Sir Derek Jacobi
Published: 14 June, 2012
by DAN CARRIER
The Elizabethan world of William Shakespeare was comparable to any 20th-century dictatorship – which is why the real identity of the author of the greatest works in the English language is still shrouded in mystery, according to Sir Derek Jacobi.
Sir Derek, who this week gave a talk at Cecil Sharp House to help raise funds for the independent Primrose Hill Library, has long harboured doubts about whether the son of a farmer could have been solely responsible for all the 37 major plays attributed to him.
Instead, he believes the name was a handy pseudonym for a much better educated and well-travelled writer who had to keep his identity secret.
“Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare – it is just my contention that he was not the man from Stratford,” states the Belsize Park-based actor.
“The name on the plays is hyphenated all the time and I believe it was a pseudonym. I believe the man from Stratford Upon Avon, known as Shakespeare, became the front man for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
“The simple fact is the earl could not be seen as a common playwright. He was living in a Stasi-type London.”
Sir Derek believes the Earl could not be found to be contributing to the bawdy low-life of London’s commoners.
Facing the wrath of the easily angered Elizabeth I would be too big a risk, so he used the pen name instead.
And while this conundrum has haunted literary scholars for decades with no conclusive answer forthcoming, Sir Derek has performed so many Shakespeare texts that is intimate knowledge with the writing means he is certainly in a position to hold a plausible view.
“Writers obviously draw on themselves – they write from their own personalities, backgrounds, education, performances, and their own accomplishments,” he says. “And if that is the case, then it can simply not be the man from Stratford.”
Furthermore, there is firm evidence form the texts that our playwright was well travelled – something in the 1600s the poor lad from Stratford was unlikely to be.
“Did he go to Italy?,” asks Sir Derek.
“The texts have clear evidence he did. The texts show who ever wrote the plays was ultimately familiar with Italy.
He knew certain cities – and certain places in those cities – that appear in his plays.
“For example in Romeo and Juliet, there is a clear description of a place in Verona that has a group of sycamore trees – and it is there, exactly as it was described. The texts are littered with little pieces of local colour and they are not put in the foreground or with great fanfare. You could easily miss them because they are so incidental.”
Sir Derek’s theories have long been played out by others and whether the answer will ever come out is doubtful – it will remain one of those enduring mysteries.
“The Shakespeare who wrote the plays and the sonnets were familiar with the places they wrote about,” he argues.
“If he was writing a play set in Italy he had all these impressions and places and specific houses – he had to have gone there, he just had to.
“We know my candidate had gone on these travels and had these ideas. It is one of the best detective stories in the world and we are still looking for the silver bullet, the answer that will prove it.”
While the actor is renowned for his high brow work – he has played the Bard’s greatest roles, King Lear and Hamlet – it’s not all Tudor drama.
He was recently filming a new series set in Yorkshire where he plays a gruff and archetypal Yorkshireman.
“I’m Joe Bloggs with a Yorkshire accent,” he explains. “And while we were filming I decided to pop into Manchester and take in a tour of the Coronation Street set.”
A long term Corrie fan, he was given a behind the scenes peek in Britain’s longest-running soap.
“They showed the Rovers Return and they were about to film a scene, so I asked them if I could be an extra,” he says.
The writers agreed – as long as he kept his back to the cameras so his easily recognisable visage didn’t throw Corrie addicts.
“I had a pint of beer but they wouldn’t give me a speaking part. I threw out so many hints that I’d like a storyline. Ian McKellen was in it for six weeks – and that’s just what I would like to do.”