Shapiro sez

Contested Will author James Shapiro published an essay titled, “Did Shakespeare write his plays alone?” in Sunday’s London Financial Times dated March 26, 2010.

Shapiro said that Shakespeare criticism has changed radically in the past thirty years, and those changes include the way that the plays are edited:

It emerged that scholars who had been preparing the editions on which the rest of us depended had not made clear the extent to which their texts of some major plays were stitched together, often arbitrarily, from different quarto and folio versions that had come down to us from Shakespeare’s day.

. . .

This news was hard to absorb. Surely you couldn’t just pick and choose which bits you liked from each version? Yet that is exactly what many editors had been doing. As a result, texts would now have to be unedited to make clear how early versions of the plays differed, and to discover where Shakespeare may have had second thoughts and revised his plays.

After decrying those editorial lapses of the past, Shapiro segues to the authorship question with this fascinating statement:

The revolution only went so far. Those transforming Shakespeare studies were rigorous in challenging outmoded ways of thinking about Elizabethan drama, but failed to address the persistent belief that somebody other than Shakespeare might have been the true author of the works long attributed to him. Maybe they had no reason to take such a claim seriously. But there’s an alternative worth considering: that when it came to the question of authorship they weren’t ready to confront some shaky biographical assumptions, assumptions they held in common with Shakespeare-deniers they viewed as cranks.

Those two assumptions that Stratfordians perilously share with Shakespeare-denying cranks are, according to Shapiro:

  • a disinclination to accept that Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights and
  • an assumption that biography influences creativity, or to quote Shapiro, a belief:

. . . that the plays and poems are autobiographical. To believe this is to accept that the plays are not (or not merely) imaginative creations but also recycled chunks of an author’s life.

These two faulty assumptions are twins since collaboration precludes representation of a single artist’s biography according to Shapiro’s essay.

Shapiro then warns Stratfordian scholars of the imminent danger of continuing to support these faulty assumptions:

Since the 19902 the ranks of those who doubt that Shakespeare was the true author of his plays have grown. Prominent actors including Mark Rylance and Sir Derek Jacobi have joined those promoting alternative candidates, especially the Earl of Oxford. And it was recently reported that the director Roland Emmerich is shooting a new film, Anonymous, which should popularize the case of Oxford . . ..

He then makes a clear call to Stratfordian action:

Maybe this challenge will be enough to get scholars to repudiate the last, most cherished Shakespearean anachronism, one that not even the radical scholarshp of the past 25 years had dared question: Shakespeare, the autobiographical artist.

As I understand it, Shapiro’s goal is to devastate authorship queries by fragmenting  the artist with studies on Shakespearean collaboration, and by denying that an artist reveals his biography in his works.

If by “biography”, Shapiro means an artist’s use of actual events in his life, I am willing to make that concession that not every artist writes his life story in his work in the fashion of Arthur Miller or Neil Simon. I agree, not because Shapiro is correct in his notion that an artist expressing his “biography” is a nineteenth century development — but because that materialistic notion of biography is not the idea that most threatens the Stratfordian convention of authorship. An organic notion of biography, on the other hand, is devastating to Stratfordians.

An organic biography begins with a time and place of birth and continues with an individual’s awareness filtered according to his own particular biological gifts and individual opportunities for understanding and action. An organic notion of biography cannot be dismissed as a mere cultural fabrication, nor can the effects of an artist’s organic biography be erased from any human creation.

Neither can collaboration hide nor destroy the unmistakable imprint of an individual human psyche on a work of human artistic endeavor. Even if the poet Shake-speare wrote only one work of art, a reader would know him as an artist who expressed himself as a human creature according to his individual organic biography:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate.

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope
With what I most enjoy, contented least. . . . (“
Sonnet 29“)

Maybe this artist has given us no “life-writing”, but never say this artist has written nothing about his life.

Although those who question the attribution of Shakespeare’s works may be physically, emotionally, mentally, morally, psychically, and/or socially maimed, deficient, ignorant, damaged, ill, and/or deluded as Shapiro has explored in Contested Will; it is not pathology that drives this query. It is the simple, human, biological, biographical curiosity to know how this great art came to be created. The answer from Stratford is tongue-tied silence.

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