by Dr Barry R. Clarke

On 23 November 2014, I attended the Shakespeare Authorship Trust conference at the Globe Theater. Wonderful Shakespearean actors, a day of informative talks on Shakespeare and France, and then came the endgame: a round of five-minute speeches about the claims of different authorship candidates to have originated the entire Shakespeare work.

Two thoughts occurred to me during these expositions. The first was that the speakers all seemed to share an equal conviction that there was a single concealed author and that their man/woman was he/she. This was no superficial conviction either. It was a powerful one, based on years of gathering snippets of evidence in support of their chosen candidate. However, pause to consider that if any of them were correct, it could only be one of them, and in that case the rest must be labouring under a grave misapprehension. In other words, four of the five speakers must have been talking nonsense! … Forgive me! I’m over-simplifying it slightly … well, a lot actually … because I happen to know that one or two of the speakers actually believe that a group of authors were conspiring under the name of Shakespeare. So perhaps they could all have been right. Well, this brings me to my second thought, and this struck me with far greater force than the first. How could they possibly know that their candidate was involved? Connections to the Earls of Montgomery and Pembroke who were dedicatees for Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623), autobiographical references in the plays and sonnets, known visits to France for the background to certain plays, all interesting circumstantial evidence, but the trouble is that a case of this kind can be put together for several candidates and it has been. Clearly this is not the type of evidence that excludes other possible suspects.

So it strikes me that there’s a problem with the standard of evidence and here’s my suggestion. Unless one can show that a candidate’s personal literary idiosyncrasies occur in the Shakespeare work, elements that reveal a uniqueness of thought, then there isn’t much of a case. The suspect needs to have letters and prose works containing rare phrases and collocations that can be compared against the Shakespeare work for correspondence. Ideally, these would be unique matches between the candidate’s canon and the Shakespeare work under investigation. This is a crucial point, because it is the nature of scientific evidence that it strictly narrows the range of possibilities. That is, there needs to be a unique correspondence of some kind.

Of course, we could entertain the hope that the original Shakespeare manuscripts turn up written in a hand that is undeniably that of our favored hero. Surely no one could be deluded enough to believe that this could happen. Think again. There is one investigator who has invested vast resources trying to prove that the manuscripts are buried down a water-logged mine shaft on a remote Canadian island. Oh, dear! Have we really sunk this low?

As access to proper academic resources and techniques gradually reveals more about what actually happened four hundred years ago, then some of these gratuitous ideas will slowly vanish into history, at least, that is my hope.

So, the evidence needs to be more scientific, but who will raise a [middle] finger to help in my quest as I say ‘UFO’ to the religiously entwined … I mean, is there anybody out there?! … Am I really this alone?! …