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 a mid-19th century woman, called (happily) Delia Bacon, from dedicating her life to the proposal that her famous namesake was the true genius behind Hamlet and The Tempest.
It is no coincidence, Shapiro notes, that such thoughts emerged along with the rise of the whodunnit. And Delia Bacon’s own biography—she was an unsuccessful playwright from the American provinces—may have ignited her belief that Shakespeare lacked the lineage to create his world. Her argument was pure snobbery: she takes him to be a “third-rate play actor” who did not have the “highest Elizabethan breeding.”
Nor could she believe that a man could be so slack with manuscripts (none survive) unless he sought anonymity. But along with her friend Samuel Morse, she inspired a craze that looked for (and found) coded messages in the works.
The Baconian campaign foundered mainly thanks to the rise of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as a rival. Once again, certain drawbacks—such as the fact that he died in 1604, before Shakespeare produced his grandest plays—were (and are) overlooked by his followers. Chief among these was JT Looney (no, really), a dejected churchman depressed—like so many following the second world war—by a sense of anarchy and disintegration. Like Delia Bacon, Looney looks at the plays, imagines the man who must have written them, and rejects Shakespeare as unfit. He dreams of a stouter, prouder social order, and relies heavily on Odysseus’s famous plea, in Troilus and Cressida, on behalf of “degree” or rank in human affairs. Typically, he sees it as a haughty manifesto rather than a wheedling piece of dramatic poetry.
The most eminent anti-Shakespearean was Freud, an eager Oxfordian. Freud is an intellectual giant, not easily dismissed—but Shapiro dents his credibility by pointing out how easily he warmed to the queasy idea that works of art are, by definition, confessional, and hence accepted that a glover’s son like Shakespeare could not have conjured with kings. Nor could Freud resist the proposition that the most important truths are those that are concealed, repressed, and susceptible only to Viennese analysis. Hence his claim to have solved, alone among critics, the “problem of Hamlet”—why Hamlet hesitates to kill the king. The solution being, naturally, an unconscious Oedipal conflict.
In the end, Shapiro suggests, much of this Shakespeare-anxiety flows from our sense (partly Freud-inspired) that all imaginative writing is autobiographical, a showcase for our disorders. We assume, wrongly, that plays are a form of self-expression. We suspect that the received wisdom may be false—a form of tyranny—and indulge fanciful notions posing as opposition. Shapiro cannot let Shakespeare suffer such abuse. “It diminishes the very thing that made him so exceptional,” he writes. “His imagination.”
Shapiro could not have done a more courteous demolition job, but he may be tilting at windmills. Conspiracy theories thrive because of our addiction to secrets and lies, to the heady lure of the hidden meaning. It might even be that the smartest word on all this came almost a century ago, in PG Wodehouse’s The Reverent Wooing of Archibald. A couple of blue-blooded dimwits are discussing an eccentric aunt:
“She thinks Bacon wrote Shakespeare,” says one.
“Dashed decent of him,” replies his companion.
The idea that the writing of the plays was a chore is not one that would occur to Bacon, Looney or Shapiro. All three are (like so many of the rest of us) devotees. The fact that devotion takes such strange and various shapes is, in a way, just one of the many strands of the amazing Shakespearean picture.
But with this in mind, I found myself glancing at the works with mounting unease. And then I noticed, in Sonnet 81—how could I have missed it?—that the all-important second letter was an R, and the initial letter of the last line—a key symbolic placement—was a W. Turning, with racing pulse, to its inverse, Sonnet 18, I found a pungent reference to “rough winds” (RW again) along with the suddenly uncryptic remark: “thou wand’rest in his shade.” Most telling of all, I consulted the sum of these sonnets (81 + 18 = 99) and found an even more brazen allusion to a “sweet thief” who has committed, as his name implies, “Robb’ry.”
The penny dropped. It was howlingly obvious, and irrefutable. Someone with my own initials was the true author of Shakespeare’s works! Could it be that I, without even knowing it, had written Romeo and Juliet? Preposterous, of course. But there are stranger things in heaven and earth, and nothing is so unfathomable as a non-existent mystery.
Robert Winder is the author of “The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare” (Little, Brown)