hadn't occurred to me - I assumed it just meant one of his known daughters; and if Carrell is right, it's an interesting admission of Shakespeare's humanness at a time when he was being held up increasingly as a moral paragon. (Edit: I'm assured that 'natural', in this context, does indeed mean illegitimate).

The book is available used and new on Amazon for a penny, and it's well worth the money. Fun as a timekiller but, ye gods, don't believe a word of it.

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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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