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Stanford Report, January 9, 2002

Shakespearean conspiracy theory inspires new play by Amy Freed


Conspiracy theorists are a tortured lot. Teased by scant yet compelling evidence, many have ended their investigations, unfulfilled, in mental institutions.

The Shakespeare doubters are among the most literary and devoted of this subculture. They contend that the man from Stratford, whom most people credit with having written all those magnificent plays between about 1590 and 1611, was a stooge -- a front man for the real author. Whether or not you buy into this theory, drama lecturer Amy Freed has discovered that it makes for some entertaining theater.

Drama Lecturer Amy Freed penned The Beard of Avon. The play premieres in San Francisco later this month. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Her latest play, The Beard of Avon, is a comedy predicated on the authorship controversy. "There's something about it that has the attractiveness of a good mystery," Freed said during a recent telephone interview from her San Francisco home. "You just can't leave it alone."

The American Conservatory Theater's production opens Jan. 16 in San Francisco. It is scheduled to run through Feb. 10.

In the play, Shakespeare is a (deceptively) simple bumpkin with a talent for rhyme and a vivid imagination. He leaves his wife and home in Stratford-upon-Avon to join a company of actors traveling to London, where he is chosen as a beard -- front man -- for plays written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a libertine and closet dramatist.

In real life, conspiracy theorists -- called the Oxfordians -- claim that de Vere, who was in fact a well-educated earl, wrote the 37 plays and 154 sonnets attributed to the Bard. Is it possible that the balding man who stares coyly at us from that famous portrait by Martin Droeshout -- the one silk-screened onto about 90 percent of all Shakespeare-festival T-shirts -- actually was abetting an elaborate conspiracy?

"I don't know if we'll ever know," Freed submits. In discussing the controversy, she doesn't take a side -- a deliberate act of equivocation, probably, to keep from tainting her play with bias. Suffice it to say, however, that Shakespeare does not go uncredited.

A former actress who earned her master's degree in acting from ACT, Freed said that, until recently, she had never taken an interest in the authorship question. However, she became intrigued by a friend's take on the subject.

"I began by wanting to write a comedy about people who are obsessed by conspiracies, and I became obsessed with this conspiracy," she said.

This is not to say that, in the spirit of Oliver Stone, Freed boldly steamrollers one theory to erect another. "My play is not a vote for de Vere; it's a mystery," she said. "On the surface, it's a spoof or parody about authorship issues, but on a deeper level it's about what makes a writer like Shakespeare. Is it talent? Is it access? Can you do it just by genius alone? When you have a desperate desire to achieve something important in the art world -- and let's say in the writing world -- what lengths do you go to get there?"

Freed began by researching the subject of Shakespeare's language use, which is phenomenal. He employs a vocabulary that is the richest and most varied of any author, alive or dead. Milton, for example, wrote using about 8,000 words; Shakespeare used in excess of 20,000. How, Freed wonders, could someone with only a grammar-school education have become the standard against which all playwrights are now judged?

"He's successful at so many different levels, in his marriage of intricate thought and accessible delivery," she said. "If he came from this illiterate family and went to school for only about six years, it doesn't add up for me. So who did he meet? What metamorphosed him into a person who could write that way? Some people say he was an idiot savant, but you don't acquire that kind of vocabulary being an idiot savant."

Freed said she also was intrigued by the dearth of information about his life. There are about 100 references to him and his family in parish, municipal and commercial documents, but not much else. There are only six surviving signatures (each one spelled differently), and his will is hilariously devoid of any mention of books, plays or poetry. Even his epitaph doesn't seem right for poet and dramatist of his supposed stature.

"It's a little bit of graveyard doggerel," Freed explained. But she added that she has not yet joined the ranks of the true Shakespeare conspiracy theorists.

"Some people who have got into this have died in nuthouses, but I'm not a full-fledged maniac," she said. "I have the release of comedy. I can sleep with the uncertainty."

The Beard of Avon was commissioned by the South Coast Repertory Theater, which produced it in June 2001. The play has since been performed by acting companies in Salt Lake City and Seattle. Meanwhile, Freed has been fine-tuning the script and hopes the show eventually will open in New York City. Freed's other plays include Freedomland, which was a 1998 Pulitzer finalist, The Psychic Life of Savages, Claustrophilia, The Ghoul of Amherst and Still Warm.

The ACT production will feature Marco Barricelli (The Room, Glengarry Glen Ross) as the Earl of Oxford; Matthew Boston (The Invention of Love, Arcadia) as Shakespeare; René Augesen (The Misanthrope, Celebration) as his wife, Anne Hathaway; and Kandis Chappell (who played in Berkeley Repertory Theatre's productions of The Magic Fire and Antony and Cleopatra) as Queen Elizabeth. Stanford undergraduate Jordan Kaplan, a junior majoring in drama, also gets his first professional wind playing a member of the acting company Shakespeare joins.

For tickets, call the box office at (415) 749-2228 or fax a ticket request (with a credit-card number) to (415) 749-2291. For more information or to order tickets online, visit