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The Truth Will Out, Unmasking the Real Shakespeare

by Brenda James and William D. Rubinstein. Harlow, England: Longman, 2005. (360 pages)

A book review by Ramon Jiménez

Hard on the heels of half a dozen biographies published just this year about the author of the Shakespeare canon, whoever he was, comes yet another, this one confidently revealing the name of the playwright-Sir Henry Neville, a politician and landowner who, the authors claim, chose for his pseudonym the name of a distant kinsman whom he paid well to be his “operative in the theatre.” Brenda James, a Warwickshire native and sometime lecturer in English at Portsmouth University, and Dr. William D. Rubinstein, a New Yorker now teaching modern history at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, have put together an attractive and highly-publicized brief for the first new candidate for the authorship in several decades. They have brought new documents to light and assembled a host of facts, and more than a few speculations, to support their claim that Neville, who was England’s Ambassador to France for two years until May 1601, began writing history plays around 1590 and, over the next twenty years, produced the entire Shakespeare canon, including the narrative poems and the sonnets.

Those who do not believe the Stratford theory will be pleased to find in The Truth Will Out another stinging demolition of the argument that the Warwickshire businessman with ambiguous theater connections wrote the plays and poems that bear his name. Throughout the book, the authors frequently refer to the yawning gap between the biography of Shakespeare of Stratford and the manifest education, knowledge, and experiences of the author of the canon. On the other hand, they summarily dismiss the claims of all other candidates-Bacon, Marlowe, Stanley, Rutland, Mary Sidney, and Edward de Vere.

The case for Neville rests on two categories of evidence. In the first are his dates, his social class and circumstances, and his experiences, all of which appear to comport with those of the author of the canon. In the second category are his alleged associations with several Elizabethan documents, one discovered by the authors themselves.

At best, Sir Henry Neville’s dates (c1562-1615), circumstances, and experiences do not rule him out as the hidden Shakespeare. He was related to several noble families, was educated at Oxford, and became a Member of Parliament at age twenty-two. As a teen-ager he spent four years on the continent, visiting France, Germany, Vienna, and Italy, although only Padua, Venice and Rome are mentioned in Italy. He also paid a brief visit to Scotland. As a wealthy courtier and then Ambassador to France for two years, he was familiar with the intrigues and personalities of the court and with the political and social issues of the time. Neville was something of a scholar and a linguist who, the authors claim, “was fluent in French and Spanish, and was able to read Italian, German, and Dutch,” as well as Latin and Greek.
But after this, the fit between Neville and the author of the canon begins to break down. To account for Shakespeare’s knowledge of the law, the authors first minimize it, and then explain that Neville, although never trained in the law, “was continuously immersed in legal matters, especially those concerning real estate and local government.” The single lame assertion that Neville “might have gone frequently to London, and it is highly probable that he would have visited the local theatres” is the only biographical information offered to connect him with plays or the theater. (On this score, it appears that there is more evidence for the Stratford man.) Shakespeare’s considerable knowledge of ships and maritime language is explained with this sentence: ” . . . it is difficult to believe that as a young man Neville did not take an interest in the trading vessels of the great Gresham mercantile enterprise which must have been very prominent in the port of London.” Neville’s mother was a Gresham, a great-granddaughter of James Gresham, founder of the family’s trading company.

The most important episode in Neville’s life was certainly his involvement in the futile Essex plot and rebellion of 1600-1601. Neville was arrested, tried, convicted, deprived of his office of Ambassador, fined £10,000, sent to the Tower, and barely escaped execution. He and the Earl of Southampton, Neville’s “lifelong friend and political ally,” were the only two Essex conspirators neither executed nor freed. The two remained in prison for almost two years until the accession of James I, who released them both. Neville eventually regained his property, escaped the bulk of his fine, and returned to Parliament. But he spent the rest of his life trying to recoup his financial and political fortunes.

Considering the biography that the authors present, Neville’s interests, aspirations, and activities do not seem to be those of a writer, much less of a thoroughgoing man of the theater. The authors admit that his “major ambition in life was to gain high political office.” It seems hardly credible that the conservative and Royalist author of the Shakespeare canon would take part in a conspiracy against Elizabeth, a legitimate queen for over forty years. It is also significant that the authors cannot cite a single verse, poem, sonnet, play, masque, or even a prose work that has come from the quill of Sir Henry Neville, except, of course, the Shakespearean oeuvre, which he chose to conceal. However, none of the above facts disqualifies Neville outright. What might be, according to the authors, direct evidence that he was Shakespeare is to be found in several Elizabethan documents.

The Documentary Evidence

The most interesting new evidence offered in The Truth Will Out is the so-called “Tower Notebook,” a manuscript of nearly two hundred pages composed in the late 1590s and consisting mainly of extracts copied from various historical sources about “personal services” provided to English monarchs, especially at coronations. Some extracts have been annotated in a different hand, “presumably but not certainly another man,” one in particular with twenty or so sentences and phrases describing what was apparently the coronation of Anne Boleyn. The authors point to the occurrence of several of these phrases in the opening Prologue of Henry VIII, and in four different places in Act IV, sc. i, which describes the coronation of Anne Boleyn. The “Tower Notebook” was “discovered in the course of researching this book” among a group of manuscripts deposited in the Lincolnshire Record Office in 1954 by a family in a direct line of descent from Neville’s second daughter. The authors claim that it is a compilation or composition by Neville himself, or dictated by him to a scribe, and that it demonstrates that he wrote Henry VIII, or most of it, while in the Tower. They do not mention the fact that most modern scholars assign large portions of Henry VIII to John Fletcher, including all of Act IV.
Another document advanced in support of Neville is the well-known copy of Hall’s Chronicle (1548) that contains several hundred marginal annotations made in the sections on the reigns of Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI by an unknown commentator who used three different styles of writing. Hall’s Chronicle is accepted by many scholars as a major source for several of Shakespeare’s history plays. The authors attempt to connect this book with Sir Henry Neville by pointing out that the letters “Eed” on a label pasted inside the cover (actually “EEd”) are similar to the letters “App” that have been found on a similar label in a book published in 1591 and owned by a Robert Worsley. This Worsley may have been the Sir Robert Worsley (1669-1742) who was a descendant of Neville’s second daughter. He owned a large library and lived at Appeldurcombe on the Isle of Wight, hence the “App.”

As evidence for the connection to Neville, the authors have unearthed one Richard Edes (or Eedes, as they spell it) a clergyman and sometime poet and playwright who was an acquaintance of Neville. In a 1583 poem, Edes referred to Neville as “distinguished for his book-learning.” Thus, Richard Edes (1554-1604) must have owned the copy of Hall’s Chronicle with the “EEd” label in it and loaned it to Neville, who made the annotations, and then wrote the plays, etc. But Alan Keen and Roger Lubbock, authors of The Annotator, report that the “EEd” in this copy of Hall’s Chronicle was probably the pressmark of a large library, and had been inserted when the book was rebound, c1700. Furthermore, Keen and Lubbock describe the annotator as having a strong Catholic bias. Sir Henry Neville was “a staunch Protestant.” Thus, the connection between the mysterious Hall’s Chronicle and the Elizabethan Richard Edes, and Sir Henry Neville, described by James and Rubinstein as “virtually certain,” dies away.
Possible evidence for Neville’s literary interests is the familiar cover page of the so-called Northumberland Manuscript that was discovered in 1867 in a London mansion. The twenty-two page manuscript itself is a collection of essays and speeches by Francis Bacon, a letter by Philip Sidney, and other miscellaneous items. On the cluttered cover page are dozens of scribbled words and phrases (many in Latin), titles of essays and plays (including Richard II and Richard III), a garbled line from Rape of Lucrece, and several names, such as Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare (in various spellings), Thomas Nashe, and “Nevill” (sic). The authors describe it as probably “the cover of a folder used to hold or catalogue some sixteenth-century literary works.” Because Neville’s name is at the top of the cover page and his family motto (ne vile velis, “no vile intentions”) and a poem about it appear below it, they claim that the manuscript belonged to him and that it means he is the author Shakespeare. But even if we could be sure that Neville had done the scribbling, the most it would mean is that the man had literary interests.

Neville and the Authorship

The authors undertake to answer four questions about Henry Neville with respect to the Shakespeare authorship: Why did Neville decide to write plays? When did he begin? Why did he use a pseudonym? What was his relationship to William Shakespeare of Stratford?.
There are simply no facts to answer the first question. Since Neville lived primarily in two country homes in East Sussex and Berkshire, the authors are forced to speculate that when he visited London he “was temporarily away from his normal haunts,” that “he was bored,” and “felt an intense creative urge.” They also suggest that Neville was so concerned about the possibility of civil war that he was determined “to prevent such warfare from breaking out again” and turned to the theater as “an obvious way to influence the population to reject any arguments over dynasties.” On the other hand, two pages later they claim that in Shakespeare’s history plays Neville was “writing in considerable measure about his own ancestors,” and “might well be seen as advocating the claims of his own family to the throne, or at least failing to support the Tudor dynasty.”

As for when Neville began to write, the authors can do no more than suggest a date near the time that orthodox scholars claim that William of Stratford began to write, that is, around 1589. It boggles the mind to be told that the world’s greatest dramatic genius was, in 1589, a twenty-seven-year-old Member of Parliament who “had an eye to becoming a writer.” The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 may have been the event “that gave Neville the nerve and motivation to begin writing.”

Several reasons are advanced for Neville’s use of a pseudonym. Men of his class did not write for the public stage. Also, there was his distant cousin, another Henry Neville (c1575-1641), and our author may “not have wished to cause any confusion between the two” and embarrass his kinsman. Thirdly, the author of Venus and Adonis and seventeen sonnets urging the Earl of Southampton to marry Elizabeth Vere may not have wanted his true identity known for fear of compromising Lord Burghley, the man who asked him to write them. Lastly, the history plays “might well be looked at very closely indeed for their partisanship, even for possible sedition.” “Evidently, Neville thought that there was no point in inviting trouble when he could write under a pseudonym.”

What led Neville to use “William Shakespeare” as a pseudonym? It turns out that he and Will were distant relatives through a generations-old connection between the Ardens and the Beauchamps, Earls of Warwick. When Neville met the Stratford villager, he was happy to employ him as his “well-placed front man and factotum on the London stage.”

Playwright in the Tower

It is on the basis of the evidence summarized above that the authors claim that Sir Henry Neville wrote the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare. Although they reject the Stratford Shakespeare and make merry with the paucity of information about him, they give great weight to the match between Neville’s dates and those alleged by orthodox scholars for the writing of the plays. Thus, they identify Neville’s conviction and imprisonment as the “great divide” in his dramatic career, after which he turned away from Italianate comedies and “triumphalist histories,” to darker, more cynical, works. After dashing off up to ten history plays, as well as a dozen others during the 1590s, including Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, and Twelfth Night, Neville suddenly found himself “faced with the worst public and private catastrophe of his life.”

In the Tower, “with abundant leisure time,” he took up his quill again, but now with disappointment, bitterness, and doubt. The authors date Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well that Ends Well, and “possibly” Othello to the two-year period of his confinement. “It seems as certain as it is possible to be about this subject, in view of our present knowledge, that Neville wrote Hamlet in the winter of 1601-02 while incarcerated in the Tower, and that it concerns the Essex rebellion and Neville’s response to it.” Hamlet, they say, “was meant to be a blending of Essex and Neville himself.” Inconveniently, The Merry Wives of Windsor is also dated to 1601-2, but the authors suggest that “Conceivably, Neville wished to escape his misery with ribald, subversive, slapstick comedy . . .”

In the five years after his release, Neville completed six tragedies, including Macbeth, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra. In 1609 he finished Cymbeline-”its somewhat hackneyed apparatus [being] the product of Neville’s preoccupation with parliamentary matters and his own personal finances at this time.”

As a director and investor in the second London Virginia Company, the enterprise that founded the famous Jamestown colony in 1607, Neville was in a position to see the letters and accounts of its travails (the Strachey Letter and The True Declaration) that were allegedly sent back to London in 1610. According to the authors, the evidence that he used these accounts in his “farewell to the theatre,” The Tempest, in 1610-11 is “so overwhelming as to be irrefutable.”

Far from “irrefutable,” this claim has been dubious for years, and recent research casts strong doubt on the use of any seventeenth century sources in The Tempest.

Shake-Speare’s Sonnets

The opaque and haunting sonnets of Shakespeare and their mysterious dedication have fueled more speculation and theorization than any other work in the canon, but the analysis presented in The Truth Will Out is decidedly spotty. As regards the dedication, the authors point out that publishers didn’t ordinarily write dedications, although Thomas Thorpe had done so twice before-on both occasions for books by authors who were dead. “In contrast,” they claim, “the author of the Sonnets was of course alive and well.” This is an example of the startling line of reasoning they often use.

They then try to connect the Sonnets’ dedication to the granting of the royal charter of the second London Virginia Company on May 23, 1609, just three days after Shakespeares sonnettes was entered in the Stationers’ Register. It turns out that the author of the dedication was Sir Henry Neville himself, and the “onlie begetter,” in the sense of “inspirer,” was his fellow investor in the Virginia Company, Henry Wriothesley. The authors assert that a “deep friendship” had developed between the two men even though Wriothesley had testified against Neville at his trial for treason in 1601. “. . . the Sonnets were probably intended as a ‘thanks-offering’ offering [sic] by Neville to Southampton to mark a likely upturn in his financial fortunes and perhaps in the financial fortunes of both.” Neville’s use of the phrase “our ever-living poet,” normally applied “only to the living or to God,” was meant to convey the thought that his career as a poet was over. To top off this analysis, the authors explain that “‘Mr. W. H.’ must have been Neville’s affectionate nickname for Southampton,” but since they were both named Henry he “might have reversed his friend’s initials so that there was no confusion as to which Henry was which.” They dismiss the possibility that ‘Mr. W. H.’ was William Hall, the candidate of many Oxfordians, as “purely speculative and lacking in any plausibility.”

To explain the first seventeen “marriage” sonnets, the authors propose two possible scenarios. First, Henry Neville, on commission from Lady Southampton or Lord Burghley in 1589 or so, might have written them to urge Southampton to marry Elizabeth Vere. Since by 1609 Neville and Southampton had been through so much together, “The younger man might well have regarded the publication of these old Sonnets, so many years later, as a well-intended joke rather than as an unwelcome and impudent reminder of the distant past . . .”

The second scenario has Neville, in difficult financial straits, writing the “marriage” sonnets in 1608-9 to his own eldest son, also named Henry, urging him to marry the daughter of Sir John Smyth, a wealthy knight from Kent. “This would account for the intensity-indeed the sheer desperation-of the tone of these sonnets . . .” Young Neville apparently took his father’s advice and married the girl even before the sonnets were published.

Some other suggestions by the authors: Neville wrote Sonnet 29 (When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes) and Sonnet 30 (When to the sessions of sweet silent thought ) to Southampton while both were in the Tower. He wrote the bitter Sonnet 111 (O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide, / The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds) to Southampton complaining of James’ treatment of him (Neville) after he was released in 1603. Neville addressed the well-known “canopy” sonnet (125) to King James in 1604-5. It is true that Neville was one of the Barons of the Cinque Ports-the traditional bearers of canopies over monarchs-but the Barons were not the only bearers of canopies, and nothing else in the sonnet supports this interpretation.

The two most common questions about the Sonnets’ publication are disposed of in a single, but contradictory, paragraph. Neville “had a good deal of leisure time” in prison to write the sonnets, and the volume “was certainly authorized . . . and . . . published with his approval.” On the other hand, “its many typographical errors [suggest] that it was hurriedly produced by Neville.”

The authors confess that they cannot identify the Dark Lady, but note that Neville’s wife, Anne Killigrew Neville, “was Cornish and was therefore presumably dark-haired.”

The explanation of the why and who of the First Folio proceeds along the same lines. There was a continuing need for a pseudonym because “the political implications of the plays had to be deflected” from Neville. Moreover, “there were still other aristocratic Sir Henry Nevilles alive at the time,” and “the then patrons and publishers would not have wished there to be any confusion concerning these men.”

Ben Jonson is confirmed as the putative editor of the First Folio, and there is a “strong likelihood, amounting to a near certainty, that he was paid to do so by Neville’s family.” Jonson knew Henry Neville (they both belonged to the Mitre Club), and had praised him in an epigram published in 1616. In it Jonson contrasted Neville’s virtue with his lack of honors, but didn’t mention plays, poetry, or any kind of writing. As evidence of Jonson’s association with the Neville family, the authors offer the fact that at the time of the Folio’s publication Jonson was a resident at Gresham College, which had been founded and funded, and named, for Neville’s great uncle, Sir Thomas Gresham.

Neville vs. de Vere

In almost every category of evidence, such as literary reputation, personal circumstances, and theatrical associations, the biography of Oxford is superior to that of Neville with respect to the authorship question. His descendants’ connections to the Herbert brothers, dedicatees of the First Folio, are far stronger than those of Henry Neville’s family. Even Oxford’s familial relationship with William of Stratford was closer than Neville’s. Yet the authors blandly assert that Oxford “could not have written Shakespeare’s works, and no plausible evidence exists that he did.” They repeat the Stratfordian mantra that “The greatest single stumbling block to accepting the Oxfordian case is that he died in 1604, and around 11 of Shakespeare’s plays appeared after that date.” They don’t address the fact that three or four previously unknown plays appeared in the First Folio in 1623, eight years after Neville’s death. The last straw might be the gratuitous reference to Oxford’s “notoriously violent and quarrelsome personality” in contrast to that of “the scholarly, introspective family man Neville.”

In the end, the case for the newest Shakespeare authorship candidate is a ragbag of small facts, scattered coincidences of names and phrases, and dozens of weak and questionable speculations. It fails to cohere as a usable authorship theory, and it is not likely to improve with further research. It is the type of thing that we are accustomed to hearing from Stratfordians about their candidate’s connections to the plays and his motives for writing them.
But despite its failure to make a convincing argument for Neville, The Truth Will Out is well worth a few hours of attention as a view of Elizabethan history from a different perspective. The writing is crisp and smooth and only occasionally redundant. Documentation is supplied in more than five hundred endnotes, and the book is well-indexed, but, unfortunately, there is no bibliography. After the first citation of a book, subsequent endnotes consist only of the author’s last name (Hasler, Cockburn, Duncan, for instance), and the reader must search back through the endnotes to find the first citation.

The Truth Will Out is bound to attract more attention to the authorship question and it will make the Stratford theory look even more untenable. The authors have dealt a setback to orthodoxy, but their Neville theory is only slightly better. The case for the Earl of Oxford as Shakespeare remains the most persuasive.

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(Note: This is a slightly edited version of an article that appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter)

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