Book Review: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

February 25, 2011 – 2:54 PM


Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

By James Shapiro.

339 pages. Simon & Schuster, 2010.

An enjoyable, informative and critical history of the “Who really wrote Shakespeare?” mania by a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, author of the award-winning 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.

The author dates the birth of skepticism about William Shakespeare (1564-1616) to about a century and half after his death. The plays had achieved canonical status, and scholars and collectors stymied in their quest for Shakespearean manuscripts, letters, etc. were further frustrated by some spectacular forgeries. Shakespeare’s authentic will was recovered in 1737, says Shapiro, but neither it nor any other recovered records of his life have quelled the obsessive desire of some who wish to see his plays and poems as drama/poetry à clef, reworkings of a larger, even more vivid Shakespeare’s real-life experience. Add to passing time and narrowing hindsight the intellectual conceit that the brilliant words and scope of Shakespeare’s work exceed the range of an imagination that wasn’t of noble or otherwise high-born, educated origin, and it wasn’t long before a variety of theories sprang up to fill the gaps.

Shapiro devotes sections to histories of the dominant “Baconian” and “Oxfordian” schools of doubt, and covers some well-known doubters — Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud. He also examines gains that “anti-Stratfordian” skepticism has accomplished in the past quarter-century, “without the discovery of a single new document” to either support such claims or undermine that of William Shakespeare.

Finally, he argues on behalf of Shakespeare: Printing and publishing records, stylistic evidence, and known historical facts about how the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre worked — all support the authorship of Shakespeare; and, ultimately, no contemporaries who knew the man ever breathed a word of doubt or hint of rumor, in any extant public or private accounts, that he was anything other than the author of the plays.

But what bothers Shapiro more than the persistent, irrational mania for alternative authorship, is that the entire debate seems to serve the idea that the playwright’s life, rather than his imagination, is what will truly make the works great. Comparing a limited knowledge of the rural glover’s son, William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon, with the plays and not finding what one hopes to find — William Shakespeare whose biography looms as dramatically large as The Merchant of Venice, or The Tempest or or Hamlet, the skeptics prefer to believe, well, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

So, you say, what’s the difference?

“It’s a stark and consequential choice,” says Shapiro. “We can believe that Shakespeare himself thought that poets could give to ‘airy nothing’ a ‘local habitation and a name.’ Or we can conclude that this ‘airy nothing’ turns out to be a disguised something that needs to be decoded, and that Shakespeare couldn’t imagine ‘the form of things unknown’ without having experienced it firsthand.’
The answer we choose, says Shapiro, could be most important in what it says about us.

This review was written by Skip Hulett of the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

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