Contested Will

Who Wrote Shakespeare?

by James Shapiro

Simon & Schuster, 339 pp., $26

How many books concerning William Shakespeare amuse as much as they inform? I know of only one, and it is this one. James Shapiro is a Columbia professor whose previous book, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, I once reviewed rather sternly. But this new one is another story: not only incisive and suspenseful, but also funny.

To be sure, much of the subject lends itself to humor. It concerns not only the other figures nominated as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and poems—chiefly by the now exploded Sir Francis Bacon, and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, still in the running—but also the often weird nominators, ranging all the way from Australia and Estonia to the New York Times. Why such fuss? No other writer of comparable stature has had his identity similarly disputed, regardless of how long ago he lived. But not a few dignitaries and oddballs, established professionals and provocative amateurs, have declared Shakespeare incapable of writing the plays, narrative poems, and sonnets ascribed to him.

To all the arguments for diverse claimants, Shapiro has compelling ripostes. But being a fair and thorough scholar, however orthodox in his views, he first meticulously examines the rise and evolution of contrary theories. He is outstanding in assessing how the events and social conditions of a given period, or personal crises, influenced contrarian viewpoints.

No less fascinating than the arguments on behalf of various claimants are the lives of the nominators, as well as the sundry forgeries of documents by or about Shakespeare that some of them resorted to in order to bolster their claims. Comic fiction could do no better. There is something risible about the way some of the most influential contrarians “turned to the authorship question only after experiencing spiritual crises.” This only increased “the tendency to confuse the biographical with the autobiographical as writers projected onto a largely blank Shakespearean slate their own personalities and preoccupations.”

Prominent among the claimant pushers was, for example, the not-untalented American writer Delia Bacon, a Baconian not on the basis of a suppositious kinship that she herself minimized but largely (as Shapiro shows) for being brutally dumped and ridiculed by a fiancé as well as dropped by her publisher, all of which contributed to her ending up in a mental hospital. Or take the case of William-Henry Ireland, a Briton who strove to impress his father, an unsuccessful hunter of Shakespeareana, by producing any number of documents, including whole or partial manuscripts of Shakespeare plays known and unknown, as well as an encouraging letter from Queen Elizabeth—all stuff he later confessed to be forgeries.

I find that the supposed bases for disputing the authorship of “the man from Stratford,” as he was derisively referred to, are mainly six.

• First, that grammar-school education and limited means for travel could not have provided the requisite frame of reference. But as Shapiro points out, an Elizabethan grammar-school education was considerable: Of Latin alone pupils learned more than today’s typical university classics major. Much could also be gleaned from books and conversations with fellow Londoners, who included diverse nationals and extensive travelers.

• Next, the relative paucity of references to the great Shakespeare in contemporary writings. For one thing, the age did not yet go in for extended biography, and there is little enough about other dramatists of the period. For another, deification, as Shapiro aptly calls it, came to Shakespeare much later, by way of David Garrick and his likes.

• Third, the assumption that Shakespeare’s plays and poems must contain autobiographical elements, yet nowise jibe with known facts of his life. Such eminences as Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, and Helen Keller, among others, subscribed to this notion—which, in its extreme forms, had Sonnet 144 hinting that the poet was syphilitic, and Sonnet 37 that he walked with a limp. For this there were usually personal reasons, such as Twain’s acknowledging that his own writings were largely autobiographical. As Shapiro tells us,

You would think that the endless alternatives proposed by those reading his life out of the works—good husband or bad, crypto-Catholic or committed Protestant, gay or straight, misogynist or feminist, or, for that matter, that the works were really written by Bacon, Oxford, Marlowe, and so on—would cancel each other out and lead to the conclusion that the plays and poems are not transparently autobiographical.

But why doubt the power of a genius’s imagination, or that a mere glover’s son from Stratford could have been a genius? Let me cite the case of the humbly born Karl May (1842-1912), a popular German novelist who wrote 65 volumes’ worth of dazzling adventure novels compellingly set in America’s Far West, the Middle East, and elsewhere, without ever leaving Germany.

• Fourth, an English aristocrat who had all that court knowledge wouldn’t demean himself by picking an actor as his surrogate. Yet most of the proposed claimants were high-level noblemen, with Oxford, who, under his own name, wrote some tolerable verse and prose, by far the likeliest. But what about his dying in 1604, after which date most of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were written? The Oxfordians argued that he wrote these plays earlier, to be parceled out after his death. Then what of the manifest allusions to post-1604 events? Was Edward de Vere also a prophet?

• Fifth, why would a great playwright retire relatively early to Stratford, stop writing, and become a grain merchant and moneylender? We now know that he still collaborated with other playwrights and, as for being a grain merchant, Shapiro asks, “What man or woman from the middling classes in Stratford wasn’t?”

• Sixth, poor spelling. Shakespeare even spelled his own name in different ways. But spelling was idiosyncratic at the time; so the Earl of Oxford, for example, spelled “halfpenny” 11 different ways. And because in italic font a “k” followed by a long “s” would cause a collision that would make the font snap, the easiest solution was to insert an “e” or a hyphen or both, turning Shakspeare into Shakespeare or Shake-speare.

But the comedy of it! In 1946 Percy Allen proposed to solve the authorship mystery “by psychic means.” With the mediation of the renowned clairvoyant Hester Dowden, daughter of the Shakespeare biographer Edward Dowden, Allen, president of the Shakespeare Fellowship, had hilarious conversations with Bacon, Oxford, and Shakespeare himself, although receiving different answers from those obtained by earlier seekers through other psychics. No less laughable were the mock trials of Shakespeare conducted by three Supreme Court justices in America and judicial eminences in Britain. In both countries, Shakespeare won the verdict, but the mere evoking of possible conspiracies, and conceding Oxford to be the least unlikely of other contenders, helped the Oxfordians’ cause. These were the times of conspiracy theories concerning the Kennedy assassination and other tragic events, and of 80 percent of Americans believing “the government is hiding knowledge of the existence of extraterrestrial life forms.”

Much earlier, already, the skepticism of the Oxfordians was boosted by the existence of a single authorial Homer having been disproved, and by David Friedrich Strauss’s influential Life of Jesus (1835), which powerfully disputed the divinity of Christ. Then why not dispute Shakespeare’s authorship for all its supposed sanctity? This was the sort of thing that encouraged the founder of Oxfordism, John Thomas Looney. Mocked for his name, even if he pronounced it to rhyme with “pony” (a jest Shapiro avoids), the author writes with fine irony of Looney: “His logic is unassailable—but only if you believe that great authors don’t write for money and that the [Shakespeare] plays are transparently autobiographical.”

Yet despite knockout blows by Shapiro and a slew of distinguished scholars, Oxfordism lingers with proponents such as Joseph Sobran, Lewis Lapham, and Justice Antonin Scalia. Most egregiously, in recent years, William Niederkorn, in the pages of the New York Times, propagandized for Oxford, stooping to such allegations as that the Supreme Court justices had changed their opinions, and now all found for Oxford, and that Oxfordism was being “taught in more universities and colleges than we can begin to imagine.”

The last section of Contested Will provides mighty proofs for Shakespeare’s authorship. One such is that a nobleman such as the Earl of Oxford, alleged by some to have also been Queen Elizabeth’s lover, had additional reasons for concealing his authorship. If so, anything about such a scandal-prone figure would have been ferreted out and maliciously publicized.

My one cavil with Shapiro’s ingeniously structured and winningly written book is with the sporadically sloppy grammar and usage, unworthy of a professor of English. Thus we get “whomever he was,” a misused “begs the question,” “cannot help but,” a child Oxford “conceived” (clearly misbegotten), and “different than,” among others. I also wonder sometimes whether, despite Shapiro’s cogent arguments against it, there isn’t something to the question of a friend about why it has mattered so much who wrote the plays. I find in myself a smidgen of sympathy for the schoolboy who notoriously wrote, “Shakespeare’s plays were written by William Shakespeare or another man of that name.”

John Simon is the author, most recently, of John Simon on Music: Criticism 1979-2005 (Applause Books).

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