By James Shapiro
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009)

Reviewed by Don Rubin[1] (Canada)


What one should appreciate most about Professor James Shapiro’s new book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare – aside, of course, from his impeccable scholarship – is the fact that he wrote this book at all. As a major Shakespearean scholar, as someone who is clearly on the side of the man from Stratford as the likeliest author of Shakespeare’s plays, Shapiro deserves enormous credit for legitimizing the conversation on this subject, and for being brave enough to even approach this subject.

Indeed, in all my years in and around the academy not a single scholar ever even mentioned the authorship question in an official context. Why? It is simply not a good career move to question received Truth on this touchy subject, so entrenched is the orthodox position. The fear for most scholars is that if they do go near it they are likely to be ridiculed at “tenure time” and/or savaged in peer reviews. The fact that one of the first to challenge this orthodoxy in our own time had the unfortunate last name of “Looney” probably says volumes about reactions if one even dares to bring the whole subject up. So bravo for Shapiro for being so willing to brave the sarcastic slings and critical arrows even if he himself does try to brush the whole question away by the end of his fascinating book.

The fact is, there is a question. And it doesn’t seem to want to go away even after all these centuries. A bit like Galileo’s one about whether the sun really revolves around the earth. Everyone knew the proper answer back then. When it was challenged by research, the orthodoxy came down hard on Galileo. It’s a bit like that today with the Shakespearean orthodoxy.

The question again? Something to this effect: was it a commoner from that Elizabethan backwater called Stratford-upon-Avon who really wrote some of the greatest poetry and certainly the greatest dramas of all time? Could this really have all come from a man whose literary bona-fides have been challenged over and over again through the centuries by a surprisingly wide range of thinkers and artists from the likes of Mark Twain to no less a figure than Sigmund Freud, from poet Walt Whitman to actor Derek Jacobi, from stage and screen star Jeremy Irons to someone as surprising as Mark Rylance (the artistic director of the rebuilt Globe Theatre in London). And if it wasn’t the Stratford man who wrote these works, who was it? And why the mystery? Were these works actually written by someone who just used the Stratford man’s name and notoriety for what some consider the greatest literary cover-up in history?

Yes, the Stratford man certainly seems mixed up in it either way. You know who it is. Will something. A man who never learned to use trendy italic writing and who printed his name rather shakily his whole life as “Shaksper.” The man who got rich on these plays. The man who apparently had no library at his death, who seems to have had a questionable education at best, who apparently never wrote a letter to anyone during his lifetime despite his “fame” as poet and wealth, who never gave a manuscript to anyone during his life or thought to leave a word about his hugely famous writings (or anything he might have been working on) in his will, a man whose parents and wife and even whose daughter were functionally illiterate.

How could such a person, the question goes, have written these most glorious works of the imagination? These works that show the breadth of vocabulary not of a single well-educated Elizabethan gentleman but of three or four of them combined. Truly astonishing. The astonishment, in fact, that just won’t go away. Could everything he wrote have simply come from the imagination or the dogged research of this barely there actor? When the question has been asked, the sneer-ers generally refer to the whole issue as simply an overblown conspiracy while the blasé-fairers on the issues satisfy themselves by simply saying who really cares? The plays are the plays. So what if someone other than the man from Stratford wrote them. Indeed, they often ask, would it matter if Queen Elizabeth herself had written them (she has actually been rumoured to be the author from time to time although the betting odds against her are now astronomical and the case for Elizabeth as Will is all but closed).

James Shapiro
James Shapiro

Now if you are asking me, I do happen to love a good conspiracy theory. So much for the sneer-ers. But how do I answer the blasé-fairers whose mantra is “who really cares?” Let me try.

What if you knew somehow that Noel Coward was the real author of Shaw’s late plays? Of course the plays would still stand on their own but you might―just might―ant to examine questions of say sexual orientation a bit more closely knowing what one knows about Coward. Or about class warfare. Or Fabian socialism. What if Shakespeare was found to be gay? Or black? Or Italian? Could it just perhaps affect interpretation?

How about if Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Would questions of power relations be examined more deeply? Indeed, if he did write them it would probably be because his early death was simply staged to cover his spying for the British crown and he was smuggled out of England spending the last decades of his life living in Italy and writing all these “Shakespearean” plays under that assumed name.

That’s pushing the whole conspiracy thing for sure. Even I don’t buy that.

But my point here is that it seems to me that knowing an author’s true identity does matter. And there is a nagging question in the case of the Stratford man.
Yet so many simply refuse to examine the question at all preferring to spend their energies instead on such things as whether or not Shakespeare was a Catholic in hiding or a turncoat Protestant. What if one were to find out that the real Shakespeare was actually Jewish? What would that information do to a close reading of Merchant of Venice?

What if the real author was actually an orphaned nobleman whose family wealth had been confiscated early on in his life by the crown (“oh horrible, horrible, most horrible”) and who spent much of his later life wondering how to marry off three ― count them, three ― daughters to proper aristocratic husbands? Imagine.

It must be said right here that in this fascinating but clearly murky area, no smoking gun has ever been found definitively linking either the Stratford man to his plays (“Dear Wife: Please pass this volume of my recent poems on to the local schoolteacher…”) or linking the plays directly to anyone else. What we really have on both sides of the issue are mostly assumptions. Yes, there was an actor from Stratford named Shaksper who worked at the Globe and got rich. Yes there was an author at this same time who wrote plays and poetry under the name Shake-Speare. But are they the same man?

No one can prove it one way or the other. Everything is circumstantial and there’s the rub. The godfather of Shakespeare studies these days is probably the British scholar Stanley Wells. He told me a few years back that he wouldn’t even consider approaching the question of who actually wrote the plays of Shakespeare until it was definitively proven that the Stratford man didn’t. And that most orthodox of views makes it exceedingly difficult to have much of a conversation on the subject.

For Wells and others of the same orthodox Stratford church, the playwright was, without doubt, the London actor from Stratford, that man who could barely write his name and who ― as previously noted ― mentions not a single manuscript or book or play in a single letter to a single contemporary. Is this really the author of some 37 plays? The most famous author of his day? A person whose death in 1616 in Stratford was not even noted there? Or much in London. Odd that.

For the anti-Stratfordians―those who generally opt for the conspiracy theory (much more delicious than mundane reality)―the author called Shakespeare is really someone hiding behind a carefully crafted plot to allow himself political protection and, more likely, protection of social standing during a period when it was simply unacceptable for an aristocrat to dabble in the theatrical arts for more than intellectual amusement. To be a “working” artist? To publish plays and poetry? Absurd. To acknowledge oneself to be in regular contact with “professionals” struggling to make money from their art? To be connected to the lower classes going to―no less performing in―Shoreditch?

It is into this miasma that Professor Shapiro gingerly steps in his new book. He comes down on the Stratford man’s side ultimately and there is no doubt about that. But in doing so he does articulate the history of the authorship question clearly and openly. A breath of academic fresh air that. He points out there were numerous false claims about the Bard’s identity. He outlines them all and his explanations are effective. But he is on less sure ground when he tries to shoot some of the more articulate messengers like Twain and Freud and the female scholar, Delia Bacon.

Twain, he argues, wanted to justify writers like himself who used professional pseudonyms (his own real name being Samuel Clemens) while Freud was using the life of one of the pretenders (Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, whose life actually matched up pretty well) to try and prove his own psychoanalytical theories. Delia Bacon, for her part, was treated exceedingly poorly mostly because she was a woman fighting for her rights in the male academy. Shapiro takes on her love life as proof of her generally poor judgement. In the end, it is more character assassination by Shapiro than revelation. He ends up saying little more than that there was a man from Stratford who worked at the Globe and who never denied writing the works of Shakespeare. But that is rather circular and never does get to the centre of things.

The second major thing that Shapiro does here is to look clearly at the other contenders in the authorship question and that too makes this book useful because he pretty much shoots down all of them with the exception of one: that same Edward de Vere again, the Earl of Oxford.

The de Vere position, in fact, has been growing significantly over the last five decades or so as the cases for other pretenders have faded and pretty much have been shown to be rather fanciful. de Vere’s cause, however, just keeps growing and will keep growing until that smoking gun is found proving the case one way or another.

Indeed, the de Vere cause was given huge strength in 2005 when American Mark Anderson published an exhaustive and brilliantly researched 600 page biography of de Vere which comes as close as any to proving the circumstantial case. The Anderson book, a terrific read that does for the authorship question what Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code did for contemporary Christianity ―now remains the standard on this subject. Yet even Anderson’s remarkable sleuthing on behalf of de Vere did not produce that smoking gun. What it did do was to put de Vere everywhere he would have needed to be if he actually had written the plays. And he certainly shows us that elements from de Vere’s own life keep coming up in play after play by the bard.

But proving the de Vere case beyond a reasonable doubt even for Anderson will be exceedingly tough. Big guns are lined up against him. Can you imagine what would happen to the Shakespeare industry (start with tourism in Stratford-upon-Avon and then go on to the orthodox intellectuals who have been writing about the sun revolving about the earth for 400 years) if it turned out that it really was de Vere who wrote these poems and plays and then passed them on to the Stratford man for production at the Globe and other venues. The centre of the Stratfordian world―including its academic and publishing arms―would not hold. Everything connected to the Shakespeare industry would have to be radically reconsidered. And radical is not in that particular vocabulary.

Whatever your position on this issue (or non-issue), I doubt very much that Shapiro’s book will change your mind. But as documentation of the basic arguments it does offer up a good look at the issues and the various names that have been candidates over the centuries, and that is certainly useful.

Of particular interest here is the fact that a scholar on the right of this issue has seen any need at all to document what the so-called conspirators have been saying for so long. That alone suggests that maybe the conspiracy really does have something to it and gives clear aid and comfort to the enemy. The fact is that the right has probably all but given up believing that anything new will be turned up to prove either case but that is obviously not the position of the left. They are still looking under every tree. Indeed, they still believe that a smoking gun may still be found. So many are now involved in that search from so many fields of intellectual enquiry that just perhaps something new will be turned up on this still real question.

[1] Don Rubin is the General Editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre and a Professor of Theatre Studies at York University in Toronto.

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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?