April 23 marks both the birth and death day of The Bard. No one has enjoyed as much literary fame in the English language as William Shakespeare, despite being alive for a mere 52 years (and dead for nearly 400). For that matter, no author has also endured so much scrutiny as to the authorship of his own work. Conspiracy theories abound. Who wrote the plays of Shakespeare? Kit Marlowe, Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth?
None of the above. I, and I alone, wrote the plays of William Shakespeare.
This was back in the early ’90s while I was at San Francisco State University and failing my Elizabethan literature class. The seminar was then a requirement for English majors and if I was going to pass, I needed to do something extraordinary for my term paper. Since I had never bothered to learn up on Marlowe, Thomas Kyd or Richard Burbage, I decided to make up a subject and do a dissertation on his work. It would be someone of whom none had ever heard and I, alas, would be the world’s sole expert. I named him William Shakespeare.
I mean, why read this Elizabethan dross when you can write it in half the time? It’s amazing what a college sophomore can do with iambic pentameter, a little wine and a time machine. How I managed the quantum sleight of hand necessary to invent time travel is likely of no interest here, so I’ll spare you the gory details (except to acknowledge that there were lots of details and it was truly, very gory). Suffice it to say, I had pal in the physics department who needed to beta test his senior project. Also, I had misspent enough summers at the Renaissance Faire to at least find my way to privy, should I make it to 16th-century England intact. When I finally did (what a mess), I immediately set upon creating the persona of William Shakespeare and hacking out all the works I would cite in my essay.
Scholars and critics often comment on how Shakespeare’s plays were derivative of other contemporary works or those preceding his era. To set the record straight, this is all wrong. ‘Tis true that I stole freely when compiling the Shakespearean oeuvre, but the locus of my thievery was decidedly the 20th century.
The so-called “histories” were basically poached part and parcel from Wikipedia, then pasted into a rhyming couplets app on my iPhone. I knocked out Romeo and Juliet in a weekend, gleefully ripping off West Side Story along the way. I followed that with bits of Akira Kurosawa films that I stitched into King Lear. In my original draft, Lear’s three daughters were going to be witches until a house flown by this chick from Kansas landed on one. This led to bloody turf wars over land and shoes but it just wasn’t working, so I scrapped the witch bit and used it in Macbeth instead.
This time, however, I based the witches on the “seers” in the original Clash of the Titans. I want to stress that I used the original version, not the remake (could you imagine the mess that would be?). Caliban’s self-pitying lines in The Tempest are lifted verbatim from my personal teenage journals when I was a fledgling goth. Hamlet’s soliloquy came to me almost entirely from the back of a box of mueslix at Trader Joe’s. The sonnets were taken liberally from greeting cards and some graffiti in the men’s room around the corner from SF State’s Poetry Center.
When I got back, of course, I was surprised at the total contortion of the Western canon I had caused. Besides the hundreds of years of academic masturbation I had begotten, there was also the little matter of saving an otherwise moribund theater tradition. Am I proud of my deception? For the most part, sure, yeah, whatever, though I would have spent more time on Cymbeline, if I knew it would come to all this. But, like I always say, all’s well that ends well.