_Is Shakespeare Dead? By Mark Twain_. Narrated by Richard Henzel. The Mark
Twain in Person Audio Library, 2011. 3 audio CDs $19.99. ISBN
978-0-9826688-6-3. 1 mp3 data CD $11.99. ISBN 978-0-9826688-9-4.
Downloads $6.99. ISBN  978-0-9826688-7-0.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

There is a tendency for those familiar with Mark Twain's writings to frown
when his penultimate book is mentioned. _Is Shakespeare Dead?_ is often
dismissed as an anomaly, a literary misadventure, an embarrassing exercise
by an old man whose powers were waning. Twain himself was wildly
enthusiastic about seeing it into print, but Albert Bigelow Paine, Isabel
Lyon, and his editors at Harper Brothers tried to talk him out of it,
without success.  Twain's contract with Harper's forced their hand and it
appeared in April, 1909, in a plainly lettered dark green cloth binding,
quite different from the eye-catching bright red pictorial bindings then
being used by Harper for Twain's other new works. It stood apart from his
other writings from the very beginning, and has remained there ever since.
It deserved better then, and it deserves better now, and Richard Henzel
gives Twain his due.

The trouble began when Twain, charmed by Helen Keller's second
autobiographical book, _The World I Live In_, invited her to visit him at
Stormfield. He also invited her miracle-working teacher, Anne Sullivan, and
Sullivan's husband, John Macy. When Helen and her entourage arrived, Isabel
Lyon, as was her habit, recorded their visit with her Kodak camera. That
evening Twain read aloud all of _Eve's Diary_ to Helen and her friends,
bringing Helen to tears when he read the famous last line that reflected
Twain's love for his late wife, Livy. At some point that afternoon John Macy
(an editor) handed Twain a copy of William Stone Booth's _Some Acrostic
Signatures of Francis Bacon_, a new 600 page tome that presented a mass of
complicated "evidence" supposedly proving that Francis Bacon wrote the plays
attributed to William Shakespeare. The Shakespeare-Bacon debate was nothing
new to Twain, but Booth's elaborate clues and confusing calculations
captured Twain's imagination and he stayed up late that night trying to make
sense of it all. Everything about their visit was infused with
autobiography. Helen Keller's book that prompted Twain's invitation was
autobiographical, Isabel Lyon's photographic documentation of their arrival
was an autobiographical reflex, and the emotional high point of Twain's
reading that evening was rooted in his own autobiography. So it must have
seemed only natural to Twain that on the very same day that Helen, Anne, and
John left Stormfield, he sat down and began a new "chapter" in his ongoing

Twain subtitled his book "From My Autobiography" and clearly intended it to
be read as a chapter in his sprawling ongoing autobiography, of which some
previous chapters had been published a few years before in _The North
American Review_.  When _Is Shakespeare Dead?_ is read in that context, it
makes more sense than if read as just another screed in the
Shakespeare-Bacon "controversy."  In fact, the shopworn controversy
functions more as a touchstone for Twain to write about himself, injecting
himself as prominently into the text as Shakespeare. While Twain makes clear
that he did not think Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him, he does
not firmly side with the Baconians, and calls himself a Brontosaurian
instead. He also makes clear that he doesn't think for one minute that his
book will change the minds of anyone who thinks Shakespeare was the world's
greatest playwright. Much of Twain's discussion centers on comparisons
between Twain's own life and that of Shakespeare. Twain points out that he
had worked at many trades during his life but that Shakespeare had not, and
yet Shakespeare seemed to possess expert knowledge of many trades. Twain
also compares his own widespread fame and abundantly documented life with
the dearth of factual information that documents Shakespeare's existence.
Twain's arguments ignore historical contexts and bend the bounds of logic at
times, but they hold the reader's attention as they reveal more about Twain
than Shakespeare. Along the way Twain weaves in some of his favorite
subjects--his intimate familiarity with Satan, his early life in Hannibal,
some quotes from one of his favorite books, Richard Henry Dana's _Two Year's
Before the Mast_, and some digs at two of his favorite targets, Bret Harte
and Mary Baker Eddy.

Twain begins his book with one of his favorite themes--a long list of
claimants, and he portrays the Bard as one more claimant in a long line.
Hearing Richard Henzel run down that list of pretenders and frauds is fun.
When Henzel gets to the best chapter in the book, 'Irreverence,' the best
listening moments occur. Twain explains why irreverence is useful, even
necessary from time to time, to fight injustices by deflating the "sacred"
beliefs that lead to injustice. He gives some examples, showing that he had
mastered this art, and in the next moment turns the joke on himself when he
lets loose with an irreverent string of name-calling: "One of the most
trying defects which I find in these Stratfordolators, these Shakesperoids,
these thugs, these bangalores, these troglodytes, these herumfrodites, these
blatherskites, these buccaneers, these bandoleers, is their spirit of
irreverence. It is detectable in every utterance of theirs when they are
talking about us. I am thankful that in me there is nothing of that spirit."
At this moment, Twain's words and Henzel's voice are at perfect pitch, but
the entire audio book is a tribute to Twain's comic sense and word-play.

Mark Twain is the first-person narrator of the entire book (with the
exception of some material quoted in the text from other sources), and it
might seem reasonable to expect an audio book to render this work in
imitation of Twain's own voice. Richard Henzel, who is best-known for his
voice-overs as the two radio DJs in the movie "Groundhog Day" has performed
as a Mark Twain impersonator since 1967, but Henzel makes no attempt to
imitate Mark Twain's familiar stage voice, with long hesitations, the lazy
drawl, and nasal tones. In past works Henzel has moved effortlessly between
the voices of different characters in Twain's major works, but in this audio
book he maintains a mild but steady Twain presence, with a soft drawl,
appropriate pauses and phrasings, and pleasant modulations. He moves the
text along in a convincing first-person voice without resorting to the
exaggerated cornpone twang that might distract his listeners from Twain's
message. This audio book respects the difference between Twain's stage
presence and his more subdued narrative voice.  If _Is Shakespeare Dead?_ is
one of Mark Twain's works that you've resisted reading until now, this audio
book is an enjoyable way to experience one of Twain's last autobiographical