- The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare
The central thesis of this book is that the works of Shakespeare were secretly written by the diplomat and courtier Sir Henry Neville (ca. 1562–1615), using his contemporary William Shakespeare as a front man. Such an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence, and this book makes some bold promises on that front. The dust jacket of the American edition claims that the book "will forever change the landscape of Shakespearean scholarship" and quotes a review from the Independent calling it "extraordinary" and "backed by a vast amount of startling evidence."1 As one starts reading, however, it becomes apparent that the promised "evidence" is nonexistent or very flimsy and that the book is filled with factual errors, distortions, and arguments that are incoherent almost to the point of parody.
To be fair, many of the book's faults should probably be laid at the feet of Brenda James, who had completed a draft before meeting her coauthor, William D. Rubinstein. Early promotional materials for the book prominently implied that James first heard of Neville when she found his name encoded in the dedication to Shakespeare's sonnets, thus invoking countless cipher-mongering crackpots dating back more than a century. Someone apparently decided that this was not a good idea, so in the present edition talk of the supposed cipher is relegated to a long, defensive endnote (346n37). This edition also contains an afterword in which James complains bitterly about the reception given to the 2005 British edition, contrasting "open-minded" readers to the "completely prejudiced," the latter group including all academic reviewers and any others who pointed out the book's many flaws (253).
These flaws begin when James and Rubinstein attempt to dismiss William Shakespeare's authorship, a necessary prerequisite for any alternative claimant. Here, the authors recycle many of the same aggressively misinformed claims that have been circulating since the heyday of the Baconians a century ago. We are told that Stratford was "a small provincial town" (13) populated mainly by illiterates (in fact, the surviving letters of Shakespeare's Stratford associates are full of Latin [End Page 245] and classical allusions), that Shakespeare did not have the education or the worldly experience to have written the plays, that none of the documentary evidence about Shakespeare links him "unequivocally" (17) to the plays (the First Folio and similar evidence does not count, of course), and that Shakespeare's biography cannot be easily mapped onto the plays in a way that the authors find sufficiently literal. Any interpretation that makes Shakespeare look bad is eagerly embraced, while even the most reasonable inferences about his life and works are treated with extreme skepticism or arbitrarily dismissed. The clear evidence for Shakespeare's authorship is dismissed cavalierly in three paragraphs, where we are simply told that "there must be answers to the questions raised by these points" (32). The authors admit that the massive conspiracy necessary for their scenario is implausible, but they assure us that it "must have occurred, crucially involving Ben Jonson" (33).
When we turn to the arguments that allegedly support Neville's authorship of Shakespeare's works, an extreme double standard becomes evident. In sharp contrast to the authors' hyperskepticism of even ordinary evidence concerning Shakespeare, they blithely invent much less plausible stories about Neville, often presenting these fantasies as factual even in the face of contrary evidence. For example, despite the existence of two dedications to the earl of Southampton signed "William Shakespeare," the authors surprisingly assert that "there is no evidence that Southampton was Shakespeare's patron" (29), by which they apparently mean no documentary evidence apart from the dedications themselves. Based on the documented friendship between Neville and Southampton after 1603, James and Rubinstein invent a close association between the two men in the 1590s, saying that "it is likely that their common interest in literature cemented a deep friendship between them" (98). However, they...