Book review: ‘James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?’
The 2012 Olympics opening was inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” The ongoing World Shakespeare Festival, which runs in the UK until November, is the biggest celebration of the Bard ever staged, featuring 70 shows in 37 languages, including “King Lear” in Belarusian, “Hamlet” in Lithuanian, and “Troilus and Cressida” in Maori. There are 319 Shakespeare theaters and centers all over the world. The man’s works are more revered and acclaimed than ever.
Yet, a persistent stream of articles and books argues that Shakespeare didn’t write the works that bear his name. Finding an unbridgeable gap between his mundane origins—a glovemaker’s son with no record of schooling—and the sweep and grandeur of his art, the naysayers include Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Helen Keller and Orson Welles.
While mainstream scholars have largely ignored the issue, James Shapiro has written “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” (Faber and Faber Limited, 2010; available at National Book Store) on when and why people began to contest Shakespeare’s authorship. Shapiro focuses not on what people say (which he says has been amply argued, in fixed positions and unyielding debate), but on archival material that shows why they believe it. He also declares his conviction that Shakespeare did write Shakespeare—a view left unshaken by 25 years of teaching and research at Columbia University.
He offers three key conclusions:
1. The authorship question’s history is rife with forgeries, false claims and failed searches for ciphers that uncover the writer’s identity.
2. The research reveals more about the skeptics than about the authorship issue itself.
3. Views on how Shakespeare’s life and works should be interpreted were shaped two centuries after his death, and are at risk for anachronistic error.
Shapiro then guides the reader through numerous fascinating tales. Among them:
William Henry Ireland reported in 1794 the discovery of Shakespeare’s receipts, letters and more spectacular finds, then confessed that every document was a forgery, crafted with old ink and paper torn from rare books.
Edmund Malone arranged the plays in chronological order by connecting lines of dialogue to incidents from Shakespeare’s time—an error-prone approach that nonetheless opened a new direction in scholarship, by interpreting plays as coded references to personal life.
Mark Twain’s last book, “Is Shakespeare Dead? From My Autobiography,” spells out his conviction that all great fiction (including his own) is “simply autobiographical,” and Shakespeare, who never studied law, couldn’t have mastered the legal language used in the plays.
Eccentric schoolteacher Delia Bacon became convinced that Shakespeare was an illiterate actor whose plays were the work of political radicals headed by the courtier-philosopher Francis Bacon (no relation), who (she heard) had created a secret key to his authorship. Devastated by a failed romance and its messy aftermath, she searched relentlessly for Bacon’s cipher, fell mentally ill, and died in an asylum. But other cipher-hunters confirmed her hunch and more, i.e., that Bacon was the bastard son of the earl of Essex and Queen Elizabeth, who was also Essex’s mother.
John Thomas Looney, member of a religious movement that venerated Shakespeare and other “religious teachers of mankind,” turned against his church, and reasoned that Shakespeare, who went to court to recover unpaid loans, didn’t write “The Merchant of Venice,” which demonizes money-lending. The author had to be Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, Cambridge-educated, married to the daughter of Queen Elizabeth’s chief adviser.
The main problem with Looney’s theory was that de Vere died in 1604, long before “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” and “The Tempest” were written; but his ingenious solution was that Oxford did write them, and then they were released posthumously.
Sigmund Freud also turned to the earl of Oxford after developing his theory of infantile sexuality, i.e., that being in love with one’s mother and jealous of one’s father is “a universal event in early childhood.” Hence Hamlet’s gripping power: the death of Shakespeare’s father shortly before “Hamlet” was written explains the hero’s anguished inaction. The later discovery that John Shakespeare died two years after his son started work on the play threatened to sink this theory; but like Looney, Freud found an adroit answer: Shakespeare didn’t write “Hamlet,” because “Shakespeare” was Oxford’s pseudonym.
Having undermined the alternative claimants with detailed scholarship and superb storytelling, Shapiro turns to the evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship—the printed texts circa 1594, and what writers who knew the man said about him.
The 70 or so editions of inexpensive quartos in Shakespeare’s lifetime—some 50,000 copies bearing his name—and the London theatres hosting up to 3,000 spectators per performance add up to a massive readership and audience to hoodwink over a 25-year career.
His fellow actors and stockholders, his publishers and printers, even the Master of the Revels (the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board of its time, only more powerful) and the Privy Council (which maintained the Queen’s spy network) would have had to be in on the conspiracy. As the Brits would say, not bloody likely.
Then there’s the literary community’s extant testimony. The earliest notice of Shakespeare is Robert Greene’s bitchy attack on “Shake-scene,” an upstart actor who had been making waves with his own verse. More positive reviews are by the poet Richard Barnfield, scholar William Covell, and translator Francis Meres, who lauded “honey-tongued Shakespeare.”
Dramatists added their praise, the warmest being Ben Jonson’s “I loved the man, and do honor his memory, on this side Idolatry” and his poem to the “Sweet Swan of Avon.” The evidence that some of Shakespeare’s last plays—“Timon of Athens,” “Pericles,” and “Henry VIII”—were written in collaboration poses new problems for those compelled to admit that “Shakespeare” was an aristocrat working cheek-by-jowl with social inferiors.
Solid food for thought
For those who believe Shakespeare was the real thing, Shapiro’s book lays an intriguing but minor issue to rest. For the doubters and dissenters, it offers sober and solid food for thought. But even for the non-partisan reader whose delight is the poetry itself and not the face behind it, Shapiro is worth reading for what he reveals about how modern readers read, and what we should keep in mind as we read.
Our current ideas about writers and writing emerged as late as the 18th century: We are interested in literature as both an expression and an exploration of the self. The work of many great writers—Conrad, Proust, Lawrence, to name a few—is deeply autobiographical, and we expect it to be so.
But if we overapply this idea to Shakespeare, and interpret his poetry as self-revealing, we are apt to conclude that he was anxious over his sexual performance, unhappy with his wife, walked with a limp, and was a latent homosexual. Well, Shapiro reminds us that in Shakespeare’s day and earlier, literature was rarely autobiographical. It wasn’t for “Beowulf” or “The Canterbury Tales”; nor is it now for, say, historical fiction like T H White’s “The Once and Future King,” or future fiction by Arthur Clarke. Shapiro writes:
“What I find most disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination… [For Shakespeare was an actor] imagining himself as any number of characters on stage … in distant lands and former times.”
I’m reminded of the late Gore Vidal’s rejoinder (in Playboy, I think) when told that William Buckley Jr. said Vidal’s writing revealed his gender orientation: “If people were what they write about, Agatha Christie would be a mass murderess, and William Buckley Jr. would be a practicing Christian.”
The author teaches marketing management and literature at De La Salle University, and business communication and literature at Enderun Colleges. He retired from San Miguel Corp. in 1998 and was once a journalist.