Monday, April 21, 2014

Contested Will by James Shapiro

Contested Will – Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro. 2010. Read in September 2011.

                      With monotonous repetition the question of who really wrote Shakespeare pops up and makes the rounds. Even people who should know better claim that someone else did and I find it more and more puzzling.  It shouldn’t really bother me but the substitutes offered are so silly it’s insulting.
                      That’s why this book is so refreshing. In a calm, thoughtful, scientific manner Shapiro goes through the history of this odd phenomenon, explains why the theories were presented when they were and how none of the candidates are feasible.
                      In the 19th century Shakespeare had been burdened with a Godlike status similar to that of Jesus and when scientific development brought doubt to the veracity of the tales in the Bible, a doubt of Shakespeare’s divinity also swept through the western world. Good so far. I doubt that Shakespeare ever wanted to be divine. The problem was that, while the evidence against the possibility of the Bible being true is sound, the evidence against Shakespeare writing Shakespeare is not. And there is fact a difference between trying to prove that Shakespeare was God, or at least God’s word in literature, and that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.
                      As for the candidates – mainly Delia Bacon and Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford, Shapiro shows with meticulous reference to existing documents, that nobody but Shakespeare is a plausible alternative.
                      Shapiro ends his study with a discussion on why this question seems to be so interesting and he writes, “It makes a difference as to how we imagine the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote” (page 316).  This book is a fascinating study of that. If you believe someone else than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and you want to continue to believe that, don’t read this book.  If you haven’t figured out what you think about it, or if you want thorough and reasonable arguments favouring Shakespeare, then this is a must read.


  1. This book is one of my favourites that discusses the authorship question. I can't imagine anyone but Shakespeare write Shakespeare. As you note above, the interesting thing that I love in this book is the journey through history, how Shakespeare was exulted as a literary idol and how people's over-expectation of him turned into total denial. Here's an excerpt from my diary, right after I finished reading the book:

    "His [Shakepeare's] plays bring speculation and expectation of his personal life... But because there's a huge gap between what people expect from him when they read his works and what they know about his personal life (which is still an incomplete picture anyway), instead of making the leap of faith they fell on the jump, concluding that somebody else who fits their imagination of what the author should be like must be the 'real' author."

    I don't remember if Shapiro's was the first book I read that discusses the authorship question, but I certainly have read about some candidates before reading Shakespeare. If anybody should be suspected of being the 'real' author, linguistically, it should be Marlowe. But he was dead when Shakespeare began to flourish. No other, not even the queen himself (really, somebody puts her as a candidate), could claim to be him.

    1. Thank you, Lemon Tree, for the excerpt from your journal! Well put. Your whole comment is interesting and appreciated! It seems we both thought the controversy was quite settled but from William Ray’s comment below we can see we were wrong...about the controversy being over.

  2. Did we read the same book? As an hors d'oeurve, the Prologue, he claimed HE discovered that the Wilmot Cowell material was a fraud. John Rollett discovered that seven years before; Shapiro read about it in Shakespeare Matters, an Oxfordian newsletter and waited until Rollett might publish about it; when he didn't by Contested Will's printing time, Shapiro claimed it for his own. Plagiarism is not an auspicious beginning for honest scholarship. But you trust Shapiro. My mistake. He went on to explain that there had been no doubting Shakspere Stratford wrote 'Shakespeare' until around 1850. He ignored some twenty-five contemporaries in the 1595-1630 era, who indirectly named another person, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as "Shakespeare/Shake-Speare/Shakespere/Shakspeare". Willobie, Covell, Barnfield, Weever, Freeman, Scoloker, Camden, Barksted, Digges, Webster, Harvey, Nashe, Spenser, Chapman, Marston, Meres, Davies, Jonson, Vicars, Basse, Braithwait, and the anonymous author of The Book of Jeasts (1630) among them. Never Shakspere. Nor did the Stratford gentleman ever claim the works his, or his family or his friends and neighbors or his colleagues ever associate him with the Shakespeare canon. There seemed to have been great doubt all through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries how such an author, so penurious he sued for shillings allowed his works to be pirated without a word, to have been severely altered without protest: Pope, Theobald, Hanmer, Samuel Johnson, Farmer, Ritson, Malone right down to Greg, Feuilerat, and Pinker. The doubt was great enough that Jordan, Ireland, and Collier made careers of falsifying papers to prop the non-existent Stratford literary record. No doubt until about 1850 according to your hero. My mistake. Then a mad woman doubted, according to him, and this has been the trumpeted tale ever since. Turns out her collaborative theory is just like the current fad of authorship. But if you doubt the Stratford authorship, you are crazy. Sorry. Something is wrong with how you seek evidence for Stratford Will. No respectable historian or biographer would manufacture the pap that goes for Shakespeare biography, and Shapiro was one of the prime offenders. He has recanted his writing there, but not given back the advances. Now he says forget the person, read the work, like they were galaxies apart. We can't forget evidence or logical analysis though and men's work and lives are quite close, believe it or not. He concludes the shameful book with hit-jobs on doubters, all of them remarkable in their understanding of art and artists and of knowledge regarding evidence for art: Freud; Clemens-whom he never names as using the pseudonym by which we wink-know him, for no user of pseudonyms exists to Shapiro; James, Henry and William; Keller; Sir George Greenwood; J Thomas Looney [Loh'nee] of Manx ancestry and pronunciation; Whitman, Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, Galsworthy; Welles, Chaplin, Jacobi, Rylance, Gielgud, Irons, York, Redgrave; Justice Stevens, Justice Powell, Justice O'Conner, Justice Scalia, Justice Blackmun. Et cetera. Shapiro, English lecturer, judged them all wrongos. Sorry. Somebody is wrong and it will take more than blind bias to bury the search for the truth. Meanwhile don't let it bother you that you aren't interested, beneath cultural dignity, meant for psychos. Wait til the wind shifts. You will be interested then, when the herd looks up. Meanwhile read your books with more objectivity. Shapiro wrote that book to "shut them up once and for all." That is what he said. Professor Know All. Such is his interest in factual research, a squelch assignment to protect his own rep and that of the industry he serves without a thought about its hopeless falsehoods and contradictions.

    1. Well, that was passionate. The debate continues, evidently.

  3. Every time I chance to read something on the so-called "Authorship Question", there are two things I can't help thinking about. The first are Puck's immortal words "Lord, what fools these mortals be!", the second - and probably more important - is semantics. We need some sharpening of definitions here. Whether or not there is an Authorship "Question/Controversy/Whatever" is of course a matter of personal taste/opinion/feeling/whatever. But I venture to suggest that such thing as Authorship "Debate/Discussion/Whatever" simply does not exist. The reason is simple indeed: extremely different - nay, diametrically opposite - basic premises. One party claims that the absence of evidence is not an evidence of absence, the other party claims precisely the opposite. The whole "debate/discussion/whatever" is based on this foundation and thus false.

    PS By the way, it's quite funny, come to think of it, how easily Stratfordians could "prove" Oxfordians and like wrong with their own methods. They merely have to postulate the entirely possible theory that during his "lost years" Will lived all over Europe, studied hard, probably even circumnavigated the world, thus gaining the knowledge and the experience to write his plays. Not a shred of evidence about this? Why, the plays are there. He couldn't have written them without this vast experience, and there's no other time he could have acquired this experience. An intelligent ten-year-old kid would easily spot the logical absurdity of such an "argument".