“Interesting idea, but not really proven.” Dr. Keir Cutler complains that this comment appeared on most of his first-year university papers before he decided to stop thinking critically and simply regurgitate his professors’ opinions, but it is no less applicable to the show in which he uses it.

Shakespeare Crackpot largely revolves around the surprisingly nonexistent biographical record of William Shakespeare, with heavy emphasis on the Shakespeare authorship question. Since this viewpoint (that Shakespeare may not have written the plays and poems attributed to him) is definitely on the fringes of academia, Cutler spends a large part of the 50-minute running time attacking the establishment of Shakespeare studies.

After that, there’s a bit of a split between focuses – either this show is about the Shakespeare authorship question, or it’s about the need to tear down orthodoxy in academia (you believe that something is true because lots of smarter people who came before you said it’s true). Obviously these points are related, but the show would be much stronger if Cutler picked one of these focuses and ran with it, while still referencing the other. As it is, he manages to point out that the official biography of Shakespeare is largely speculative while remaining oddly vague about it, and listing some of the possible authors who may have written the works instead (he leaves out the fact that most of these possible authors would have had to continue writing plays after their own deaths, but then again there’s a lot that could have been included) without delving into detail on any of them or suggesting which alternative he believes in. Cutler says he doesn’t know who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, but he clearly doesn’t think it was Shakespeare.

Photograph by Louis Long
Photograph by Louis Long

The other main theme, that academia often stifles critical thinking rather than encouraging it – that is a great theme, and I would absolutely come back to see a show based entirely around it. I myself am working on a Master’s degree and I can tell you that while I wouldn’t entirely agree that higher learning is all about submitting to established theories, it is definitely an intimidating field and learning how to express your own ideas in academic jargon in a way that will make other academics respect you is incredibly difficult. Many still manage though, such as Cutler himself who has a PhD. It’s this thread that’s a little weaker of the two focuses: it gets unnecessarily autobiographical (besides the undergraduate brownnosing anecdotes, we are also treated to his parents’ admittedly inspiring life stories), and then Cutler tells the audience about other shows he has done on the Shakespeare question and the various hate mail he’s received from Shakespeare lovers as a result of it. I would much rather see a show than be told about it, although we are given a taste of the close-minded professor character from one of these shows.

That’s not to say this show isn’t enjoyable. Cutler has fantastic energy and charisma when talking about the historical matter, such as the tourist trade that developed in Stratford-on-Avon once the town wised up to the money that could be made from such a venture – the appropriately-aged mulberry tree growing in the garden of Shakespeare’s old house that the town decided was definitely planted by the Bard himself, for example. Maybe it’s the academic in me, but if more content like this made up the bulk of the show it would have been a far more effective way to prove his argument that the traditional biography of Shakespeare is too inconsistent to trust absolutely, rather than constructing straw-man arguments by impersonating an imaginary professor.

Shakespeare Crackpot is two shows in one, but they fight for attention. Either on its own would be fine, but together they don’t form a cohesive argument for what Cutler is saying. If anything, the stress to not blindly believe in prevailing academia becomes one-note and repetitive, and becomes itself a strange sort of orthodoxy being pushed on us. The Shakespeare authorship question is something I’m perfectly willing to hear arguments about as it is certainly interesting, but Cutler doesn’t really prove anything.

 

Shakespeare Crackpot

A Doctor Keir Co. production

Written and Performed by Keir Cutler

Directed by TJ Dawe


Ian Huffam

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