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


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

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro
Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
by James Shapiro
Simon and Schuster, 339 pp.
CLR [rating:5]

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.

Ed Voves is a freelance writer, based in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, the artist Anne Lloyd, and a swarm of cats who love curling up with good books. Mr. Voves graduated with a B.A. in History from LaSalle University in 1976 and a Masters in Information Science from Drexel University in 1989. After teaching for several years with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he worked in the news research department for "The Philadelphia Inquirer" and the "Philadelphia Daily News," 1985 to 2003. It was with the "Daily News," that he began his freelance writing, doing book reviews and author interviews with such notable figures as Umberto Eco, Maurice Sendak, and Peter O'Toole. For the "Inquirer," he specialized in reviews of major historical works. Following his time with the newspapers, he worked as an independent researcher for Knowledge@Wharton, the online journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the staff of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2005 and is currently the branch manager of the Kingsessing Branch in southwest Philadelphia. In 2006, he began writing for the "California Literary Review."    History of Yoga



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