Niederkorn weighs in on Shapiro

Former New York Times editor William S. Niederkorn weighed in on James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? with his review “Absolute Will” in the April 2010 edition of The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics and Culture.

Niederkorn reported on the Shakespeare authorship controversy in the pages of the New York Times from 2002 through 2007. He is knowledgable and writes clearly on the issue. Niederkorn says he has no favorite candidate in the controversy, ” . . . that if hard evidence were found for Will of Stratford as the author of Shakespeare’s works, I would love to break the story.”

Regarding Shapiro’s search for the reasons behind Shakespeare authorship query by otherwise respected minds like Hellen Keller, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Sigmund Freud, Niederkorn says:

But Shapiro misses the main point: Whatever the reasons they used to support their views amid the emerging theories of their time, the idea that Will of Stratford was not the great poet, whether it was their own impression or suggested to them, was meaningful to them. These writers, reading the works with singularly ingenious intensity, each intuitively felt that the traditional story did not add up.

Throughout his review Niederkorn patiently picks apart errors in Shapiro’s logic and viewpoint — for example regarding Shapiro’s reliance on Alan Nelson’s 2003 biography of Edward de Vere, Monstrous Adversary, Niederkorn says:

If Shapiro has a bible on the Earl of Oxford it is Alan Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary, a life of de Vere that is one of the most bilious biographies ever written. Riddled with errors, which Oxfordians have pointed out since its publication in 2003, Nelson’s book is an embarrassment to scholarship.Contested Will, whose title is cast in the same syntactical form as Nelson’s and which revels in the same spirit, is almost as bad.

Though both books assemble a great deal of interesting information, they are patently biased and need to be read skeptically. While it is hard to find one page of Nelson’s book that is free of unfair statement, though, Shapiro can occasionally sound seductively considerate. He characterizes Nelson’s book as “harsh,” but also “authoritative,” and recycles Nelson’s opinions.

Niederkorn hits the nail on the head regarding the current fad for finding “late” Shakespearean works:

The customary way to dismiss the Oxford case is to note that Oxford died in 1604, name some Shakespeare plays and insist they are of later date. Shapiro names nine. But the traditional dating of the plays is largely based on the assumption that Will of Stratford wrote them, so it’s a circular argument. There is no definitive post-1604 dating. That is why Stratfordians keep introducing new “Shakespeare” works that date from after de Vere’s death. It happened with the insertion of the poems “Shall I Die?” and “A Funeral Elegy” into editions of the Shakespeare canon, and now it is apparently happening again with a play appropriately titledDouble Falsehood, which the Arden Shakespeare is adding to its Complete Works.

He speaks fervently of journalistic objectivity and academic openness.

I count myself among journalists who aim to be objective, but if authorship articles are not slanted toward their side, Stratfordians get upset. . . . Among the conferences where I have spoken, Stratfordians have always been welcome to present papers. At one that I attended, Alan Nelson was honored at the awards banquet. The Oxfordian, the best American academic journal covering the authorship question, publishes papers by Stratfordians. By contrast, there is no tolerance for anti-Stratfordian scholarship at the conferences and journals Stratfordians control.

And his sense of humor leavens his commentary.

Anti-Stratfordian scholars are conspicuously absent from his (Shapiro’s) acknowledgments, which include what reads like a Stratfordian Politburo. The book is sure to be a prize winner; if Shapiro were British he would be knighted for it.

Read Niederkorn’s review at The Brooklyn Rail, “Absolute Will”.

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