Authors : Brenda James and William D. Rubinstein

Publisher : Pearson Longman, 2005



Michael Buhagiar


Ms James, a private scholar with a background in literary studies, with help from William Rubinstein, Professor of Modern History at the University of Wales, has performed a valuable service in bringing the extraordinary Sir Henry Neville into the field of play of the authorship debate. One of the great figures of the Elizabethan era, he was a politician, diplomat, and exceptional scholar and, apparently, writer, who may quite plausibly have made a contribution to the plays of Shakespeare. Yet their thesis, that "Neville wrote the plays of Shakespeare", cannot at all be justified by the evidence they present.

The Truth Will Out might almost stand as a bible of sorts for Baconians, such is the thoroughness with which it demolishes the "Shakespeare as principal author of the plays" argument. It undermines the de Vere stance, too, with some well-placed fatal facts. These are soft targets, however; and Sir Francis Bacon himself is conspicuous by his absence from its pages. The authors have done a professional and thorough job in examining the primary sources for Sir Henry Neville, but not for Bacon. What little of him there is appears to have been sourced from Nigel Cockburn, and Lisa Jardine's and Alan Stewart's inadequate biography. In a summary of the alternative authorship candidates, they dismiss him in two pages. Here are some typical bons mots, expressions and perhaps causes of their neglect:

1) "Bacon's turgid, elephantine philosophical style is very different from that of poetry and drama, let alone Shakespeare."

(Shelley thought otherwise: "The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error… Lord Bacon was a poet. His language has a sweet and majestic rhythm which satisfies the sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; it is a strain which distends and then bursts the circumference of the hearer's mind and pours itself forth together with it into the universal element with which it has perpetual sympathy." [from A Defence of Poetry])

2) "[Bacon] never visited Italy, even as a young man."

(Bacon in fact had ample opportunity to visit Italy during his four years in France under the tutelage of Sir Amyas Paulet, and it is unthinkable that he would not have, given his interests and intellectual curiosity. The years 1579-84, when little is known of his movements, provide another window for a possible trip.)

3) "…it is also important to note that nothing equivalent exists for William Shakespeare or for the other authorship candidates; that is, contemporary documents which directly imply that they were authors of the works of 'Shakespeare'."

(Never heard of the Promus, apparently. Et cetera.)

Sir Henry Neville may have been a close friend and associate of Bacon's in fact, it is hard to imagine this not being so. A larger than life character in personality and body, he was the physical model for Falstaff, whose name originally was 'Oldcastle', a reverse pun on 'Ne(w);ville', 'new town'. His was one of the great families of England. Gilbert de Neville was steward to William the Conqueror. Alan de Neville was Chief Forester to Henry II. The family eventually married into royalty, and Sir Henry was a descendant of John of Gaunt. A remote ancestor was Ralph, first Earl of Westmoreland. The Nevilles produced innumerable earls, bishops, archbishops, knights bachelors, knights of the Order of the Bath, Lord Chamberlains, Lords High Admirals of the fleet, and so on. From Lady Cecilia Neville, Duchess of York, and mother of Edward IV, there linearly descended seven kings of England, two queens of Scotland, two queens of France, one queen of Spain, and one queen of Bohemia. Perhaps the most famous Neville was Richard, Earl of Warwick, the 'Kingmaker'. His younger brother Edward, Baron of Abergavenny, was the great-great-grandfather of Sir Henry Neville. The Shakespeare history plays are inevitably packed with members of his family; and he must surely have been extremely interested in their composition.

Sir Henry Neville père had three wives, the last of whom was Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Nicholas and Anne Bacon, and half sister to Sir Francis. Sir Henry fills the Neville under consideration must surely have been friendly with Bacon, who was probably no more than eighteen months his senior. Testament to this is Bacon's intervention in a trial in 1611 (when he was Solicitor General) involving his son, which evidently saved him from malicious prosecution. Neville matriculated at Oxford at age 15, and he was certainly an exceptional scholar. Hinted at also by many sources is his literary gift, although he published nothing under his own name. Ben Jonson, for example, wrote a sixteen line Epigram in his praise:

Who now calls on thee, NEVIL, is a Muse,

That serves nor fame, nor titles, but doth chuse

Where virtue makes them both , and that's in thee…

To be the same in root, thou arte in height;

And that thy soul should give thy flesh her weight.

Goe on, and doubt not, what posteritie,

Now I have sung thee thus, shall judge of thee.

Thy deedes, unto thy name, will prove new wombes,

Whil'st others toyle for titles to their tombes.

The centerpiece of the authors' evidence is the Tower Notebook, which they convincingly demonstrate was written by Neville during his imprisonment in the Tower from May 1601 to April 1603 for his part in the Essex rebellion. Queen Elizabeth had forbidden discussion of the succession; but Neville took the opportunity during his incarceration to study the documents in the Tower relating to past coronations, and the Notebook contains a description of the coronation of Anne Boleyn, which bears some (no more than that) similarities to the coronation scene in Henry the Eighth, for which Holinshed's and Halle's Chronicles could not have been the sole sources. Close examination of the Notebook (the relevant page of which they reproduce) and the coronation scene in the First Folio facsimile in fact reveals as many disparities as similarities. The authors' contention that the Notebook material was used elsewhere in HVIII is dubious in the extreme. HVIII was not written until about a decade after the Notebook, and much water had flown under the bridge, bringing with it a new monarch, a coronation, a new openness: a change in circumstances which they fail to weigh. In any case, the dynamics of the Bacon circle and the production of the plays would have made interchange of information the norm rather then exception. The Notebook is marked "Pastimes", which suggests that Neville may indeed have had a play in mind. Or was he simply enjoying his musing, inviting his soul, searching for edification and enjoyment during the long bleak days? The remainder of the Notebook has yet to be analysed. It will certainly be interesting to see what comes of it. As it stands, their unequivocal assertion primarily on its basis that "Neville wrote the plays of Shakespeare" is far too long a leap.

James and Rubinstein adduce much secondary evidence, which varies in quality. They claim that Neville was responsible for the annotations in the famous copy of Halle's Chronicles, although they cannot be sure it is his hand; for the annotations in a copy of Leicester's Commonwealth, of which they further claim him to have been the author; for the Northumberland manuscript, which bears his name in the top left-hand corner; and so on. No firm conclusions can be drawn from it, although one gets the strong impression from the totality of the evidence that something may have been going on: that Neville may indeed have had an influence on the plays, especially the histories. Even worth considering is the possibility that he may have been Bacon's right-hand man in the actual writing of some, perhaps many, of them. Anthony Bacon has been posited for this role, but he was a busy man, and often overseas. It could not have been Jonson, for he was on bad terms with Bacon at least throughout the 1590s, and possibly up until 1610. Kyd? No. Shaksper? Certainly not, although there is much firm evidence that he did contribute to the writing of the plays, albeit in a low-level way: contributing 'shreds' to the 'fleece', as Jonson put it in his Epigram on the Poet-ape. But we need more evidence.

The bulk of the book does not in fact concern itself with the documentary evidence, but with Neville's life, in so far as it can be shown to be consonant with the progression of the plays. This can be taken, in its entirety, with a grain of salt. In trying to explain how he could have written the plays during his diplomatic posting in France from 1599-1600, and while in the Tower, the authors involve themselves in the sort of speculations and contortions which disfigure the pro-Shaksperian works.

Perhaps it is just as well that James and Rubinstein failed to weigh the evidence in favour of Bacon, because then their curate's-egg of a book may never have been written, and an important new avenue may have remained unexplored. They should be proud of their legwork in pursuit of Sir Henry Neville, but not the conclusions they have drawn from it.


-- Michael Buhagiar was born in 1954 in Sydney, Australia. He was educated at St. Ignatius College, Riverview, and at Sydney University, from where, after studying medicine for several years, he graduated Bachelor of Science with First Class Honours (Biochemistry major). He has had poems and book reviews published in The Weekend Australian newspaper, The Chinese Herald (Sydney)(in translation), Quadrant (Apr 99) and Insight (Nov 95) magazines, journals of the Poets Union, and elsewhere. He has worked for some years in the book industry, which he finds congenial. Ugly Dick and the Goddess of Complete Being is his first book.