James Shapiro Contested Will:
Who Wrote Shakespeare? Faber and Faber 2010
Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James! — Ben Jonson
When I was nowt but a lad I read Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence’s Bacon is Shakespeare (1910) in the school library, which is when I first came across the notion that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. According to Sir Edwin the plays are full of cryptic clues asserting that Francis Bacon used Will as a mask for writing all those plays. Typical is the nonsense word in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “honorificabilitudinitatibus,” which Durning-Lawrence claimed was an anagram in Latin for hi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi (“these plays F Bacon’s offspring preserved for the world”). For an impressionable young mind there was much to mull over, but I wasn’t gullible enough to be convinced, and especially not by that coded ‘message’ — how many other phrases or sentences, in Latin or otherwise, can be concocted from that word?
Yet the fancy that Shakespeare was too much of a country bumpkin to be capable of writing such gems was one I was to come across again and again, with a bewildering array of candidates paraded for acceptance. Where was the comprehensive and informed rebuttal which would take all the claims seriously while marshalling killer counter-arguments?
Well, Contested Will is that book. Not only is this a detailed academic discussion, it’s also lucidly written; it treats the reader as intelligent, without any hint of being talked down to. Though unencumbered by footnotes this fascinating study nevertheless includes a Bibliographical Essay for the relevant references and necessary justifications for the author’s arguments. And not only does Shapiro document the rise and fall (and sometimes further rise) of the two principal claimants (Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford) but he also demonstrates how Shakespeare is the only credible person in the frame for writing the Works of Shakespeare.
Shapiro found that the fact that Christopher Marlowe and the Earl of Oxford had died in 1593 and 1604 respectively (and therefore were in no position to write Shakespeare’s later plays) was no bar to conspiracy theorists supporting their particular candidates. Many academics are content to label such theorists as from the lunatic fringe; “my interest,” writes the author, “is not what people think … so much as why they think it.” The principal danger, he feels, is that of “reading the past through contemporary eyes,” and, as he reviews the byways into which Shakespearean studies sometimes get diverted, too often we find that is indeed the case.
As Shakespeare’s plays became popular the natural desire was to find out more about the man, about whom precious few biographical details were known, and who was not only put on a pedestal but in effect deified. Two consequences arose from this desire for facts. The first was that documentary evidence was often manufactured to make up for the lack of material available in the 18th and early 19th centuries, notably by one William-Henry Ireland and later by John Payne Collier in the 1830s. This mix of genuine and fake documentation naturally caused no end of mischief. The second was that genuine scholars such as Edmond Malone started to assert that the plays themselves referred not only to contemporary events but also to Shakespeare’s own life. “Underlying [Malone’s] reasoning here was the presumption that Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, burrowed from other writers or imagined.”
Wouldbe authors today are often told to “write about what you know”, but this was not advice that was given out in earlier centuries when to write about oneself would have been of no interest to anyone else. As the plays portray foreign countries and court life and use legal jargon, for example, the argument soon ran that the Shakespeare who retired to provincial Stratford, lent money and dealt in malt was not the playwright whose work knew no bounds; from there it was a short step to claim Will was merely the illiterate son of a glover.
Parallel with the denigration of Shakespeare the man was the influence of so-called Higher Criticism, a term coined by Johann Gottfried Eichhorn to describe an approach using historical methodology to study the origins, date, composition and transmission of the Old Testament. This approach, which questioned received wisdom about sacred texts by critical interrogation, was one which soon found favour with those seeking answers to the Shakespeare ‘problem’. By diverse routes the solution as to who really wrote ‘Shakespeare’ led to Francis Bacon, a path trod first by Delia Bacon (no relation), followed by fellow Americans Mark Twain and Helen Keller and ultimately by cipher hunters such as Ignatius Donnelly, Orville Ward Owen, Elizabeth Wells Gallup and the aforementioned Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence. Even Henry James, though more circumspect, alluded to the Baconian theory in a popular short story “The Birthplace” in a manner which reflected his own inclinations.
Baconian support started to wither away in the twentieth century even as a rival theory reared its head. John Thomas Looney (the last name rhymes with ‘boney’ apparently) was originally attracted by the Church of Humanity (formerly the Positivist School) which T H Huxley characterised as “Catholicism minus Christianity”. When his ambition there was thwarted he turned to the Bard for inspiration. According to his ‘Shakespeare’ Identified he noticed that Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis had similarities to some of the Earl of Oxford’s poetry. From this germ of an idea came the familiar denigration of the glover’s son and the substitution of a titled personage to write sophisticated political allegories masquerading as plays. Looney’s theory proved sufficient to create Oxfordians of talented individuals, from Sigmund Freud (Shapiro details the psychoanalyst’s love of the plays and his cornerstone use of the Hamlet’s character) to contemporary actors such as Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance. Whether they hold, as some Oxfordians did, that Elizabeth I was a man, or that the queen had affairs with Essex and/or Southampton (and even wilder theories) is not one I’ve pursued — nor intend to.
To discover how strongly Shapiro makes the case for Shakespeare as writer of Shakespeare one has to read the author’s own informed arguments in Contested Will. (Good title, by the way.) For me, as for many, the argument revolves precisely on why the author of the plays has to be a noble, or another playwright, instead of a talented, imaginative and literate man from Stratford. After all, these days there is no end of talented, imaginative and literate writers from the provinces who don’t necessarily have a university education or a title to allow them to write entertaining and convincing literature. It’s just that, especially in these days of media exposure and electronic trails, everybody has a documented backstory, so much so that it’s hard to credit that over four centuries ago occasionally certain details were just not forthcoming. As gossip abhors a vacuum such gaps can easily be filled with speculation and memes mutate to beliefs; luckily for us Shapiro rehabilitates the sceptic’s ugly duckling, to restore him as Ben Jonson’s sweet swan of Avon.
Repost of review first published May 4, 2015, here to mark Shakespeare’s official birthday, St George’s Day and World Book Day. (Also birthday of latest heir to the British throne, but we won’t talk about that.)