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Amy Freed spins light fun out of conspiracy theories about Shakespeare's identity

Wednesday, Feb 6 2002
Shakespeare was an uneducated glover's son, from a provincial village, who left no firm evidence that he went to any sort of school. The only real proof that he wielded a pen with his own hand consists of six signatures on legal documents, where the spelling of "Shakspere" isn't even consistent. How did a bumpkin like that -- innocent of Oxford and Cambridge -- write dramatic masterpieces about royalty in Denmark or gentlemen in Verona? The puzzle is very English. An American would say, "He had talent," and let it go; we have an indifferently educated Mississippi drunk named William Faulkner to suggest that literary genius isn't a matter of where you get your B.A. But English class structure has bred a handful of conspiracy theories insisting that the author of Shakespeare's plays must surely have been some educated aristocrat, like Francis Bacon, or Sir Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Amy Freed's new play takes these theories (or "heresies") and spins them in a blender, and the result is a fun, light comedy. From the advance publicity I was worried she'd been swayed too much by the Oxfordians -- the theorists who champion Edward de Vere -- but The Beard of Avon gives just enough credence to the de Vere idea to make fun of modern Shakespeare worship. That's her real ambition. "Shakespeare festivals are next-door to Renaissance fairs, if you ask me," Freed said in one published interview, "and that's coming from someone who performed in them and did the hey-nonny-nonny-green-show thing."

The play opens in a Stratford barn, and follows "Shakspere" to London, where he fulfills a long-fermenting dream to be an actor. He plays bit parts in "pageants for the unwashed" like Scurvy Wives or Roister Doister. Shakspere has no training, but he can improve the lines of almost any sorry script, and this poetic facility snatches the attention of Sir Edward de Vere, a nobleman with a secret trunk full of half-finished plays. De Vere doesn't want his name connected with the scripts -- playwriting is such a low profession -- but he does want them performed. So Shakspere becomes his tinker, his stalking horse, his "beard"; their first collaboration is a gory potboiler called Titus Andronicus.

This collaboration idea, which I think is Freed's, strikes a perfect compromise between the Shakespeare tradition and the de Vere heresy. The real Edward de Vere knew about court life, the law, sea travel, and all the other topics Shakespeare had no experience of; he knew Europe, especially the relevant towns in Italy, and he was bisexual (which might account for some of the sonnets). But he couldn't write. De Vere left behind a collection of poems written in a pompous, embarrassing voice that no one with an ear for language would mistake for Shakespeare's. ("Come hither, shepherd swain!/ Sir, what do you require?/ I pray thee show to me thy name;/ My name is Fond Desire," etc.) So Freed makes "Shakspere" a ghostwriter, which works well. Everyone knows that Shakespeare cribbed his plots.

Freed exaggerates both men to humanize Shakespeare. Her Edward de Vere is an arrogant bastard, her Shakspere just a humble bumpkin. You wouldn't want to put a bronze bust of either one in your theater lobby. Matthew Boston, as Shakspere, is downright ugly -- his balding scalp, long hair in back, and thin mustache give him the look of a state-fair carny with a mullet -- and he speaks a rude, low English. Marco Barricelli swaggers around in dashing patterned clothes, flowing hair, and a pirate's beard; his de Vere is a louche, imperious blowhard. Both men are cartoons, but they serve Freed's myth-deflating point.

The play is not airtight, but Mark Rucker's production has the benefit of Charles Dean's stuffy, secretive Francis Bacon and Kandis Chappell's brilliant Elizabeth I -- the willful, white-faced virgin queen who may or may not have written The Taming of the Shrew. Freed sprinkles her dialogue with a mixture of modern and Elizabethan diction that can be funny as well as lame. ("That bulging manuscript betrays thee, Bacon ... Or art thou glad to see me?") And the ending resorts to a maudlin lesson about the transformative power of love.

Freed makes the play work by refusing to take the "authorship question" too seriously. Her point is quick. We know so little about Shakespeare that we may never learn how much help he had. Fair enough. Shakespeare's genius was for language and character; the rest was just research. "The writer does not have to read the whole of Freud," argued Anthony Burgess in his fanciful book about Shakespeare. "He merely has to filch something from a paperback glossary or a learned man met on a bus. ... Instead of phalanges of rich uniform bindings [in a writer's library], there are old racing guides, dog-eared astrological almanacs, comic periodicals, secondhand dictionaries, unscholarly history books, notebooks full of odd facts picked up in lying-in hospitals or taxidermist's shops. When Shakespeare achieved a library, if he ever did, we can be sure it was not like Bacon's."


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