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Monday, October 31, 2011

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

by James Shapiro
2010 Simon & Schuster Publishing

When I received a message from the publishers at Simon & Schuster last week, asking if I'd be interested in reviewing Contested Will, (now out in paperback) the one word that kept sounding over and over in my mind was 'timely'. As anyone who might be interested enough to read this account (or anyone who watches television for that matter) will know, this past weekend saw the blossoming of a mighty advertising campaign come to fruition in the grand opening of a film entitled: "Anonymous". Emblazoned in white on black on its billboard, in letters half as large as its title is the message: "Was Shakespeare A Fraud?". I think no other discussion is necessary in attempts to ferret-out the intentions of those responsible for the poster. One thing's for sure: they're not peeking out from behind it. (It should be pointed out that the movie "Anonymous" is nowhere referenced in Contested Will, although Shapiro continues to make known his opinions of its possible negative effects in the educational community.)

I have come late--by choice--to the 'Authorship Debate'. Previously, the only serious consideration I was willing to give the issue was in thinking it to be a terrific waste of time; time that might otherwise be much more productively spent discovering more about The Works themselves, rather than fruitlessly conjecturing about the personal life (or, in this case, lives) of who might have written them--approximately 70 or so to date--put forth as candidates by anti-Shakespeareans. By saying that I avoided the issue, I don't mean that I know nothing about it--just that I have, up to this point, refused to devote any serious time to the "debate". Others, both more and less scholarly than myself, seem to have had feelings similar to my own. James Shapiro has sounded the alarm to 'we ostriches' in his prologue to Contested Will:

"There yet remains one subject walled off from serious study by Shakespeare scholars: the authorship question. More than one fellow Shakespearean was disheartened to learn that I was committing my energies to it, as if somehow I was wasting my time and talent, or worse, at risk of going over to the dark side. I became increasingly interested in why this subject remains virtually taboo in academic circles, as well as in the consequences of this collective silence. One thing is certain: the decision by professors to all but ignore the authorship question hasn't made it disappear. If anything, more people are drawn to it than ever."
(emphasis mine)

The ramifications of casually dismissing the issue--and those who so zealously pursue it-- are brought home in Shapiro's account of meeting with a group of nine year olds at an elementary school to discuss the poetry of Shakespeare. Upon asking if anyone had questions...

"...a quiet boy on my left raised his hand and said: 'My brother told me that Shakespeare didn't write Romeo and Juliet. Is that true?' "

Oxfordian blogger William Ray writes about the film, Anonymous: "This is one of the few instances where the artistic community is going to revolutionize the Western world's educational system." (source-Wikipedia)

As an educator, such crowing about fictionalized 'history' and 'facts' is, to say the least, disturbing to me. Enter, James Shapiro and Contested Will.

Much of Contested Will reads like a detective story, its focus on today's most prominent leading candidates for anti-Shakespeareans, Sir Francis Bacon (Baconians) and hero of the above-mentioned film, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, (Oxfordians). Those refusing to jump on the bandwagon of any of these anti-Shakespearean theorists, in other words those more willing to depend upon scant but concrete evidence--and not autobiographical fantasy-- that Shakespeare of Stratford did indeed write the works which bear his name, have been dubbed "Stratfordians" by the nay-sayers.

Since the 1800s, much time has been devoted by anti-Shakespeareans to positing theories about 'who' might have written the works. However, Shapiro's interest turns not on the 'what' doubters of William Shakespeare of Stratford have thought, but on the particulars of the 'why' they have thought it, and continue to think it. And he's not afraid to suggest that some of the blame can be left at the feet of worshippers of Shakespeare; 'Bardolators' who, like Oxfordians or Baconians, have attempted to see every move of an author's life as motive to somehow encode his or her personal life experiences and feelings in the Works themselves. Shapiro cautions against the modern idea that ultimately, an author must have experienced, first hand, what he or she writes about.

This also happens to be the starting point and basis of ALL anti-Shakespearean claims: The man from Stratford, a glover's son without a college degree and lacking in the high-born fortune requisite to being a courtier and world traveler could not have possibly written such great theatrical works. All access to books, previous great works--many of which Shakespeare's plays borrow from directly--and the fact that Shakespeare was an actor and shareholder in the company that produced the plays--among many, many other facts Shapiro lists in Shakespeare's defence, seem not to matter to those who seem so willing to zealously embrace negative theory. Shapiro also argues quite successfully against underestimating the power of the imagination; of how life can, but does not necessarily, directly inform art.

In addition to impressive research, it is the psychology of why that Shapiro has thoroughly investigated in Contested Will. The whys are both revealing and surprising in the fealty they seemingly generate from nothing but negativity; that is, until the common ground all of the proponents share is revealed by Shapiro. He promises in his prologue:

"The following pages retrace a path strewn with a great deal [of] fabricated documents, embellished lives, concealed identity, pseudonymous authorship, contested evidence, bald-faced deception, and a failure to grasp what could not be imagined."
It is highly ironic to me that those who wish to dismiss the imagination of Shakespeare are themselves possessors of what can only be described as very healthy imaginations, grounded in the fertile soil of what can many times be described as high-flown fantasy. Shapiro more than ably--and fairly-- supports that idea in his book.

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? is not only highly recommended reading; in my estimation, the modern methodology of the advancement of anti-Shakespearean theory makes it important reading. You can look for more to come on this blog regarding James Shapiro. As an educator myself, I'd now be remiss in not closely following both this issue and Professor Shapiro's subsequent thoughts on it. JM

--James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.--


  1. Contested will sounds like a great book. I heard about it on Elaine Charles' radio show " The Book Report" She recently did a show on recent Shakespearean books, and some very interesting one there are to. If you want to listen to the show and see the selection of books, go to http://www.bookreportradio.com

  2. Thanks for stopping by Francis. I hope you read it and stop by again to let me know what you think about it. I think it's an important book for a lot of reasons.
    --And thanks for the radio link. I listened to her interview with Eleanor Brown of "The Weird Sisters". It shed some light on some questions raised on another blog re: the "Shakespeare connection". Appreciate it.
    Cheers, JM