Unmasked: the 'real Shakespeare'

Oct. 10, 2005

EXTRAORDINARY historical evidence suggests Shakespeare's plays were not written by the bard, but by a Tudor politician descended from King Edward III.

British Shakespeare scholar and former university lecturer Brenda James and university historian William Rubinstein propose that the real Shakespeare was Sir Henry Neville, an English courtier and diplomat.

Their research is described as "pioneering" by the chairman of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust, Mark Rylance, artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London.

The claims based on five years of detailed archival research by Ms James and additional work by Professor Rubinstein, of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth reveal a vast amount of evidence suggesting Neville wrote all the plays attributed to Shakespeare.

They will be published in a book due to be launched this month at the Globe.

First, the political content and geographical location of the plays are a perfect reflection of the known travels and adventures of Neville, a highly educated diplomat and politician from Berkshire who lived from 1562 to 1615.

Love's Labours Lost echoes in part the issues discussed specifically at Oxford University when Neville studied there between 1574 and 1579. Many characters in the play were known personally to Neville.

Measure for Measure was set in Vienna, which Neville visited in 1580. A theme of the play laws against immorality reflects specific ideas Neville encountered when he met a Calvinist philosopher there.

Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentleman of Verona and The Merchant of Venice were all set in northern Italy, which Neville visited at length in 1581 and 1582.

According to the research, Neville obtained specific information on the background to Hamlet while visiting Poland, and possibly Denmark itself, where Hamlet was set.

Henry V reflects Neville's journey to France, where he was briefly English ambassador in 1599-1600. Some scenes were written in French, which Neville spoke but Shakespeare did not.

And in Henry IV part II, written just before Neville went to France, a character says towards the end of the play: "I have heard a bird sing" that "we will bear our civil swords" to France.

As a politician, Neville became involved in an unsuccessful revolt led by the Earl of Essex against the government in 1601. Neville was imprisoned in the Tower of London for treason and the tone of the plays changed abruptly from being mainly historical or comic to being predominantly sombre and tragic.

The plays also portray many of Neville's royal and other ancestors John of Gaunt in Richard II, Warwick the King Maker in Henry VI part II and King Duncan of Scotland in Macbeth in a particularly favourable light.

A further piece of evidence is a document, now known to have been written by Neville while a prisoner in the Tower of London, which contains detailed notes, the contents of which ended up being used in Henry VIII.

There are also striking similarities of style and vocabulary between Neville's private and diplomatic letters and the Shakespeare plays and poems. Word frequency analysis also reveals a statistical correlation.

Finally, in a document discovered in 1867, Neville practised faking William Shakespeare's signature. The document, in Neville's hand and with his name at the top, features 17 attempts at various forms of Shakespeare's signature.

The two scholars propose that Shakespeare was Neville's "front man". They suggest Neville could not afford to be seen as the author of the plays because some were politically too sensitive and controversial.

Neville was descended from the Plantagenets, a rival dynasty to the Tudors. His grandfather and great-uncle had been executed by Henry VIII. With such ancestry, he could not afford to be seen writing politically controversial plays.

Richard II, which deals with the forcible deposition of a monarch, was performed in London 40 times immediately before Essex's revolt, and the authorities regarded it as seditious. Shakespeare and his colleagues were questioned by government investigators, but not arrested.

One of the few documents officially attributing the plays to Shakespeare was the First Folio edition, published in 1623. Writer Ben Jonson was involved in putting Shakespeare's name on that first edition. At the time, he was employed by a London college associated with the Neville family.

The scholars believe Jonson knew of the "front man" arrangement and helped promote the fiction of Shakespeare's authorship at the behest of the Neville family, to respect the late Henry Neville's wishes.

They also suggest that the character Falstaff, who appears in four plays, was based on Neville himself. Falstaff was initially going to be called Oldcastle, an antonymic pun on Neville's name (from the French for "New Town").

Significantly, Shakespeare's patron was the Earl of Southampton, one of Neville's closest associates. Shakespeare was also a distant relative of Neville through his mother.

It is through these two connections that Ms James and Professor Rubinstein suggest Neville met Shakespeare and proposed that he become his front man. They argue that Shakespeare directed the plays, acted in them and part-owned the company performing them, but did not write one of them.

Scholars have always been puzzled as to how Shakespeare wrote plays requiring detailed geographical and political knowledge and advanced skills in reading Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and Italian sources, yet ceased his formal education at age 12.

Over the past 130 years, several scholars have proposed controversially that the plays were written by lawyer and scientist Francis Bacon, Tudor playboy and courtier Edward de Vere or even playwright Christopher Marlow, but most scholars believed the evidence has never really stacked up.

In a foreword to the book, Mr Rylance of the Globe theatre says that "if the plays had not been attributed to Shakespeare in 1623, he would be the last person you would imagine able to write such matter".

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