A year before he retired from the Supreme Court in 2010, John Paul Stevens told the Wall Street Journal that the author of Shakespeare’s plays was the aristocrat Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford. Like Henry James, Sigmund Freud, and others who have doubted that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, Stevens attempted to read the evidence connecting Shakespeare’s life and art. He found it plausible that de Vere, not a middle-class glover’s son from Warwickshire, would have dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece to Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southamption. Why? Because de Vere and Southampton were both noble wards of Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s closest advisor.
In Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? James Shapiro addresses the shaky foundations of hypotheses such as Stevens’. Shapiro is a respected scholar of early modern England and author of the acclaimed 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.
Shapiro’s historical investigation is a wise and engaging reenactment of when and why people began to question Shakespeare’s authorship. “Like all good detective fiction, the Shakespeare mystery can be solved only by determining what evidence is credible, retracing steps, and avoiding false leads,” he notes in the prologue. Underlying Shapiro’s quest is a curiosity about “why this subject remains virtually taboo in academic circles” and what the “collective silence” really means. (As a serious Shakespeare enthusiast, I have found this silence bewildering.)
Shapiro reminds us that no papers have been discovered in Shakespeare’s own handwriting, which would connect him more personally to the plays attributed to him by Ben Jonson and many contemporaries. Since the late eighteenth century, plenty of men have hunted for such papers. Shapiro recounts the tale of fraud perpetrated by William-Henry Ireland in 1795, involving forged letters allegedly written to Shakespeare by the Earl of Southampton and the queen, as well as a manuscript of King Lear in the playwright’s own hand. Earlier in that century Shakespeare had gradually attained the status of a deity, especially after the famed actor David Garrick established the first Shakespeare “Jubilee” festival in the playwright’s hometown. Shapiro implies that the Ireland incident could not have happened until Shakespeare had achieved iconic status.
Shapiro makes a persuasive case for why Shakespeare’s first systematic editor did a huge disservice to posterity when he insisted on dating the plays by combing through them to find “allusions to contemporary events and court intrigue.” In doing so, Edmund Malone “helped institutionalize a methodology that would prove crucial to those who would subsequently deny Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays.” Though Malone’s expertise is still much respected by scholars today, Shapiro grants him the dubious credit of encouraging generations of enthusiasts to view the plays as “coded works, full of in-jokes and veiled political intrigue for those in the know.”
Within Malone’s practice of critiquing the plays and sonnets in light of Shakespeare’s established biography, Shapiro locates the start of the modern tendency to presuppose that Shakespeare’s fictional work necessarily reflects his actual experiences and emotions. He cogently explains why Malone’s “biographical assumptions” had no foundation in available life records. Throughout the book Shapiro revisits the critical trend set by Malone, showing how and why German critics and Romantics such as Wordsworth, Emerson, and Coleridge found his position so attractive. Later critics and poets would be further seduced by the Romantics, basing their own claims about Shakespeare’s life and work on the faulty assumption that in every work of fiction, we find veiled clues to a writer’s life.
It is irrefutable that Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights worked in collaboration. To Shapiro, this fact poses great problems for anyone aiming to abstract autobiographical clues from Shakespeare’s plays. Most elegantly, Shapiro shows us how Malone, a man of the Enlightenment writing nearly two centuries after Shakespeare died, had no evidence to support a belief that lamentations by Constance in King John contained clues to how Shakespeare responded to the death of his son Hamnet in 1596. Implications of Shapiro’s conclusion that such biographical analysis is anachronistic resonate throughout Contested Will:
“Indeed, there was no effort to consider that even as literary culture had changed radically since early modern times, so too had a myriad of social customs, religious life, childhood, marriage, family dynamics, and, cumulatively, the experience of inwardness. The greatest anachronism of all was in assuming that people have always experienced the world the same way we ourselves do, that Shakespeare’s internal, emotional life was modern.”
Malone is further attacked for failing to reconcile the implications of London’s highly collaborative playwriting milieu with his assumption that Shakespeare must have worked alone. For it was Malone who first saw entries from Rose Theatre owner Philip Henslowe’s Diary, a book that “contained almost everything we now know about the staging of plays in Shakespeare’s day.” (Malone was also guilty of refusing to share the contents of the Diary with other scholars. It was found among his papers long after its discovery at Dulwich College in 1790.)
Contested Will deftly exposes the faulty assumptions that gave rise to the most familiar challenges to Shakespeare’s authorship. Using the available documentary evidence, Shapiro reconstructs a speculative account of Delia Bacon’s endeavor to prove that Francis Bacon was the "real" Shakespeare. During this story Shapiro is quite respectful of the American woman of letters. Though Bacon’s The Philosophy of Shakspere’s Plays Unfolded was discredited in the scholarly community, her work ushered in hordes of followers seduced by her method, eager to make their own noisy claims. Among them were Mark Twain and Helen Keller.
The next section of the book explores the rise of Edward de Vere, the earl of Oxford, as a popular claimant. Tantalizing is the story of how J.T. Looney (rhymes with coney), the leader of the Newcastle-based wing of a religious sect known as the “Church of Humanity,” came to publish Shakespeare Identified in 1920, based on his lifelong absorption of the plays through the reactionary lens of medieval feudalism. Shapiro’s account of how Looney’s story is indelibly linked to Sigmund Freud’s absorption of Hamlet, scholars’ attempts to date the play’s composition, the genesis of his Oedipal theory, and how people have latched onto Looney’s theory of Oxford-as-Shakespeare, make Contested Will into a tour de force. Another attractive quality of Contested Will is Shapiro’s abiding respect for the work and aims of Bacon, Looney, and many other amateur theorists who take pains to connect the available evidence to their theories.
Shapiro saves the powerful arguments in favor of the Stratford man-as-Shakespeare for the book’s final section, combing through “early printed texts” and “what writers who knew Shakespeare said about him.” Among the evidence are contemporary published praises of Shakespeare’s works by historian William Camden; university scholars such as Robert Greene, Richard Barnfield, and Francis Meres; critics like Gabriel Harvey; and such contemporary lyric and dramatic poets as John Webster, Michael Drayton, Thomas Heywood, Francis Beaumont, John Weever, and of course, Ben Jonson.
Shapiro’s illumination of Shakespeare’s late verse style and how his stagecraft was suited for the indoor Blackfriars playhouse should kill the idea that Oxford wrote the later tragedies and romances, which scholars agree were written after Oxford's death in 1604.
Former Supreme Court Justice Stevens and others who conduct amateur investigations into the authorship debate would be edified by Shapiro’s final section and epilogue. He is full of wise caution for anyone seduced by “conspiratorial history” and “autobiographical analysis,” reminding us that “there’s little evidence that the lives of early modern men and women resembled our own.” Quoting T.S. Eliot’s frustration with biographers who fail to accurately connect his life events with his poetry, he reminds us that those who endeavor to find clues of an author’s life inside his writings are very often dead wrong: “If we can’t get the autobiographical in Eliot’s poetry and drama right, though there are many still alive who knew him, as well as a trove of letters and interviews to draw upon, what hope have we of doing so with Shakespeare?”