A tale of the envoy and the Bard

It may be the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on 23 April but there’s still much ado about whether he really wrote his plays.

Sceptics argue it’s unlikely the grammar school-educated son of an alderman would have the quill skill to craft Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet. The political intrigue described in those classic dramas seems more the work of someone who was connected and had an in-depth knowledge of court life. Someone, perhaps, like the diplomat and English courtier, Sir Henry Neville.

Claims that Neville wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays are made in the book The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare by Brenda James and Professor William Rubinstein, which contains a foreword by Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance.

If the authors are to be believed the diplomat, who was nicknamed “Falstaff” by his close friends, used Shakespeare as a “front man” since some of the plays were thoroughly undiplomatic and controversial. What evidence do they present to back up this bold claim? For starters, the political content and geographical location of the works reflect the travels of Neville. For example, he briefly became ambassador of France between 1599 and 1600 which, it is claimed, led to the writing of Henry V, some of which is in French – a language Shakespeare did not speak.

Another piece of evidence is the fact that the plays portray many of Neville’s ancestors in a favourable light. John of Gaunt in Richard II and King Duncan of Scotland in Macbeth are two cases in point.

Neville’s political career was every bit as tumultuous as a Shakespeare play. He played a part in an unsuccessful revolt against the government in 1601 and ended up in the Tower of London for treason. Round about the same time the tone Shakespeare’s plays became more sombre. Now you know why.

Still not convinced? Then how about the fact that there are striking similarities between the vocabulary in Neville’s diplomatic letters and Shakespeare’s plays or that a document was discovered in 1867 showing Neville practiced faking The Bard’s signature ? It’s a compelling case that suggests the age-old question of who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays might just have a diplomatic answer.

Photo: Palmerston, the Foreign Office’s Chief Mouser