Daily Archives: December 5, 2009

Shapiro’s Contested Will

ARC of James Shapiro's Contested Will

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro
Simon & Schuster: New York, London, Toronto, Sydney
Publication date: April 6, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-4162-2
Price: $26

Reviewed from advance, uncorrected reader’s proof (ARC) by Linda Theil

I like this book very much; it is interesting, even-handed, and lucid. Yes, James  Shapiro is a Stratfordian and he says things in Contested Will that anti-Strats will not like, but Shapiro presents an in-depth look at the history of the authorship question and I appreciate his efforts.

Although he seems to believe that there is some psychological crisis that drew brilliant men like Looney, Hawthorne, Freud and Henry James to the authorship question, that belief doesn’t prevent him from presenting their quest with fervor and conviction.

In his prologue, Shapiro says:

I became increasingly interested in why this subject (Shakespearean authorship) remains virtually taboo in academic circles, as well as in the consequences of this collective silence. One thing is certain: the decision by professors to all but ignore the authorship question hasn’t made it disappear. If anything, more people are drawn to it than ever. (ARC 5)

His moment of truth came when while giving a talk on Shakespeare’s poetry at a local elementary, a fourth-grader asked him about the authorship question.

Shapiro seems to think that if Shakespeare lovers truly understood the Elizabethan literary culture, the impossibility of concealing a writer’s identity and most important the false assumption of the autobiographical nature of the plays – the authorship question would disappear.

He discusses the first two elements in this book, but he puts the most energy into rebuking what he considers an anachronistic importance placed on the fact that the life of the Stratford man cannot be reconciled with the content of the plays. He chooses this aspect of the question with good reason since he says, without equivocation, that this discrepancy was the primary reason the authorship question arose — beginning with a frustrated Edmond Malone in the late eighteenth century who could find no primary sources for his biography of the great playwright.

Shapiro has divided his story into a prologue, four chapters, an epilogue and a bibliographical essay that serves as a reader’s resource, although – as is currently customary in a publication meant for general readership — no citations are given throughout the book. The four chapters are titled: Shakespeare, Bacon, Oxford, and Shakespeare (the evidence for Shakespeare). The first Shakespeare chapter leads the reader through the development of the Stratfordian history  including stories of Ireland’s and other forgeries, and what Shapiro call’s Shakespeare’s deification and a resulting unease with the biography of the man from Stratford.

Shapiro says:

When desire outpaced what scholars could turn up, there remained only a few ways forward: forgery, reliance on anecdote, or turning to the works for fresh evidence about the author’s life. The impulse to interpret the plays and poems as autobiographical was a direct result of the failure to recover enough facts to allow anyone to write a satisfying cradle-to-grave life of Shakespeare.(ARC 45)

I found that statement to be a significant acknowledgment of a major anti-Stratfordian thesis, and I greeted it as such with joy. Although, to Shapiro, my interpretation is a false one based on a modern obsession with biography that did not exist in Shakespeare’s time.

I suppose I grasp his point, but I fail to see how a lack of interest in a personal story translates to not having one. Call it what you will, an English writer will not produce Sufi poetry unless he has been taught Arabic, trained in the methods of Sufi literature and imbued with the life and understanding of a Muslim. An artist can only express what his life has given him, and as Shapiro admits throughout this book, the work of Shakespeare was not the life expression of the Stratfordian.

In his book, Shapiro further links a growing willingness to question received wisdom about the authorship of the plays of William Shakespeare with F.A. Wolf’s 1795 book challenging “Homer’s” authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey. Wolf had used the methods of the “Higher Criticism” pioneered by Biblical scholar J.G. Eichhorn in the 1780s. According to Shapiro, the Higher Criticism used historical methods to study the origins, date, composition and transmission of the books of the Bible. Then D.F. Strauss’ used this method to demythologize The Life of Jesus published in 1835.

Shapiro says the Biblical controversy influenced thinking about Shakespeare authorship because Shakespeare had been deified by eighteenth century Englishmen.

Had the impulse to speak of Shakespeare as a literary deity been curbed or repudiated, Shakespeare might not have suffered collateral damage from a  controversy that had little to do with him. (ARC 73)

It seems that in 1848 an American, Lutheran pastor, S. M. Schmucker, in an attempt to ridicule Strauss, published A Life of Shakespeare – a parody meant to undermine Strauss that laid out the authorship question in all respects.

Shapiro quotes Schmucker:

Is it not strange that one individual, so ill prepared by previous education, and other indispensable requisites, should be the sole author of so many works, in all of which it is pretended that such extraordinary merit and rare excellence exist? (ARC 78)

In the next section on Sir Francis Bacon as Shakespeare, Shapiro explores his topic through the life and works of Delia Bacon, Mark Twain, Helen Keller and Henry James. He then segues into Oxford through Freud, then J.T. Looney’s Shakespeare Identified completed in 1918 and published in 1920. Shapiro treats Looney with great respect, although he disputes that Looney didn’t already have Oxford in mind before he began his work in 1910, and he says that Looney was not the romantic school master of his book, but a failed disciple of Auguste Comte’s Positivist philosophy.

Personally I never thought my interest in Shakespearean authorship was either religious or political, but I suppose there are those who see it as both, even though I maintain my innocence.

Shapiro covers the history of the Oxfordian movement in the twentieth century wherein all our friends and neighbors are mentioned. He writes a wonderful pretend letter to Oxfordians, saying:

Imagine the disbelief that would have greeted a contributor to the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter in the early 1980s, who, rejecting all the hand-wringing, urged fellow Oxfordians to be patient and predicted that in twenty-five years their movement would be thriving: . . . (ARC 202)

And he follows with a long, long list of all that has been accomplished in the past 20 years.

From Oxford, Shapiro finally makes his way to the evidence for Stratford Will. He hauls out the usual suspects: George Buc and Ben Jonson, and the published references to the writer that – oops — don’t actually relate to the Stratford man unless you make the assumption that he is the writer William Shakespeare. His fall-back position is that the playwright could not have been anonymous in the milieu of Elizabethan England, and we would all be convinced if we were just a bit better informed (and maybe a little less spiritually deformed).

Shapiro will not give up Stratford Will because denying him would be tantamount to stripping Shakespeare of his most magnificent attribute – his imagination. I say allowing Shakespeare an aristocrat’s experience gives him the tools to detonate his imagination into a nuclear reaction of the mind – for Shakespeare, imagination equals experience times the speed of light squared.

This is a fascinating book by a fine writer who loves his work. There is a lot here to think about, consider and dispute; but to my way of thinking James Shapiro has made in Contested Will, a stride toward armistice in the “trench warfare” of authorship inquiry. (ARC 7)

James Shapiro is Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University. He is the author of four books, most recently A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, which won the BBC Samuel Johnson prize in the UK, given annually for the outstanding work of nonfiction. His next book will be The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.

Note: This review was edited March 20, 2010 to reflect changes in the final proof of Shapiro’s book when available. LT