Authors: Alan Jacobson
Turner glanced around his damaged gallery. “I don’t have to tell you that this is very upsetting. They almost succeeded in destroying my life’s work—and something extremely important to England’s heritage.”
Vail stole a skeptical look at Reid, then said, “Forgive me for being so direct, but that sounds a bit over the top. What are we talking about here?”
Turner pulled over three metal stools and brushed off the ashes with a handkerchief that he pulled from his breast pocket with a flourish. He slid a seat over to Vail and he and Reid took the others. “A few weeks ago, I purchased a very rare manuscript: an early draft of Shakespeare’s
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
that I believe dates back about 420 years. It was the find of a lifetime. All of us in the rare manuscript business fantasize of finding something of Shakespeare’s, something written in his own hand. Nothing exists with his original writing. But all hope had been given up long ago because of the fire in 1666 that destroyed just about all of London, and so much of our history with it.”
“There’re no handwriting samples?” Vail asked. “Anywhere? No signatures, on a land deed, a bank check, a signed first edition of
Romeo and Juliet
“There are six signatures,” Turner said, not joining in the joke, “and they’re all different. Some could’ve been made by law clerks. But this—this manuscript—is written by hand. Entirely by hand. Goose quill and ink. That’s the way they did it back then.”
“No offense, Mr. Turner,” Vail said, “but I’m an FBI agent, not an archeologist.”
“Please, call me Idris. But you don’t understand my point. I believe that manuscript is the reason for this bombing.”
“Why? Who’d care that you found a manuscript written in Shakespeare’s hand? Wouldn’t that be a great thing?”
“It depends. Most people would be intrigued. But some may not be. Just the opposite, in fact. I believe that whoever is behind this did it to destroy the manuscript.”
“The offender bombed a building in the heart of London’s most posh luxury shopping area, to destroy an old manuscript?” Vail chortled. “I know you British are a bit buttoned down, but that seems extreme.”
“I’m not doing this justice. It would be better if you could talk with John Hudson.”
Vail looked to Reid for an explanation.
“Hudson is a Shakespearean scholar.” Reid consulted his watch. “He was here in London but he’s now back in New York. Middle of the night—I’m sure he’s in bed. But his associate with the Dark Lady Players is still in town.”
“Dark Lady Players?” Vail asked.
“An interpretive/experimental theater group of Shakespeare players out of New York. They just finished a week of performances here in London at the Donmar Warehouse.”
“Can you get his associate on the phone?”
“I can do one better. Let’s see if he can grab a coffee. My sense is that this is best handled in person.”
VAIL AND REID FOLLOWED TURNER to a Costa coffee shop in Piccadilly Circus. It was not too different from a Starbucks in the States; in fact, they had passed a Starbucks along the way.
Costa’s walls featured earth red and brown tones along with contemporary furniture and lighting fixtures. The café was larger than it looked from the outside; it extended far back in a long, rectangular shape, with signs directing patrons to extra seating downstairs.
They took a seat at a table in the middle third of the restaurant while Reid waited in line to get their drinks. A moment later, a man with dark hair and ripped jeans approached them.
“This is Simon Wilkinson,” Turner said. “Simon, FBI Agent Karen Vail.”
“Thanks for meeting me,” Vail said. “I’m a little out of my element and I’m hoping you can shed some light on this whole Shakespeare obsession.”
“Yes, well. As you can probably tell from the way I talk I’m at heart a native Brit. I’ve lived in New York the past fifteen years working with John, so I guess I can give you a good view of what you’re looking at from the British point of view. ‘Obsession’ is a bit strong, but really, not far from the truth.”
“You know about the bombing then.”
Wilkinson laughed. “Everyone in England knows about the bombing. The discovery of this manuscript has gripped the country. When the media broke the story, it caused quite the stir. On a smaller scale, it’s like the Olympics all over again. That’s all that’s been on the television. Blogs haven’t stopped talking about it. Idris and Gavin have been under siege.”
“My curator and resident rare art expert,” Turner said. “Gavin Paxton. He does some restoration, too. He’s very good.”
Reid came over with a tray of squat, oversized mugs. “I took the liberty of getting you a coffee. White, that okay?”
Wilkinson took it off the tray. “You remembered. Perfect.”
“White?” Vail asked.
“White,” Reid said. “With milk.”
“Is it me, or do you Brits have weird ways of looking at things?”
Vail grinned. “Probably right. So. What is it about Shakespeare that enraptures British society—and why is this rare manuscript so important that someone’d be willing to kill over it?”
“Two very good questions,” Wilkinson said.
Two. Wow. In one breath.
Wilkinson turned to Turner. “How much have you told her? The authorship?”
“Haven’t gotten to that yet.”
“Why don’t we start with your first question.” Wilkinson sucked on his bottom lip a moment. “In a sense, Shakespeare is synonymous with England. He’s so deeply steeped in our society and culture that you can’t separate one from the other. Kind of like the monarchy and the Beatles. A few months ago a think tank did a study of which symbols give Britons a sense of pride. Shakespeare scored 75 percent. The monarchy only got 68 percent.”
Vail lifted her brow. “What about John, Paul, George, and Ringo?”
“The ‘Fab Four,’” Wilkinson said, “scored 51 percent. If that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does. Shakespeare’s ingrained in our identity, a tremendous source of national pride, our greatest cultural export.
“Not to mention Shakespeare’s arguably the finest writer of all time. Certainly the greatest dramatist in history. His contribution to literature is unparalleled—he introduced nearly three thousand words into the English language. And when you look at the themes, the story construction in his plays—so much of what we take for granted in storytelling nowadays has its roots in Shakespeare’s writings. Some academics and social psychologists even feel that our understanding of human relationships and emotions comes from his works. The plays and sonnets are an integral part of school curricula, studied by half the world’s children.”
“Okay,” Vail said, “I get why he’s an important figure in English literature. But—”
“Then there’s the financial angle,” Turner said.
“Okay, now we’re talking.”
As in, now we’re talking
motive. “But what kind of financial angle can there still be for old plays? Other than selling books and Cliffs Notes to college students.”
Wilkinson chuckled. “Surely, you can’t be serious.”
“Ironically, this is one of those rare occasions when I am.”
“John—John Hudson—did an estimate and found that Shakespeare is a multibillion dollar enterprise worldwide. Not to mention that an entire city in England is built around the Bard: Stratford-Upon-Avon.”
Vail grabbed a box of chocolate covered espresso beans from the table and peeled open the tab. “Stratford—his birthplace, right?”
“Right. Over three million tourists a year. The house where Shakespeare was born and raised is the main attraction, but everything else, from hotels to restaurants to shopping malls and theaters, all revolve around William Shakespeare and his universally recognizable portrait that’s become a marketing logo.”
“And don’t forget the World Shakespeare Festival,” Turner said.
“I saw the signs,” Vail said. “What’s the deal with that?”
“It’s why you probably had a tough time getting a hotel. Think of it as a cultural Olympics. Millions of people from all over the world are in London to celebrate the Bard. Sponsorships, live performances, concessions, events, exhibitions, lectures. Tens of millions of pounds to be made by lots of businesses and vendors.”
Vail popped an espresso bean in her mouth and crunched. The taste of chocolate and coffee spread across her tongue and was instantly pleasing. “You think there’s something to the timing of your bombing and the festival?”
“I’d be a fool to think it’s a coincidence,” Turner said.
“Okay,” Vail said, “so I get the fact that William Shakespeare is big business, and that he means a lot to your national pride. But what’s your
Midsummer Night’s Dream
manuscript got to do with this?”
“That’d be the authorship dispute,” Wilkinson said.
“Dispute?” Vail asked. “Disputes are always good for murder.”
Wilkinson brought his mug to his mouth and blew on the drink. “Are you aware that there’s disagreement over who wrote the Shakespearean plays?”
Vail looked at him out of the corner of her eyes. “This isn’t a trick question, is it? Like what color was Washington’s white horse?”
Reid laughed. “That wasn’t a trick question.”
“Wait,” Vail said. “That movie. Is that what you’re talking about? I never saw it, but the trailer looked interesting. Something like Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, right? But really. Seems absurd, no?”
Wilkinson set down his cup and paused a moment. “Let’s talk fact, not the fiction of a Hollywood producer’s dream. There are a lot of theories that a different man was the author of the plays. And there are dozens of names on the list, many with proponents who can make a case. But there’s really only a handful that are serious contenders. The people championing these theories are academics, Shakespearean scholars, not some whacked out bloggers who’re trying to make a name for themselves.”
“Okay, so this topic is taken seriously.”
“Extremely seriously. From an academic point of view, the most commonly advanced theories involve Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford; Francis Bacon; and Christopher Marlowe. Each one of these men, as well as a few dozen more, have treatises written about why they are the true authors of Shakespeare’s works.”
“But nothing’s ever been proven,” Vail said.
“No. But keep in mind we’re talking about a very long time ago, and a lot of potential evidence could’ve been destroyed.”
“I’m no English major, but big deal. These plays are over four hundred years old. Is it just me, or does someone really care about whether some guy named William Shakespeare wrote them or if Francis Bacon wrote them and used a pseudonym?”
“Oh yes, very much so. It’s an important matter that’s been debated for over 250 years.”
Vail spread her hands. “I don’t see why. I mean, the financial machine that generates all the money’s gonna be around whether Will wrote ’em, or Francis. Right?”
Wilkinson sat forward in his seat. “You have to understand that entire industries have been built around the concept that the man from Stratford named William Shakespeare wrote the Shakespearean plays. Theaters and academia worldwide are threatened by challenges to that belief, and will do anything possible not to have to face the prospect of their careers being in ruins.
“Just here in England,” Wilkinson continued, “the Stratford-Upon-Avon tourism trade is based on that ‘truth,’ and now you have the World Shakespeare Festival bringing millions into London’s economy. It’d be devastating if it came out that Shakespeare was built around a lie.
“And then you have the British Shakespeare Academy—which cleared £900 million in profit last year. The principles expressed in the plays are overseen, protected, and cultivated globally by that group—with a very firm hand. More so than even the Royal Shakespeare Company. But it’s not just about the plays. It’s about the times the plays were written in, about the monarchy, and just as importantly, the church. One can’t be separated from the other, because they’d lose their context.”
“This is more than merely someone trying to destroy, or even steal, a rare manuscript,” Reid said.
Wilkinson nodded animatedly. “Yes, yes. There are also many aspects to ‘William Shakespeare,’ beyond his writings: his name’s synonymous with Elizabethan English—a close cousin to today’s English. He’s synonymous with England, with our society. To think otherwise is like trying to rewrite the past…pulling the rug out from under a country’s history and, well, its very identity.”
“Google ‘William Shakespeare,’” Turner said, “and you’ll get 100 million results. And among those, you’ll get scholars claiming that Shakespeare was Italian. Or Brazilian. Everyone wants a piece of him.”
“Still,” Vail said, “what matters is the plays, right? They were exceptional stories with themes that are still emulated today. But—and I keep coming back to this—what does it really matter who wrote them? I mean, William Shakespeare was just a name printed on the plays.”
“First of all,” Wilkinson said, “let’s look at this as a UK issue, in the context of the past as well as the present. William Shakespeare was a Catholic Caucasian whose very identity fit—and fits—the identity of the male-centric British society.”
Vail chuckled. “You’ve got one of those too, huh?”
“I think you need to tell her John Hudson’s theory on authorship,” Turner said.
Wilkinson inched his chair closer to the table and lowered his voice. “What if it’s not just that Shakespeare wasn’t written by William Shakespeare? What if it was a
who wrote the plays?”
woman,” Vail said. “I’d think that’d be pretty awesome.”
might,” Wilkinson said, “but the rest of the world might not. And what if she was a woman of color?”
“If that’s not enough, what if that woman of color was not a Catholic but…a Jew?”
“Is that supposed to scare me?”
Wilkinson frowned. “You don’t understand. English society in the Elizabethan era was extremely anti-Semitic: Jews were expelled in 1290 and weren’t allowed to return for almost four
. So there were hardly any Jews there, and hardly any people of color, in England in the sixteenth century. Jews were presented on the Elizabethan stage in a very negative light, in hideous caricature with hooked noses and bright red wigs.
“Point being, England was no place for a black, Jewish woman to write plays that would be performed in public—certainly not ones with concealed religious allegories that were highly critical of the church.”
“So,” Vail said, “William Shakespeare, white bread legend of national and international stature, wasn’t a white church-going Catholic but a black Jewish
I can see that not sitting well with some.
“But that was over four hundred years ago, and my job is to assess the threat as it stands now.”
“Fine. Fast-forward to the present. There’s considerable unrest among a rising minority base in this country. British society is under pressure from an Arab Islamic population that’s growing rapidly. And there’s a substantial population of disadvantaged minorities that are aligned against the white establishment, an establishment that supports the Shakespeare fiction through high-browed elitist organizations like the government-backed British Shakespeare Academy.
“Given everything the government’s dealing with, keeping the peace, if proof emerged that Shakespeare was actually a minority woman it’d almost be too much for the country to bear.” Wilkinson shook his head. “I’m not doing this justice. John Hudson, the man who’s been championing this theory, would do a better job of—”
“You’re doing fine. Keep going.”
Wilkinson leaned back. “If you’re to truly understand the motive behind this bombing, you need to see the whole picture.”
“What’s John Hudson’s role?”
“John’s a Shakespearean scholar and a graduate of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham. A brilliant bloke, really. But he’s not exactly beloved in traditional Shakespearean circles. Actually, anyone who raises the theory that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare is looked upon as so much rubbish. But John’s presented an extremely compelling case. And with the discovery of this
manuscript, Idris’s got something none of the other anti-Stratfordians have ever produced: proof of authorship.”
“Scholars who challenge the notion that William Shakespeare wrote the Shakespearean plays.”
“This manuscript,” Vail said. “I’m beginning to see why I now find myself sitting in a café in London discussing Shakespeare.”
Gotta admit, that’s something I never thought would happen.
“Why’s it so important? How does it provide ‘proof of authorship’?”
“Are you familiar with
A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Vail frowned. “I was no English major, but I’m familiar with the plays—and I’ve seen a number of them performed.”
“This manuscript is an early draft of
, so parts of the story are a bit different, but even more significant, it’s handwritten. There aren’t any known examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting, but we do have samples of writing from Amelia Bassano Lanier—she’s the black Jewish woman I mentioned a few minutes ago. Anyway, in the margins of the
manuscript are notes, some of which outline edits that would ultimately end up in the final
play that was performed at The Globe and later published in the First Folio.”
Vail took a sip of coffee. “Very compelling. Great. So, case closed?”
“John’s ‘case’ was solid
this manuscript surfaced. His proof is based on a scholarly analysis of Amelia’s work, her background and upbringing, and the content and writing style of the plays themselves. He doesn’t need the manuscript. That said, it
the final piece to the puzzle, so to speak, and should help throw water on the critics’ fire. But if you look at the dispute, it largely starts with the fact that William Shakespeare was not a well-educated lad. And he didn’t have the training to write such eloquent prose.”
“So there really was a William Shakespeare.”
Wilkinson chuckled. “Well…truth be told, there was a Gulielmus Shakspere born in 1564. ‘William Shakespeare’ doesn’t appear until 1594, as an actor in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men theater company that subsequently performed a number of the Shakespearean plays. But the name actually appears before that, because Amelia used it as a pseudonym to write under.”
“Why use a pseudonym?” Reid asked. “What’d she have to hide?”
“Plenty. But let’s start with two early works she wrote around 1592—
The Rape of Lucrece
—long pornographic poems. The pseudonym she wrote these under was Will Shakespeare—spelled exactly like we spell ‘Shakespeare.’ Except that in Elizabethan slang, ‘Will Shakespeare’ means ‘prick masturbator.’ Pornographic poems written by a prick masturbator
” He smiled. “It was done tongue-in-cheek.”
“Sounds like she had a keen sense of humor,” Vail said. “A woman after my own heart.”
“Yes, well,” Wilkinson continued, “two years later, after Amelia started writing the plays, she came across an actor named Gulielmus Shakspere and persuaded him to change his name to her pseudonym, William Shakespeare.”
“Why would she do that? And why would Gulielmus agree to name himself a ‘prick masturbator’?”
“Second question first. He agreed to change his name because she paid him to act as a front man for her writings. Actors of that time weren’t like George Clooney or Angelina Jolie. They were like beggars or harlots. Paid very, very little. So when Amelia offered to pay him for merely changing his name and using it on her plays, his decision wasn’t difficult. As to why she used a pseudonym, that’s a much more compelling question. Let’s go back to the plays for the answer. Actually, let me start with a contemporary analogy. Remember
“Whoa,” Vail said, “How’d we go from sixteenth-century Shakespeare to twentieth-century
’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, pitched a sociopolitical commentary drama to NBC in the early 1960s, they flatly rejected him because they didn’t have the stomach to deal with controversial issues like the Vietnam War and the concept of the US interfering in another country’s culture. So Roddenberry set the show in Twenty-third Century outer space, changed the Americans and Vietnamese to alien races, and bang—suddenly the network loved the concept. The disguise worked: the network never got wise to his veiled attempt to tackle these difficult sociopolitical issues that the country was dealing with at the time.”
Vail tossed a couple of chocolate espresso beans into her mouth. “And how does this relate to Shakespeare?”
“John believes that Amelia Bassano Lanier did the same thing. Amelia was the first woman in England to publish a book of original poetry, so she had some standing as a writer. But the Shakespeare plays are filled with religious allegories,
religious allegories that were anti-Christian and anti-church. In fact, many of the plays’ allegories dealt with the church as an apparatus for control. If the deeply couched allegories were discovered, Amelia and her family would’ve been executed. But packaged in cleverly disguised stories—and written under a pseudonym—they were safe from retribution.”
Vail chewed on this a moment, but Reid spoke first. “What was Gulielmus, a dim-witted bloke? He agreed to take on a name that meant ‘prick masturbator,’ and if the Queen saw through the religious allegories in ‘his’ plays, he’d have been killed.”
“Exactly,” Wilkinson said. “Gulielmus wasn’t well-educated, remember? He didn’t recognize the allegories, and he didn’t realize the risk he was taking on. He took the money, so maybe he was the smart one after all. The world thinks he was a literary genius who created legendary works of art.”
“Good point,” Vail said.
“What about Amelia’s education?” Reid asked. “Is there reason to believe she had any more knowledge to write these plays than Gulielmus did?”
“Amelia’s family was made up of Venetian-Moroccan Jews who came to London from Venice. They were all musicians and played Elizabethan stage music for plays that were performed at the English Court.
“Now, it’s reasonable for a Jew from Venice to know both Italian and Hebrew, and a woman from a professional musician’s family to have a knowledge of music. But Gulielmus didn’t know Italian or Hebrew, and yet these languages are utilized in a lot of the plays as clever, complex puns.
“We know that Gulielmus didn’t have a musical background of any kind, yet there are, again, sophisticated musical references throughout the plays. They also contain mentions of hundreds of literary works. Gulielmus would not have been exposed to many, if not any, of these, coming from his modest Stratford upbringing in Warwickshire. He just didn’t have the social context to write the works that are attributed to him. But Amelia did.”
“At Scotland Yard,” Reid said, “I do believe we call that circumstantial evidence.”
“Then here’s something a little more direct for you. Amelia left some clues for us. Years after writing
, she added 163 lines in 1623, when the plays were officially published in what’s known as the First Folio. These lines contain specific references to herself. First, the section that she added expands the part of Amelia, one of the characters in Othello. Second, it includes the ‘Willough Song,’ which repeats the name Willough, Willough, Willough—dying like a swan to music.”
“What’s the significance of ‘Willough’?” Vail asked.
“Amelia’s father died when she was seven, and her mother was very ill. Amelia was adopted by Susan Bertie, the dowager Countess of Kent, and lived with her, her brother the Lord Willoughby, and her mother Katherine Willoughby the Duchess of Suffolk. When Amelia was thirteen or so, she became the teenage mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain. He was the most important man in London’s theatrical life, and would become the patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Remember, I told you a few minutes ago that it was in 1594 that Gulielmus changed his name to William Shakespeare and appeared as an actor in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men theater company.”
“The theater company run by Amelia’s lover,” Reid said.
“Exactly.” Wilkinson warmed his hands around the large white mug. “One other thing to keep in mind: Amelia gave birth to Lord Hunsdon’s illegitimate son, Henry.”
Vail took a sip of her coffee. “Go on.”
“During his research, John identified a pattern of what he terms ‘the swan signatures’ that’s prevalent across all the Shakespeare plays in which the image of a swan dying to music appears. It’s actually a Renaissance image for a great poet. There are two other plays in which it’s mentioned,
—where it’s referring to
, who is John’s son, and in
The Merchant of Venice
, wherein the person the song’s referring to is Bassanio, who’s ‘going to die like a swan in Portia’s tears.’
“Now—one other thing you should know: Amelia’s maternal cousin was Robert Johnson, who wrote music for the playwrights as well as for five Shakespearean romances—including
The Winter’s Tale
“So let’s put this all together and look at what we have here in
: there’s a character named Amelia who sings the Willough song—wherein a swan dies to music. Willough is the name of the family that brought her up after her father died.
“Then in Shakespeare’s play
, the same imagery of a swan dying to music is used, this time with the song referring to Henry, which is the name of both her son and her lover. In the play, Henry is John’s son.
. Johnson is her mother’s maiden name and her cousin’s name. Her cousin wrote music for a number of the Shakespearean plays. So do you see what she’s done?”
Vail put down her mug. “Amelia buried her family names in Othello so that no one except her family would get the inside joke.”
“Right. The great poet, Amelia Willoughby Johnson Bassano. You can run a probability analysis on it. It’s no coincidence.”
“And,” Turner said, “Gulielmus—or William at this point—wasn’t alive in 1623 to write those 163 lines that were added to Othello. Amelia was. And—before you ask—according to my independent expert, although it’s nearly impossible to
a writing sample that’s so small, these lines were written in the same stylistic ‘hand’ as the rest of the play, and consistent with the style of many of the other Shakespearean plays.”
“Another thing to keep in mind,” Wilkinson said, “is that the Shakespearean plays are the most musical plays in the world. They contain nearly two thousand music references.
Taming of the Shrew
contains 110 music references alone—that’s about one every minute.
“Remember, Amelia was brought up in a musical family. It’s only natural she would have a proclivity for writing stories that so elaborately incorporated music into their storylines. By comparison, the other playwrights of her time—Marlowe, or Lodge, or Green—used on average only about eighteen music references in their plays. Gulielmus had no known musical knowledge, let alone any as complex as the writer of the Shakespearean plays clearly demonstrates.