Where's William? ; Sarah Smith's New Novel Searches for the Real Bard over Two Continents and 400 Years of Letters, Manuscripts, and Forgeries

Article excerpt

For me, the controversy began in 1987 when I heard Dr. Nicholas Knight give a lecture about how he discovered one of William Shakespeare's signatures. The undergraduate audience reacted with a shrug until he added that he'd also been Christopher Reeve's freshmen comp teacher - then there was a shiver of excitement. But what struck me was the extraordinary value of Shakespeare's signature: $1 million.

I had assumed that whole manuscripts of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets were sitting in glass cases somewhere in England. In fact, nothing in the great playwright's handwriting has ever been found, except for half a dozen signatures with various spellings. "Alas, poor world, what treasure hast thou lost!"

Literary scholars study these little slips of evidence like criminal investigators, drawing the dimensions of Shakespeare's life from the chemistry of his ink, the slant of his down strokes, the fiber of his paper. Dr. Knight insisted that these clues come together with other snippets of biographical information to prove that Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets.

That was my first indication that anyone was questioning Shakespeare's legitimacy, and like all students of English literature, I learned about this controversy only by being told that there really is no controversy - the way geologists might joke about the Flat Earth Society.

Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon died in 1616, after a run as England's most popular playwright. A would-be biographer, James Wilmot, raised questions about his authorship in the 1780s and suggested that Francis Bacon might have been the real Bard. Various 19th-century luminaries expressed sympathy for the Bacon thesis, including Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud, who should have remembered that sometimes a Shakespeare is just a Shakespeare.

In the 20th century, the anti-Stratford crowd shifted toward Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), as the likely author of those immortal scenes. But the argument remained essentially the same: If Shakespeare was so prominent a playwright, why can't we find more contemporary evidence of his existence? And what's more, how could Shakespeare, the common son of a glovemaker, possibly have known law, medicine, court manners, Italian, sword fighting, sailing, philosophy, sports, astronomy, botany, music, and the whole glorious world that appears in his alleged canon?

As Shakespeare - or whoever - would say, my introduction "is too long by half a mile," but readers of Sarah Smith's smart literary thriller, "Chasing Shakespeares," will need this background on the "authorship question" to keep up with her.

The narrator is a self-effacing graduate student named Joe Roper. He's a hick from Vermont whose love of the Bard has drawn him through college and into graduate school on a hard trail of work- study programs and scholarships.

The story opens as he's sitting in a special room in the Northeastern University library sorting through an enormous collection of recently donated Elizabethan material - all forgeries. "Opening one of these archival envelopes," he says, "had started to be like putting your hand into a potato barrel and feeling something furry. …