I cannot recollect where or when I first came across the splendid anagram WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE = I AM A WEAKISH SPELLER, but it was towards the end of March 2010 that I decided to make it the theme of a crossword, and a Listener if at all possible! The title I settled on is a phrase of Sam Weller’s (see the ODQ sv spell) that was obviously thematic, but I also liked the fact that Chambers lists each noun with a special Shakespearean meaning.
There are eighteen letters in WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE and so settling on that number of clues across and down was a no-brainer, as was settling on misprints as the basic gimmick.
I soon decided that each across clue should contain one misprint, with the correct letters spelling out WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, and that each across answer should be entered with one misprint, with the ‘wrong’ letters occupying unchecked cells and spelling out I AM A WEAKISH SPELLER. It could have been the other way round, of course, but that would have been easier for the solver and I wanted this puzzle to be a really tough one. I use the wonderful Sympathy to construct grids, and the even more amazing Mathematica to construct word lists which Sympathy then converts into dictionaries which it then uses to fill the grid appropriately: in this case, with a word **** at 1a where **I* is a different word, with a word ****** at 6a where either A***** or **A*** is a different word, and so on. I could probably have filled the grid with the misprints symmetrically disposed (so at 6a/33a for instance we’d have either A*****/*****E or **A***/***E**), but for once I abandoned symmetry in favour of a tougher task for solvers.
One of the Listener editors thought that some solvers might well find plausible alternatives to I AM A WEAKISH SPELLER and so I was asked to reconsider the relevant part of the preamble. My original version had read The answer to each across clue must be entered with one misprint and the ‘wrong’ letters must all be highlighted, but before the clue can be solved a misprint somewhere along its length must be rectified, with the correct letters spelling out an associated name. I devised the alternative Before each across clue can be solved a misprint somewhere along its length must be rectified, with the correct letters spelling out the name of a person, and the answer must then be entered with a misprint of one letter (always giving a word) with the “wrong” letters spelling out a five-word statement that the person could have made, the last nine words of which hinted at the crucial anagram.
Having the down clues reveal Shakespearean ‘funnies’ was yet another no-brainer, but I soon saw that I’d need two misprints per clue rather than one if I was to have a decent number of ‘funnies’, and the obvious solution was one per definition, one per wordplay. My original preamble had read with the correct letters spelling out various words, but the editors altered this to with the correct letters spelling out (in order of occurrence, read boustrophedon) five words that the person apparently did use, which sadly removed a nice pdm (see (ii) below).
It was obviously going to be a tough solve, and so I sought some non-obvious ways of helping the solver a bit, via symmetry of some kind. I decided (i) that the misprints in each pair of across clues should affect definition and then wordplay or vice versa, (ii) that the misprints in the down clues should lead to the correct letters in the right and wrong order alternately, and (iii) that the definition/wordplay misprints should lead to the right and wrong order equally often.
Setting the clues, especially the two-misprint ones, was quite a challenge (my thanks to the editors for suggesting several improvements), but it was also great fun. I hope that solving them also proved a fun experience — for some solvers at any rate!