Today sees yet another round of stories about a claim to have discovered the real author of Shakespeare’s plays. Today’s candidate is Sir Henry Neville. A book claiming he is the author is about to be released by Brenda James and William Rubinstein.
The evidence for Neville being the author seems to be the following.
- If you trace which Shakespearean play came out in which year, the location of the plays tends to follow Neville’s movements around the country fairly well.
- Neville was familiar with details of court life in a way Shakespeare was not.
- Neville spoke French, unlike Shakespeare, and some scenes of Henry V are written in French.
- Neville’s ancestors, Plantagenets, are always favourably depicted in the plays.
- When Neville was imprisoned in the Tower for his part in Essex’s rebellion, the plays suddenly turn from being light to being sombre. (As an aside, I wonder how on earth Neville escaped with his head if he played a role in the rebellion. There is probably an interesting story there.)
- Allegedly his notes in the Tower contain ideas that are used in Henry VIII.
- Neville, unlike Shakespeare, had access to a detailed story of the Bermuda shipwreck of 1609, which seems to be the base of The Tempest.
- Alleged similarity of styles between Neville’s private letters and writing attributed to Shakespeare.
That all seems reasonably interesting, but it would be nice to see more by way of criticism of this claim. After all, it seems unlikely that James and Rubenstein are the first to have floated Neville as a name. And some of the points of evidence, particularly Shakespeare’s unfamiliarity with the court or the continent, have been hashed out many times before. But the stories read basically like press releases for James and Rubinstein. The only dissenting voice I saw comes from Professor Bate, a governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“These arguments always fall back on verbal parallels, which never stand up,” he said.
Well that’s not true. Arguments from verbal parallels are exactly how it was discovered who wrote Primary Colors, for example. So I wouldn’t dismiss such arguments out of hand. It still does seem fairly speculative to me, with a fair bit of just-so storytelling along the way. And in a small world like the aristocracy around that time, everyone knows everyone so there are plenty of prima facie plausible just-so stories to be told. So I’ll be waiting for more details than the press releases, and for the responses from expert critics, before giving up on the Bard.