Preview

THE QUEEN’S CIPHER

A SHAKESPEARE MYSTERY

8 AUGUST 1998

The Irish county town had a historic duty to hold a weekly market and an annual fair and these obligations had coincided on this hot Saturday afternoon. Spectators lined the busy high street to get a better view of the approaching carnival procession. Weighed down with parcels, perspiring shoppers placated their fractious children with ice cream cornets and cans of coke. There was an expectant, charged air rather like a theatre audience before the curtain rises.

Breaking the tension, a cheerful looking couple in waterproof jackets and hiking boots pushed their way through the crowd to enact a family photograph, standing on the road with arms linked, waving their walking poles for the benefit of their son’s digital camera.

This holiday snap would later be downloaded and become a primary exhibit in a major murder inquiry when the boy’s birthday gift was miraculously retrieved from the rubble left by the bomb blast. By then investigators knew that the pannier of a Norton Mercury motorcycle had been packed with two hundred pounds of ammonium nitrate attached to a Semtex trigger but, by then, it was too late to matter. Twenty people were dead and a further fifty badly injured.

All explosives form a shock wave that travels faster than the speed of sound with a force measured in pounds per square inch. Such is the science of explosions. For those on the receiving end, first a deafening roar, then a fireball eviscerating all in its path, followed by structural damage from the force of the concussive blast and a deadly shower of shrapnel turning a pushchair infant into a mutilated mannequin in a shattered shop window. In the main street a burst main poured gallons of water over the charred bodies lying in the debris. Policemen and teams of volunteers searched for survivors beneath the fallen masonry while an ashen-faced priest picked his way through the tangled wreckage to administer the last rites.

This bomb was not discriminatory. It left no section of Irish life untouched, executing young and old alike, Catholics as well as Protestants. All the dead were civilians: collateral damage, according to those who planted the bomb; an atrocity, according to the British newspapers. The terrorists had deliberately targeted shoppers to destroy the peace process.

Then there was the photo. A picture may be no more than a second frozen in time but this one captured a fleeting reality, a moment of truth that seared its way into the collective conscience. A freelance photographer had trained his high-speed camera on a kneeling boy, barely a teenager, who was trying to lift a heavy iron girder. As the camera clicked, the boy looked up with huge frightened eyes. His tear-stained face covered in soot and blood, his hair singed and standing on end, while next to him in the dirt was the only thing he had been able to find in the rubble, a badly twisted walking pole.

Once it was syndicated this poignant picture became irrevocably linked with Ireland, much as the naked napalmed girl had come to symbolise the Vietnam War. It was, of course, political propaganda. Proof, if proof was needed, that terrorism’s only aim was death and destruction. Yet the print carried a wider if indeterminate message about a loss of childhood, redefining all who saw it through a shared act of voyeurism, to be repeated a million times over in poster art on t-shirts, calendars and bus billboards.

But what was largely forgotten in this supercharged reaction to a human tragedy was the personal element. Every iconic photograph affects its subject, not necessarily for the better. The youth in the bomb crater was fourteen-year-old Frederick Brett and the continued circulation of the ‘Ballymena bomb boy’ image meant he could get no closure. His grief remained an open wound. It was as if the photojournalist had stolen a piece of his soul and shared it with the entire world.

 

28 MARCH 2014

Dr Freddie Brett, a lanky six foot three research fellow in Renaissance literature at Beaufort College, Oxford, fidgeted in his seat as he waited for the sixth Shakespeare International Symposium to come to order. As usual, he was short of leg room and his discomfort was made all the greater by the way he felt. There were enough butterflies in his stomach to start a farm.

The name badges in Verona’s conference hall proclaimed allegiance to Harvard and Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge, Uppsala and the Sorbonne, Beijing and Bangalore, Kyoto and Kiev. Delegates had come, in other words, from almost every centre of academic excellence where William Shakespeare was worshipped as the unassailable master of the English tongue.

Gallery electricians dimmed the overhead lighting and a hush fell on the auditorium as a silver-haired man rose to his feet and made his way to the curved marble lectern. Milton Cleaver, professor in the Comparative Humanities at Mather University, tapped the microphone, waiting for the right moment to commence proceedings. Heads began to crane, chairs to squeak. And still he waited.

He loves this, Freddie thought sourly, standing up to allow a young woman in a pale blue suit to occupy the seat next to him. He is my antithesis, an attention seeking self-publicist with one of Wikipedia’s longest resumes who is completely at ease in a popular culture that values style above content. Being in the limelight is his reward for all the books he’s written, the television programmes he has fronted and the lobbying and bureaucratic infighting he has done in conference halls and committee rooms.

The chairman’s sonorous voice boomed out, amplified by the hall’s sound system. “Ladies and gentlemen, fellow delegates,” he began. “Any text operates by virtue of latent energies released through the interaction between words on the page and the people who read them. With drama, this force is generated by performance but as Shakespeare’s plays contain the finest verse and prose ever written they are a fitting subject for our critical discourse.”

Although somewhat gaunt of feature and not tall enough to be imposing, what Milton Cleaver possessed was that almost indefinable quality, charisma. Looking coolly elegant in his impeccably tailored Brooks Brothers poplin suit and sounding massively certain about everything he said, Cleaver commanded attention. There was, perhaps, a trace of condescension in his delivery, as if he inhabited a sphere of enlightenment to which, regrettably, others could not aspire, but that went largely unnoticed. Freddie shook his head in disgust. To think that this smug, overrated scholar was already taking credit for the much hyped Shakespeare without Question when all he’d written was the editorial foreword. According to its advance billing, this collection of essays would demolish the Shakespeare authorship controversy once and for all. Not with Cleaver at the helm, it wouldn’t.

A rapid heartbeat fuelled his indignation. Diagnosed as clinically depressed after the loss of his parents, he had become addicted to his prescription drug. His craving for Ritalin’s methylphenidate induced hit led him to snort ever increasing doses of the stimulant, trading temporary happiness for the drug’s inevitable side effects. Stretching out his aching limbs, he could feel the blood racing through his veins. His doctor talked about a social anxiety disorder. If that was true, society was to blame. The ‘Ballymena bomb boy’ was haunted by his past. Well-meaning citizens with no knowledge of German philosophy seemed to think that tragedy was somehow ennobling, elevating the sufferer to a higher plain. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tragedy was a festering sore, an itch that couldn’t be scratched, leaving its victim angry and frustrated.

As a traumatised teenager Freddie had gone to live with his cold, austere grandmother. Gertrude reluctantly took him in, providing bed and board but little else in her remote manor on the Essex marshes. Starved of love and affection and bullied at his public school, he became an introverted, largely self-educated bookworm who filled his empty hours by reading history. He imagined himself a storyteller, reshaping the past into flowing narratives which dealt with the dynamics of social and political intention. Storytelling was the earliest form of communication and it was still the key to literacy development and scientific progress. Scientific explanations were not facts but, as Albert Einstein once remarked, ‘free creations of the human mind.’

Later, at Oxford University, a Congratulatory First in English gave the lonely student the kudos and companionship he so badly needed, only to see it swept away by the Cartwright Affair, a public scandal over plagiarism which provoked such a state of anxiety in him that every raised eyebrow or vocal inflection seemed like an implied criticism.

“We live in an age of controversy,” Cleaver was saying, “and nowhere is that more true than in Shakespeare studies where conspiracy theories proliferate like leaves on the wind. In interrogating the concept of authorship these theorists adopt the same flawed reasoning as Holocaust deniers.”

Freddie did not join in the loud clapping that greeted this analogy. Nor, more significantly, did Cleaver’s co-chair who had been scowling throughout his address. Dame Julia Walker-Roberts looked as if she would rather be somewhere else.

“The notion that William Shakespeare’s authorship is a matter for conjecture and that it ought to be allowed to enter the university syllabus is about as absurd as the argument that ‘intelligent design’ should be taught alongside the science of evolution.”

Cleaver was plugging his book and everything he said was an appeal to authority: don’t question the professionals; we know best, there is no room for doubt in our discipline.

The speaker drew to a conclusion. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is entirely appropriate that our conference should be staged in this magnificent convention centre. Tonight, we will be holding our opening dinner here. ‘One feast, one house, one mutual happiness.’”

He had ended with the last line from Two Gentlemen of Verona. As this was recognised, the applause grew in volume, leading to a clambering to feet in which everyone, including Freddie and Dame Julia, felt obliged to take part. Cleaver rose to acknowledge his reception and, in a seemingly spontaneous gesture, grabbed the hand of his Oxford counterpart, raising it aloft so that the two academics saluted their peers like Olympic medallists. The world’s first global Shakespeare symposium had begun with a standing ovation: an orgy of self-congratulation.

The woman in the blue suit turned to Freddie and smiled. “Thou art a sheep,” she said.

“S-s-such another proof will make me cry ‘b-baa’,” he replied, trying to control his stutter. The exchange was gnomic: familiar only to those who knew the Verona play.

There was movement on the podium as Dame Julia came to the microphone. It had fallen to her, she said, to outline the next day’s agenda. She spoke in a flat, perfunctory manner as if running through the schedule of seminars and workshops was a bit of a chore, as indeed it was. On the flight from London she had complained about being left with the parish notes. Another example, she had said dismissively, of our none-too-special relationship with the Americans.

Slumped in his seat pretending to listen to Dame Julia, Freddie was acutely aware of his attractive neighbour. Out of the corner of his concupiscent eye, he guessed her to be about thirty with the kind of willowy figure that had probably been earned by dieting and regular workouts. A second more prolonged glance added stylishly cut strawberry blonde hair, blue eyes and a swan-like neck to the developing picture. No wedding ring however.

Then the unthinkable happened. Dame Julia cracked a joke. The golden-haired girl smiled broadly, revealing gleaming white teeth. Either there was something special about American water or thousands of dollars had been spent in the orthodontist’s chair. Yet after her rather flirty sheep quotation she appeared to have forgotten Freddie’s existence as she peered anxiously at the notes on her lap, sucking a pencil as she did so. This disappointed rather than surprised him. With his strong but uneven features and unruly black hair, he was hardly a catch for such a beautiful girl.

Eventually Dame Julia sat down and Milton Cleaver returned to the microphone, waving to his audience like a game show host. “Ladies and gentlemen, the honour of presenting the first paper falls to someone who was once a student of mine. Now she is a Shakespeare scholar in her own right. I call upon Doctor Samantha Dilworth, Assistant Professor in Gender Politics at Mather University, to give us ‘Shakespeare and the Cult of Love.’”

To Freddie’s surprise it was the young blonde woman who rose to her feet and tottered to the rostrum on high heels. Her hands were shaking as she put her notes on the podium. She seemed disarmingly nervous. The chairman gave her a reassuring pat on the forearm. Noticing the physical contact, Freddie felt a stab of jealousy. And he was not alone in this. Judging by their expressions, many male delegates seemed to be wondering what this fragrant creature had done to deserve such a distinction.

With the hall waiting to pass judgement on her, Dr Dilworth cleared her throat. “When Queen Elizabeth died she left a wardrobe of two thousand dresses behind her. They were the costumes she wore as leading lady in a courtly drama that ran for forty-five years.”

Freddie closed his eyes and let her words roll over him. The American girl was talking about how Elizabeth dealt with the misogyny of her male courtiers. It was quite a good line to take. Not that Queen Bess was ever a women’s libber, not in a million years. She had done nothing for the sisterhood. In her day women were held to be not only physically weaker than men but morally and intellectually inferior. They had, as one poet put it, ‘fruitful wombs but barren brains.’ Their place was in the home as a dutiful wife or faithful servant, unless, of course, they were of the blood royal.

By the time he caught up with her lecture Dr Dilworth was explaining how a succession of female heads of state in Europe led to changes in the rules of chess to make the queen the strongest piece on the board. Men, she was saying in her slightly clipped New England accent, worshipped power, even when it wore a dress. Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers had been made to bow before her and shower her with compliments drawn from the period’s most passionate poetry. “Elizabeth was a terrible flirt. But she never let her relationships go beyond that. You might say she was a bit of a cock-teaser.”

There was a sharp intake of breath in the hall followed by a stunned silence that was broken by an urgent question from a Central European professor of semiotics. “What is cock-teaser, please?” he asked an equally mystified Chinese delegate. Freddie found this disparaging throwaway line rather cheap. It was an obvious attempt to shock the sensibilities of a staid, largely menopausal audience that would now consider her meretricious. And perhaps they were right to do so. She was, after all, a protégé of Milton Cleaver and that glitzy school of American scholarship.

“And so to Shakespeare,” Dr Dilworth exclaimed. “How does William fit into the artificial world of the Elizabethan court? The answer is he never did and yet he had a huge impact on how women were perceived from that time onwards. Admittedly, his family history hardly suggests a belief in female emancipation. Shakespeare’s mother could not write and there is no evidence his wife or two daughters could do more than make their marks. But like many famous men, Shakespeare should not be judged by how he behaved at home.”

Freddie was struck by a terrible thought. It was entirely possible that the women in Shakespeare’s life never read a word he wrote.

“Where Shakespeare differs from his contemporaries is in his admiration for the female intellect. Many of his heroines are almost as clever and manipulative as Elizabeth herself. Shakespeare knew women were not short of intelligence, merely worse educated. What they lacked was opportunity and he gave them a dramatic platform on which they could shine.”

She was talking about democracy and no one had a better right to do so. For all its imperfections, the United States believed in individual freedom and practised open government. Dr Dilworth stood for liberty and female emancipation and if that was sexual stereotyping, he really didn’t care.

He sat in rapt attention as she wandered around the conference stage offering textual analysis. There was nothing frail or submissive about witty, resourceful heroines like Portia, Helena or Beatrice. “The playwright clearly studied the psychology of his royal patron and gave his female characters some of her inner strength. This was Shakespeare’s homage to Elizabeth and his gift to us too. It is a noble legacy.”

As she left the lectern Freddie rose to his feet to lead the clapping and, to his relief, other delegates followed suit. He could only hope their motives were purer than his own.

Dr Dilworth’s departure from the stage marked the end of the opening session and, as delegates began to drift out of the conference hall, he caught sight of Dame Julia Walker-Roberts bearing down on him. For some reason he couldn’t fathom, Oxford’s dragon lady had a soft spot for him.

“Ah, there you are, Freddie,” she said. “Professor Cleaver is hosting a cocktail party in the Sanmicheli Suite and I would like you to accompany me.”

It was more of a summons than an invitation.

“Nothing would give me greater pleasure, Dame Julia.” Freddie bowed his head, acting out the unfamiliar role of the gallant.

An hour later he was standing on his own, empty champagne flute in hand, feeling sorry for himself as he watched his distinguished partner networking with the Chinese delegation. He had little small talk at the best of times and none at all in Mandarin.

A tinkling laugh carried across the room and there she was looking tanned, blonde and utterly gorgeous, surrounded by elderly male admirers. Dr Dilworth must have sensed his presence because she quickly excused herself and came towards him. The prospect of actually meeting her made his throat go dry. He had always been awkward around girls, even when they appeared to fancy him.

“Hi, I’m Sam,” she said establishing eye contact. He could smell her perfume: something expensive, he supposed.

“Hello, I’m Freddie Brett.” His breath was high and tight inside his chest.

“Yes, I know who you are.” Beneath her long eyelashes she was already assessing him.

“I suppose you h-heard I shopped my tutor.”

“Sure, did you realise the consequences?”

In truth he hadn’t stopped to think. The similarities had been too extensive. Whole paragraphs had been lifted, give or take a synonym or two, and most of his original ideas paraphrased. It was kill or be killed.

“I had to do it or I wouldn’t have got my doctorate.”

What had caused the trouble was a dissertation in which Freddie claimed that Hamlet was a sensitive thinker caught between two courses of action, murder and suicide, knowing that each led to the sacrifice of his immortal soul. He had shown an early draft to his supervising tutor Professor Cartwright who, eight months later, published a book called The Poisoned Mind advancing exactly the same thesis. When Freddie complained, his college conducted an internal inquiry which led to Cartwright being dismissed to howls of outrage from his many friends in the literary fraternity.

Then the press got wind of it. Seizing his opportunity, Cartwright played on red-top hatred of students by telling reporters about a grave miscarriage of justice in which an ambitious graduate had stolen his professor’s ideas before accusing him of plagiarism. Caring not a jot for the truth, the paparazzi had hounded Freddie, picturing him ‘scurrying off in shame.’ Humiliated by the distorted revelations and punchy headlines of the tabloid coverage, he had blockaded himself in his flat until, suddenly, the scandal went away leaving its protagonists to get on with their lives. Cartwright took a job as a television presenter while Beaufort College awarded Freddie a doctorate and a research fellowship. But this second skirmish with the mass media left its mark on him. Once again he had been stripped bare and misrepresented, making it difficult for him to adjust to other people or, more precisely, to what he believed they saw in him.

It was time to change the subject. “I thought your paper was absolutely first-rate.”

She raised an eyebrow in what seemed like a wary gesture. Then her face relaxed. “You wouldn’t be flirting with me, would you Dr Brett?”

He could feel the heat rushing to his face. “No, honestly, I thought you were t-terrific.”

Dr Dilworth looked pleased. “Tell me about Oxford. What does a British Research Fellow do?”

“Not a lot. It’s a temporary academic post which involves a certain amount of teaching but most of your time is supposed to be spent on research.”

“And what are you working on at the moment?”

“Actually I’m between projects.”

Freddie fell silent. Finding something new to say about Shakespeare was like a coal miner chipping away at a worked out seam. Not that anyone else in the Sanmecheli Suite seemed to share his opinion. The room was positively buzzing with delegates boasting about their achievements.

“Shall we wander around a bit,” she suggested. “Find out what’s going down.”

They moved around the room, eavesdropping on what their colleagues were saying. A Scottish professor was holding forth on Shakespeare and national identity only to have his carefully crafted argument interrupted by someone from Azerbaijan who claimed the Bard’s republicanism transcended state borders. Further off, a gaggle of Latin American academics were debating the principles of proportionality and balance in drama while a bearded man in a black beret raised his voice to whip up support for his internationally acclaimed ‘Shakespeare behind Bars’ programme.

“Is that what I think it is?” Freddie whispered.

“Sure, it’s a Kentucky prison theatre group whose year-long tour with The Tempest was turned into an experimental television documentary in which actual prisoners were allowed to cast themselves in the roles best reflecting their personal history and crimes.”

“I rather like the idea,” he said. “I believe in storytelling.”

“And what kind of stories do you tell?”

“Oh, they are mainly about historical figures. It’s revisionism really. I don’t believe there is any single, lasting truth about past events and their meaning. It’s a question of how you join up the dots.”

Dr Dilworth raised her eyebrows. “I don’t follow that.”

“Historical evidence is fragmentary. In putting the pieces together, professional scholars tend to ignore oral history and concentrate on the written record. Yet the human memory is story-based, not data-based. History is the interaction of people in their social context and, to understand that, you need to know their personal stories, what makes them tick. It’s an observational science.”

“That’s interesting,” she said in response to his tirade, “you used the present tense. Do you turn these powers of observation on the people you meet?”

“Sometimes, but I’m no Sherlock Holmes.”

The beautiful American seemed to be studying him through her champagne flute. “What, I wonder, have you discovered about me.”

It was a challenge he couldn’t ignore. “That you come from New England, probably somewhere near Hartford in Connecticut; that you’ve had many boyfriends but have never got engaged; and you are thinking seriously about laser surgery to correct your short-sightedness.”

There was a stunned silence. Dr Dilworth opened her mouth but said nothing.

“Then there’s your recent skiing accident,” he added, warming to the task.

“How could you possibly know about that?” she asked

“That’s easy. There’s swelling on your right thumb and the ligament between the thumb and the index finger is obviously tender. That’s why you are grasping your glass in your left hand.”

“How do you know I did this skiing,” she persisted.

“I don’t for sure, but such an injury occurs when a skier holds on to the ski pole during a fall. The pole gets caught in the snow and acts as a lever which forces the thumb into an extended position and this puts a lot of stress on the ligament.”

“Spot on,” she said admiringly. “People were stoned to death in the Old Testament for this kind of sorcery.”

Dr Dilworth fingered the webbing between her thumb and forefinger. “What about the rest of your character study? How did you know about the laser treatment?”

“I saw the way you were squinting at your audience when you were on the conference podium and I also noticed that you have big blue eyes and, forgive me for saying this, large eyes may be beautiful but they can also be a weakness. Do you want to know why?”

“I’ve a feeling you are going to tell me anyway.”

“If the eyeball grows too large the light focuses in front of the retina, rather than on it and this causes …”

“Myopia,” she interjected. “Distant objects appear blurred. I’ve needed spectacles for years but I’m too vain to wear them. I guess you worked out I’d never been engaged from the smooth tan on my ring finger but I don’t understand how you knew where I grew up. For the record, it’s a town called Wethersfield just south of Hartford on the Connecticut River and I didn’t think I’d got much of an accent.”

“It’s quite subtle but in mentioning my research fellowship you dropped the ‘t’ in the word ‘British’. This is called a glottal stop and it’s a common feature of the slightly flat New England dialect in the Hartford region. But what confirmed my impression was the nutmeg bracelet on your wrist. People from Connecticut are nicknamed ‘Nutmeggers’ although I’ve no idea why.”

“May I interrupt?” They had now been joined by a smiling Milton Cleaver.

“Just wanted a word with my former student,” he said, putting a protective arm around Sam’s shoulder. “And I find her with the notorious Dr Brett.”

Freddie rose to the bait. “Really, so you think what I did was wrong?”

“Seeing you ask, yes. You have no respect for authority and you destroyed a good man’s career.”

The damage done, Cleaver looked to make his exit. “Will you excuse me,” he murmured. “That’s the Chilean ambassador over there. He’s sponsoring the glove puppeteers who are performing this weekend.”

Freddie grabbed hold of Cleaver’s immaculate sleeve. “Fuck the glove puppets,” he snarled. “You and Cartwright had a cosy relationship, didn’t you? He scratched your back and you scratched his, favourably reviewing each other’s books.”

Cleaver’s eyes narrowed. “That’s an outrageous thing to say. You are a real troublemaker Brett. You wouldn’t even be at this cocktail party if I had my way.”

“Well, there’s a first! The mighty Milton Cleaver can’t even control his own guest list.”

By now their raised voices were the only ones in the room as the other guests stopped talking in order to overhear the heated exchange. “You don’t really belong anywhere, do you Brett? You’re only too willing to bite the hand that feeds you.”

“You’ve got that wrong, Cleaver. I revere universities, but not professorial chairs held by people like you. You and your hangers-on are little more than a mutual admiration society.”

“At least we’ve all achieved something in our careers which is more than you’ll ever be able to say, you impertinent English half-wit!”

“That’s enough, Milton!” Dame Julia had joined them, her eyes like gimlets. “Freddie is my guest and if you insult him, you insult me too.”

Milton Cleaver’s jaw tightened. “You’ve got strange friends; that’s all I can say.”

Dame Julia watched his receding back before departing in the opposite direction with a curt nod of her head.

“I’m awfully sorry,” Dr Dilworth said. “I’ve never known him be so rude.”

“No, it was my fault. There’s a knack to keeping quiet but I’ve never mastered it.”

“But you see what I’m up against.” Freddie spoke like a drowning man rejecting rescue. “They will never forgive me for Cartwright.”

There was a long silence which she did not attempt to fill. A waiter appeared carrying a tray of canapés. Grateful for the distraction, they grabbed a plate of mushroom vol au vents.

As they ate, she inquired after his family. He gave her a subdued answer about growing up in the medieval wool town of Lavenham where his father had been the Anglican rector. This reminded her of a piece of trivia. The last son of a Suffolk clergyman to be a whistleblower was the so-called Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins.

“Didn’t Hopkins burn a woman in your market square?” she asked.

“No, that only happened in the Vincent Price movie although Hopkins did devise a new way of torturing women called witch-pricking.”

Sam segued from this barbaric custom into literary celebrity. As soon as heretical ideas appeared in print, she said, the authorities began to clamp down on authors. Unable to punish words or ideas, they chose to rack their creator. Torture was the first form of censorship; a way of concealing the truth.

“That’s the trouble with history, don’t you think,” said Freddie. “It’s like a shipwreck that has sunk out of sight, leaving bits of debris floating on the surface for scholars to misinterpret.”

Here was something else they could agree about. Knowledge of the distant past was based on surviving documents – state papers, birth and death registers, a letter accidentally preserved. It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle when most of the pieces missing or wrongly assembled to protect those in power. He asked her whether she had seen The Devil’s Disciple, George Bernard Shaw’s play about the American War of Independence. In the third act General Burgoyne realises the American Colonies are about to be lost because of a bureaucratic blunder in London. An appalled major wonders what history will make of this and the sardonic general retorts, ‘History, sir, will tell lies as usual.’

Cover-ups in history were to be expected, he allowed, but what was more surprising for the English scholar was the tenuous connection between William Shakespeare and his works. No one had ever been so thoroughly researched and yet how little there was to show for it. Shakespeare married, had children, went to London, became an actor and a playwright, evaded taxes, loaned money, started lawsuits and made a long and detailed will that didn’t mention any books. Books were a valuable commodity and Shakespeare must have read hundreds of them but where were they? Not in his Stratford home in which his daughters grew up unable to do more than make their mark.

Dr Dilworth stared at him for a moment. “I shouldn’t be saying this but the grasping Stratford landowner with the probably illiterate family doesn’t fit the image I’ve got of the genius who wrote the plays and poems.”

Freddie gave her his crooked smile. “You can add to that the fact that Shakespeare’s death went unnoticed, no memorial verses or funereal tributes, nothing to mark his passing.”

“It’s amusing, isn’t it? A whole industry fuelled by an absence of hard evidence.”

He thought how right she was. The Victorians had alchemised Shakespeare into a gold standard as safe and sound as the Bank of England. Disseminated widely through new technologies of reproduction and manufacture, Shakespeare had conquered our education system and achieved a mass-market. A laundry list would cost a fortune at Sotheby’s if it was known to have been written by Shakespeare but no such list had been found, only half a dozen ill-formed signatures that didn’t seem to have been written by the same hand.

“My fellow American Bill Bryson talked about ‘a wealth of text but a poverty of context.’ What we actually know about Shakespeare could be written in a few pages. Yet that doesn’t stop our colleagues from churning out massive doorstoppers almost every month.”

“Too true,” said Freddie, relieved to find a kindred spirit. “It’s an unstoppable bandwagon and you’ve got to climb on board if you want a career in Eng. Lit. If we told the truth we’d have to say …”

She interrupted him. “I’m critiquing a couple for The New York Review. One is called Warwickshire Will and the other is Shakespeare, Man and Artist or is it Artist and Man, I can’t remember. They are both hot off the press, if warmed-up leftovers can be called hot.”

They had this in common too. “I’m doing Man and Artist for the Times Literary Supplement and I’ve half a mind to say what I really think about Dawkins’ crappy book. I’m really sick of all this cultural piety. As scholars we are trained to evaluate the evidence but where William Shakespeare is concerned it’s largely an act of faith. We are like priests standing at the high altar and …”

“You want to bring the temple crashing down on you like Samson.”

“No, I want a bit of integrity. I’m tired of listening to polished and urbane academics like Professor Cleaver saying what they don’t mean and meaning what they don’t say.”

He was beginning to sound strident. “I’m merely suggesting that we should use our intelligence and intuition. Shakespeare was a country boy trying to make a living in the theatre, not a god.”

“So we’re misleading the younger generation by deifying him.”

“That’s right, as a New Historicist I believe that every expressive action is embedded in a network of material practices, not all of which are clear to us.”

He was talking about the school of literary criticism that had swept through the university world. The pressure on students and dons to enlist in the movement was immense as research grants and academic posts came to depend on adherence to this methodology.

“I’m sorry, I don’t agree. I believe the text is what really matters.”

“And I think context is just as important. How can you exclude social and political factors from the interpretation of literary works?” Freddie could hear his voice rising. “Didn’t you say in your lecture that many of Shakespeare’s plays were an ideological attempt to reconcile Queen Elizabeth’s power with the misogyny of a male court? Wasn’t that a New Historicist argument?”

“No,” she snapped. “It’s a feminist argument. You weren’t listening properly.”

They paused to assess the damage to their relationship.

“There’s another way of looking at this,” he said in a more conciliatory tone. “Sherlock Holmes often praised the ‘scientific imagination’, the ability to go beyond the facts to see what really happened in the past. It’s a kind of inspired storytelling.”

Dr Dilworth looked at him through half-shut eyes. “Yeah,” she said slowly. “Scientists have always sought better explanations. If they hadn’t challenged the validity of the received truth we’d still believe in a flat earth, geocentricity and the four humours of the human body.”

“You seem to know a bit about science,” he said.

“My father was a mathematician and, when I was a kid, he gave me books on Pythagoras and Euclid rather than Black Beauty or Little Women. It paid off, I suppose, in that I now teach public key cryptography.”

Freddie gasped in surprise. “What’s that when it’s at home?”

“It’s a cryptographic system with two separate keys; one encrypts the plaintext while the other decrypts the cipher text. I’m giving a couple of lectures on the subject in London next week. I’m also attending a workshop at the Globe Theatre. So I’ll be in your country for two or three weeks.”

It sounded like a hint. Freddie cleared his throat. “Perhaps we could meet in London while you’re over there?” His voice sounded hesitant and feeble.

“Are you asking me out on a date?”

He knew he was blushing. The colour spread across his cheeks like splashes of paint, and judging by the broad grin on her face, she had noticed this transformation.

“If you l-like, but I get awfully tongue-tied on dates.”

“In saying you are tongue-tied you are quoting Shakespeare. If you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if you refuse to budge an inch, if you are more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare.”

Two can play at this game, he thought. “If your dreams vanish into thin air, if you are hoodwinked or in a pickle or if you suffer from green-eyed jealousy, you are ….”

“They want us to leave, Freddie,” she whispered in his ear. “The party’s over.”

Most of the delegates had already left the reception suite to change for dinner and waiters were hovering, ready to collect the empty plates and glasses.