Who wrote Shakespeare? This is the subtitle of James Shapiro’s new book, Contested Will. I find this question fascinating. I find it fascinating that it’s even a question. Why do some people dispute that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays & poems attributed to him? James Shapiro examines the question from the mid eighteenth century until the present day before giving the reader his own opinion, in an elegantly-written & persuasively argued final chapter.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that Bardolatry really got started. Shakespeare’s plays were just part of the theatrical repertoire along with plays by Jonson, Fletcher, Middleton & the Restoration playwrights. Pepys famously didn’t think much of Twelfth Night, calling it “a silly play”. It was David Garrick who began the process of turning Shakespeare into a god by holding the first Stratford Jubilee complete with Shakespeare relics such as carvings from the mulberry tree reputedly planted by Shakespeare, a leather glove & a signet ring with WS engraved on it. The Jubilee was rained out & Garrick admitted it was a mistake but his reverence for the Bard & his definitive performance of some of the great roles were responsible for an increase in attention & interest in Shakespeare. Then, the forgeries began to appear. Most famously William Henry Ireland produced letters, memoirs & a whole new play, Vortigern, before the penny dropped.
In the 19th century people began to ask, who wrote the plays if the man from Stratford didn’t? Books had been written asserting that Homer never existed & that Jesus was just a man, a historical figure, but not the son of God. Debunking myths was in the air. Shapiro concentrates on the two main contenders, Francis Bacon & Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.
Bacon’s cause was taken up by his namesake, Delia Bacon, an American who made it her life’s work to prove that only a sophisticated man, a courtier, a lawyer who had travelled throughout Europe, could possibly have the breadth of experience to have written the plays. She attracted some famous converts, including Mark Twain & Helen Keller. The Baconians held sway for until the early 20th century but, as Francis Bacon’s reputation among the public waned, a new candidate emerged, the Earl of Oxford.
Like Bacon, Oxford was a courtier & diplomat. He was a poet & had written for the stage. His supporters found all kinds of hints & ciphers in the plays to prove that only he could have written them. Some of these ciphers & theories were tortuous & far-fetched but great thinkers such as Freud were convinced by the evidence. The bible of the Oxfordians was a book written by J T Looney, ‘Shakespeare’ identified. His thesis was that a man like Shakespeare of Stratford, who we only know through a few documents, mainly concerned with malting & money lending, couldn’t possibly have possessed the mind & genius to produce the plays. The lack of documentary evidence for Shakespeare’s life is the crux of the argument for most anti-Stratfordians, as they’re known. The Oxfordians gradually subsided as no new evidence appeared to support their theory.
Then, in the 1980s, with the rise of conspiracy theories about every event from the Vietnam War to the assassination of JFK, the Oxford theory attracted more support. Charlton Ogburn’s massive book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, fed into this new appetite for conspiracy & reinvigorated the movement. Today, famous actors like Derek Jacobi & Mark Rylance openly doubt the authorship of the plays. Another group believe that Christopher Marlowe didn’t die in a tavern in Deptford but was spirited away by the Government to produce the plays known as Shakespeare’s. The Marlovians were even successful in getting a memorial window to Marlowe in Westminster Abbey inscribed with the dates 1654-?1593. As if there was a reasonable doubt as to the date of his death.
All this madness is resolved by Shapiro’s final chapter. He sets out just how much is known about Shakespeare’s practice as a writer, actor & shareholder in the theatres where the plays were produced. He quotes from the editions published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, from the works of other writers who mention Shakespeare, from the tributes paid to him after his death by admirers & fellow writers like Ben Jonson. Shapiro points out the differences of life in Elizabethan England to life in the modern world. The reduced life expectancy, the basic standards of hygiene, the lack of privacy, the different expectations of family relationships. He looks at the language of the plays & shows how it changes as the theatrical environment changed. Shakespeare is seen almost exclusively as an Elizabethan writer but half his career was spent in the London of James I. Reading this final chapter is like drinking a cool draught of water after drinking too much mulled wine the night before. Shapiro is passionate about his thesis & passionate about why it matters that we should believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.