Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
By James Shapiro
Simon & Schuster, 339 pages, $26
The subtitle of James Shapiro’s lively new study is a real question that has long engaged serious artists and thinkers—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, and Sir Derek Jacobi among them—together with Supreme Court justices John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun.
Such luminaries (and many lesser lights) have asked Who wrote Shakespeare? to express their doubt or denial that the man from Stratford, William Shakespeare, wrote the poems and plays attributed to him. The real author, the questioners insist, must have been Francis Bacon, or Christopher Marlowe, or Walter Raleigh, or Mary Sidney, or the Earl of Derby, or the Earl of Rutland—or any of another of about fifty proposed candidates or some combination thereof. Since the 1840s thousands of books and articles have argued that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare, and that those who believe he did have been the victims of a gigantic hoax.
What is all this fuss about, James Shapiro asks, and why does it matter? The arguments, Shapiro demonstrates, arise from a perceived mismatch between the man and his work—between the relatively uneducated, middle-class Stratfordian who concerned himself with mundane matters of money and real estate and the “sublime” works of art we have inherited under his name.
Along the way, Shapiro skillfully dissects the assumptions about writers and plays that underlie such judgments. Combining common sense with a broad command of relevant scholarship, he sets forth, concisely and convincingly, in the last chapter of Contested Will, the evidence for Shakespeare as the author. As he reviews the print record, surviving testimonies, documentary evidence, and the works themselves, Shapiro adduces familiar items—the comments of Francis Meres and Ben Jonson—along with some less familiar material: George Buc’s Latin marginal note about an encounter with Shakespeare, the special epilogue Shakespeare wrote for a court performance of 2 Henry IV, and a reader’s note about Shakespeare in William Camden’s 1590 Britannia.
The cumulative weight of this evidence makes inconceivable the idea that there was a long-running conspiracy to use the actor Shakespeare as a front for the writer of the Shakespeare plays. Advances in our understanding about early modern authorship; the writing, printing, and licensing of drama; and the material circumstances of Elizabethan plays make many previous objections vanish like so many vapors.
But the conclusion that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is not really James Shapiro’s achievement in this book. The achievement of Contested Will lies, instead, in the author’s analysis of the origins and subsequent phases of the controversy. “This is a book,” he explains, “about when and why people began to question whether William Shakespeare wrote the plays long attributed to him.” Shapiro writes a shrewd work of historical scholarship that brings to life the literary cultures of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the reigning assumptions, artistic and biographical fashions, and major shifts in aesthetic criteria. He clearly shows that such cultures, time and again, intersect with personal convictions, crises, aspirations, and obsessions to produce denials of Shakespeare’s authorship articulated with tepid suspicion or perfervid paranoia.
The story begins in the eighteenth century. The deification of Shakespeare as divine national poet aroused a hunger for biographical information and dissatisfaction with the known facts of his humble origins. The literary con man William Henry Ireland responded by forging manuscript letters and playscripts, only to have Edmond Malone, the greatest Shakespeare scholar of his day, scornfully expose Ireland’s discoveries as forgeries.
But Malone himself, Shapiro suggests, unwittingly laid the groundwork for future inventions and fantasies. Disappointed that he never found the treasure trove of documents he searched for so diligently, Malone began to see the man in his works. Most significantly, Malone saw Shakespeare as the “deceived husband” of Sonnet 93. Recalling the speculation of a previous biographer—together with the contested will in which Shakespeare left his widow the “second best bed” and the treatment of jealousy in the plays, especially Othello—Malone believed that he had at last found the hidden key to Shakespeare’s heart: Shakespeare had suffered through an unhappy marriage with an unfaithful wife.
Although no one in Shakespeare’s own day and for more than a century and a half after thought the plays contained hints of autobiography, Malone initiated a free-for-all hunt for the man in the writing. People extrapolated freely or simply invented stories wholesale: In the sonnets Shakespeare reveals his affair with the dark lady and a competition with the rival poet; Hamlet expresses the author / father’s grief for his dead son H
amnet; Prospero’s farewell to his art in The Tempest is Shakespeare’s own farewell to his poetry.
Once the practice of reading the life in the works gained scholarly and institutional validation, anyone could find any Shakespeare anywhere in his work. Passages from the plays have proved that he was Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative, male and female, and nearly everything else under the sun. In fact, as the anti-Stratfordians clearly demonstrate, one can just as easily unread the life from the work as read it: In other words, one can conjure from the works an author who constitutes the “real” Shakespeare—aristocratic, well-educated, sensitive—and then dismiss as an impostor the common, poorly educated, and mercenary man from Stratford.
This sort of conjuring received support from a major shift in critical theory that was just catching fire in the early nineteenth century: the Higher Criticism. This criticism used historical methods to study the origins, date, composition, and transmission of the Bible. In time it showed that biblical works were rarely the work of a single author, and, in the hands of classical scholar Friedrich August Wolf, it proved that the Iliad and Odyssey were products of an oral tradition and not the work of one literate poet named Homer. Later, David Friedrich Strauss employed Higher Criticism in The Life of Jesus (1835) to cast doubt on the authenticity of the gospels and the divinity of Jesus. It was only a matter of time before that lesser, secular divinity, William Shakespeare, suffered a similar fate.
Enter Delia Bacon, whose mid-nineteenth-century championing of Sir Francis Bacon as the real author of the plays initiated the authorship controversy in earnest. (Claims for earlier initiators, James Wilmot in 1785 and John Cowell in 1805, rest largely on a document that Shapiro persuasively exposes as a forgery.) As he patiently examines Delia Bacon’s motivations and arguments, Shapiro notes Francis Bacon’s contemporary reputation as a social reformer, Delia Bacon’s association with code-maker and cryptographer Samuel Morse, her disastrous romance with Alexander MacWhorter, and her irresistible attraction to the idea of a secret radical political agenda in the plays.
To his credit, Shapiro refuses to use, as many scholars have done, Delia Bacon’s fixations and final struggle with mental illness to dismiss her as a madwoman. He sympathetically reads her, instead, as a critic potentially a century and a half ahead of her time in her reading of the plays as politically radical and collaborative.
Enter also Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, and Henry James. Twain’s skepticism about Shakespeare grew out of his conviction that great fiction had to be autobiographical—that all authors wrote as Twain did, from experience. Freud’s endorsement of another candidate, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, responded to Shakespeare’s apparent threats to his Oedipal theory. Henry James wrestled with the genius and legacy of Shakespeare while James “was writing at the time about how he himself should be read and valued by posterity.” Again and again, says Shapiro, “writers projected onto a largely blank Shakespearean slate their own personalities and preoccupations.”
Ever since John Thomas Looney wrote Shakespeare Identified (1920), and his successor, Charlton Ogburn, wrote William Shakespeare: The Man and the Myth (1984), Edward de Vere has become the candidate who has attracted the most attention, despite the inconvenient fact of his death in 1604, well before the appearance on the stage of King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest. The twentieth century’s preoccupation with ciphers, hidden messages, conspiracies, missing manuscripts, séances, and the like has given way to academic debates, staged trials, Wikipedia entries, websites, and blogs. And the works continue to yield long-hidden secrets about the author to those who search for him there.
In an age that reads fiction as autobiographical, few will want to heed Shapiro’s declaration that “literature in general and plays in particular in Shakespeare’s day were rarely if ever a vehicle for self-revelation.” Few will attend to his brisk summary of the cultural and personal differences between the early modern people of Shakespeare’s time and late moderns—differences that invalidate many anachronistic assumptions about just what the plays are supposed to reveal. Few will take into account Shapiro’s reminder that passages in Shakespeare’s canon now are proved to be by other playwrights, his collaborators. And few will hear Shapiro’s plea about the power of Shakespeare’s imagination to show us the forms of things unknown and unexperienced.
But James Shapiro has served up here an engaging, persuasive read that tells us as much about Shakespeare and the authorship controversy as it does about ourselves.
Robert Miola is Gerard Manley Hopkins Professor at Loyola College in Maryland and editor of Early Modern Catholicism: An Anthology of Primary Sources.