The Which of Shakespeare’s Why: A Novel of the Authorship Mystery Near Solution Today

  • By Leigh Light
  • City Point Press
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by Marcie Geffner
  • September 26, 2023

A comical exploration of who really penned the Bard’s works.

The Which of Shakespeare’s Why: A Novel of the Authorship Mystery Near Solution Today

In our modern times of ghostwriters, “as told to” memoirs, works-for-hire, and AI-generated content, what does it mean for someone to claim authorship of a written work that someone else — maybe — actually wrote?

That’s the central question hidden within Leigh Light’s delightfully hilarious The Which of Shakespeare’s Why: A Novel of the Authorship Mystery Near Solution Today. Part history, part literary criticism, and part play rehearsal, the novel concerns one Harry T.R. Haines, an aspiring actor who’s been hired to play the title role in the Trenton, New Jersey, Shakespeare Festival’s debut production of Hamlet.

At first, all’s well. Then things start to go sideways.

The play’s financial backer scampers to the Continent to live with his mistress, leaving the production company unable to pay the actors’ salaries. So the director, Lance Gulliver, convinces the backer’s scorned and conveniently very wealthy wife, Valerie Farnsworth, to step in.

Having zero interest in the theater, Valerie needs a lot of convincing. In a successful appeal to her vanity, Lance offers her a part in the performance: a silent appearance as Queen Elizabeth in her stunningly gorgeous “Rainbow Portrait” gown.

To further sex up the production, Lance tasks lead actor Harry with writing additional dialogue for a cast of extra ghosts who will interrupt the Hamlet-King Lear mashup to argue that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, born in 1550, was the true author of the plays and other works attributed to the Bard.

This authorship question isn’t new. Scholars and amateurs have argued for more than 150 years about whether the gentleman from Stratford-upon-Avon actually wrote Shakespeare’s works or was merely a frontman for someone else. The controversy and conspiracy theories persist to this day.

The ghosts in Harry’s play-within-the-novel include not only de Vere, but also Queen Elizabeth, de Vere’s daughter Susan, and four “Daughters of God” from a medieval morality play. The Daughters will be portrayed by Radio City Music Hall Rockettes attired in short Beefeater jackets and sequined panties because, well, why not?

To write the ghosts’ dialogue, Harry delves deeply into a stack of contemporary books about Elizabethan court politics, de Vere’s life and times, and the authorship question. Harry’s master’s degree in English literature from Princeton gives him a leg up, but he’s no Ph.D. He dropped out of his studies after his dissertation advisor, Sheppard Germaine (ha-ha), rejected his proposal to investigate de Vere’s alleged authorship of Shakespeare’s works.

The extra ghosts aren’t the full extent of director Lance’s shenanigans. To sell the idea that de Vere wrote Shakespeare’s plays, he charges Valerie’s tech company, Omniconal Friendship Unlimited, Limited, with developing an algorithm that will “find” historical “proof” of de Vere’s authorship:

“Our streamed production showcasing Omniconal will sell the genius-brilliant Earl of Oxford to the world as the true Shakespeare. Your people can come up with any bit of document fluff and we will shine it up bright, flashing as proof Oxford really was forcibly hidden behind a nobody beard guy not even actually named Shakespeare.”

This “discovery,” Lance assures Valerie, will make Omniconal a beloved friend of the arts and convince certain politicians to drop their claims that its software may be a threat to U.S. national security.

In an ironic twist, the real-life author of this novel about disputed authorship remains hidden behind a pen name. This matters because a key question is raised but never convincingly answered: If de Vere wrote Shakespeare’s works, what was the point of the elaborate scheme to credit them to the Bard? If de Vere wanted anonymity, why not attribute his works to Anonymous or use a pseudonym, too?

The plot is a bit thin, and the pace slows each time Harry embarks on another extended wandering down a scholarly rabbit hole of Crown taxes, inheritance laws, or Queen Elizabeth’s private life. (Was de Vere her lover, her son from a secret pregnancy at age 14, or both?) But readers should press on to find out what whacky idea Lance will propose next, how the invitation-only audience of scholars hand-picked for their open-mindedness about the authorship question will react to the production, and what sort of irrefutable data Omniconal’s algorithm will produce.

The play, for its part, is godawful to the point of hilarity. And while Harry’s ramblings might not all make sense — and certainly won’t prove that de Vere penned Shakespeare’s works — it’s fun trying to follow his twisted logic as he attempts to confirm de Vere’s authorship.

What elevates The Which of Shakespeare’s Why above farce is its unsettling suggestion that it might be impossible to prove who actually wrote, well, any long-ago work. Can evidence be found in the attribution of the work to a particular author, the historical circumstances surrounding its creation, or the details of the author’s life? Maybe. Or maybe not. Either way, you’ll LOL along with the sly author of this rollicking tale, whoever they may be.

Marcie Geffner is a writer, editor, and book reviewer in Ventura, California. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English with high honors at UCLA and studied Shakespeare’s plays and Elizabethan politics at Cambridge University’s Gonville & Caius College through UCLA’s summer study-travel program.

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