James Shapiro’s timely—and polite—debunking of the claims that rival authors wrote the works of the great bard will never convince the conspiracy theoristsby Robert Winder / March 19, 2010 / Leave a comment
Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro (Faber, £20)
It was only a matter of time. At some point someone was going to have to roll up some sleeves and assert once more, from a proper scholarly height, that William Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by… William Shakespeare.
It is sad that such a book is even necessary, but the modern world seems keen to see the origin of Shakespeare’s collected works as one of those mysteries—like the Marie Celeste, the death of Princess Diana, or extraterrestrials—that may never be truly “solved.” We must be thankful, then, that the task fell to James Shapiro, whose previous book about a single dramatic year (1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare), is one of the most impressive portraits of Shakespeare in recent times. For, far from being a shrill counterblast at anti-Shakespeareans, Shapiro’s Contested Will is a calm inquiry into the power of the wish to reject the official view.
His book is not so much an argument in favour of Shakespeare—the case is so overwhelming as to require little rehearsing—as a rumination on the discontents that have led so many people to doubt him, including some he admires: Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud. And he weeps over the flabby urge to see Who-Wrote-Shakespeare? as some sort of “intellectual Watergate”: “I don’t believe that truth is relative, or that there are two sides to every story,” he writes. He very much resents the devout contemporary suspicion of historical expertise.
Shapiro begins by noticing that the rise of the anti-Shakespeare movement was spawned partly in response to the excesses of the deification industry that was raising lucrative ramparts around the great name. This latter inspired some flagrant abuses—fraudulent letters and journals, and even, in 1795, a forged manuscript of King Lear—which inevitably led a few free-thinkers to wonder if the entire Shakespearean story wasn’t also a fake. Shapiro runs a sceptical eye over the ragtag army of pretenders and claimants, concentrating on the two most popular causes and looking, only slightly down his nose, at the people who carry their banners.
The first candidate is Francis Bacon (1561-1626). It ought to go without saying that one of the greatest and busiest men of the age—politician, courtier, scientist and philosopher—might have struggled to also produce the Shakespeare canon (in itself a superhuman production) in secret. This did not, however, deter…