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Monday, 28 April 2014

The Shakespeare Investigation

Sounds like something out of Dan Brown. In fact, it’s an idea that has been around a long time. Recent news tells us that, apparently, the Duke of Edinburgh believes Shakespeare didn’t write everything attributed to him – in opposition to Prince Charles, who is a staunch supporter of the Bard. Prince Philip reckons it’s more likely that some plays were written by diplomat Sir Henry Neville, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1601 over a rebellion. Other theories have suggested Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe.

For years I was fascinated by this and eventually wrote a science fiction tale set in 2093 about a Time-door Committee who sends back in time an investigator to resolve the puzzle once and for all…

This is an excerpt of a much longer piece.


Zeigler folded the expensive vellum paper, his heart still throbbing excitedly. After years of procrastination, they had finally got round to his request and approved it! For no apparent reason, a line surfaced from Henry VI Part 1: ‘Delays have dangerous ends.’

            He smiled at his great ancestor’s photograph. In 1895 WG Zeigler, a Californian lawyer, had been the first to suggest that Christopher Marlowe's death on 30 May 1593 was staged and that the poet actually went underground to write the plays using Shakespeare’s name.

            Now, at last, he would be able to prove once and for all whether or not Shakespeare had written everything attributed to him.


… Finding himself in another room devoid of furniture or machinery, he was startled to hear a metallic female voice issuing from a grille.

            ‘The parcel you dispatched separately in accordance with instructions has been examined and you may now put on the clothes. You have chosen a particularly smart set of garments, sir.’

            The tannoy clicked off and a tray levered out from the wall with his pile of Elizabethan clothes lying on its shiny surface.

            Irrationally, he felt self-conscious as he undressed; simply because the metallic voice sounded female?

            He took a while to slip into the clothes, all the while conscious of the presence of the black box.

            ‘Now step back into the shaft,’ the voice returned. ‘Don’t look down, don’t worry -- the ag’s still on!’

            Zeigler was not amused. But he didn’t look down; his ruff made that action awkward anyway.

            Up again. To the 140ft mark.

            ‘Alight, please.’ A flesh-and-blood woman’s voice.

            This room was roofless and possessed a central dais on which rested a conical transparent pod. The pod was aimed upwards, pointing at the black hole. Even from this close, the true edges of the Time Hole were not readily discernible. The shimmering effect made him dizzy.

            ‘Step this way, please, Mr Zeigler,’ said an attractive brunette attendant also dressed in white. She possessed angelic features, which he thought somehow appropriate up here.

            She eyed his prominent codpiece, arched her eyebrows suggestively and smiled.

            He blushed; another first-impression destroyed: I thought her as chaste as unsunn'd snow -- Cymbeline. He sighed.

            Gently the woman placed Zeigler inside the pod. Although the pod was designed for bigger men than him, it was still a tight squeeze, mainly due to his doublet bulging with the bombast stuffing of the period.

            ‘Everything all right? You require any paper of the period for notes, or a recorder can be fitted to the “eye” if you like?’

            Zeigler shook his head. ‘No, thanks. I’m only after one fact. Have you been able to pinpoint -- select the right -- ?’

            ‘Yes. May 30th, 1593. Almost 500 years ago to the day, Mr Zeigler. We’ll put you down just outside the town. There’s ample room to conceal the pod in a neglected grove nearby.’

            He craned his neck. ‘Are those the screens that you view me on -- through the eye, I mean?’

            She nodded, then said in a serious tone, ‘Take care, Mr Zeigler -- we can’t help you once you leave the pod.’

            ‘I know,’ he said solemnly, his stomach performing somersaults. ‘I know all the risks. But our faculty must find out if -- well, you know my theories, anyway...’

            ‘Yes. Now I’m going to lower the cowling and secure you inside. You’re liable to feel excessively giddy and you may even lose consciousness for a short while. Our scanners show you obeyed instructions and didn’t eat today -- so your ride should be an untroubled one. I trust it will also be successful, sir.’

            ‘Thanks.’ He smiled.

            And she shut him inside.

            It was most peculiar, how he suddenly felt trapped, though he could see all round. He closed his eyes, calmed himself. Mustn’t get excited. Be rational, logical. Simply observe.


            ‘Yes.’ His voice came out as a strangled croak.

            He felt as though his whole face was suddenly being squeezed off his skull as the pod fired up, the G-forces ramming him hard into the ergonomically-shaped cushioned seat.

            Contrary to his original conception, he was not immersed in absolute blackness on entering the Time Hole.

            It was like a velvety blue-black, with pinpoints all around, like stars that had forgotten how to twinkle. The sensation of movement had stopped -- how long ago? He had no way of knowing, there were no instruments or clocks in here; and his wristwatch had been removed, together with every other personal possession.

            Another quotation, from As you like it, reared its head for him to muse upon: ‘Time travels in divers paces with divers persons.’

            Dizziness gnawed at the edges of his consciousness but never posed a serious threat. Elation kept him awake. He would succeed where so many before him had failed!

            Over the years, anti-Stratfordiana had grown to a flood.

            Professor Thomas C Mendenhall counted the letters in 400,000 Shakespearean words, discovering that for both Shakespeare and Marlowe the ‘word of greatest frequency was the four-letter word’, a fact that left the world of letters decidedly unshaken.

            Then in 1955 Calvin Hoffman sought documentary proof for his case in the tomb of Sir Francis Walsingham, Marlowe’s reputed homosexual lover. But nothing was found in the tomb. Not even Sir Francis.

            Which shouldn’t have come as a surprise, Zeigler reasoned.

            Walsingham had contrived a most corrupt system of espionage at home and abroad, enabling him to reveal the Babington plot which implicated Mary Queen of Scots in treason, and to obtain in 1587 details of some plans for the Spanish armada. Queen Elizabeth I acknowledged his genius and important services, yet she kept him poor and without honours, and he died in poverty and debt.

            The twenty-nine-year-old son of a shoemaker, Marlowe had died with a dagger in his brain, the precise circumstances quite obscure.

            Marlowe had from time to time been engaged in government employ, a euphemism for secret service work, and had become embroiled in the theatre of conspiracy and intrigue, the tumultuous, often dangerous life of London’s underworld.

            At the age of twenty-one, Marlowe was employed as an agent provocateur, posing as a Catholic to spy on other Catholics, and acted as a renegade to trap other such people.

            He did it for the money, insinuating himself into the households of Earl of Northumberland and Lord Strange. As a projector he actively fostered treason in the employ of Sir Francis Walsingham and later of Sir William Cecil Burghley.

            Wily young Marlowe’s apparent atheism was just a ruse for trapping free thinkers into indiscretion. Finally, he was set up as a conspirator by the Earl of Essex as a way of striking at Sir Walter Raleigh.

            On that fateful night, Marlowe was knifed over his right eye in a drunken brawl at a tavern in Deptford, but the swift pardon of his murderer, Friser, twenty-seven days after the poet’s burial, suggested to Zeigler that the death had other, possibly political, undertones.

            Hoffman had believed the whole affair was staged by Sir Francis Walsingham to remove his lover from the threat of imminent arrest for alleged blasphemy and atheism. Hoffman argued that the coroner was bribed to accept a plea of self-defence on behalf of Marlowe’s alleged killer and docilely accepted the stated identity of the body.

            Hoffman believed Marlowe settled on the Continent and continued to write and sent his manuscripts to Walsingham, who had found a reliable if dull-witted actor fellow, William Shakespeare, ready -- for a stipend -- to lend his name as the author of Marlowe’s works.

            As Walsingham had apparently died two years earlier than the Deptford incident, Hoffman’s theory was far from acceptable, but it suggested other similar possibilities to Zeigler.

            Since most of Shakespeare’s plays were written after the recorded death of Marlowe, Marlovian theorists must prove Marlowe lived after the Deptford incident in order to write the plays.

            Marlowe had been deeply influenced by the writings of Machiavelli, so any intrigue along these lines would most certainly appeal to him.

            Other contenders over the years for the mantle of “greatest writer in the English language” included Sir Francis Bacon (died 1626), Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (died 1604), Sir Walter Raleigh (died 1618), Michel Angelo Florio (died 1605), Anne Whateley (died 1600) and even Queen Elizabeth herself (died 1603). As Shakespeare’s last known work The Tempest was attributed to 1611, the literary prowess of some of these contenders can be marvelled at, Zeigler thought, capable of even writing beyond the grave.

            In the latter part of last century, computers had been used to join in the academic fray.

            Shakespeare databases were built as early as 1969 on an ICL machine, the KDF-9. Since then, ICL’s Content Addressable File Store -- Information Search Processing and Oxford’s Concordance Program, written in Ansi Fortran had been used to word-count and create concordances, ostensibly to facilitate research. The DEC VAX 11/70 computer research gave credit to Shakespeare for Acts Four and Five of Pericles but not Acts One and Two; the researcher or computer never mentioned Act Three...

            Certainly in the world of letters it was a controversial theory and Zeigler had some sympathy with Shakespeare. Lines from his Venus and Adonis seemed apt:

            ‘By this, poor Wat, far off upon a hill,

             Stands on his hinder legs with listening ear,

             To hearken if his foes pursue him still.’

            Zeigler wondered if Shakespeare waited still, far off on some heavenly hill, wondering if his detractors would ever cease pursuing him. Even claims of homosexuality had been levied against him, citing various tenuous reasons, not least his Sonnets:

            ‘My nature is subdu’d

             To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand;

             Pity me, then, and wish I were renew’d.’

            Poor Will, thought Zeigler. Well, the Time-door Committee evidently felt the Zeigler theory had sufficient merit for them to accept his research request. And now he was almost there!

The full story (5,000 words) is as yet unpublished. I’ve used a 1,000-word portion for a competition [none of the above text is included]. If that doesn’t succeed, maybe it will find another home eventually.

Anyway, if you’re interested in short stories, you could download for very little outlay two Crooked Cat publications.

Spanish Eye by Nik Morton
22 stories in the words of Leon Cazador, private eye

Amazon UK here

Amazon COM here

Crooked Cats’ Tales by 20 Crooked Cat authors –
also featuring a new Leon Cazador private eye story


Amazon UK here

Amazon COM here

Or this Solstice Publishing collection, which goes out of print on 4 May, 2014

When the Flowers are in Bloom by Nik Morton


Amazon UK here

Amazon COM here


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