Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
By James Shapiro
Faber £20, 384 pages
FT Bookshop price: £16
Most Shakespeare experts have a lot to say about the conspiracy theorists who deny Shakespeare’s authorship of his own plays – but very little of it is printable, let alone as readable as James Shapiro’s Contested Will.
One of the leading Shakespearean scholars of his generation, Shapiro first reached a wider readership in 2005 with 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. From a publishing point of view, it clearly made sense to follow up this bestseller with something equally accessible. Intellectually, though, commissioning Columbia University’s top Shakespearean to write an account of how some people came to believe that Shakespeare’s plays weren’t written by Shakespeare is like commissioning one of Nasa’s best rocket scientists to write a history of claims that the Apollo moon landings were faked. If the eyewitness testimony of Shakespeare’s colleagues hasn’t convinced the conspiracy theorists, why should Shapiro’s patient reasoning?
That said, the application of Shapiro’s detective skills to the piles of pseudo-scholarship from the past century and a half yields valuable results. Contested Will isn’t just the most intelligent book on the topic for years, but a re-examination of the documentary evidence offered on all sides of the question. It was long believed, for instance, that a Stratford-upon-Avon vicar, James Wilmot, had been the first to decide that Sir Francis Bacon must have written the plays, as long ago as 1785. Shapiro’s expert inspection, however, reveals the manuscript which supplies this information to be a forgery, probably from the 1920s.
The authorship controversy originated only in the 1850s, though it had been waiting to happen for some time – ever since the world had forgotten how good Elizabethan provincial grammar schools were, and had decided that genius was incompatible with an interest in commerce or a career in showbusiness. Ignoring the evidence from Shakespeare’s own contemporaries, some felt that these sublime dramatic poems couldn’t have been composed by a mere actor from Stratford.
As Shapiro shows, Delia Bacon’s nearly unreadable The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (1857), the first book to deny Shakespeare’s authorship, emerged from a mind that had been profoundly unsettled by new textual scholarship sceptical about both the authorship of The Iliad and the historicity of the Gospels. By the end of the century, her belief that the works had really been composed by an overworked attorney-general had become one of the gossipy inanities of the age. Flaubert’s satirical catalogue of unthinking clichés, The Dictionary of Received Ideas, includes “Homer never existed” and “Shakespeare never existed. His works were all written by Bacon.”
Baconianism, as Shapiro points out, was a more progressive movement than the Oxfordianism which has now largely supplanted it. To Delia Bacon, an American, the Shakespeare canon was the first great expression of modernity, anticipating the Declaration of Independence in its sense of unstoppable progress towards a universal republic. Shakespeare’s plays were penned by Sir Francis (and a committee of eminent sympathisers) only after he had despaired of getting his ideals put into political action under the British monarchy.
By contrast, for the first Oxfordian, Thomas Looney, a preacher in a cranky, proto-fascist sect in Newcastle, the Shakespeare canon was the last great expression of medievalism. It articulated a laudably aristocratic world-view which, according to “Shakespeare” Identified (1920), no Stratford burgher could either have imagined or endorsed. Only a true feudalist could have done so, and since Palgrave’s Golden Treasury contained a poem by the 17th Earl of Oxford in the same (popular) stanzaic form as Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis”, the real author must have been Oxford. The fact that Oxford died in 1604, before the Gunpowder Plot that haunts Macbeth (1606) or the Bermudian shipwreck that informs The Tempest (1611), did not deter Looney, who thought The Tempest was a forgery and that executors posthumously released the other Jacobean plays in instalments, inserting topical details.
As for the question of why anyone should write the world’s greatest plays only to hush up the fact (never mind how they secured the collusion of most of London’s writers, actors, courtiers and printers, as well as all the people in Stratford who put up a monument comparing Shakespeare to Virgil), Baconians and Oxfordians alike have resorted to a very similar imaginary psychodrama. Such a wide-ranging conspiracy, they reason, could only have come from the top. Bacon/Oxford clearly wasn’t just the unacknowledged author of the Shakespeare canon; he was also either secretly married to Elizabeth I, or secretly her son, and he composed Hamlet as a coded protest on being denied the throne after her death. Obvious, really.
In describing such theories, and explaining their appeal, Shapiro achieves superhuman feats of politeness. After dealing with the histories of Bardolatry, of Baconianism and of Oxfordianism, he finally turns back to the many traces of Shakespeare’s literary and theatrical career and the manifest impossibility of their having been produced as a front for someone else’s, still betraying little impatience with his opponents.
If anything, Shapiro is more annoyed with those orthodox Shakespeareans who share the heretics’ penchant for reading the plays as revelations about their author’s true character. A committed historicist, he thinks the authorship controversy has happened mainly because people have insisted on reading Elizabethan plays from anachronistically modern assumptions about the ubiquity of autobiography. Shakespeare, though, rather specialised in anachronism, and his plays and poems – simultaneously classical, medieval, post-modern, and everything in between – have a way of nurturing the fantasy lives of a great variety of readers, across all periods.
Shapiro is nearer the mark when he observes that each reader tends to imagine the author of these works in his or her own image. The really worrying thing about the authorship controversy is that it suggests that significant numbers of people secretly see themselves as unrecognised geniuses thinly concealed behind contemptibly bourgeois façades; world-shaping philosophers; aristocrats; rightful kings of England. Contested Will is a terrific read, but fully explaining the authorship controversy isn’t a job for a Shakespearean scholar: it’s a job for a pathologist.
Michael Dobson is Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London