California Literary Review

Book Review: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro

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May 3rd, 2010 at 10:14 am

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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro
Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
by James Shapiro
Simon and Schuster, 339 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

A Test of Wills

William Shakespeare has always been a controversial figure. In 1592, at the beginning of his career, he was condemned for plagiarism by a fellow playwright, Robert Greene. Shakespeare, Greene asserted was an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide” was using the blank verse style of poetry pioneered by the “university wits” of Oxford and Cambridge to rake in box office profits in London.

There’s an old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity. In Shakespeare’s case, as James Shapiro’s new book Contested Will shows, this might not be true.

As the sparse details of his business affairs came to light – lawsuits against neighbors back home in Stratford-upon-Avon, for instance – the adulation for the “Immortal Bard” began to sour in some literary circles. Would the man who composed heart-felt soliloquies press charges for the trifling sum of six pounds sterling, plus court costs? How could the ill educated, penny-pinching son of a glove maker from rural Warwickshire be credited as the author of the greatest plays and poems in the English language?

Beginning around 1800, the hunt started to find the “real” Shakespeare, the noble visionary who had exalted the spiritual struggles of humankind and celebrated the comedy of errors of our daily lives.

In this engaging and well-researched book, James Shapiro charts the course of this pursuit of truth and beauty, arriving at conclusions that reflect both his insightful scholarship and common sense. Amassing an unassailable body of evidence, Shapiro proves that William Shakespeare of Stratford did indeed write the plays and poems credited to him, but not always as a solitary creative genius.

The most important feature of Contested Will is Shapiro’s focus on the critics of the Shakespeare Myth. Unlike most pro-Shakespeare writers, Shapiro sensitively treats those who championed Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford or other Elizabethan writers as the true author of the Shakespeare canon. Shapiro also contends that the unfounded assertions of many of Shakespeare’s proponents helped to create the intellectual climate that put the “upstart crow” from Stratford-upon-Avon on trial for crimes real and imagined.

What lends additional import to Contested Will is Shapiro’s devotion to looking at the Shakespeare authorship controversy as a matter of upholding truth. The issue here is more than establishing Shakespeare’s credentials. It is a matter of how and why evidence in matters of intellectual debate is ignored, misused, forged or denigrated. Why do so many people, involved in matters of scholarly discussion, question the character and motives of those who disagree, dismissing them with a heedless disregard for their feelings or for the pursuit of truth?

Throughout Contested Will, Shapiro gives anti-Shakespeare proponents a fair hearing. But in the prologue to his book, he states his own position with quiet conviction, “I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story.”

Shapiro, likewise, dismisses the idea that we can read the Shakespeare texts in the light of our own interpretations and thus gain insights into his life and character. This is a contention dearly held by Shakespeare lovers and one that laid the foundation for ongoing attempts to discredit Shakespeare as the author of the plays and poetry attributed to him.

The first person to succumb to the temptation of interpreting Shakespeare in the light of his own ideas was the 18th century literary scholar, Edmund Malone. Frustrated in his decades long attempt to find Elizabethan era diaries and manuscripts that would aid in his study of Shakespeare, Malone began to look at the plays and poems of Shakespeare for tell-tale details of his otherwise undocumented life.

Was there a connection between the death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, in 1596, and the creation of his greatest tragedy, Hamlet, believed to have been written three or four years later? Malone wrote, “That a man of such sensitivity, and of such amiable a disposition, should have lost his only son, who had attained the age of twelve years, without being affected by it, will not be easily credited.”

If Malone had stopped there, the damage might have been contained. But he soon began treating Shakespeare’s sonnets as autobiographical documents. Since the sonnets deal with themes of love, jealousy and other super-charged feelings, Shakespeare’s emotional life could be analyzed as never before.

In the climate of “sense and sensibility,” that characterized the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Malone’s speculative approach to Shakespeare was embraced with fervor. Sifting the plays and sonnets for “internal” evidence of the Bard’s state of mind especially appealed to American scholars. One of them, named Delia Bacon, however, reached a startling conclusion: Shakespeare did not write Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest, etc., etc. Francis Bacon, the great Elizabethan era philosopher, did.

“These plays,” Delia Bacon wrote, are “the greatest product of the human mind: nothing of which could have been dispensed with …every word is full of meaning.”

Usually dismissed with scant regard by Shakespeare’s defenders, Delia Bacon (no relation to Francis) was a woman of great intellectual attainments and a vigorous proponent of democratic values. Since Francis Bacon, who had been cruelly imprisoned by King James I, was the author of prophetic works like New Atlantis and Novum Organum, she leapt to the conclusion that Bacon was the “real” Shakespeare.

Delia Bacon had a special need for a hero figure to compensate for the pathetic state of her own life. During the 1840’s, she was the central figure in a scandal, gossiped about throughout the entire U.S.A. She was jilted by her lover, a theology student, who was hauled into an ecclesiastical court by her over-protective brother, a minister of the Congregationalist Church. Bacon, humiliated and heart-broken, fervently championed her personal hero, Francis Bacon, as the great humanist scholar whose mind had encompassed “the esoteric doctrine of the Elizabethan age.”

Delia Bacon died in a mental institution in 1859. That should have been a warning to others to desist from similar folly, but the opposite actually occurred. Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James and Sigmund Freud are only a few of the major figures who embraced the cause against the phony playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Freud’s obsession with the Earl of Oxford as the putative author of the Shakespeare plays is especially troubling, not only because Oxford died in 1604, before Macbeth, King Lear and The Tempest had ever been written or performed. What is especially galling about Freud is his brusque insensitivity to followers like Ernest Jones, his future biographer, who were not convinced that Oxford was the “real” Shakespeare. When Jones’ child died 1928, Freud callously recommended that he “look into the matter” of the Oxford authorship claims to get his mind off his grief.

It is this appalling lack of restraint and human feeling that is such a disturbing feature of the Shakespeare authorship debate. Heated accusations and personal invective have only grown worse with the rise of the Internet, now the source of all manner of conspiracy theories and charges that “scheming” professors are paid off by persons unknown to keep the truth suppressed about Bacon, Oxford, Marlowe or whoever is the favorite contender of the hour.

Shapiro might well have given voice to Mercutio’s exasperated words, “A plague o’ both your houses!”

Instead, Shapiro recreates the collaborative world of the Elizabethan stage to resolve the authorship controversy. He shows that Shakespeare worked with other playwrights on his late, post-1605, Romance plays. Timon of Athens, for instance, was co-authored with Thomas Middleton, while The Two Noble Kinsmen, Shakespeare’s last play, was a collaborative effort with John Fletcher. These joint productions were specifically written to be performed at the Blackfriars Theatre, an indoor venue that Shakespeare’s acting company, the King’s Men, purchased in 1608. Using sophisticated analysis of literary style, Shapiro is able to show Shakespeare’s and Middleton’s respective passages in Timon of Athens, with Shakespeare writing 1,418 lines to Middleton’s 897.

Only a living, working playwright in the years after 1605 could have written those 1,418 lines. One named William Shakespeare.

This is brilliant detective work for which Shapiro and fellow scholars like Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, and Brian Vickers should be applauded. But the Shakespearean “old guard”, who believe that Shakespeare wrote every word in the First Folio, will be as rattled by this new image of Shakespeare as the nay-saying champions of Bacon or Oxford are likely to be.

If not the last word on this subject, Shapiro’s Contested Will is an authoritative book that will command the attention and respect of open-minded scholars and lovers of literature. Like the plays and poems of William Shakespeare – yes, the “upstart crow” from Stratford – this is a book that will stand the test of time.

  • Howard Schumann

    I found the tone of your article be to extremely arrogant and filled with lots commonly held misconceptions. According to Dr. Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, “No one has found a single piece of evidence from Shakespeare’s lifetime that proves conclusively that anyone thought he (Shakespeare) was a writer. Contemporary references to the name were in all likelihood references to the pseudonym that began appearing in 1593. What we know about the traditional Shakespeare from the historical record shows no connections with a literary career.

    The ad hominem attacks on anyone who challenges traditional beliefs about who wrote Shakespeare, rooted in a long history of abuse, have grown more vicious, more frequent, and more desperate as the traditional authorship case collapses. Once we become better acquainted with the weakness of orthodox evidence, these ad hominem attacks become more understandable.”

    I would suggest that you do yourself and your readers a service by examining the evidence. Read “Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography” by Diana Price or “Shakespeare by Another Name” by Mark Anderson.

  • http://blog.iloveshakespeare.com william sutton

    Hi Howard,

    I see you follow these articles and print the same refutations to each.

    The ad hominem attacks are based on the increasing ad hominem attacks the conspiracists/cover-upists, what you will, apply to the Stratford man. Whom you all deny an inner life. You focus on the lack of historical record and the consequent impossibility of him ever being able to be Shakespeare.

    There will be no collapse of the Stratford monument until you actually arrive with factual evidence any historian of any culture will accept. Your twisting of the historical record and psychological readings will only convince those that doubt.

    As Shapiro has shown in his book there is historically no reason for doubt. I have read Diana Price’s book and Mark Anderson’s book and both are filled with the same speculation as fills the Shakespeare biographies you so despise.

    Once again the traditional authorship is not collapsing, it is being increasingly attacked by people like yourself, who now have access to a forum (the internet)in which they can attack it. That doesn’t prove your case.

    My guy, the Stratford guy, is and remains the ‘author’ until you can conclusively prove otherwise.

    Besides the fact that it doesn’t change the writing one little bit. personally I don’t like writing that i have to analyse through the lens of one man’s experience. It defeats the purpose of imagination.

    Is Freud’s theory based on his life? Is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn based on a real boy Twain/Clements knew?

    you can doubt all you want but it doesn’t change the historical record until you come up with a better theory than the one you have. Besides that the differences in Oxfordian approaches plus the 50-60-100 other contenders mean i could spend a lifetime examining them all and have no time to read Shakespeare.

    Kinda like the teachers in England who have to spend so much time teaching theory and shakespeare that their students never read the plays except through the lens of theory.

    I have a direct relationship with Shakespeare by reading and performing his plays. It doesn’t matter to me that you think someone else wrote them. I don’t buy your theory. Why are you so concerned?

    Go and convince Scientologists that psychiatry is a good thing. Or racists that all men are equal. We differ in opinion and that after reading ALL the available facts. I’m not being coerced to write this. I formed my own opinion and now it’s time for your reply.

    btw great article!

    i think i’ll blog this reply: blgo.iloveshakespeare.com

  • Linda Theil

    To proclaim that an artist’s life does not inform his artistic creation is not proof of the thesis. The idea that input dictates output did not originate during the Enlightenment as Shapiro advocates; the idea is intrinsic to our understanding of human endeavor. Shapiro can say our acceptance of this basic understanding is mistaken, but his saying doesn’t make it so. Reviewers seem to be swallowing this guff in one big gulp instead of asking that Shapiro prove his theory.

  • Howard Schumann

    Mr. Sutton: There is no hard evidence connecting William of Stratford to the authorship of the plays and sonnets. There is only “tradition” and the mentality of those who want him to be a God rather than a flesh and blood human being.

    I did not find Diana Price’s book speculative in the least. This is a through investigation of what we know and what we don’t know. If that doesn’t convince you there is an authorship problem, probably nothing will. It is so hard to give up the old paradigm especially when evidence is presented that is disturbing and often very unpleasant.

    I am interested in one thing and one thing alone. To uncover the truth about the true genius behind these works, warts and all. Since the world seems to be moving towards transformation, perhaps this is as good a time as any to do that.

  • http://doubtaboutwill.org Authorship Skeptic

    If you would like to know why so many eminent people, including at least five U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and many of our greatest writers, thinkers and Shakespearean actors, have expressed doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the works attributed to him, read the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare.” The Declaration has been signed by over 1,700 people, including more than 300 academics. It can be read, and signed, at the website of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition at: http://doubtaboutwill.org/declaration

    Here’s what James Shapiro says about the Declaration: “It is a skillfully drafted document, the collaborative effort of some of the best minds committed to (raising doubts about) Shakespeare’s authorship.”

  • Anne

    As someone with no dog in this fight, I just wonder why a folio of the plays were published shortly after William Shakespeare’s death, attributing them to William Shakespeare ; by those who knew more about their authorship than we can hope to, if indeed they were not written by William Shakespeare?

  • Allan

    There’s evidence suggesting that Heminges and Condell did not write the first folio poems attributed to them. They could actually have been written by Ben Jonson who was paid to help publish and sell the book. Jonson was also a friend of Francis Bacon. The Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery were also friends of Bacon as well as being related to the Earl of Oxford. This information is public and good books for reading are found on various authorship websites such as

    http://www.shakespeareanauthorshiptrust.org.uk/

    and all one has to do start reading some of the authorship literature not published by the Stratfordian camp that doesn’t want anyone to carefully examine the evidence.

  • http://blog.iloveshakespeare.com william sutton

    Examine the evidence all you want. Deny that the friends and fellowes of SHakespeare were telling the truth in attributing the plays to him in the dedications in the first folio. Your 1700 doubters and 5 supreme court justices means nothing (btw where are the british, Irish, Indian, Dutch, German etc etc judges who accept this evidence)?

    So what if a handful of Shakespearean actors accept your doubt. I know of scores who don’t. Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench, Paul Scofield, Laurence Olivier etc etc. Likewise for authors, sculptors and painters. All people who create works of art and understand the process. TS ELiot didn’t doubt, GB Shaw neither and boy he hated SHakespeare with a passion. James Joyce, Harold Pinter not an iota of doubt. All irrelevant. I’m not basing my belief on their opinions.

    My shakespeare is human and engaged in the very human process of staging and writing plays to be staged in very public theatres in Elizabethan and Jacobean London. The fact that he was the most printed of all Elizabethan writers blows your anonymity theory to pieces. Your guy had mortal enemies who would have slandered him at the drop of a hat. And did. not one of them mentioned the fact that he was also the author of these plays. In fact nobody who was contemporary with SHakespeare doubted.

    His warts are that he cheated on his wife, if we believe Manningham’s anecdote or Davenant’s claim to be his illegitimate son, he drank excessively, i don’t rule out drug use, (nutmeg, marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms were all available and the latter two used since the druids and the romans) he engaged in lawsuits for piddling amounts of money by our standards, he wasn’t much involved in his daughters upbringing, his religous beliefs may have been decidely esoteric and heretical for the support he gives any of the established warring religions.

    We don’t know because we have no records. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have a rich inner life and was incapable of writing plays in collaboration with others as well as on his own. As was the contemporary practice.

    Exactly what’s so disturbing and unpleasant about what you have to say? That Oxford is the son of Queen Elizabeth and then her lover and sire to her grandson the Earl of Southampton? Sounds more ludicrous and absurd than unpleasant. there is no old paradigm to give up just a lack of evidence. you have none as i do not. And the world is always transforming. Just as Arcadia is always in the past.

    And Authorship skeptic no matter what Shapiro says about the declaration of Doubt he doesn’t believe it. He states that in his book which you should read instead of copy pasting what at least a dozen cover-upists have tagged on comments threads since the book appeared. Though you may be the one who started it. and maybe you did read the book. i cannot know. Just as you or I cannot know what happened in that Elizabethan theatre world.

    Read a biography of Oxford not written by an Oxfordian and an unpleasnat man appears, one who committed his first murder age 17. Sweet witty Shakespeare a murderer? It doesn’t fit with the ethos of the plays, in which one does find a number of murderers.

    The history of SHakespeare studies has changed since SHakespeare’s very real life. He would never have been able, even if he was your guy, to predict the Bardolatry that arrived two centuries after his death. Don’t get me wrong Oxford was an interesting and complex man. He just wasn’t SHakespeare, nor Greene, nor Lyly, nor Golding to name but a few other identities i have to accept by adopting your thesis.

    You overturn all Elizabethan/Jacobean history as currently recorded with your theory. My guy is just a part of it. And contrary to what you would have people believe, in the right place with the right friends at the right time.

    And Allan, Ben Jonson was also a friend of SHakespeare. In your mind a false one. Check out what Jonson told Drummond of Hawthornden, scottish poet and collector of sh plays in quarto form, which he personally marked with the name Sha. SHak. BTW for those who have no dog in the fight and might be interested in these speculations and doubts please read Tom Veal’s Stromata blog on sh conspiracies. Here’s a link to his review of Diana Price’s book http://stromata.tripod.com/id115.htm

    when all’s said and done Shakespeare will outlive us all.

  • Allan

    William, first, please don’t have a heart attack over a difference of opinion. Second, you really aren’t as familiar with the authorship literature as you imagine. Remember, you mentioned that you’ve only read, what, two books on a part of the opposing viewpoint? Please do some more reading. Also, I’m very familiar with Jonson’s reports of his talk with Drummond. But all you show is that you can repeat the old Stratfordian arguments. Try and learn to see the arguments of other side. So far it’s clear you can’t describe them. I don’t think many are going to waste much of their time trying to reason with you.

  • http://calitreview.com/author/william_bibbiani William Bibbiani

    It amuses me that all of the arguments seem to boil down to “You haven’t read enough.” Let me posit this question to everyone: If, hypothetically of course, somebody read EVERY BOOK EVER WRITTEN ON THE SUBJECT (and article, and monograph, and attended every lecture, and so on) and still disagreed with you, would you concede their point or find a new way to claim that they’re wrong?

    Doesn’t this all boil down to the fact that anyone who could actually prove or disprove any of these theories, for or against, has been dead for centuries? That, and the fact that it’s pretty much impossible to disprove a negative?

    As fascinated as I am, what exactly is the point of this debate? What will be gained if either side “wins?” Won’t the play(s) still be the thing?

  • Howard Schumann

    William B: – As author Sarah Smith has said, “Biography means a man’s life matters. It matters who Shakespeare was because it matters who we are. Every Moment.” What will be gained by this debate is the truth which always matters.

  • http://calitreview.com/author/william_bibbiani William Bibbiani

    That’s an interesting thought, but if it matters who Shakespeare was because it matters who we are, then it matters equally who EVERYONE is, was or ever will be. I’ll ignore the fact that since everyone matters equally then everybody is equally inconsequential (making our biographies rather meaningless) and focus on the fact that we’re focusing heavily as a culture on who William Shakespeare was because of his work, which has made him of greater historical, sociological and artistic importance than most. I don’t see anyone bothering to ask what William Shakespeare’s neighbor three buildings down when he was 25 really did with their life, for example, because that person has less historical significance, as callous as that sounds. Shakespeare has historical significance because of his writings, which will remain brilliant regardless of his biography which we will NEVER know with any confidence, no matter how much research is done on the subject.

    It’s an amusing debate but nobody has yet sold me on why anyone really needs to ask this question outside of idle intellectual curiosity. If the conspiracy theorists are wrong, and this guy named William Shakespeare actually DID write all these wonderful poems and plays, will they cease to enjoy them? Will they lose their artistic value? And if the conspiracy theories are true, will either of those things happen as well for the “purists?” I can’t help but doubt it.

  • http://blog.iloveshakespeare.com william sutton

    Allan. please spare me your faux concern over my health. The reason i put points about Drummond etc are not for you. I will never change your mind They are for the reader who might not know as much as you or I.

    And btw i started my reading with Ogburn’s Mysterious WS/BS. And since then have spent many hundreds of hours examining your side of the argument. At first i thought there might be something in it. Then I saw how you manipulate the record to prove your points. Your earnest rebuttals contain no argument either.

    The same old Stratfordian arguments are based on historical fact. Your speculative and narrow methodology is closer to fiction than fact.

    Oh yes a good book by a former Oxfordian is Edward de Vere: The crisis and consequences of Wardship by Daphne Pearson.

    Thank you William for jumping in on the side of reason. You’re absolutely unequivocably correct in pointing out the sound and fury of their argument signfies nothing.

  • Allan

    Mr. Bibbiani,
    These online article comment areas are not suitable for debates and I wouldn’t waste my time even trying to debate anyone on them. If someone read all the books on the subject and still disagreed with me why would you think I should concede that I’m wrong? Do you really think that when one has read a lot of books on a subject that they are then automatically the one and only expert on the subject? What anti-stratfordians are saying is that they believe they have evidence that has not honestly been examined and they think it’s worth being examined carefully to see what merit it might have. They believe that if their evidence is carefully and honestly examined that it could change history by changing who is thought to have been Shake-Speare. Then they believe that the author they have been promoting should have his life examined because this may throw light on the meaning and purpose of the plays. This is one of the things that scholars do, or should be doing. Why is it that Stratfordians do not what Scholars in various fields to voluntarily examine the evidence, on their time and out of their own interest? Actually, a small number of Stratfordians do want alternative candidate evidence examined to see what it might uncover, or maybe just to put an end to the questioning. And please don’t say that it has already been examined because promoters for the main candidates know that it hasn’t honestly and fully been studied, regardless what Stratfordians claim. Even Shapiro refused to examine the modern evidence for the candidates he discussed.

  • willm t.

    A rare miracle has occured. After waiting hundreds of years there is finally indisputable proof that William of Stratford wrote the plays. The evidence, which comprises the greatest literary discovery in history of the English-speaking world, will be published forthwith. When this happens, it will be a pleasure to see the obvious pathologies of the “doubters” exposed and that manipulative queen of the cult, Diana Price, shoved off her throne and into oblivion. Too harsh? I think we should not spare any invective toward these doubters for the overbearing falseness they have brought to developing young minds, especially via the Internet. Stanley Wells was far too generous in his now famous admonition (in which he warned the doubters that they could meet the same end as Delia Bacon, i.e., go mad, if they persist with their fantasies). Luckily for them, I suppose, the anti-Strats will be spared this fate, for once this new evidence comes to light the Internet will be deep-cleaned of this doubter-roguery and the tiresome likes of Leahy, Rylance, Sobran, Price, and Price’s royal-counterpart-in-obfuscation, Daniel Wright, will all be put out to pasture. The countdown begins. . .

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