Never start a review with your conclusion sounds like good advice but in the case of Shakespeare: The hidden truth (a documentary showing at this years Cambridge Film Festival) it is necessary, the central tenant of this film is nonsense! Absolute text book conspiracy theory. Take a piece of source material so enormous it would be impossible for it not to contain coincidences and unexplainable oddities (in this case the complete works of Shakespeare!) Apply to it the natural human tendency to look for higher meaning and in particular patterns, and then find a ‘sceptic’ who by his own admission would be thrilled if the conspiracy theory were true as it would make it’s originator and by association him, revolutionaries in the world of shakespeare and literary accademia.
From its opening minutes where the director Jorgen Friberg informs us that his resident sceptic Robert Crumpton is a PHD student in renaissance literature and an actor, we should be sceptical (his desire for a “new” approach to his beloved Shakespeare must call his objectivity into question.) We follow our thespian lead on his journey of discovery to Scandinavia, to meet the originator of this latest shakespeare theory Petter Amundsen, to hear and supposedly refute his theory.
What follows is 100 minutes of argument destroyingly mixed claims and evidence that variously, Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays, Francis Bacon did write Shakespeare’s plays, Henry Neville wrote bits of shakespeare’s plays, Francis Bacon, Henry Neville and Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays together, Francis Bacon was head of the Rosicrucians, Bacon, Neville and Shakespeare were all members of the Rosicrucians, there was a conspiracy after his death to place the original manuscripts for Shakespeares plays in mercury and bury them on an island in Nova Scotia along with the body of the Rosicrucian founder Christian Rosenkreuz (who is said, if he existed at all, to have died in 1484 at the age of 106 and 80 years before Shakespeare birth) and various religious treasures from Jerusalem, and finally that clues towards these various facts are hidden in cryptograms and codes within the original print of shakespeare’s complete works, not solely with the aim of encouraging people to go looking for the complete works of Shakespeare but is infact concerned with the altogether higher cause of helping people to discover the aforementioned Father of Rosicrucianism.
Most but not all (there is a fair bit of jumping to other apparently random publications from loosely around the same time) of the claims focus on the “First Folio” which is the first printed copy of the complete works of shakespeare, published it should be noted in 1623 seven years after shakespeare’s death, this itself is problematic because the evidence is mixed between messages hidden in the layout of the text (certainly possible to organise, at the printing stage, but which the man himself could not have played a big part in) but also in the text of the plays themselves which at the most generous estimate was written variously between 1592 and 1613.
The devastating thing for the theory is when these two elements are combined, as they often are, so that the text itself and the layout work together to hide the secrets within, as it seems implausible in the extreme that the handwritten manuscript created in say 1597 could have contained notes on the potential layout of possible future printing, accurate enough to allow the kind of encoding necessary for this theory to work with anything like the complexity that this film requires it to.
There are without doubt moments which induce surprise and even at times open minded head shaking as pieces of evidence are presented that cause you to genuinely stop and think, but for all but the most desperate conspiracy theorist will have that “stopping and thinking” interrupted by the bit of their brain that screams “NO (insert name here) THIS IS TOTAL NONSENSE!”
The film itself is competently put together and the two protagonists are interesting if at times annoying in their very self conscious telling of the story, but the total lack of conclusion (even after watching the film AND taking part in the subsequent Q&A) would be frustrating if it weren’t for the assumption that there is no conclusion to be had because the theory is nonsense.