Near the beginning of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? James Shapiro — Columbia professor and esteemed Shakespeare scholar — recounts an anecdote that illustrates just how widespread is doubt that William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him:
… Not long ago […] I met with a group of nine-year-olds at a local elementary school to talk about Shakespeare’s poetry. When toward the end of the class I invited questions, a quiet boy on my left raised his hand and said: “My brother told me that Shakespeare really didn’t write Romeo and Juliet. Is that true?” It was the kind of question I was used to hearing from undergraduates on the first day of a Shakespeare course or from audience members at popular lectures, but I hadn’t expected that doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship had filtered down to the fourth grade.
Both amused and unsettled by the question Shapiro goes on to speculate that a popular children’s mystery, Elise Broach’s Shakespeare’s Secret, which presents Queen Elizabeth I as the author of Shakespeare’s plays, prompted the boy’s inquiry.
Still, the commonplaceness of the question “Who really wrote Shakespeare’s works?” (or, as it is sometimes framed, “Who was Shakespeare really?”) should not obscure just how bizarre it is. No one ever asks, “Who really wrote the novels of Charles Dickens?” or “Who was John Milton really?” We don’t ask these questions, according to Shapiro, not because more evidence links these authors to the works accredited to them but rather because we expect Shakespeare to be far more than any human being could possibly be — a kind of omniscient god. Regarding Shakespeare as “a literary deity”, Shapiro writes, is “a crucial precondition for … controversies over his identity”. In other words, it would be difficult for any mere mortal to be responsible for the seemingly miraculous art with which Shakespeare is associated.
It would be especially difficult for the mortal that was William Shakespeare, at least given what we know of him. Those who deny that Shakespeare was the author of the works attributed to him — “anti-Stratfordians” as Shapiro terms them — always do so with the assumption that he is too paltry a figure to be a transcendent genius. Son of a middle-class family living in a provincial town, longtime resident of several less-than-fashionable London neighborhoods, pursuer of petty lawsuits … how could so unremarkable, so prosaic, so uninteresting a person be the creator of such titanic figures as Hamlet, King Lear, Othello? How could he render the complexities of court life and political intrigue and famous battles in histories like Henry IV and Richard III when he lacked not only direct experience of this world but even a university education? In short, those who claim that Shakespeare did not write his plays (and sonnets) do so with the assumption that Shakespeare’s life was totally incommensurate with the rich variety of experience and range of sentiment and passion displayed in them.
Before considering how Shapiro contests these objections it should be noted that in many ways Contested Will continues the work of Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, published in 2005, in which Shapiro contests the notion that the world’s most esteemed playwright observed humanity from some empyrean of art far removed from the mundane world below. Instead, A Year in the Life insists that Shakespeare was in and of the world, specifically the tough, competitive, and sometimes perilous world of the late 16th- and early 17th-century London theater business. Shakespeare’s art, the book maintains, was deeply conditioned by Shakespeare’s professional context and historical moment, in short by what was going on in his theater company and in England during his writing career, and nowhere is this more apparent than in what was probably Shakespeare’s most productive year.
In Contested Will Shapiro furthers the argument that the “secret” of Shakespeare’s achievement is no secret at all. It is a matter of a brilliant mind working with and through the material and means made available by the culture in which it existed. In the final chapter of the study Shapiro brilliantly demonstrates how Shakespeare’s plays everywhere evidence their author’s close working relationship with Shakespeare’s theatrical company (first called the Chamberlain’s Men, then the King’s Men after the ascension of James I to the English throne): stage directions in early printed versions of the plays that substitute the name of the actor playing the part for the character’s name; allusions to the distinctive physical appearances of certain members of the company; the suitability of Shakespeare’s late plays to an indoor theater like the Blackfriars (where the King’s Men began performing around 1610) as opposed to the large, outdoor theaters for which many of Shakespeare’s earlier plays were written.
One of the strongest points in favor of Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays, and one that skeptics seldom if ever address, is the profound and intimate knowledge they reflect of how drama was staged in the period. Where would Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, or Elizabeth I — to name some of the leading candidates proposed by anti-Stratfordians — acquire this knowledge? Contested Will addresses questions like this and others just as consequential (such as why none of Shakespeare’s contemporaries believed anyone other than Shakespeare to be the author of his plays) with impressive erudition and in admirably lucid prose. It should give pause to even the most committed conspiracy theorists.
This almost certainly will not happen. Shapiro repeatedly acknowledges that no amount of evidence, no argument however so savvy, will dissuade those who believe that someone other than Shakespeare wrote his plays. Indeed, the Internet has provided a powerful medium for disseminating conspiracy theories about the authorship of the plays, a medium where the merits of an argument rely less on expertise and careful research and considerably more on savvy presentation and energetic polemic. Given this, we can expect that the authorship question will have an even higher cultural profile in the future.
The real genius of Contested Will is not then its strong case that Shakespeare wrote his plays but its willingness to take seriously why some people are so determined to believe otherwise. As Shapiro writes, “My interest, again, is not in what people think — which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms — so much as why they think it.” This seemingly simple aim indicates both generosity of spirit on Shapiro’s part and a sense of obligation to the wider world that academic scholarship all too often lacks. After all, for all the passion, and sometimes considerable knowledge (of a particular kind), that anti-Stratfordians bring to their arguments they are almost entirely ignored by a critical establishment that dismisses them as crackpots. Shapiro notes, however, that many very intelligent and accomplished people — Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Orson Welles for example — have rejected Shakespeare’s claim and those who support the case for Shakespeare would do well to take seriously their objections.
What Shapiro makes clear is that more often than not a rejection of Shakespeare as the author of his plays opens onto complex belief systems and ways of viewing the world that have very little to do, directly at least, with Shakespeare or his plays. Shapiro very convincingly argues, for example, that Freud’s rejection of Shakespeare and eventual endorsement of Oxford as the author of the plays has its source in the twofold conviction that the plays manifest the anxieties and concerns of the writer and that principles of Freudian theory make Shakespeare an unsuitable figure for those anxieties as Freud saw them appearing in the plays:
Freud saw confirmation of Oxford’s authorship [of King Lear] in the fact that in the sources all three of Lear’s daughters were unmarried — and that Oxford altered this so that Lear’s relationships more closely resembled his own. Othello could now also be explained in psychoanalytic and familial terms: Oxford’s ‘marriage with Anne Cecil turned out very unhappily. If he was Shakespeare he had himself experienced Othello’s torments.” All told, Oxford turned out to be a far richer subject — in terms of psychopathology — than Shakespeare ever had been.
For Freud, art and literature are autobiographical, reflecting the experiences and psychological complexion of their creators, and the apparent lack of correspondence between Shakespeare’s plays and the facts of his life casts doubt on Shakespeare’s authorship (Freud was, apparently, deeply upset when he learned that Hamlet, which he had analyzed in the context of his theory of the Oedipus complex, was written before the death of Shakespeare’s father).
Indeed, Shapiro attributes much of the doubt about Shakespeare’s authorship to Romantic and post-Romantic notions that art is self-revelatory, that it mirrors the artist’s soul or mind or psychological state. This, he insists, is a dubious way of thinking about the creation of art and it is certainly not one that circulated, at least in the same form, in Shakespeare’s period. It also lends itself to snobbery. After all, one of its implications is that only individuals with certain kinds of backgrounds can create certain kinds of art (as noted above, it’s often a sense that Shakespeare cuts too shabby a figure to have been the creator of the speech of kings and other “great” characters that informs promotion of alternate authors like Bacon or Oxford). Why, Shapiro, asks can’t we allow that a great imagination enabled Shakespeare to write such diverse and rich works? Shapiro encourages those who believe that someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays to examine their prejudices about where genius comes from, how it works, and who gets to have it.
Shapiro also encourages readers to inform themselves about the age in which Shakespeare lived and worked, what scholars now typically refer to as the “early modern” period (as opposed to the older term “Renaissance”). Much brilliant scholarship has been written that suggests that persons in the period understood and experienced the world in ways profoundly different from those of contemporary persons and in the epilogue to Contested Will Shapiro rehearses some of the claims of that scholarship in order to bolster the case that detractors of Shakespeare’s authorship frequently impose intellectual and psychological paradigms on a society that does not easily accommodate them.
This section of the study seems a bit hasty and proceeds in a somewhat disjointed fashion, as if Shapiro can’t help but add ever more evidence to the case even if it goes underused. However, Contested Will concludes with an impressive bibliographic essay in which Shapiro points readers to his sources and the scholarship he references that should prove useful for those interested in further investigation of the questions and issues the study addresses.
It would be difficult to imagine a better work of scholarship than this. Deeply informed, profoundly thoughtful, provocative, and always alive to the human relevance of even the most seemingly obscure anecdotes and bits of archival record. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? is a masterpiece.