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Who's That Bard? 

New book threatens to out the real Shakespeare

Thursday, Nov 17 2005
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One can’t in good faith write about the Globe Theatre of London’s Measure for Measure, currently on view at UCLA, without reporting on Brenda James and William Rubenstein’s just-published book, The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare. With potent research and authority, the scholars argue that the provincial and slightly educated William Shakespeare — an alderman’s son and grammar-school graduate — couldn’t have written many of the worldly plays such as Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, or even Measure for Measure, that have been attributed to him. That Shakespeare might have been a front man for a mystery scribe is not breaking news, and now James and Rubenstein have added a little-known English diplomat and courtier named Sir Henry Neville to the list of candidates suspected of writing Shakespeare’s plays. (Others in that club include Ben Jonson, Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere and William Stanley.) To readSteven Leigh Morris' accompanying review of Measure for Measure click here. Some salient facts: Neville and Shakespeare lived and died within years of each other — the former from 1562 to 1615, the latter from 1564 to 1616. Shakespeare’s friends and family spun in Neville’s circle: Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, was a relative; Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, was one of Neville’s associates.Then there’s the matter of the plays themselves, their locales and content. Unlike Shakespeare, Neville visited all of the countries in which Shakespeare’s plays are set. Notes taken by Neville in those countries appear to form the basis of ideas that show up in Shakespeare’s plays. Henry V, written when Neville was the English ambassador to France, contains entire passages in French — a language that, unlike Shakespeare, Neville spoke fluently.As to why Neville would need to write incognito, James and Rubenstein argue that Neville was a Plantagenet, whose clan was in conflict with the ruling Tudors. In fact, he was involved in a rebellion that landed him in the Tower of London for treason. A theatrical version of notes he took while in prison shows up in Henry VIII. Though that Tudor king beheaded Neville’s grandfather and uncle, Neville’s life was spared. He, too, might have been hanged had his authorship of, say, Richard II, been presumed. Finally, James and Rubenstein present as evidence a document discovered in 1867 containing Neville’s 17 practice-attempts at forging Shakespeare’s signature. In the book’s foreword, the Globe Theatre’s artistic director and star, Mark Rylance, expresses his fascination with the thesis and his desire to explore it further.

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Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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