July 08, 2021


North by Shakespeare: A Rogue Scholar’s Quest for the Truth Behind the Bard’s Works. By Michael Blanding. Hachette. $30.

     If you do not take this book too seriously, you will enjoy a wonderful combination of detective story with roller-coaster ride, all within an overarching David vs. Goliath tale that is seasoned with a soupçon of intellectual élan. The problem is that the entire book, all 460-odd pages of it (more if you count the cover, title, jacket, and heck, even the flyleaves) insists that you must, must, must, MUST take it very seriously indeed, as a work of PROFOUND SIGNIFICANCE and TREMENDOUS MEANING. The result is 460-odd (some very odd) pages of cognitive dissonance.

     Just getting through the book’s title is a bit of a chore. It’s about Shakespeare, right? Well, no, actually – Shakespeare’s name certainly draws attention, but the title refers to someone named North “by” Shakespeare, so it’s about North, right? And North is some sort of “Rogue Scholar,” yes? Well, no – despite the way the title is constructed, North (there are actually two Norths of significance in the book) is not the “Rogue Scholar.” That description applies to the unmentioned-in-the-title Dennis McCarthy, who did not graduate from college but has earned the “Rogue Scholar” designation by a years-long search for the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.

     Wait. “Has earned” from whom? Why, from Michael Blanding, an investigative reporter who is at pains, from the start of the book, to disarm criticism by stating that this is not merely another of the innumerable “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” studies of the “true” authorship of “Shakespeare’s” work. Not at all! The book is Blanding’s look at McCarthy’s exploration of North’s involvement in Shakespeare’s work!

     Having unraveled the title, you may now turn to the first page. Proceed with caution. It bears repeating that in many ways the book is wonderful. It is well and breezily written, it contains some intriguing discussions of the value of using modern techniques (in particular, software designed to root out plagiarism) to explore Elizabethan plays and playwrights, and it tosses about the names of the usual suspects (Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson) with aplomb – while also delving into the lives (what is known of them) and literary pretensions (what is known of them) of numerous others.

     McCarthy, an Ultimate Frisbee champion and freelance writer who “was confident that with enough diligence he could crack the code of Shakespeare studies,” is quite a character, and it is a peculiarity of North by Shakespeare that he always seems almost to be putting everybody on (including Blanding), but then lurches into a level of commitment and sincerity that is enough to make him, if not his theories, very believable indeed. It helps that so many of those theories rely on plays that have disappeared – written by one Sir Thomas North, who in turn put them together from work by his relative, George North. McCarthy hastily tells Blanding (who duly reports the matter) that Shakespeare really did write Shakespeare’s plays, but that he based them on now-lost works by North, from which Shakespeare drew plots and (especially) language.

     If this starts to sound like a journey down the proverbial rabbit hole (19th century), or taking the red pill in The Matrix (20th) – well, yes, it is that. The movie reference fits better than the Alice one, since part of Blanding’s story of McCarthy involves McCarthy rushing some of his findings into self-published print out of concern that he might be beaten to the punch in some way by a 2011 movie called Anonymous (21st century): “As the publicity for Anonymous mounted, so did McCarthy’s panic.”

     North by Shakespeare (speaking of movies, perhaps an echo of North by Northwest because, well, why not?) is so full of specificity like this, so packed with research and anecdotes, that simply as a work of investigative prose (if not exactly “journalism”), it is worth some of a reader’s time, although perhaps not as much as it demands. It is ultimately the story of yet another outsider seeking to change paradigms that have been accepted perhaps too readily by the academic establishment and its hangers-on – amateur sleuths have been in this position with regard to Mozart, for example, for many years. It is also a story that Blanding again and again tries to get readers to take very seriously, by trying (again and again) to anticipate and undermine objections to what McCarthy believes. For example, at one point Blanding directly quotes McCarthy’s explanation of why, after many years of trying, he has so much trouble getting people to pay serious attention to his theories about Shakespeare. “Once [Shakespeare scholars have] formed an emotional attachment to their ideas, and written books about it and articles about it, their entire sense of self is wrapped up in their view of how Shakespeare worked and what he wrote. And they’re just not going to surrender that.” The reader will immediately wonder if McCarthy suffers from the myopia of which he accuses others – so, to prove his own bona fides, Blanding brings that up: “Of course, I think to myself, it could be McCarthy who has developed the emotional attachment.” A few lines later, though, Blanding lets that possibility evaporate by ending that section of that chapter with a rather lame joke by McCarthy.

     To recap: this is not a book about Shakespeare, although his name in the title is likely to be what will draw readers to it. It is not really a book about North (Thomas or George), either. It is a book about a man who believes Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, but based his work closely on similar but not identical work by others, whose role can now be ferreted out thanks to the wonders of modern technology and computer searches. The underlying idea is intriguing and the concept is certainly of the 21st century, but like so many technology-based approaches to creative endeavors, it has little interest in the material being analyzed. McCarthy wants to prove a point; Blanding wants to chronicle the ups and downs of an outsider in the “Shakespeare ethos” trying to make his voice and views heard; and readers are entitled to wonder, having slogged and joy-ridden their way through North by Shakespeare, whether either McCarthy or Blanding ultimately cares very much about Shakespeare at all.

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