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