CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Michael Egan, who has written a four-volume authentication of a Shakespeare play, is surrounded by research materials in the library of his Kaneohe home. Professor Ramon Jimenez of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter called Egan's writings "a major event in Shakespeare attribution studies."
A scholar at BYU-Laie spends seven years authenticating a play
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The first question one feels compelled to ask Shakespearean scholar Michael Egan is, "Why?"
Why devote seven years to proving an esoteric theory -- in four volumes amounting to more than 2,000 pages -- about which many academics remain skeptical and most people are unaware?
Egan, a scholar-in-residence at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, with multiple degrees from Cambridge University, readily provides answers. We need to know, he says, whether William Shakespeare really wrote an anonymous play first discovered in 1865 because understanding what he created, and how it affected his evolution as perhaps the greatest writer of all time, is essential to comprehending the foundation of all English literature.
"Shakespeare always skates right up to the edge," explains Egan. "His plays were very bold -- politically and sexually -- for their time. That's one of the reasons Shakespeare continues to be relevant, unlike other playwrights of that era, who are pretty much forgotten."
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A little contest -- and a bit of hubris -- ignited Michael Egan's seven-year pursuit to prove that an anonymous manuscript floating around the academic community for more than 100 years was, indeed, the work of William Shakespeare.
The original, hand-written play had no cover or credits. And the last few pages were missing, which means it lacked a conclusion. A community theater in Massachusetts decided to stage "The Tragedy of Richard II, Part One," the logical and historical predecessor to the acknowledged Shakespeare play "The Tragedy of King Richard II." To generate publicity, the theater held a contest inviting people to compose an ending. Egan, who earned a Ph.D. in English literature from Cambridge University and served as a professor of Shakespearean literature at the University of Massachusetts for 27 years before moving to Hawaii, felt certain his submission would win.
"Damn if I didn't lose!" laughed the 66-year-old Egan, a scholar in residence at Brigham Young University-Hawaii in Laie and executive editor at Trade Publishing. "It was pure vanity, really." But it triggered a passion. "From that vanity came the idea that this is an important literary discovery that changes how you read Shakespeare. I really became serious about it."
So serious that he rose at 3 a.m. while living back East to research and write before hitting the road for his whopping round-trip commute of 250 miles.
"How many times do we get an opportunity to make a significant contribution?" he asked rhetorically. He decided this would be his.
Stylistically, historically and linguistically, "the text sort of screams Shakespeare," said Egan. "On the other hand, it's not 'King Lear' or 'Hamlet.' " In other words, it does not match the caliber of Shakespeare's greatest plays. But it shouldn't, because it's indicative of Shakespeare's early career, likely written in 1592 when the bard was about 28 years old. Despite this, Egan is quick to note in his cultured South African accent that "it's not a (bad) play; it's really very good!"
More importantly, he added, "Here you have an unheralded and unrecognized play, which is quite a big deal in literary circles. And it clarifies a lot about Shakespeare's evolution as a writer. In fact, I think it's quite pivotal."
Unlike the pervious generation of scholars, Egan used computers to help him search for and compare relevant information. He also scanned a photocopy of the original manuscript -- rendered almost illegible over time -- and used modern technology to enhance the quality.
Obviously, he can't prove his hypothesis mathematically, so absolute confirmation will always elude him. "All we can do is invite people to agree," he said.
But the pieces fall into place.
Historically, theater-going resembled a modern-day sporting event or concert in Shakespeare's era. People of all social classes attended, cheering for their favorite characters. Aristocrats had seats in the balcony, but everyone else stood, shoulder to shoulder, right up to the stage. When the highly contagious bubonic plague (also known as the Black Death) struck, London theaters were forced to close in 1593.
For this reason, Egan believes Shakespeare wrote the play to take "on the road" as an outdoor show to various provinces throughout England. Evidence for this includes the fact that the script calls for a live horse, which would have been difficult or impossible on the small, indoor stages of the time.
In terms of Shakespeare's evolution as a writer, this play exhibits how he learned "to handle the drama that goes on in the minds of murderers; prior to this, murderers were stage thugs," Egan explained. "The whole thing achieves a kind of fruition in Macbeth," where the title character and his wife must deal with their conscience and guilt, conflicting with their relentless ambition.
Stylistically, the author uses classic iambic pentameter -- a sophisticated poetry style involving five units of stressed and unstressed syllables that Shakespeare mastered -- to attain a certain level of complexity in his characters.
It's widely acknowledged that Shakespeare wrote the second part of "The Tragedy of King Richard II" in 1595, which further proves Egan's theory about the timing of the first part. "Nothing has to be explained away," he said. "Once you make the bold hypothesis that Shakespeare wrote this play, everything fits."
Egan admitted that he'd hoped for a more enthusiastic response from other scholars. Many have commented on his work, and he recently spoke at a conference at the University of Michigan, but his books have yet to attract significant attention.
"The Shakespearean establishment is rightly skeptical," he said. "Some scholars are straining their buttons to prove that this wasn't written by Shakespeare. Yet nobody who has looked at what I present has been able to argue against it. I'm absolutely confident that sooner or later, it's going to be recognized. It has so many implications for Shakespearean studies that it cannot be ignored."
Egan's next goal involves condensing his exhaustive work (the introduction alone runs 500 pages) to one short volume for a much broader audience, which he hopes "will recognize the importance of Shakespeare, and recognize his accessibility and approachability."
His publication includes the ending for the play that he wrote for that contest long ago. Even better: Egan's ending actually was performed on stage in Boston in 2001.
"People say they can't see the seam where Shakespeare ends and I begin," he said. "So I guess that makes me Shakespeare's most recent collaborator! Seriously, I wanted all of the pieces to be there for anyone who wanted to stage the play."
Assuming the literary icon really did write the play, Egan hopes the ability to see it come to life off the page "will lead people to a further enjoyment of Shakespeare, and an appreciation of literature." Or at least enjoy a really good show.
"The Tragedy of Richard II, Part One: A Newly Authenticated Play by William Shakespeare"
Four volumes edited, introduced and with variorum notes by Michael Egan (Edwin Mellen Press, $99.95, www.mellenpress.com)