The man from Stratford wrote these works of genius

In this entertaining book, James Shapiro shows that the rush to discover who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays is underpinned by modern prejudices rather than historic fact.

Francis Phillips

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In case readers tremble at the title of James Shapiro’s book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, thinking that yet another eccentric contender for the mantle of the man from Stratford has come forward, let me reassure them at the outset: Shapiro, a professor at Columbia University, tells us early on in this erudite and entertaining work that ‘I happen to believe that William Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him’. In a further startling display of common sense, he adds that he doesn’t believe that truth is relative ‘or that there are always two sides to every story’.

What interests Shapiro then is not Shakespeare’s identity but why it has ever been challenged; why, during the past 200 years, there has been so much ink spilled by literate and scholarly persons trying to shoehorn highly improbable candidates into Shakespeare’s Tudor slippers. Indeed, I myself know a clever and well-read man who actually renamed his home ‘De Vere House’, in honour of a popular contender, the 17th Earl of Oxford, so I have a personal interest in what Shapiro discovers.

Shapiro emphasises that for two centuries after Shakespeare’s death the authorship of his plays and poems was never in question. It was not until 1785 that the matter first arose, gathering impetus during the Victorian period so that by 1850 there were innumerable books and articles on the subject. Choosing Francis Bacon and Aubrey de Vere as representative of this strange literary activity, Shapiro reminds us that Shakespeare did not live in an age of memoir and that the known facts of his life are very few. No one thought to interview his friends or his family after his death until a generation had passed and it was too late. Shapiro speculates, though he does not develop this idea – as Clare Asquith has done in Shadowplay – that the playwright might have followed a suspect faith (Catholicism) and therefore might have deliberately destroyed much evidence. Certainly, the very few explicit references to contemporary events in his plays suggest that Shakespeare chose not to employ them.

What is clear is that from the eighteenth-century Shakespeare scholar, Edmund Malone, and onwards, the altered sensibility and self-consciousness of the age caused investigators to assume that the plays – and especially the sonnets – must be autobiographical; that their author ‘could only write about what he had felt or done, rather than heard about, read about, borrowed… or imagined’. For instance, it is known that Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son, died in 1596. From there it was a short leap for scholars of the Romantic period and later to be convinced that the playwright must have alluded to this event in certain poignant lines in King John. Shapiro’s comments here demonstrate his method: ‘Perhaps they were. Perhaps the play had been written before Shakespeare learned of his son’s death. Perhaps he waited until composing Hamlet to unpack his heart. Or perhaps Shakespeare had been thinking of something else… We’ll never know entirely.’

Today, living in an age when so much fiction is disguised autobiography in one way or another, and when our sensibilities, inherited from the Romantics and the Victorians, have developed and refined a subjective and self-centred way of looking at life and literature (think of all those modern biographies of authors, automatically seeking and finding links between the life and the art), it is inconceivable to allow such power to the imagination alone. And of course, once it is decided that the plays must reflect actual events that Shakespeare experienced firsthand, it is only a short step to believing that the ‘man from Stratford’ could not possibly have held all the diverse knowledge displayed in the art: enter educated, travelled, courtly, Elizabethan men of letters, such as Bacon and Oxford.

Coleridge set the tone, ‘reading the trajectory of the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays as a story of the poet’s psychological development’. Shapiro reminds us that the word ‘psychological’ entered the vocabulary with Coleridge himself, an indication of the anachronistic ways in which later writers were to misread life in Tudor times. This was an age of faith; childhood was brief; households were wider than the nuclear family; death in the forties was the norm. It is we who lack the imagination to enter into Shakespeare’s milieu.

Research into the life of players and playwrights of the period throws up other problems for those who have invented an aristocratic genius, elaborately disguising his authorship behind a Stratford player and revealing his life by constant coded allusions in his writings. Shakespeare, like his contemporaries, would have often collaborated with other playwrights; the co-authorship of some plays is very likely. Further, hundreds of people in the London theatrical fraternity knew him; a great number of inexpensive quartos of his plays were in circulation during his lifetime; and there is sufficient praise and recognition from his contemporaries to make it sensible to assume that the man who wrote the plays and poems both for money and for the entertainment of playgoers (not for literary people in later ages, sitting in armchairs in libraries) was who his friends knew him to be: William Shakespeare from Stratford.

Shapiro is enlightening on other influences that challenged the authorship: nineteenth-century German scriptural criticism was dissecting the Bible and finding different authors at work; classical scholars were disputing Homer’s authorship of the Greek epics. It was inevitable that Shakespeare’s canon should be subject to the same methods. There are also the blind spots of great writers: Mark Twain could not accept that imagination might have only a loose connection with actual events; Henry James could not reconcile the shrewd businessman with the poetic genius; Freud, who supported de Vere’s candidacy, had, as Shapiro reminds us, ‘a tendency to think counter-intuitively’.

The author concludes robustly that it does matter who wrote Shakespeare: we can believe in the power of the imagination or we can believe everything is disguised and needs de-coding; you can’t have both. I agree with him about the authorship; I also agree that Shakespeare did not have to commit murder to write Macbeth; but since I also believe that he was probably a secret Catholic in an age when you could die for attending Mass, I do not see why there might not have been subtle and disguised allusions in the plays for his co-religionists. But that is another book.

Francis Phillips is a writer based in Buckinghamshire, England, and a contributor to

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, by James Shapiro, is published by Faber and Faber. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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