If you write a book, even a novel, about Shakespeare you must at least consider the theory that Will of Stratford was not the author of the plays. The arguments for that seem nonsensical to me, but they appeal to conspiracy theorists who, a couple of hundred years from now, will probably contend that Joanne Rowling could not possibly be the author of the Harry Potter books because she’s not a recognised authority on owls. Some years ago an amateur troupe staged Twelfth Night in Charleston, South Carolina. A newspaper review next morning struck me as odd because, instead of discussing the performance, the critic wrote a brilliant essay on the authorship debate, but made no judgment on who did write the plays. The last line of the review read, ‘but whoever it was, he turned over in his grave last night’. Splendid.
Ken Ludwig, in his marvellously funny play Shakespeare in Hollywood, advances another crackpot theory of Shakespearean scholarship. The play is loosely based around Max Reinhardt’s famous film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which he directed in 1934 and has the delicious conceit that Oberon and Puck, magically transported from the wood near Athens, mistakenly arrive in Hollywood instead. Ten years ago I played Max Reinhardt in a summer-stock production in Massachusetts and dared not look the actress playing Lydia Lansing in the eye for fear of helpless laughter when she demonstrated her great Shakespearian discovery. Max had advised her to ‘study the text’, which she did and found that Shakespeare’s lines said backwards makes as much sense as saying them forward. ‘You can’t tell the difference!’
This is an extract from Bernard Cornwell’s diary, which appears in this week’s Spectator