Richard F. Whalen
For the first time, a leading Shakespeare establishment professor, James Shapiro of Columbia University, has given serious consideration to the controversy over Shakespeare’s identity in a book-length analysis — a precedent that may help make the authorship issue a legitimate subject for more research and discussion in academia, even though Shapiro remains a Stratfordian.
Shapiro’s book is a history of the authorship controversy, from Delia Bacon in the 1850s to DoubtAboutWill.org in 2007. He recognizes that the seventeenth Earl of Oxford is by far the most impressive challenger and that his backers have achieved considerable success in recent decades. His final word is that a choice must be made, a stark and consequential choice.
The book’s cover will dismay committed Stratfordians. It shows the Stratford monument depicting a writer with pen, paper and a pillow; but his head is cut off by the author’s name and the book’s title, including Who Wrote Shakespeare? Indeed, that is the question.
Shapiro, however, states at the outset that he aims to answer a different question: Why have so many eminent people doubted that Will Shakspere of Stratford was the author and why have they argued for someone else, such as Oxford? In so doing, Shapiro declines to enter the debate over the evidence for Shakspere or for Oxford in any depth of detail. As a result, the general reader is left with the impression that the question of Shakespeare’s identity may well be legitimate, despite efforts by many Stratfordians to dismiss it. That a scholar of Shapiro’s standing in the Shakespeare establishment should take this approach bodes well for Oxfordians.
Die-hard Stratfordians, of course, will be able to tease out what they need to defend Will Shakspere and shoot down Oxford. Shapiro cleverly provides ammunition here and there for pot shots, although nothing like an artillery barage. The discerning general reader, for whom this book is intended, should be able to see through this tactic.
To answer his question — why so many eminent doubters? — Shapiro argues that from the beginning the skeptics about Shakspere as Shakespeare were influenced by their predispositions — that is, their unspoken, underlying assumptions and their worldviews. Most of his book describes the skeptics’ predispositions — and those of Oxfordians —based to a great extent on new primary-source research.
Another major argument of his book is that Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, including Shakespeare, relied entirely on their imagination and were not autobiographical. This is a difficult assertion to support given the lack of biographical information about nearly all the writers of the period, and it’s probably not true, as even some Stratfordian scholars have found. Oddly, Shapiro undercuts his own argument against autobiography in Shakespeare by saying that Will Shakspere probably did draw on his life experience but that not enough is known about it to indentify how and where.
Oxfordians can point to the extensive, documented record of Oxford’s life, which Shapiro mostly ignores. He mentions just a few correspondences between Oxford’s life and Shakespeare’s works and then dismisses them as unconvincing. He tries to ignore the core debate about who wrote Shakespeare, but in the end he can’t escape it.
Shapiro’s prologue opens dramatically with what he suggests is an elaborate anti-Stratfordian forgery — the story of James Wilmot of Warwickshire. Wilmot reportedly searched circa 1785 in and around Stratford for documents about Shakspere as the poet-dramatist, found none and decided that Shakespeare was Sir Francis Bacon. Wilmot told a friend
Then follow the book’s four chapters, entitled simply “Shakespeare,” “Bacon,” “Oxford,” and “Shakespeare” redux, plus an epilogue and a lengthy bibliographic essay.
True to Shapiro’s intention, the first “Shakespeare” chapter is not about evidence for Shakspere as the dramatist. It is largely about the deification of Shakespeare, the drive to find out more about Shakspere and the forgeries of William Henry Ireland and John Payne Collier, who concocted new “evidence” for Shakspere as the poet-dramatist.
The “Bacon” chapter has much more information on Delia Bacon, an American, than on Sir Francis Bacon, the authorship candidate.
Shapiro describes at length and with new, primary-source information describing how Delia Bacon’s background and romantic difficulties influenced her conviction that Shakespeare could not have been written by the Stratford man. She was a brilliant, eloquent lecturer on Shakespeare’s works. Her book on the works published in 1857 was the first to contend that the plays must have been written by aristocrats, a shockingly revolutionary idea at a time of intense Bardolatry. Bacon was uncompromising, and to her contemporaries she appeared to be obsessed. She spent the last years of her life in a mental institution. Most Stratfordians ridicule Delia Bacon, but Shapiro is quite sympathetic, depicting her as an articulate, outspoken woman — an eccentric in a man’s world of literature studies and public lecturing who argued radical ideas about Shakespeare. It’s possible that she was unfairly stigmatized by the nineteenth century, catchall label of female hysteria.
The “Oxford” chapter covers eighty-seven years of the Oxfordian movement from J. Thomas Looney’s book in 1920 identifying Oxford as Shakespeare to the DoubtAboutWill.org web site launched in 2007. Shapiro tries to score against Oxford, but an historical narrative is not conducive to arguing points of evidence. In any case, in this chapter Shapiro is not as harsh and dismissive as his more strident colleagues, and he describes the success of the Oxfordian movement with a fair amount of admiration.
The chapter opens with Sigmund Freud’s idea that Hamlet must reflect aspects of the dramatist’s life. Shapiro explores Looney’s influence on Freud, concluding that Freud, unconventional in his views and a strong supporter of Oxford as the poet-dramatist, deceived himself and revealed more about his concern to find confirmation of his Oedipal theory of the unconscious than about whether Oxford wrote Hamlet. His analysis of Freud is fascinating but his conclusion about what he describes as Freud’s conflicted obsession about Oxford as Shakespeare seems facile.
- Universities offering advanced degrees in authorship studies;
- supporters like Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance and others from the theater world;
- books by independent scholars and books for young adults from mainstream publishers;
- high school students competing to write the best Oxfordian essay;
- major articles in the Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New York Times and programs on NPR;
- moot court debates before justices from the highest courts in America and England;
- peer-reviewed Oxfordian journals;
- international conferences;
- Oxfordian editions of the plays for teachers of Shakespeare;
- impressive Wikipedia entries and Internet web sites that are more professional and impressive than Stratfordian sites;
- and multiple discussion groups on the Internet
All this, says Shapiro, without any new documentary evidence.
The last chapter, “Shakespeare,” (and the Epilogue) retell familiar arguments for Shakspere but in a curiously haphazard way, and significantly, they amount to Shapiro’s own imaginary biography of Shakspere as the poet-dramatist. He says
In the “Epilogue,” Shapiro returns to the argument that while fiction in recent centuries has often been autobiographical, that was not the case for Elizabethan-Jacobean writers. As it happens, however, Stratfordian scholrs have argued that those writers did indeed draw on their life experience, their times and their reading. Professor David Riggs, the biographer of Ben Jonson, says that Jonson created his works out of his life and that Volpone in particular is a self-portrait. Shakespeare editor Harry Levin of Harvard says Jonson lampooned contemporaries and what he wrote drew on his observations of life in London. In her biography of Jonson, Marchette Chute says that many touches in Jonson’s plays are based on literal fact. The Shakespeare scholar Edward Berry says that an autobiographical impulse characterizes many writers of the Tudor period, and, for example, Philip Sidney covertly identified himself and Penelope Rich in Astrophil and Stella. Not enough is known about many Shakespeare contemporaries, but various commentators on Spenser and Marlowe also contend that their lives are, or must be, reflected in their writings. As Professor Berry concludes in his book on Sidney, autobiographical touches in fiction were an integral part of Elizabethan culture.
One of Shapiro’s main arguments against Oxfordians is that they look in the works, such as the Sonnets, to find Oxford’s biography, but that’s not true. Like all reputable biographers, Oxfordians take Oxford’s documented biography and then go to the Shakespeare plays and poems to determine whether and how Oxford’s life experience and concerns are reflected in them, evidence tending to confirm his authorship of them. Shapiro fails to distinguish this method of biography from the method of reading backwards from the works, that is, using fiction as a source for biography.
Shapiro observes that the long-standing taboo against authorship studies in most of academia has not made the question go away, and acknowledges that the case for Oxford has achieved some legitimacy in academia. Oxford is the most successful candidate, and the issue is attracting more people than ever before. The Internet has created a level playing field for Oxfordians.
Richard F. Whalen is the author of Shakespeare: Who Was He?: The Oxford Challenge to the Bard of Avon, co-editor with Professor Daniel Wright of The Oxfordian Shakespeare Series, editor/ annotator with Ren Draya of Othello and editor/annotator of Macbeth in the series. He is past president of the Shakespeare Oxford Society and a regular contributor to the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.
Note March 28, 2008:
Robert Detobel has translated Richard Whalen’s English-language review of James Shapiro’s new book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, into German and Whalen’s review is now available on the German-language Shake-speare Today website.
Richard Whalens Rezension von James Shapiros neuem Buch Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? wurde von Robert Detobel ins Deutsche übersetzt und ist jetzt auf der deutschsprachigen Internetseite Shake-speare Today zugänglich.