In 2006, Michael J. Ortiz published Swan Town: The Secret Journal of Susanna Shakespeare, which supposedly was found within the walls of a house in Stratford, England.
Like many good works of art, Swan Town, purported to be a 16th-century diary of Shakespeare’s eldest daughter, has since been exposed as a sham, an entirely fictitious work of Ortiz himself. The discovery is in part due to the work of Johnny Spetterbeak, a linguist who studies English accents in the written form. When he first read the book, he says, “It didn’t quite sound right.” And further study, including comparison to other Elizabethan-era adolescents’ diaries, led him to the conclusion that “the accent in the diary is not truly Elizabethan-English. Ortiz is probably a well-read Shakespeare scholar and historian, but he’s definitely not an Elizabethan girl of fourteen. In fact,” Mr. Spetterbeak added, “the accents used in informal writing such as a diary are not the same as those of playwrights.”
Many are still interested in the book as a literary work, as it provides young people with fanciful scenes of life in Shakespeare’s family. But others are more seriously troubled. “This is just like the guy who forged those Vermeer paintings and passed them off (quite well, no less) as ‘lost works’ of the master artist,” remarked Daniel Quip, a stage-crew member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “It’s a wonder he didn’t write a whole play and call it the ‘lost play’ of William Shakespeare.”
Secondary school teacher Mrs. Fellows, from Carmarthenshire, Wales, said she loved the diary so much she was using it in all her literature classes. When she heard it was fictitious, however, she was deeply offended. “He is a fox, that’s what he is. Michael J. Ortiz — why, I should call him ‘Michael J. Fox!'” She still plans to use the book, but will be warning students now that it is “only historical fiction.”
Others say his writing is sub-par, and that while Ortiz is a grown man, the book’s prose sounds more like something a teenage girl would write. Shakespeare scholar Elizabeth Chester of Oxford University even goes so far as to say, “I shall ne’er speak well of this to my colleagues. ‘Tis the sort of work my pre-teen daughter would like to peruse, and heaven knows I shan’t let her.”
Some even claim the book could be a bad influence on young girls. “With its talk of adventure and the dreamy life of the stage, it will make them want to run off to London and join the theatre,” says Mrs. Hogsworth, a librarian from Kidderminster, England. “And we know how disorderly such a life is! One must read plays rather than act them out.”1
Now that the word is out, Mr. Ortiz admits in the Author’s Note at the back of the book that he changed some dates and historical details for the sake of the story. The Queen of England finds this practice to be highly problematic: “How is the average teenager going to make good decisions in life if she thinks Hamlet was written, and the Globe Theatre built, some two years before their actual creation?”
Due to a loophole in international copyright law, Michael J. Ortiz cannot be charged with any crime. Our own self-proclaimed copyright expert Jim Jocifero explains, “It’s not actually illegal to to publish fictional works. There are millions of them out there, and until the legal system finds a way to crack down, there will be millions more.”
Mr. Ortiz was not reached for comment, but rumour has it he has recently found manuscripts of some previously-unknown sonnets and plays of William Shakespeare himself.
- Mrs. Hogsworth has a pointy nose and wears granny glasses. ↩