Sarah Smith's new novel searches for the real Bard over two continents and 400 years of letters, manuscripts, and forgeries.
For me, the controversy began in 1987 when I heard Dr. Nicholas Knight give a lecture about how he discovered one of William Shakespeare's signatures. The undergraduate audience reacted with a shrug until he added that he'd also been Christopher Reeve's freshmen comp teacher - then there was a shiver of excitement. But what struck me was the extraordinary value of Shakespeare's signature: $1 million.
I had assumed that whole manuscripts of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets were sitting in glass cases somewhere in England. In fact, nothing in the great playwright's handwriting has ever been found, except for half a dozen signatures with various spellings. "Alas, poor world, what treasure hast thou lost!"
Literary scholars study these little slips of evidence like criminal investigators, drawing the dimensions of Shakespeare's life from the chemistry of his ink, the slant of his down strokes, the fiber of his paper. Dr. Knight insisted that these clues come together with other snippets of biographical information to prove that Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets.
That was my first indication that anyone was questioning Shakespeare's legitimacy, and like all students of English literature, I learned about this controversy only by being told that there really is no controversy - the way geologists might joke about the Flat Earth Society.
Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon died in 1616, after a run as England's most popular playwright. A would-be biographer, James Wilmot, raised questions about his authorship in the 1780s and suggested that Francis Bacon might have been the real Bard. Various 19th-century luminaries expressed sympathy for the Bacon thesis, including Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud, who should have remembered that sometimes a Shakespeare is just a Shakespeare.
In the 20th century, the anti-Stratford crowd shifted toward Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), as the likely author of those immortal scenes. But the argument remained essentially the same: If Shakespeare was so prominent a playwright, why can't we find more contemporary evidence of his existence? And what's more, how could Shakespeare, the common son of a glovemaker, possibly have known law, medicine, court manners, Italian, sword fighting, sailing, philosophy, sports, astronomy, botany, music, and the whole glorious world that appears in his alleged canon?
As Shakespeare - or whoever - would say, my introduction "is too long by half a mile," but readers of Sarah Smith's smart literary thriller, "Chasing Shakespeares," will need this background on the "authorship question" to keep up with her.
The narrator is a self-effacing graduate student named Joe Roper. He's a hick from Vermont whose love of the Bard has drawn him through college and into graduate school on a hard trail of work-study programs and scholarships.
The story opens as he's sitting in a special room in the Northeastern University library sorting through an enormous collection of recently donated Elizabethan material - all forgeries. "Opening one of these archival envelopes," he says, "had started to be like putting your hand into a potato barrel and feeling something furry. You might not know what it was, but you knew it wasn't good."
Despite this bottomless pit of fakes, he still dreams of discovering some new fact that he could use to compose a biography of the playwright. Suddenly, from the "be careful what you pray for" category, he finds something that scares him - a letter signed "William Shakespeare" in which the Bard confesses that he didn't write all those famous plays.
For a hundred different reasons, he knows the letter has to be another forgery, but none of his usual tests seem to work. This disturbs him considerably because people who question Shakespeare's authorship wrap tinfoil around their heads to keep space aliens from reading their thoughts. Even asking a colleague to help confirm that this letter is phony would expose him to ridicule or possibly end his career - sending him "to hovel with swine, and rogues forlorn."
Smith makes a strong case that Shakespeare scholarship, like scholarship in all areas of life, takes place only within the confines of what's allowed to be true, what's already been given permission to be considered.
Enter Posy Gould, stage right, a fabulously wealthy, distractingly gorgeous PhD student at Harvard. She's heard of the new collection at Northeastern and wants to help Joe authenticate what he's found, no matter where it leads. With her father's credit card, they jet off to London and begin literary sleuthing that takes them through libraries, churches, graveyards, and 400 years of obscure English history.
Posy is a disappointingly trite character, used for class-based jokes that sound like something from a Marxist comedy (if such a thing could exist). But Smith does a wonderful job with the novel's charming narrator. We see how Joe's intellectual enthusiasm grows uncomfortably in blue-collar soil, how all his defenses fall away with childlike wonder in London, and how painful it is for him to pursue a truth that threatens his career and the careers of those he respects.
Also, Joe knows that replacing middle-class Shakespeare with aristocratic Oxford would rob him and all the other average Joes in the world of a patron saint. Armed with his faith that "God is a librarian," he keeps dusting for prints, delighted by the serendipity of research, but more and more shaken by what he discovers.
With a PhD in English from Harvard, Smith can give A.S. Byatt a run for her money around the globe - or the Globe. Somehow, she's married a madcap romantic comedy to a graduate seminar in literary history. If that sounds like eating chocolate-covered broccoli, let it pass. But "Chasing Shakespeares" is full of the real fun of scholarship. By its surprisingly subtle conclusion, after a flurry of plot twists, Joe has run beyond his confidence, his desire for fame, and his reverence for one orthodoxy or another. He's left, as we all are, with his faith in the evidence of things not seen, and those gorgeous scenes that bring it to light.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.