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

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  • Marie Merkel  On December 5, 2009 at 6:41 PM

    Excellent, tantalizing review, Linda. With wit & humor, you give him his due without giving up an inch of hard-won territory.

    Shapiro’s book allows another opening for prime time coverage of the earl of Oxford – some of it hopefully spotlighting that long list of all that’s been accomplished in the last 20 years.

    “…a stride toward armistice in the “trench warfare” of authorship inquiry.”

    Great blurb for the book jacket!

  • Thomas Hunter  On December 5, 2009 at 10:45 PM

    Linda, great work! Maybe Shapiro’s book isn’t the same old same old after all. Maybe it offers some hope for the serious work to begin on a massive scale. Can’t wait to see Contested Will for myself. Perhaps instead of carrying picket signs at the Folger in April, we will be negotiating with him. Is that too much to hope for? Pardon me if I don’t get carried away, but I do very much welcome his apparent willingness to treat authorship seriously.

    For example, it is good to see that apparently Shapiro doesn’t make personal attack the main thrust of the book as it appeared from early indications, although you do indicate that he does appear to treat interest in authorship as aberrant behavior when discussing its early history. It will be interesting to see if even hints at the same for recent authorship inquiry. At least he apparently isn’t making it the whole story. I would say that if Shapiro treats Looney with “great respect,” that is hopeful, but perhaps not if he then links Looney to Hitler via Comte.

    It is also good to see that he apparently pays attention to actual work done by Oxfordians. However that there are not citations in the book is worrisome, especially with regard to the “long, long list of all that has been accomplished in the past 20 years” by Oxfordians. I am very curious to see what that list includes.

    And good for Shapiro that he has recognized the academy’s unscholarly behavior when it comes to authorship, however ironic it may be that this discovery came to him in front of a fourth grade class

    However, he apparently does continue to hang his hat on imagination and the genius process without understanding how they work. Linda, I like your statement of how they do work in reality and in particular for Shakespeare.

    Also, I don’t understand how Shapiro can insist on the impossibility of concealing a writer’s identity during the Elizabethan period when it was done all the time and has been amply documented

    Someone is going to have to sit Shapiro down to explain that insisting on refuting the autobiographical nature of the plays is a waste of everybody’s time, that it is the reddest of herrings, that experience is what tells, not autobiography, that putting an autobiographical spin on the works (Hamnet inspired Hamlet) is not the same as finding connections between them and real life. Has Shapiro ever read Mark Twain? But for Shapiro to admit throughout the book that (in your words) “the work of Shakespeare was not the life expression of the Stratfordian” is perhaps victory enough for us now and certainly something to build on.

    Thank you for an excellent review.

    Tom Hunter, Ph.D.

  • hewardwilkinson  On December 6, 2009 at 10:51 PM

    Linda this is a very fine account of a book which, whether partial or not, is a beginning on even-handedness.

    I wonder if we draw sufficiently from the paradoxical partial admissions of the great critics. For instance, in the Muse as Therapist I adduced Wilson Knight’s recognition of the central importance of Il Cortegiano for Hamlet, with all it implies for Oxford, and Harold Bloom’s recognition of Shakespeare as ‘the inventor of the human’ – which (though Bloom does not grasp the implication) undercuts the anti-biographical argument, since Hamlet himself is emphatic about the link – e.g., ‘holds, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature’ and ‘abstract and brief chronicles of the times’, and much else of course, whilst Macbeth (unlike his doctor!) even anticipates psychoanalysis, which also implies recognition of the life-connection of the works as healing vehicles in Shakespeare:
    ‘How does your patient, doctor?
    Not so sick, my lord,
    As she is troubled with thick coming fancies,
    That keep her from her rest.
    Cure her of that.
    Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
    Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
    Raze out the written troubles of the brain
    And with some sweet oblivious antidote
    Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
    Which weighs upon the heart?
    Therein the patient
    Must minister to himself.’

    Clearly the FH Bradley ‘straight biographical’ approach went too far in one direction, but the ‘verbal icon’ (Wimsatt and Beardsley), and ‘significant form’ (Clive Bell) and even the ‘poetic drama’ emphasis of Scrutiny (‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’ LC Knights) clearly go too far the other way. I think we have clearly come too far to buy the Eliotic separation of author and work! Clearly we know in Tolstoy, Wagner, Dickens, Conrad, and DH Lawrence, for instance, which of their characters is closest to their authors! and so we do with Hamlet.

    Although in Nietzsche’s time the Oxfordian possibility was not available, I think his comments in Ecce Homo contain the heart of the matter (with apologies for his anti-Americanisms!) – and of course also some relevant implications about the need for disguise with which the plays are so utterly rife:
    ‘Seeking for my highest formula for Shakespeare, I invariably find only this: he conceived the type of Caesar. Such things a man cannot guess – he either is the thing, or he is not. The great poet draws only from his own experience – to such an extent that later he can no longer endure his own work. After glancing at my Zarathustra, I pace to and fro in my room for a half hour, unable to control an unbearable fit of sobbing. I know of no more, heart-rending reading than Shakespeare: what he must have suffered to be so much in need of playing the clown! Is Hamlet understood? Not doubt but certainty drives one mad. But to feel this,. one must be profound, abysmal, a philosopher. We all fear the truth. And, to make a confession: I feel instinctively certain that Lord Bacon is the originator, the self-torturer, of this most appalling literature: what do I care about the wretched gabble of American fools and half-wits? But the power for the greatest realism in vision is not only compatible with the greatest realism in deeds, with the monstrous, with crime – it actually presupposes the latter. . . . We hardly know enough about Lord Bacon-the first realist in the, highest sense of the word-to be sure of everything he did, everything he willed, and everything he experienced in himself. To the devil with the critics! Suppose I had christened my Zarathustra with a name not my own – with Richard Wagner’s, for instance – the insight of two thousand years would not have sufficed to guess that the author of Human, all-too-Human was the visionary of Zarathustra.’

  • Gary Goldstein  On December 6, 2009 at 10:59 PM

    After reading Linda’s review, I did not get a sense of what Shapiro does to refute the Oxfordian case in his book other than accusing anti-Strats in general of the romantic belief that experience informs a writer’s art. Surely, Shapiro and his publisher are going forward with more than this.

    Indeed, in her one specific example regarding Looney, she states that Shapiro ties Looney’s adherence to Comte’s Positivist philosophy to Hitler’s belief in the same philosophy–this smear is more vicious than anything thrown at Oxfordians in the past, such as ridiculing Looney’s name, calling us snobs, being amateurs, and so on.

    Since Linda hasn’t detailed anything else from Shapiro’s Oxfordian chapter, I wonder what really lurks there. I’m sure he doesn’t just “mention” a lot of Oxfordians. As he does with Looney, he is probably undermining them, personally or professionally.

    Finally, I don’t think a book that’s being published and marketed as a definitive response to anti-Stratfordianism has been written in the spirit of gaining an armistice.

    Gary Goldstein

    • Elliott H. Stone  On December 28, 2009 at 2:58 PM

      I think it is important to keep in mind that Herman Melvile was aware that Edward De Vere was Shakespeare more than 20 years before Looney!
      The story is found in “Billy Bud”.
      Oxfordians should do more to tell this story.


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