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No Mystery Here

Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays

Aug 23, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 46 • By JOHN SIMON
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Contested Will

No Mystery Here

Richard III (Laurence Olivier) consults with the Duke of Buckingham (Ralph Richardson), 1956

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.

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