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contested will

30 july 2010

When he began to write his study of "alternative" theories of Shakespearean authorship Contested Will, James Shapiro says, a friend asked him "What difference does it make who wrote the plays?" (279). That was my reaction at first when reading Contested Will: not that I think for a moment that anybody but William Shakespeare could have written Shakespeare, but that seeing as how any candidate for the honor has been dead nearly 400 years, and the plays and poems circulate regardless, I didn't see why people would bestir themself to raise a controversy on the issue.

But Shapiro's task is to determine precisely why so many people try to prove that Edward de Vere (in particular) wrote the plays – and also why people started to doubt the existence of an author/Shakespeare only in the middle of the 19th century. (For over 200 years after his death, the playwright Shakespeare was uncomplicatedly some guy from Stratford named Shakespeare.)

Textual skepticism provided the context. Nineteenth-century "higher critics" doubted that Homer and the authors traditionally associated with Biblical books were named historical individuals. By over-extended analogy, some skeptics began to doubt that "Shakespeare of Stratford," the provincial actor who is best-documented dealing in malt and suing his debtors, was behind the plays and sonnets that bear his name.

Ironically, as Shapiro emphasizes, some of the plays are almost as composite in their authorship as Genesis and Exodus. Playwriting, in the 1600s as in the 2010s, is a collaborative artform. Sometimes, a playwright can exert artistic control over a single vision, as Shakespeare seemed to do in The Tempest. At other times, he certainly had co-authors, as in Pericles, Timon of Athens, and Henry VIII. And in any event, casts and companies almost always rework material. Actors improvise lines and are told to keep them in. Somebody does a little continual script-doctoring on a scene that's falling flat in performance. The notion of a poet bringing forth a play from his beating brain is highly Romantic.

But collaborative authorship was not what the highly Romantic Stratford-skeptics had in mind when puncturing the "Shakespeare myth." Speculators like Delia Bacon and the later John Thomas Looney were convinced that the plays were the fruit of a single genius. They didn't see how it could be the rustic high-school graduate William Shakespeare. So it had to be somebody with serious cultural creds: Francis Bacon, for instance, or the aristocratic de Vere, who was among other things Earl of Oxford.

"Oxfordian" belief about the authorship of Shakespeare shares intellectual tendencies with creationism, flat-earthism, and other popular delusions. The central tenets of Oxfordism are conspiracy theory (everyone from Queen Elizabeth I to John Milton was in on the coverup), resistance to evidence (Ben Jonson wrote copiously about his friend and colleague William Shakespeare? Well, isn't that just what a conspirator would do?), and a scattershot approach to debunking their opponents' arguments (Oxford died in 1604? Well, he wrote the late plays before he died, or maybe he left ideas for them that were fleshed out by others, or maybe he didn't really die, or maybe he was Christopher Marlowe, who really hadn't died either.)

In other words, proponents of Oxford are a few leagues short of the seacoast of Bohemia. But Shapiro, while aghast that reasonable people still repeat Oxfordian arguments, is surprisingly gentle with Bacon, Looney, and other early Shakespeare "truthers." They had their own perverse expertise, and their sometime madness was not their fault. He's harsher on the more recent acolytes, who seem to fall prey to the "balanced coverage" fallacy that hamstrings American discourse. ("Here to comment on the Rose Bowl Parade are Bob Barker, who believes that the Parade is actually happening, and Gerald McHaywire, who believes that everyone in Pasadena has been hypnotized by Bigfoot.")

Contested Will is enormously convincing, judicious, and entertainingly argued. I only have the most minor qualifying remarks. For someone with such a strong consciousness of the evolution of historical understanding, Shapiro can be a little dogmatic about the state of current research on early modern "gritty social history," which seems to him to have solved all historiographical problems and provided a "bedrock" for understanding Shakespeare (39). I admire this research too, but you know it's going to seem quaintly dated by 2060, if not a good deal sooner, so you'd be better off not claiming certainty for it.

Early 21st-century scholars have largely abandoned biographical interpretation of Shakespeare for "gritty social history," partly out of sound principle but partly in the manner of drunks looking for their keys under the lamppost: because the light is better. Having had 400 years to read every contemporary Elizabethan and Jacobean document, "New Historicist" scholars tend to imagine a Shakespeare and audience exhaustively versed in the cultural contests surrounding every vocabulary item in the plays. But do "we" understand every possible nuance of every episode of, say, The Wire (to say nothing of Lost)? Do its creators understand it all, or are they sometimes gesturing allusively at things slightly beyond their ken, and getting them blurred? With so little known about Shakespeare's personal life, biographical critics have to "admit defeat," in Shapiro's terms (55). But that does not imply that Shakespeare had no personal life. (Shapiro, incidentally, is carrying on a sparring match here with Stephen Greenblatt, the most popular and authoritative current speculator on what the life of Shakespeare might have meant to the plays, so the discussion is somewhat internecine to the guild.)

Most egregious of Shapiro's assumptions is his insistence that Shakespeare's "experience of inwardness," because he was an "early modern" and not our contemporary, must have been radically different than ours (41). Shakespeare, for instance, would not have been grief-stricken when his son died. Children died more often in those days. Families didn't live together in detached houses; they were part of collective households that apparently resembled highly stratified kibbutzim. Socialized through hegemonic practices alien to us, these early moderns lacked our emotional responses to the stuff that life is made on.

And, since we know nothing about Shakespeare, all this is plausibly true of him. He could have been indifferent to young Hamnet, or a truly cold fish in general, or a right bastard. But along the lines of Shapiro's own insistence on the imagination, the plays say something different. To say that early moderns by their very nature didn't suffer grief the way we do is a very odd claim. King Lear, by this light, shouldn't have cared one way or the other about Cordelia, because after all she was merely a performative expression of competing interests in the contested culture of early modern monarchy, not, like, his daughter, or anything. But whoever Shakespeare was and however he felt about kids, he somehow wrote

We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out—
And take upon 's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies
To claim that there's some essential difference in the "inwardness" of the experience of love across the centuries is to prefer theory to evidence – as well as to beg the question of why moderns would even read early moderns at all.

The other flaw in Contested Will, less grave perhaps, is Shapiro's insistence on telling the story of anti-Stratfordism by means of its disciples Mark Twain, Henry James, Helen Keller, and Sigmund Freud. These are interesting stories, but they distract attention from the more obscure but more influential Baconians and Oxfordians. However, you presumably can't fill a popular book with anecdotes about nobodies.

Having seemed to lay into Shapiro a bit about minor contextual assumptions, I must conclude by saying that 99% of what he says is undoubtedly correct. And strongly necessary, in a world where Oxfordians seem to be carrying the day, at least on the weirder reaches of the Internet. Above all else, Shapiro's "Epilogue" ranks as one of the most stirring essays written on Shakespeare. It is in the best humanist traditions, as well as drawing on the soundest historical evidence. I was moved by Shapiro's words, and now I want to read more by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. That's what literary criticism ought to do.

Shapiro, James. Contested Will: Who wrote Shakespeare? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.