February 2008

Update on the Shakespeare Industry

Ton Hoenselaars and Paul Franssen

The year 2007 saw a renewed interest in the Authorship debate, but with a dif­ference. First, in the museum belonging to Shakespeare’s New Globe in Lon­don, a text board was installed which, quite inconsistently with the rest of the mu­seum’s displays, throws doubt on Shakespeare’s authorship; however, unlike earlier such publications, it refrained from putting forward a single candidate of its own, ecumenically naming a number of rival claimants instead. Then Mark Rylance, former artistic director of the New Globe, acted in a comedy of his own in which Shakespeare is “pursued by several rival contenders – Francis Ba­con, the Earl of Oxford, the Countess of Pembroke – for the intellectual prop­erty rights of the Works” (as reported by Paul Taylor in The Independent of 24 December). Thirdly, the so-called Shakespeare Authorship Coalition published an on-line “declaration of reasonable doubt about the identity of William Shake­speare.” What this doubt about “identity” really meant was that the signatories doubted Shakespeare’s authorship of the works attributed to him. See <>. The statement was signed by a number of notable actors, including Derek Jacobi and, again, Mark Rylance, as well as other celebrities such as judges, clergymen, professors, though few pro­fessional Shakespearean scholars, and none of name. The campaign, it seems, unites these devotees of various rival claimants under the banner of a common cause: “doubt about Will,” a slogan for a common effort to defeat an establish­ment that obstinately denies the existence of reasonable doubt about Shake­speare’s authorship of the works usually connected with his name. The one other thing all signatories seem to agree on is that it was not Will Shakespeare, who is, after all, hardly even mentioned as an author by his contemporaries – or so the statement suggests. 

When it comes to answering the more vexed question of who did write the works, however, disagreement sets in again. This was demonstrated once again by the appearance of yet another claimant to the authorship, who at least has one advantage over other candidates: that he hails from Stratford-upon-Avon. A. W. L. Saunders published a book entitled The Master of Shakespeare: Volume 1, The Sonnets (Tortola, British Virgin Islands: MoS Publishing, 2007). It sets out to prove that the man in question (at least, as far as the sonnets are con­cerned, though the subtitle promises more such illuminating volumes in the fu­ture) was Sir Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke. The book’s title goes back to a claim by Gre­ville himself that he had been “the master of Shakespeare.” If this does not refer to a young Will Shakespeare having been employed as a servant at Brooke’s manor house, or so a simple Stratfordian might conclude, it could suggest Gre­ville liked to think that Shakespeare, the famous author, had been indebted to him for some of his poetic inspiration; in other words, it might be precisely the sort of reference to Shakespeare’s authorship that, according to the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, is well-nigh absent during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Saun­ders, however, is far more perspicacious, and understands that the phrase is a mere code by which Greville claimed the authorship of Shakespeare’s works for himself. This then is proven by stylistic analysis and profiling. It of course helps that Greville lived a long life spanning that of Shakespeare, 1554-1628, which means that there is no need to prove that the dating of certain of Shakespeare’s works must be wrong. Also, Greville had a crest featuring a swan, which of course fits in wonderfully with Ben Jonson’s famous praise for Shakespeare as the “Sweet Swan of Avon.” We await further developments.

Germaine Greer’s biography of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s Wife, was re­viewed by Elsbeth Etty in NRC Handelsblad, 26 October. Etty points out just how little ar­chival material there is to go on for a biography, and interprets Greer’s book as “one huge erudite hoax,” at the expense of biographies of Shakespeare by men like Burgess, Holden, and Greenblatt. The latter are equally speculative, and many portray Anne Hathaway as “either an adulterous man-eater or as frigid and ugly.” Greer, says Etty, is not seriously claiming that she has uncovered the truth about Anne; rather, she deconstructs such “sexist myths” by showing how bi­ased all such interpretations are, particularly those based on an autobiographical reading of Shakespeare’s work. Greer’s own work is no exception. As if to un­derline the point, the review is illustrated by a portrait of Anne Hathaway as a genteel and pretty woman, dating from 1739. 

Members of the Shakespeare Society may be interested in the on-line publica­tion of Titus Andronicus in the classical translation of L. A. J. Burgersdijk, within the framework of Project Gutenberg. Burgersdijk’s outline of Shakespeare’s life and works had already been published earlier. For the translation of Titus, see: <>.

If you sometimes feel that reading Shakespeare is a lonely activity, the new web­site <> gives you an overview of who else is currently reading Shakespeare – or at least, has reported that he or she is doing so. The site features a map of the entire world, with red lights showing where someone is cur­rently perusing the Works. In so far as the data on the site can be considered as representative, Africa, South America, and Antarctica are the least bardolatrous Continents – or, possibly, underreported because of a lack of computers. It may be for similar reasons that data on extraterrestrials reading Shakespeare, e. g. in Klin­gon translation, are not featured on the site at all.

The actors of the annual amateur Shakespeare festival at Diever, which cele­brated its 60th anniversary in 2006, had been invited to take its production of As You Like It to Stratford for two performances in late 2007. However, as NRC re­ported on 17 September, the shows had to be cancelled, as, upon arrival, one of the main actors received news of a sudden death in the family. It was then decided that under the circumstances, playing a comedy would not be appropriate. For once, the show must not go on.

 De Volkskrant of 18 October carried an interview of Truus Ruiter with actress Mirjam Stolwijk, who played Portia in Justus van Oel’s adaptation of the Merchant, entitled De Arabier van Amsterdam (The Arab of Amsterdam), for De Nieuw Amster­dam (DNA). As Ruiter summarizes the revised plot, set in the present, “Van Oel has turned moneylender Shylock into an Iraqi Jew, Rafi, who runs a falafel chain in Amsterdam.” Stolwijk also doubles as Shakespeare himself, who appears on stage as a character “to be called to account by Rafi, who accuses him of anti-semitism.” The production contained clear allusions to the current debate in the Netherlands on integration and to the worries about organized crime, and as such managed to bring out Shakespeare’s relevance to modern society. Also in De Volkskrant, Hein Janssen reported enthusiastically about a London production of Measure for Measure, dir. Simon McBurney, which had been modernised in what Janssen sees as a most un-English way, with a “bare stage and video screens showing CCTV footage.” Shakespeare’s plot is described as “rather nonsensical,” yet offering an “incisive message of human weaknesses and the dark sides of the soul.” Angelo is called a “minister Donner [the Dutch Minister of Justice] avant la lettre,” because of his at­tempts to enforce the law in the strictest sense possible.

Some years ago, two very different productions of Macbeth ran concurrently in Dutch theatres; this year it was King Lear that competed with itself. The production of RO-Theater, starring Jack Wouterse as an energetic hero, was reviewed in anti­thetical ways; whereas Vincent Kouters in De Volkskrant regretted the fact that the second, tragic part (after the comic opening) was rather “chaotic and confusing,” Anneriek de Jong (NRC) admired its “lucidity.” In the rival production by Het Vervolg, Rik van Uffelen played a Lear who was already on the verge of dementia in the opening scene, barely able to read his speech from a piece of paper, and dressed unceremoniously without his trousers, as if he were incontinent. The state room, with its cheap plastic furniture, resembled the canteen of an old people’s home rather than a royal palace. Turned out of doors, Van Uffelen’s Lear soon lost his wits, and even his energy. He sounded strangely flat where one might expect violent mood swings. Somewhat disconcertingly, even his “Then, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” (4.6.181) was not so much shouted out in impotent anger as whispered almost, as if it was some obnoxious insects that needed seeing to rather than his treacherous sons-in-law. Kouters summarized the difference between the protago­nists of the two productions as follows: “Van Uffelen turned the king into a de­mented and broken old fool. Jack Wouterse plays him as a brute gone mad. Both are right.”

Where the comedies are concerned, Dirk Tanghe reprised his successful Mid­summernightsdream (sic) of 2001, while Gerardjan Rijnders, after directing mainly tragedies, is venturing into this field with As You Like It. Karin Veraart interviewed them together for De Volkskrant (22 November). Whereas Tanghe had long been enthusiastic about Shakespearean comedy, Rijnders always found the humour diffi­cult, because it was so dated. “Like cabaret: funny only if you know what was going on in society at the time. … In As You Like It, someone remarks on what jewelers’ wives look like, wearing shoulder patches. So I just turned that into footballers’ wives with thick lips.” Yet he found that the humour can work. Part of the attrac­tion of the two comedies is that they are set in the forest: Rijnders “In the wood the laws of nature apply, not those of society. There you find experiments with sex, gender, drugs. It is a sort of free haven. But in the end the characters have to return to ordinary life.” Both agree that Shakespeare should be cut and adapted where necessary. Shakespeare’s own irregularity gives a license for incisive editing. Rijn­ders sees Shakespeare’s work as a director’s “starting point;” Tanghe says he had to cut a lot of “rubbish,” particularly when he directed the Shrew, in order to bring out the essence that is of enduring value. For Tanghe, Shakespeare is a love affair, with the inspiration he provides to try another production; Rijnders regards his relation to the bard more as a wrestling match: “Sometimes I could hit him. I mean, the majority of the text is wonderful; but sometimes he can be a headache: what should I do what that scene? You’d like to simply start cutting at once, but that would be too easy.” In As You Like It, “those people in the forest, they are old cynics capable of nothing but some philosophising. The energy comes from the young, those lov­ers – and I take pleasure in the energy that flows from that.” Rijn­ders does not know which Shakespeare he will direct next, but “he is at the back of my head and always returns. That is a fact. I feel it as my duty to bring him to the stage, as a mis­sion if you like.” Tanghe agrees, but finds it easy: Shakespeare is “like a warm dog lying in his basket next to me, and occasionally barking, Wraff! Take me, make me come alive, take me for a walk. And I do. Because his subject is those people sitting in the auditorium. That is what I need to convey, like a musical score on the key­board of the present time.” 

From 14-18 November 2007, the “Shakespeare and Europe: Nation(s) and Boundaries” conference was held in Iaşi, Romania. During the business meeting at the end of the conference, mem­bers discussed and approved the foundation stat­utes drawn up for the Euro­pean Shakespeare Research Association by Angel Luis Pujante (University of Murcia, Spain) and a steering committee.

The primary aim of the European Shakespeare Research Association will be to facilitate research into Shakespeare as a European phenomenon, as well as the af­terlives of the man and his work on the European Continent and in Britain. The European Shakespeare Research Association seeks to study Shakespeare as a cul­tural presence in Europe and the relationship between the institution of Shake­speare and the construction of European culture and identity by organising its own biennial conference; by securing a working presence at other venues around the world; and by developing international research projects to which members world­wide may contribute.

Until the next biennial European Shakespeare conference – to be held in Pisa, Italy, in 2009 – the new European Shakespeare Research Association will be run by a provisional executive board consisting of the following people:


Chair: Ton Hoenselaars (Utrecht University, the Netherlands)

Vice-Chair (Conferences): Balz Engler (University of Basel, Switzerland)

Vice-Chair (Research Projects): Clara Calvo (University of Murcia, Spain)

Treasurer: Marta Gibinska (Jagellonian University, Krakow, Poland)

Secretary: Keith Gregor (University of Murcia, Spain)


During this same period, the executive committee will have as co-opted members the following people: Carla Dente (University of Pisa, Italy), Michael Hattaway (New York University in London, UK), an Alexander Shurbanov (University of Sofia, Bulgaria). Angel Luis Pujante has been made Honorary President of ESRA.

For further information (including the Statutes) as well as (free) membership, please consult the Association's webpage at




This webpage will be updated regularly (by Juan Francesco Cerdá), and have the latest news about relevant conferences and projects.

ESRA hopes to welcome many new members, who will take part in the Discus­sion Group (available at the Murcia site where one may sign up for free), and its future conferences. For questions, suggestions, or comments, one is advised to contact the Secretary, Keith Gregor, at <>.