As actor Mark Rylance returns to Shakespeare’s Globe to play the title part in Richard III and Olivia in Twelfth Night, he reveals how his interest in the controversial Shakespeare authorship debate – the subject of his first play I Am Shakespeare, published this month by Nick Hern Books – led to the charge that he had betrayed Shakespeare. Nothing could be further from the truth, he argues in an introduction to the play, together with an extract presenting the case for one of the leading contenders.
The Big Secret Live ‘I Am Shakespeare’ Webcam Daytime Chatroom Show was created in the summer of 2007 for the Chichester Festival Theatre. Greg Ripley-Duggan produced the play, and subsequent to our run in Chichester, organised a brief tour to Warwickshire, Oxford and Cambridge University, amongst other places. This was not unlike taking a play that questioned Robert Burns’s identity as a poet, to Scotland. But, for some reason, the Shakespeare authorship controversy pierces deep to the heart of identity for some people, wherever you play. It was the extreme reaction of otherwise reasonable people that inspired this play. Their efforts to repress my curiosity, and frighten others away from the mystery, were funny in retrospect but extremely trying at the time, especially when I was Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London between 1995 and 2005.
I say that the play was ‘created’, as I had only written the ﬁrst act and some of the second when the cast gathered in the Soho Laundry to begin rehearsals that summer. Under Matthew Warchus’s excellent direction, which included many improvements and developments of the script and idea, we then created the play. All of the original cast, especially Sean Foley who played Barry, improvised lines and situations, which I later included in the text. I am indebted to this spirit of adventure and collaboration, which, by the way, has always been my image of an aspect of the creation of the Shakespeare plays as well.
Needless to say, I love Shakespeare – the work and the author – more than any other human art I have ever encountered. I have made my living, in many more ways than an actor’s pay check, on Shakespeare, since I was sixteen years old (which was thirty years ago at the time I wrote this play). I do not believe, as was charged against me at the Globe, that I am biting the hand that fed me. I am attempting to shake it. The fact that Shakespeare’s work will all disappear from the universe one day is more awe-inspiring to me than my own death.
Extract from I Am Shakespeare…
Act One Scene Three
The First Guest Ever: William Shakespeare
[Frank, a schoolteacher aged around fifty, has just begun the weekly broadcast of his chat-show about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, which goes out live via webcam from his garage in Maidstone.] There are two knocks on the door.
FRANK. Who’s there?
FRANK. Who is it?
WILLIAM SHAKSPAR enters.
SHAKSPAR. Hello, Frank.
FRANK. Who are you?
SHAKSPAR. Who do you think I am?
FRANK. Who do you think you are?
SHAKSPAR. No, who do you think I am? And more to the point, why do you think I am anyone other than who I actually am?
SHAKSPAR. Why do you do it, Frank?
FRANK. Why do I do what?
SHAKSPAR. Why do you get yourself in such a twist about who I am? Haven’t you got better things to do? You don’t need this to make you special. You should be proud of being just an ordinary good old teacher like your father, Tom.
FRANK. How do you know I’m a teacher? How do you know my father’s name?
SHAKSPAR. So what’s this all about? Books, books, books. Do you know there are more books about my play Hamlet than there are about the Bible? But then, I had a head start. There wasn’t an English Bible until a few years after Hamlet.
FRANK. Have you been sent here by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust?
FRANK. The Shakespeare Institute?
FRANK begins to speak.
FRANK. Is this some sort of joke?
SHAKSPAR. You can’t fathom me, can you? Do you really think people have to be extraordinary themselves to do extraordinary things? I lived a thousand extraordinary lives in my writing – so many kings, lovers, murderers. They tired me out, Frank. But that’s not who I am.
FRANK. You dress up as William Shakespeare, break into my studio, hijack my show and then…
SHAKSPAR. It’s time you stopped, Frank. Please. Let it go. I don’t want to be man of the millennium. I just want a good millennium sleep. Every time you challenge me, some fool starts another penetrating biography: ‘Closer to Shakespeare’, ‘Shakespeare, The Player’, ‘Shakespeare, The Lost Years’, ‘Shakespeare for All Time’. Each one’s like an electric shock in my sleep, waking me up again. If I had known what it’s like to be a ghost, I never would have given them such small parts.
We see BARRY [Frank’s neighbour, age 35-45, a pop star who once had a top-twenty hit entitled ‘I’m a Sputnik Love God’] running round the outside of the garage.
FRANK. You think you can come in here, pretending to be William Shakespeare, sabotage my show…
BARRY rushes in.
The Interruption of the Neighbour’s Musical Genius
SHAKSPAR looks at the books.
BARRY enters, making sure he doesn’t forget a song he’s just composed in his head.
BARRY. I’ve got a song, Frank. After I rang you I went out with the guttering and BAM! I’VE GOT IT! After twenty-two years, my follow-up! ‘Long Green Summer Grass’. It’s got it all. Love in the afternoon. The great flood. It’s like a green love anthem. Sort of Al Gore meets Barry White!
SHAKSPAR. Hello, Barry.
BARRY sees SHAKSPAR.
BARRY. What are you doing?
FRANK. What are you doing?
BARRY. Who’s that?
FRANK. Yes. Who’s that?
FRANK. Why what?
BARRY. Why do something like this without telling me? Hiring a lookalike. I don’t think that’s very professional, you know, to keep secrets from your musical director. I thought we were working together on this. Oh, fuck it! Fuck it! I’ve forgotten the fucking song! I’ve forgotten the fucking tune! Look what you’ve done. I can’t remember it. It’s gone.
Come on, baby, come on, baby, don’t say maybe,
When you’re way down, let me lay down –
BARRY. That’s my song!
Lay down with you in the summer grass,
In the long green summer grass.
BARRY. That’s the song I just made up!
I’m changing my drains down,
So, baby, when it rains down,
Ain’t no summer hose ban’s gonna turn,
Gonna burn, my long green summer grass to brown.
I thought the repeats helped the rhythm.
BARRY. Who is this guy, Frank?
FRANK. Why don’t you both just stop pretending. Get out. Go on, get out, the both of you.
BARRY. I never met the man before in my life! I swear on Brian May’s plectrum!
The First Interview Ever with William Shakespeare
SHAKSPAR. May I just finish this before I go?
BARRY. Do you know any more of my songs?
SHAKSPAR. Yes, but what I like best is that children’s book you’re working on.
FRANK. You never told me you were working on a children’s book.
BARRY. I never told anyone about Teddy and the Philosopher’s Guitar. What are you, like, a professional mind-reader? Is that your act?
SHAKSPAR. In a way, I suppose I always was, but since I died…
FRANK. Listen, you Shakespeare Kissogram, lookalike fake, bald-headed bladder-faced Midlands Pranny…
BARRY. Hey, Frank, why don’t you give him a chance to explain himself.
SHAKSPAR. Because his mind is closed, Barry. He doesn’t want to know who wrote the plays. He wants to know he’s right. And I think he’s probably got some kind of hang-up about common people creating great works of art.
SHAKSPAR gets up to go.
BARRY. Now you’re talking.
FRANK. No I haven’t.
SHAKSPAR. I’m off now. (Speaking into the camera.) May I just say thank you to everyone, actors and audiences everywhere, for making my plays the big success they are. I never imagined they would last so long.
FRANK (also into the camera). Because he never imagined them in the first place.
SHAKSPAR. I think I might go up to Stratford-upon-Avon and visit the Birthplace Trust. What’s the best way to get there?
BARRY. How did you get here?
SHAKSPAR. I don’t know… something to do with the internet and the weather? Look, I’ve written something for you, Frank. Just to show you there’s no hard feelings. One of your favourite sonnets. You wouldn’t believe the money you can get for any old document connected to me nowadays.
SHAKSPAR puts it on the desk.
FRANK. Oh, very impressive. Phoney Elizabethan writing. You’ve been up all night rehearsing this.
SHAKSPAR. Don’t you want a handwritten sonnet?
FRANK. No, I don’t want your lousy homework.
FRANK tears it up and throws it in his face. Sniffs him.
By the way, I don’t know if your friends have told you, but you have got severe hygiene issues.
SHAKSPAR. I’ll make my own way. Fare thee well, Barry.
BARRY. Fare thee well, Will.
SHAKSPAR. I’m retired; I just want to be left alone, like Prospero. Let your indulgence set me free.
FRANK. If Shakespeare’s so like Prospero, why didn’t he educate his daughters?
SHAKSPAR. They didn’t want to be educated.
FRANK. Why didn’t he write or receive any letters?
SHAKSPAR. I conducted my business in person.
FRANK. Why did Shakespeare never write about his home town, Stratford?
SHAKSPAR. Which would you rather go and hear: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or The Slightly Embarrassing Day in the Life of John, Glove Maker of Stratford?
He goes out and they carry on talking around and out in front of the garage.
FRANK. People in Stratford had no idea he was a playwright?
SHAKSPAR. I kept myself to myself.
FRANK. Then, why was he so litigious?
SHAKSPAR. What’s any of this got to do with my work?
FRANK. That’s exactly my question.
BARRY. Will, you know you can see inside my head, can you see inside Frank’s?
SHAKSPAR. When? In the past, present or future? Once you die, your existence is not bound by time or space.
BARRY. What was Frank doing last Tuesday at, say, 11:37 in the morning?
SHAKSPAR. He was in a classroom, teaching my play, Romeo and Juliet, and he was just about to confiscate a mobile telephone from a young student named James who was texting a friend beneath his desk.
BARRY. What did the text say?
FRANK. It doesn’t matter.
SHAKSPAR. ‘Tosser Charlton is a dickhead.’ In the First Folio collection of my plays, Ben Jonson refers to the author as the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’; there’s a reference to the author’s ‘Stratford Monument’, in Stratford-upon-Avon; and, my fellow actors, Heminges and Condell, also refer to me as the author. How do you explain all that? Why? If I wasn’t the author, why? Until you can answer that, you haven’t got an answer, you haven’t even got a question!
SHAKSPAR goes out into the evening.
NHB are proud to publish Mark Rylance’s debut play, I Am Shakespeare. To order your copy at the special price of £7.99 (rrp £9.99) with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the promo code box at checkout.
“This is a lively and very funny play anchored in the present but exploring the secrets of the past. It’s great for companies who have a number of strong male performers and enjoy performing in costume. It’s a light-hearted piece that asks fundamental questions about identity and the nature of genius, and will be enjoyed by all audiences, particularly those with some knowledge of Shakespeare’s work (though, as the extract above shows, it wears its considerable learning lightly). And those of you who have seen or performed Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem will more than likely want to read a stage play by the actor who was the original Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron.”