So long lives this, and this gives life to thee".--Sonnet 18
From the introduction to the book, written by the author, a Columbia University English Literature Professor:
"I spent 15 years on my previous book ["A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599"] ... and I thought by the time I finished that I kind of put the authorship question to rest, because I put what Shakespeare had done in a well-documented year," Shapiro said. "But ... I went into one of those schools where I was doing outreach, and early on in the book I talk about a fourth-grader whose brother had told him Shakespeare hadn't written his works, and I was really at a loss. How do you argue with an 11-year-old? And had it really trickled down that far?"
This book goes over the so-called "Shakespeare controversy" that grew out of mainly pseudo-scholars--some intelligent and influential, some just daffy-- trying to prove that William Shakespeare didn't write the plays and sonnets attributed to him.Shapiro devotes the first 200 pages of the book laying out the history of this controversy and then the last fifty pages or so demolishing it. There is simply no serious evidence of any conspiracy to use "the Stratford Man" as a "front" for a patron of the court of Elizabeth or James to write plays. We now know that Shakespeare collaborated on some plays in the beginning and the end of his career, most famously at the end with John Fletcher and a couple others on parts of "Pericles, Prince of Tyre", "Timom of Athens", "Henry VIII", etc.
He also very likely wrote part of an unfinished play on Sir Thomas More--a copy of which may have some 80 lines written in his own hand. Also, some earlier plays of his like the "Henry VI" trilogy might have been doctored by him to help an inferior hand who had first crack at a commercial play.
And never forget Shakespeare was a commercial writer, not a guy just using the medium of the early English stage for dropping clues about his earlier life. He drew on history or comedy or plays of revenge and tragedy because they made money, not because it was part of his own Stratford or London experiences.
The trouble concerning "the authorship question" started in earnest in the 19th Century when Shakespeare's best plays became more and more the standard by which all other playwrights were measured. It was then that a great deal of searching bout for records of the man himself began. What was found was generally discouraging--no diaries, no "foul papers" (original copies of the plays in the author's hands, et al).
The records that were available on William Shakespeare were not that remarkable, either. Some legal documents, a marriage license, his will, some court testimony in a breach of promise case, et al. Nothing exciting. His books were not mentioned in his will. He sued people and dealt in other petty legal affairs. (Or perhaps his wife did in his name, but no matter.)
For some reason all the other evidence--that Shakespeare's contemporaries like Ben Jonson referred to him as a writer in their contribution to the First Folio, that King James made his company The King's Men and his plays bore his name in the royal records and in the bookstalls around St. Paul's Cathedral--all that wasn't enough. "Absence of evidence" became "evidence of absence." Besides, how could a guy like our William write such plays if he didn't have a Oxford or Cambridge education. No matter that his teachers at the school in Stratford he attended were all university educated and anyone of those could have recognized his talents and encouraged him. Or that he might have had access to a library in his "lost years" and got many idea for his early plays while serving as a private tutor in a wealthy family home. Or that Shakespeare simply hounded the bookstalls of London and absorbed information and background the way great minds can do. That's not enough.
Even those who kept diaries that were extant and mentioned great skills as a playwright and poet (like the Oxford student Francis Meres,who mentions a dozen of his plays and his "sugared" sonnets) or the famous "Upstart Crow" criticism of Shakespeare from a dying playwright Robert Greene wasn't enough to stop the sub-culture of amateur literary detectives who labeled the "Stratford Man" a fraud and proposed others for the mantle of the great writer.
Candidates for this post included for a time (1) Francis Bacon, the philosopher and statesman (2) Christopher Marlowe, the second most famous play writer of his day, whose certain death and possible murder in 1593 was, for some, a clever ruse to go on writing plays outside England and mailing them to Shakespeare's Lord Chamberlain's Men for performance. (For what reason? Well, I'm sure there is one.)
And (3) the most popular fellow for the conspiracy--Edward DeVere, 16th Earl of Oxford. All these three men had university educations and, to give Oxford a boost, he was a nobleman and, so the thinking goes, how could anyone but a nobleman write plays about kings and such. Plus he was once captured by pirates (as "Hamlet" was!) and had three daughters (as King Lear did!) so it all fits together, right? Case closed. (Except that Oxford died in 1604, and Shakespeare still had to write "Macbeth", "Lear", "The Tempest", et al ). Hmmm. That's a bit of a stretch.
Well, Sigmund Freud thought so, thanks to the books of a fellow named James Looney (rhymes with 'bony') and Mark Twain thought so and other celebrated people. (It's odd to me that an autodidact like Twain would come to think this way, but he felt strongly that a writer could only write what he experienced. His last book was a defense of the Baconian cause, "Is Shakespeare Dead". According to Shapiro, Twain took great stock that a cipher decoding system would reveal Bacon as the author. Whatever that cipher was never amounted to anything.)
Even modern celebrities like Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance buy this idea.
Well, as Shapiro talks about in the book--a funny thing happened to how we view literature from the Age of Elizabeth and James to the last 120-odd years of the modern era. That something is that writers write what they experience directly and all writing is in some way autobiographical. "The fact," as Shapiro writes, "is even if Shakespeare occasionally drew in his poems and plays on personal experiences, and i don't know that he did, I don't see how anyone can know with any confidence when and where he does so...It's wiser to accept that these experiences can no longer be recovered" (page 269).
this is an interesting read I think for both those who enjoy the plays of William Shakespeare of Stratford, the glover's son who made good, and those who enjoy the ida of a mystery to be solved, even if the solution in this case was already known and everything else a large school of false leads.
I leave the last words to Laura Miller in her review of this same book for Salon.com. :
"We now live in a self-reflexive, autobiographical age. Shakespeare did not. We long to see ourselves in him, but, as Shapiro writes, "the greatest anachronism of all [lies] in assuming that people have always experienced the world the same way we ourselves do." When he finally gets around to laying out the evidence for Shakespeare as Shakespeare, Shapiro makes the excellent argument that, despite the anti-Stratfordians' contempt for what (Henry) James called the "supremely vulgar" life of a professional actor, it just might have been the perfect preparation for the author of those immortal plays and poems. Whatever the actor's profession lacked in breadth of experience, it surely made up in its embrace of the imagination. Who else makes a regular habit of imagining himself into other people's skins?"