The TV Documentary Correspondent for “The Shakespeare Mystery” Now Brings Us a Novel about a TV Documentary Correspondent Making a Documentary in Search of the True Shakespeare

Just finished reading The Cottage, a new mystery-thriller novel by Alan K. Austin — and I zipped through those 217 pages so fast it’s a shame the guy didn’t write it twice as long.  One essential key to any good novel, it seems to me, is to tell it through the sensibilities of some larger-than-life central character…

Alan K. Austin

So Al Austin, the great investigative reporter and correspondent for documentary films who gave us The Shakespeare Mystery broadcast on Frontline (WGBH – PBS) back in the 1990’s, brings alive a fellow named Jack Duncan, a likeable guy whose various strengths and weaknesses keep competing with each other to determine his destiny, and who also happens to be … a great investigator and correspondent who sets off to create a documentary film that might as well be called “The Shakespeare Mystery.”

Austin takes us on the roller-coaster ride of Jack Duncan’s journey to England where he visits a number of places including Stratford upon Avon, birthplace of money-lender William Shakspere, whom academia still calls the greatest writer of the English language; and Castle Hedingham in Essex, birthplace of Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, the true poet-dramatist who adopted “William Shakespeare” as a pen name.

Along the way we can feel that we’ve put ourselves in good hands.  Why so?  Well, to put it simply, we can be confident that the author of The Cottage knows what he’s talking about – he’s been there, as the saying goes.  We have no doubt that Austin is opening a window on the world of the documentary filmmaker, where he once lived and worked and earned his living.   Not to mention, of course, that in various ways through Jack Duncan he must be giving us more personal pieces of himself, small and large.

Castle Hedingham, where Edward de Vere was born and raised until age twelve in 1562, when he became a royal ward of Queen Elizabeth (who had visited the castle for five days the year before) in the custody of William Cecil, her chief minister and the future Lord Burghley

And come to think of it, this aspect of writing is one of the bedrocks of the Oxfordian case for Shakespearean authorship – the fact that within the great poems and plays we can see large and small aspects of Edward de Vere’s character and life and even, if you will, pieces of his soul.  We’re talking about some magical combination of experience plus imagination and, in this case, we’re discussing “genius” as well – but please, no miracles!

Austin is also opening a window on the world of the Shakespeare Authorship Question that he himself had investigated, to such great effect that the Frontline documentary did more for the Oxfordian cause than anything since publication of The Mysterious William Shakespeare by Charlton Ogburn Jr. in 1984.  (It may be that the film attracted even more favorable attention, given the size of its audience and the power of its impact.)

A. L. Rowse (1903-1997), historian and Stratfordian biographer of Shakespeare

Along the way in Austin’s novel we can see reflections of some familiar figures – for example, in the marvelously drawn character of Dr. Lester Crowne, an authority on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age modeled on the late A.L. Rowse, whose appearance in Austin’s documentary for Frontline supplied one of its many memorable moments:

“The Earl of Oxford was quite talented, he knew Italian, been to Italy,” Rowse said on camera, “and he wrote just a few poems, he never wrote a single play, and he really became a most frightful lightweight.  He was married to the daughter of the great Lord Treasurer, whom he treated awfully badly.  Because in point of fact he was a roaring homo, as Marlowe was and as Bacon was.  I mean it was perfectly obvious William Shakespeare’s plays are full of passionate appreciation and feeling for women, where the Earl of Oxford had none.  Neither had Christopher Marlow – Christopher Marlowe was only interested in the boys, and Francis Bacon had no interest – he was also another homo.  And William Shakespeare you might say was almost abnormally heterosexual – he was only interested in the girls.”

[I must interject here that I always suspected that Dr. Rowse was a closet Oxfordian — that he knew, consciously or perhaps just beneath his conscious mind, that Edward de Vere was the true author.  My reason?  Well, for one thing, he made sure to know everything he could about the earl.]

It was a wonderful speech that made most Oxfordians laugh out loud, given their knowledge that Edward de Vere had been (1) cited as the most excellent of all the courtier poets, (2) named as “best for comedy” among contemporary English playwrights and (3) punished harshly by the Queen for having carried on a secret love affair at Court with one of her Majesty’s own Maids of Honor, Anne Vavasour, who gave birth to their illegitimate son – not quite the usual behavior of a “roaring homo,” as Dr. Rowse told viewers.

Charlton Ogburn Jr. (1911-1998), author of “The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality”

In the novel Al Austin cites a few Oxfordians by name, among them the late Ogburn Jr., whose strong emotions rose to the surface:

“I think Hamlet was Oxford, and I don’t see how anybody who knows anything about literary creativity can fail to say that the author, whoever he was, has given his picture as Hamlet.  This is written from the inside – things happen in Hamlet not according to a preconceived plot, but as they do in life … I know what it cost him to write these plays.  I know what it cost him to have to give up any hope of being acknowledged as the writer.  God, you read the sonnets, you see it: ‘Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.’ That’s a tragic cry for a man …”

You can read the entire transcript of “The Shakespeare Mystery” online.

But for sheer reading pleasure, you can bring The Cottage with you this summer on vacation and take Jack Duncan’s journey with a great cast of characters, lots of mystery and suspense, some nifty insights as well as information within a fast-paced yarn, and – oh, yeah, loads of laughs!

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Al gave a dramatic reading from one scene in The Cottage at the Concordia authorship conference which was a complete crack-up in which his protagonist is literally attacked in a good-old-boys club by the character based on A.L. Rowse. Al related that the scene in the book is an accurate portrayal of how he was treated at one point by the illustrious and (postumously revealed) gay professor.

    • Interesting … so who knows what other secret thoughts and feelings lurked within Professor Rowse’s private world … In any case, my favorite phrase used so often by Rowse was: “There’s no problem here.” [He said that whenever, in fact, there was a problem; and as a Stratfordian he kept encountering problems that had to be dismissed.]

  2. For me, the most telling moment of this very resonant program was Sam Schoenbaum’s statement that “Shakespeare…was a MAN AMONG MEN!” The unmistakable sense of strain and overcompensation here seemed to speak volumes about the lack of documentation for the man from Stratford.

    • I have the transcript on my desk, having used it for the blog, and you’re right — it’s a telling moment. It comes after some long narration concluding, “The leavings of a man who seems to have been interested in little except money. Doubters look at this meager collection and see no trace of the creator of Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Othello, and the sonnets. They see only a very ordinary man.”
      Then Schoenbaum is introduced as a high priest of the orthodox who believes that the “very ordinary man of the documentary evidence is no barrier to greatness.”
      Schoenbaum: “Shakespeare, as people have noted, the author of these plays, was also a man among men. Genius is not an occupation that takes up every moment of one’s day. The genius has to eat, he procreates children, occasionally he sleeps, he occasionally uses the bathroom, and so on. It’s hard for us to accommodate ourselves to the dual, the multifarious nature of the person who is, as we all recognize, a genius.”
      Let’s hope he did these things — occasionally, at least! Thanks for recalling this amazing statement from the professor.


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