Georgia Sparling: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Each week we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. This is episode three. My name is Georgia Sparling. I work in the Office of Communications at Lesley University. Today, we've got a great conversation with filmmaker, Cheryl Eagan-Donovan, a graduate and now faculty member of our MFA in Creative Writing program.
Cheryl's most recent project is called, Nothing Truer than Truth. It's a documentary that suggests that aristocratic, A-list playboy, Edward de Vere, may have actually been the person behind Shakespeare's work. Needless to say, it's a theory that is a bit controversial in some literary circles, but let's hear about it from Cheryl. Thanks for being here today. Please, just start by telling me a little bit about yourself and how you got interested in Shakespeare and Edward de Vere.
Cheryl: Of course. I was an English Major in high school, British lit honor student. After that, I did my undergrad work in writing literature and wrote poetry, did an independent study in Shakespeare on themes of androgyny in the plays. I was always interested in Shakespeare from an early age and started writing at an early age as well.
It wasn't until 1997, I was taking a history class at Harvard University when I heard about the controversy about the authorship of the Shakespeare plays. I wasn't aware of that. It was a class in history on primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, how do we know what we know? How do we gather that information, how do we assess it? He gave us the assignment of writing an essay incorporated that kind of evidence.
He said one of the things you might want to write about is the controversy over who wrote Shakespeare. I have never heard of that. He suggested the book, Shakespeare Identified by John Thomas Looney. It was written in 1920. I read that book, I was amazed, and absolutely convinced. One of the things that really convinced me was Looney's methodology of looking at what attributes would the writer Shakespeare have had to have had.
He would have had to have access to books, he had knowledge in several areas. He also identified him as a lyric poet. That's where the connection, several of the attributes matched, Edward de Vere as well, so he backed into it. He said, "Who else with this time that had those qualities, that had that access and reputation?" His analysis of de Vere's early poetry, the juvenilia, his juvenilia, really convinced me.
I just did a lecture on that at the Shakespeare Authorship Conference. There's an annual conference of people doing research into the authorship question. I spoke at the last one in Chicago on that topic, on the echoes of the early poetry written by de Vere, it's extant. We do have the copies, in the later Shakespeare works, so you can really see the development of the poet's voice. Some of the phrases and words are exactly the same, the themes are parallel, it's really fascinating. That hooked me. [laughs]
Georgia: Before we get into your documentary specifically, could you give the quick rundown of what the controversy is for the uninitiated?
Cheryl: Sure. The name on the plays and the poems is Shakespeare. It's thought to be by many people a pseudonym. The works have always been attributed to someone who lived at that time in Stratford-upon-Avon. His name was William Shaksper. It was spelled a number of different ways. Part of the controversy is that, there is no evidence that William Shaksper from Stratford-upon-Avon ever wrote anything.
There is no evidence that he could read or write. The six signatures that we have of his are all different and almost illegible, so it's suspected that he was illiterate himself. Some of his children were illiterate. There were some questions- there have always been questions about, who wrote the works? Was it the man from Stratford-upon-Avon or not? It's a great myth because he came from a humble background without an education.
Again, there is speculation that he would gone to the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon but there is proof of that. People seem to like the idea that he didn't have to come from a background of wealth or had access to books. Other contemporary writers in Elizabethan times did go to college. When I taught the class here at Lesley, World Drama from the Greeks to the Renaissance, it was great because we got to talk about all Shakespeare's contemporaries and look at each of their backgrounds and see what went into creating them as writers.
Again, even with the Chinese Shakespeare, his family had money, he served in the war. All of the writer's experience go into their work, I believe. That was part of my theory. Anyway, the controversy, as I said, has been building for many years. There were other people that thought, "Okay. Well, if it wasn't the guy from Stratford, because there doesn't seem to be any evidence that it was him, who else could it have been?"
Sir Francis Bacon was thought to be the writer from many years. People still believe that Christopher Marlowe could have been the writer. To me, that makes sense because, Marlowe, we know was a writer. We know more about him than we do about the person from Stratford-upon-Avon. He was a great character. He was a spy, he was gay; although, they didn't have the phrase gay during that time period. He was and his plays are clear about that. He's a great candidate, but for me, I think their writing styles are very different.
I don't see a parallel between Marlowe's writing and Shakespeare's. People have said it could have been a woman. It could have been Queen Elizabeth who wrote the plays. She clearly used the plays, I think the Shakespeare plays, to make statements politically, but whether she actually wrote them or not is open to debate. Mary Sidney is thought to have written the play. There have been many, many candidates over the years. Edward de Vere, I think is still the leading candidate because his own extant poems and letters, and his life experience so clearly match the works of Shakespeare.
Georgia: When did his name first come up in history as a possible Shakespeare?
Cheryl: There are two scholars working on a book on that right now, which is really exciting. Roger Stritmatter and Alexander Waugh, are working on a book called, Early Allusions to Shakespeare and the relation of that to Edward de Vere as the author. As I said, most people and myself included, became aware of de Vere in 1920, with the publication of Looney's book, Shakespeare Identified. There are many references to him as early as 1598 in Francis Mere's book, where he calls him the "best playwright, the best for comedy". He was acknowledged. He was known to be a playwright and someone writing poetry at the time, in the late 1500s and up until the early 1600s. He died in 1604.
Georgia: How did you decide to work on a documentary on Edward de Vere?
Cheryl: That's a great question. I had just finished my first film which was composed of something completely different, but in some ways similar about a punk rock band from Boston.
Georgia: That's awesome.
Cheryl: I'm an artist. I'm a singer-songwriter who was super talented, but couldn't get out of his own way. A disaster in managing his career but had following of fans around the world.
Georgia: What was the name of that?
Cheryl: That's called All Kindsa Girls, which is the name of his most popular song taken from a Beach Boys song. I just finished that in 2006. As I said, I had learned about de Vere in this class at Harvard after I read Shakespeare Identified and wrote my essay, which is called Nothing is Truer than Truth. Same name as the film because it's a de Vere motto translated to English.
His motto was, "Vero Nihil Verius" in Latin which is a pun on the name Vere, but it means literally "nothing truer than truth." I wrote that paper, then I did a little more research to see what can I find about this guy because I'm like, "Wow, this guy is so interesting. I want to make a film about him." I knew then, Mark Anderson and Roger Stritmatter, were working on a book about Edward de Vere that would be the definitive biography.
I was sure, as soon as I read about it that would go through and document all of parallels in de Vere's life with the themes and stories in the plays themselves. I said, "When this book is done, I'm going to auction it." What happened in the interim between 1997 and 2006, was that Roger decided to do his PhD dissertation at UMass Amherst on the authorship. He did an analysis of the Geneva Bible that was owned by Edward de Vere that's at the Folger Library in Washington DC. Mark Anderson went on and completed the book. When the book was published, I went to the book signing of Brookline Booksmith and was first in line and told him I wanted to auction it to make a film. For me, as I said, when I discovered Edward de Vere, I thought, this is a great character. I would love to make a film about him. He has such an interesting life.
Georgia: I was reading an interview and you called de Vere a cross between Dorothy Parker and Jack Sparrow. Can you talk a little bit about that because that's a fascinating combination?
Cheryl: Yes. For that reason, I'd love to do a narrative version of the film as well because he was larger than life; although, not particularly tall. He had a reputation as being quarrelsome, as one of the interviewees in the film in England says. He had a temper and he was very charismatic. He loved talking and telling stories, and would fascinate his friends and colleagues with the tales that he would tell. He could also be very vicious because he was very witty and he was so talented with his words. If he chose to use some as weapons, he could.
That part of his personality just really interested me. Again, as a writer, writers are often complicated people. Again, he knew he was talented, but had a really difficult time in relationships, managing his money. He lost all of the money that he had. He was born very wealthy, and as Roger says in the film, he was maybe the most downwardly mobile person in the history of the planet because he just kept losing everything that he had, spending all the money that he had and selling all of his land.
One of the people that I interviewed for the film, Alex McNeil, who's a DJ here in Boston, but also an attorney and a scholar, Shakespeare scholar. He pointed out the fact that oftentimes people who are geniuses are very talented, don't develop those social skills that the rest of us need to survive. They don't have to, and they'd get away with behaving in ways that aren't socially acceptable. To me, that was a really interesting thing about him. Again, people said of him that he was fascinating, and that when he walked into a room, everyone would stop and hear what he had to say. That really sparked my imagination.
Georgia: How did someone like that- how would he have gotten his plays to the stage? Would people at the time have known that he was Shakespeare?
Cheryl: Well, we think that some people must have known. That his close associates and friends must have known. For example, he had writers working with him, the [unintelligible 00:13:05] after he came back from Italy. In the 1580s, he had a group of writers working with him. His secretaries included some of the famous writers of the day, Anthony Monday and John Lyly. He had people working with him who clearly would have known that he was a writer.
First, the plays when he first returned to England from Italy, would have been put on at court. Not at what we think of today as the Globe Theater, or the Curtain Theater, or any of the public theaters. That's where we're missing some of the connections of how did the plays then get produced for the public? Was there a relationship with Williams Shakespeare from Stratford? Was he a bard? Was he a go-between? What was his role? That we don't know the answers to.
Georgia: Right. Like why would he need to hide?
Cheryl: The lie is another really interesting question, so there are many theories on that. One is that, what he was writing was political and dangerous, and that's true. Many other writers were imprisoned, or had their hands cut off, or were tortured. [laughs] It was very dangerous to write critically about the people in power at the time. It's interesting that Shakespeare never suffered any of those consequences. Shakespeare, the writer.
Cheryl: I think clearly that was a factor, but for me, what was much more interesting and what again, really captivated me when I first found out about de Vere, was the theory that was put forward by Joseph Sobran, in his book Alias Shakespeare. Right after I read Shakespeare Identified, again, it was in 1997, I read Sobran's book called Alias Shakespeare, it had just come out.
He says that, the first folio reinvented Shakespeare by eliminating this on its- and getting rid of any of the references to the bisexuality of the author. Because the early poems, Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrèce, were dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, and what many consider very homoerotic dedication and were sexually explicit. There was this idea that all of that was part of why Shakespeare needed to be reinvented.
I picked up on that, again, it was 1997 and Ellen Degeneres had just come out on television, at the time, that was a big deal. It's like light years ago, but it was a big deal. I thought, ''You know what? That makes sense." Maybe this is why we don't talk about Edward de Vere as being a likely candidate. Maybe that's why there is such a taboo about talking about this on campus. There still is today in academia, Lesley is one of the most progressive schools in the country and in the world really because of that.
Because we have Annie Pluto with their Oxford Street Players doing the plays and doing acts supporting read on them. It's really great, but that's not the case in most English departments. In most English departments, you will be humiliated. In class, if you even mentioned this story, they just totally laugh it off. I've had the experience at BU, where I'm an alum as well. I did my business degree there, so it's not acceptable to talk about that.
Even after de Vere died, that would be another question, why would he keep it secret after he died? Maybe he didn't want people to know about his relationship with Southampton. The Earl of Southampton was younger at the time. Again, one of the theories is that his family didn't want it known and Southampton didn't want it known. Southampton was still alive and powerful when King James was in power and de Vere passed away in 1604.
We do think that his daughters, Susan and Bridgette, had something to do with the publishing the-- getting the manuscripts to be published by Ben Johnson in the first folio. Some of the examples that Richard Waldman cites in the film that are interesting are, other writers who use the pseudonym because, specifically, because of their own sexuality.
I talk about that a lot. In my classes, my English comp class that I teach here is about focused on gender identity and sexuality in literature and film. Patricia Highsmith, who wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley, also wrote The Price of Salt, and she didn't want her family to know about her sexuality. That was the reason she used the pseudonym. There are many, many roles.
Georgia: A long history of that.
Cheryl: Yes. Also there is a great example from Renaissance Times, Michael Angelo, who we again know as a painter, an artist and sculptor. He also wrote sonnets. He did write sonnets to a young man and they were kept private. When his-- I think it was his nephew or grandson, someone published them 100 years later but changed the gender. That was done with Shakespeare's sonnets at one point too, and had done some change the gender to make them all heterosexual.
For me, the really interesting reason for this pseudonym that most people don't want to talk about is that there are other theories, and it probably was a combination of reasons. It wasn't acceptable for someone of the nobility to be publishing plays. You could write private poems for your friends, I guess, which is one of the references to the sonnets. That they were these sugared sonnets that were passed around with this circle of writers, but to do something publicly was considered untoward and inappropriate.
We also believe that de Vere-- clearly Shakespeare had such knowledge of the stage that de Vere would have had knowledge of acting and directing as well. It seems likely that he was involved in some of the productions. What I like in the film is where, Derek Jacobi, talks about the fact that he grew up with theater. His father had a troupe of players. He would have seen them perform at the castle when he was young. Clearly, opportunities for him to be involved in the theater all of his life. He had his own group of players.
The relationship with the theater is evident in the works of Shakespeare. De Vere would've had that. I think that was another lecture that I did talking about the theater as a place in Elizabethan times that was thought of as really dangerous and overtly sexual. How that carried forward to Broadway in the '40s and '50s, when they were doing plays about sexuality that were considered inappropriate as well. It has always been thought of as a place of subversion, where you tread everything upside down. The carnival idea, misrule.
Georgia: Reached all the limits.
Cheryl: Yes, and changing roles and everything. I think that de Vere's involvement in the theater, personally, was another thing that he wanted to keep quiet, so he found a way to do that.
Georgia: Let's talk about, you're making this film, what was the process of bringing the idea or the book that you optioned from just an idea to actually having a finished product?
Cheryl: Great. Thanks that's a good question. When I optioned the book, that was the first step. I decided to just focus on the year-and-a half that de Vere traveled in Italy. That became the story arc to just focus on those two chapters. The first thing I did was to interview lots of people. I interviewed the author of the book many times and lots of other people who were working on, again, different aspects of the relationship between de Vere and Shakespeare.
I, eventually, was able to connect with, Diane Paulus, here at the A.R.T American Repertory Theatre. She's fantastic. They've been supportive of the project, it's been great. Then, Tina Packer, at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, was able to interview her. Was a matter of contacting different people, getting in touch with, Derek Jacobi and getting to interview him. Then after you shoot all of the footage, which you know in documentary you can have a lot of footage.
I took some time, we did a Kickstarter campaign to go and shoot in Italy. We went to the actual locations where de Vere visited in 1575, '76. There we filmed for seven days and then we filmed in the UK as well. At Hedingham Castle, at Barley House, where the books are that Shakespeare would have had access to, we liked to film the actual books. Then finally at Westminster Abbey, where Shakespeare and de Vere should be buried, but there's no evidence of that. It was an interesting way to end the film. We decided to end it there with that mystery.
Georgia: It's a question of either of them are there, or if Shakespeare is there?
Cheryl: Shakespeare should be there.
Cheryl: It's really interesting. There's a statue of Shakespeare there at Poets' Corner, and it says- right on it, "I'm not here, I'm buried over at Stratford-upon-Avon," which is quite so weird. Then at Stratford-upon-Avon, there is the monument, the famous monument of what used to be- the original engraving shows the man holding- these are the wool sack or the bag of rain, whatever it is.
Then that was at some point later turned into a pillow. He was given a quill as if he was writing. It was changed but on that there's an inscription that is a riddle that says, "Who I'm I buried with?" That's why we went to Westminster Abbey because Alexander Waugh, who's Evelyn Waugh's grandson, who’s done the research on this, is convinced that de Vere is buried there and would be right there with Spenser and Chaucer and-- I forgot. I can't think now.
Georgia: It's okay.
Cheryl: Anyway, he should be buried there, right there.
Cheryl: We went there last. Shooting on-location was another piece of it. Then we had all that footage. When you put it together, when you're making a film is when you really find the story. Then the process of editing to find the core of the story and to make it work was probably the most challenging part by our two really great editors who helped me with that. I made conscious decisions to use clips from contemporary films and to illustrate the parallels between de Vere's life and the plays.
Because, as an educator I feel that that's how students engage with the plays. It's through modern film versions of the plays. For example, I know in high school when you study Romeo and Juliet, in addition to reading the text, students watch both versions of the film, which are both great. The Zeffirelli and the Baz Lurhmann, I love both versions. Again, for me, as a filmmaker and someone who loves cinema, that was an easy decision to make but it also has complications, [chuckles] because you have lots and lots of footage that are-
[crosstalk] I've been working on that.
Georgia: Going back a little bit, how was it interviewing people about this controversy and about Edward de Vere? There is a lot of debate about it. Were people willing to talk to you, or?
Cheryl: That's a great question. Most people were but some were not. Again, because it is so controversial and taboo, in academia there were professors who declined to speak to me. Sometimes it was because they were always too busy. For example, I would love to have Stephen Greenblatt. People said, "Why don't you have people who are clearly Stratfordian tell the other side of the story?"
I would love to have had Stephen Greenblatt because he's a great writer and he's very knowledgeable. He, as you know, constantly putting out new books and touring with his books. His new book is called Tyrant. It's about Shakespeare as well, about King Lear, so we were never able to connect.
I asked, Marjorie Garber, who's here in Harvard, I would love to interview her. Marjorie Garber has written several books about Shakespeare and Shakespearean modern culture. She also wrote a book on bisexuality, so she would have been perfect to talk with. She's friends with Diane Paulus, but we weren't able to connect. Helen Vendler, is a wonderful scholar of the sonnets. She is here at Harvard still teaching, but again, too busy.
It's unfortunate when you're not able to connect with people. One of the professors who really helped me in Venice, when I was going to Venice, he helped me find my production coordinator and the person who I did end up interviewing, Alberto Toso Fei, the two of them wrote a book called, Shakespeare in Venice. He teaches at the University of Venice and because of that did not want to appear on camera. Many people are reluctant to talk about de Vere on camera because of the implications it could have for their careers. That was really interesting.
Georgia: That's pretty eye-opening that it's that serious or that people fear for their own careers by talking about just the controversy. Are there people who are rabidly--?
Cheryl: Pro-Stratford, Stratfordian?
Cheryl: Yes, there are. A good example would be, James Shapiro, who's written several books about when Shakespeare lived and where he lived, things like that. Like he wrote 1599. He is adamantly Stratfordian. One of the things it's interesting is that the people who believe that William Shaksper from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the works tend to criticize those who think otherwise in the same kind of ways. As someone who teaches English comp, it's interesting because they use ad hominem attacks. They call the people, anyone who believes in de Vere are crackpots, lunatics, crazy-- Seriously. We've been called-
Georgia: Wow. It's like you're a heretic or something.
Cheryl: -Holocaust deniers. Stephen Greenblatt used the term but he has since apologized. That's how-
Georgia: That's very strong language.
Cheryl: Yes. Exactly. It's interesting. There's several ways to try to understand that. From known economic point of view, you're making your living writing these books. There's no end to the books about Shakespeare. There's a big economic incentive for Stratford-upon-Avon to continue to be the theme park that it is. We have said, it won't go away, there would still be this person who lived at the time whose name is William Shaksper and lived in Stratford-upon-Avon, but then there would also be Hedingham which is where de Vere lived.
Then there are all the psychological reasons, why people don't want to give up something that they hold dearly? How difficult it is to change your mind about something that you believe in? The idea of Shakespeare being defined. Again, finally that myth of coming from rural background without a lot of money, without access to a good education, but then somehow he became the greatest writer in the English language.
Georgia: Right, it makes him a hero and anybody can do it if he could do it. In the process of doing your research, did anything surprise you that came out in that process?
Cheryl: I have to think for a minute because unlike you, I'm used to doing the interview where I ask the questions. [laughter]
Georgia: Yes. Sure.
Cheryl: I guess, in some ways I was surprised with just how much evidence there is, and how much research is being done continually. Honestly, when I started this project, I wasn't a member of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship, that we, you know, support research by scholars around the world to try and find more information. I think most people don't know about the Geneva Bible, that it's at the Folger. I've had the opportunity to see it where de Vere made the actual markings in the Bible and how they all correspond to the plays themselves, to go and see the (unintelligible) in Mantua, in the palace there, and see the paintings that are described in the play. There's tons of evidence and it's tangible, and most people aren't aware of it at all. Really, that was a great part of the process of making the film, for me was being able to meet all these people and hear about the work that they're doing, and go and see the places myself. Burghley House is like Downton Abbey. It's a beautiful house, it's amazing. The people are so nice there. You get a sense of who he was, and the fact, like I said, that he had access to all of those books in the original languages. He could read in those languages.
He went to Burghley House when his father died when he was 12—Not unlike Hamlet, and he became a ward of state and when he arrived at Burghley House he was-- Then had the best tutors in the country and had a rigorous educational program every day, where he studied all the different languages. This is something, a connection that we don't have with the person from Stratford at all.
Georgia: Is there any doubt in your mind that Edward de Vere is Shakespeare?
Cheryl: I am really convinced but I have to say that, I need to keep an open mind because I don't want to be close-minded about it because we don't have the manuscript. Something could turn up as evidence while we're doing the research that would change our perception of what his role was. Clearly, he was alive at the same time, he was known as a writer, he moved in a community of writers at the time, was a leader actually.
Georgia: A lot of pieces of it.
Cheryl: Again, I started with the idea that he was just such a fascinating character that, as a writer, I wanted to make a film about him. The more I learn, the more I am convinced that he was the writer of the works of Shakespeare.
Georgia: Since you are part of the Lesley MFA in Creative Writing Program, could you talk a little bit about how that experience has helped you as a screenwriter? How did your experience at Lesley shape your screenwriting and the work you're doing now?
Cheryl: Great. Well, I came to the program after having made my first film and worked in public relations, and had put my writing aside. For me, because it was a studio program with a lot of intensive writing, it was really great. It allowed me to focus on my writing and have deadlines. I was able to write for different screenplays, multiple drafts that I did and wrote in 10-minute plays. For me, it was really a great experience of being able to focus on the writing.
At the same time, I was able to continue working on the film through the interdisciplinary component of the program, so I was able to continue that work. The faculty that I worked with were amazing are amazing. Jami Brandli and Barry Brodsky are two people that I work with really closely and really help me.
One of the projects I did was a narrative version of de Vere's life. I really enjoyed doing that. I think, one of my goals as well in that program was to teach. One of my AIS courses was to be a teaching assistant. I worked with Chris Bock here, and his Intro to Literature class when he was here. It helped me not only as a screenwriter but also to develop my skills as a teacher, and that's something I've been doing since I graduated.
Georgia: If people want to see the film, how can they do that if they are not in the Boston area?
Cheryl: They can join the mailing list for the film.
Georgia: Where do people go to get on that mailing list?
Cheryl: It's www.controversyfilms.com, or they can write to you directly at email@example.com.
Georgia: Great. We'll put that on the show notes too so people can find you. That was great.
Cheryl: Thank you.
Georgia: Thank you so much. This is really fascinating. I feel like I've got a whole new view on Shakespeare.
Cheryl: More information.
Georgia: Oh, yes. It's great.
Cheryl: Oh, good.
Cheryl: Thank you.
Georgia: Thank you for listening to Why We Write. Please check out the show notes for more information on what we talked about today. You can also go to lesley.edu/podcast. We're taking a break next week for Thanksgiving, but here's a sneak peek of our next show. Dropping in November 29th, with best-selling YA author, Jason Reynolds.
Jason Reynolds: From books, I just wasn't interested, not just me nobody in my community. None of my friends, none of us were reading anything, because we didn't have, "Why would I engage in something that I didn't feel like was engaging with me?" For me, the answer, I know your answer is a little different, but for me, my South Asian came through rap music and through reading rap lyrics as a young person. As a preteenager reading Queen Latifah lyrics, and Tupac lyrics, and Slick Rick lyrics, and Naz lyrics, and then understanding poetry.
Georgia: Please check out the show notes for more information on Nothing Truer Than Truth and Sheryl Eagan-Donovan's work. You can also go to lesley.edu/podcast.