The Quality of Mercy


© BY Charles Spencer – May 2012

Charles Spencer enjoyed the great guru of modern theatre’s, the director Peter Brook’s, delightful essay which rebukes Shakespeare conspiracy theories

With the World Shakespeare Festival now in full swing at Stratford, and the Globe by the Thames presenting the complete plays in almost every language under the sun by companies from all over the world, we must surely brace ourselves for another eruption of the authorship controversy.

There is nothing many people love more than a conspiracy theory, and the idea that the modest man from Stratford could not possibly have written the plays has been running since the mid-19th century. Last year there was even a preposterous blockbuster film on the matter, Anonymous, though it was so bad and so bonkers that it seems unlikely it will have won many converts to the cause.

Indeed, it has always struck me as delightfully piquant that one of the more notorious champions of “the Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written the plays” tendency rejoiced in the name of Thomas J Looney.

Now that great guru of modern theatre, the director Peter Brook, has come up with a delightful essay, published by the RSC in a booklet called Alas Poor Yorick, which lays about the conspiracists with wit, insight and vigour, while also bringing the elusive character of Shakespeare to vivid life.

Brook suggests it is inconceivable that Shakespeare would not have been revealed by his colleagues as a fake had he not written the plays. The theatre is always full of gossip and jealous rivalries, and in an age of often scurrilous pamphleteering, the fact that no one seems to have questioned his authorship at the time is hugely significant. What’s more, Shakespeare would have been a prime target for envious bad-mouthing as he was the only dramatist of the age with enough money to buy land when he retired.

Theatre is a collaborative venture, and on-the-spot rewriting is almost always part of the rehearsal process. How would Shakespeare have coped with that had he been merely fronting for some publicity-shy aristocrat, such as Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, living miles away in his grand country house? Getting a new line or two would have required several days’ travel.

Shakespeare was a genius, insists Brook, and “genius can arise in the humblest of backgrounds. No one doubts that Leonardo was truly Leonardo da Vinci, even though he was an illegitimate child from an Italian village.”

This is a pamphlet of rare insight and authority and comes with a generous tribute from Brook to Michael Boyd, the RSC’s outgoing director, “who has dynamically and creatively been responsible for 10 years of constant renewal at Stratford”. The essay will also feature in a book on Shakespeare by Brook, The Quality of Mercy, to be published later this year.

If it is all as wise and entertaining as this sample chapter, we will be in for an illuminating treat.

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