Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

Genre: Nonfiction
Author:James Shapiro
"So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
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 :

"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?"


  1. For more on the "authorship question", here is an interview with Professor Shapiro.

  2. Doug, there's a segment of the population which needs conspiracy theories. They love 'em. If they can pee in someone's sandbox by way of 'pointing out' that Shakespeare didn't write his plays, or that the government killed JFK, or that 9/11 was a 'false flag' operation - well hell, it gives 'em something they don't have over their daily lives -- power.

    They know something the rest don't.

    Would you give that up?

    Well, yes, you would - if you're sane and reasonably educated. Or, in this case, even if not.

    This is a good one. One I'll have to read, for several reasons.


  3. You're welcome Astra.

    There are takes on conspiracy theories and false flag operations that hold some water and some minority reviews may be tomorrow's legit history (as long as disinformation groups around the world like the CIA are up and running in places like Latin American countries in Chile in the seventies and Nicaragua in the eighties, to cite examples from the more recent past. )

    But this "Stratford Man" conspiracy I believe is a sieve which holds little water, and the frustrating thing for me is that such a conspiracy cannot be tamped down, and may be spreading. (One prominent director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is an Oxfordian, a view that befuddles me.)

    Does this even matter some might say. Well, yes. Shakespeare is such an important part of Anglo-speaking and world culture that the context of how we view the person behind this monumental body of work does matter---it is also an issue of elitism and just, as you state, giving certain people, more amateur snobs, some type of ego-build by accepting their gnostic falsehoods.

    I hope you get a chance to peruse this material because I'd like to hear your takes on Shapiro's main points here. Thanks again.

  4. Five stars and this is very a very interesting read on Shakespeare. Shakespeare was certainly influencial (or is to this day for some) that it's most interesting to read on this book and the varied theories.
    As well, most interesting in what Laura Miller had stated. Very thought provoking Doug...very.

  5. I'm glad you agree Jack. I think Laura Miller put the whole case very succinctly.

  6. Doug to this day you do write some very thought provoking blogs this is one of them and often I think that one learns from it. As truly this was a different blog and a very thought provoking one...very much so.

  7. Thanks Jack. It's really the book that is the rtrue thought provoker. This is one of the best I've read by a scholar who takes on the pseudo-scholars and gives them their case and then refutes it.

  8. I haven't read the book, but it sounds like you really liked it. I'm not a big Shakespeare fan, well except for his comedies, but does it really matter?
    If that rose has a scent, it's the same, no matter who grew it, I'm thinking. Thanks for the review of the book, though.

  9. Re Shakespeare's education, it was probably actually much better than an Oxford/Cambridge education. It was probably nearer to the kind of education that royalty might get. Something like 10 boys, learning a small number of important subjects from a number of highly qualified tutors.
    I saw a brief mention of his schooling on a local news programme and it seems to me that the intensity and quality of his schooling would be exactly the type of educational background a future great writer might have.
    Indeed, I believe that his classmates mostly went on to become real achievers too. Though none could compare to the Bard's success, obviously.

  10. Here's a wee snippet:

    "After two years in petty school, Shakespeare would have advanced to the grammar school, where he would have studied what a grammar school's name implies: grammar; Latin grammar.*

    It must have been at this school that he learned to look beyond the mechanics of language to the beauty of literature; he would have studied Ovid*, who remained a great favourite all his life, and he would have read Plautus*, the most admired writer of Latin comedy. He would also have been introduced to rhetoric and some logic through the writings of Cicero* and Quintilian*, as well as Latin history, philosophy and perhaps some rudimentary Greek."

    Pretty much what Cassie did too, hehe! Clearly "heavy" stuff.

  11. He'd have to be a looney to think that looney rhymes with bony, hehe!

  12. Personally I've never bought this notion that Shakespeare didn't write the plays. I am not an expert on this subject, but to me Shakespeare was rather like Bob Dylan who was not Woody Guthrie and was not The Byrds, but to future generations may be confused with them....the doubters simply cannot accept true genius and are driven by their own inadequacies to deny it.....Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare...... I am not aware of any hard or satisfactory evidence that disproves this truism, just a few hollow speculations of no special consequence that are mischeivous and sensationalizing....or so I believe

  13. There have been debates about Shakespeare ever since I was child. We debated it in the Head-mistress's room when I was fourteen. I don't think it is wrong to search for the truth.
    I do, believe, Shakespeare wrote most of what is credited to him.

    I believe it was Ben Jonson who wrote in 1623, "He was not of an age, but for all time". Jonson didn't know at the time that 400 years later, the great man's words would be heard all over the world.

    It was said that at 8 he would have gone to petty school and later educated at a grammar School. From there he was educated at The Kings New School and it was known that he learnt Latin there. So William had a good education which gave him a good understanding of, speeches. However, it is thought that he left school at 15 to work in his fathers business.

    An interesting review, Doug.

  14. Thanks for adding these details on Stratford Grammer School, Oakie. I remember reading a Shakespeare biography by A.W. Rowse a few years back and I was impressed by the curriculum and the subjects Shakespeare and his peers would have covered at the little school. (Which still stands I believe.)

    I'm going to hazard a guess and say these lines from Jacques' "Seven Ages of Man"speech in "As You Like It" might be autobiographical.

    "And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
    And shining morning face, creeping like snail
    Unwillingly to school."

    Yeah, I can relate to that one.

  15. That's an excellent link Oakie. Thanks for that one.

    Shapiro mentions the Internet technology has also made for a lot of "questionable authorship" sites so its good to see a reliable one.

  16. Looney was a piece of work all right. Very eccentric fellow and more than a bit of a crank.

    The really odd thing was that Freud took so much stock in him.

    That last name didn't help, either.

  17. That hits it right on the nose, AA! Good to see another "Brummie" sticking up for an earlier lad who made good.

    Being a college drop-out didn't hurt Mr. Dylan any and I think you raise a good point about those professional doubters and their own limitations.

  18. I wonder if Jonson could have imagined how literal his words were!

    Anything that gets people reading Shakespeare has its advantages, Cassandra, and I don't think Shakespeare would mind at all if a few of the plays he worked on were known to be partly written by fellow writers. Likely he had a lot of work to do as an actor and a sharer in the Globe Company as well as his duties as a play-master.

    One story has it that the Bard campaigned to bring Ben Jonson into the company around 1599--- likely to give the house playwright some relief from both writing and acting duties.

    Once he learned Latin as a youngster , all the works of great storytellers like Ovid would have been available to him. And I sure a gifted pupil might have seen a career for himself as an English Platus and Seneca.

    Probably the lure of London and perhaps joining one of the various touring companies that came through the town beat the idea of trying to make a modest living in Stratford (with his wife and two children to care for) out of his father's failing business.

  19. I studied Shakespeare throughout school, including grad school, ad naseam. To add to Will's comment, which I heartily agree with, let me add my '3-cents' by quoting the most venerable Will Shatner, who looked out at his audience of Trekkie's and decried: 'Get a life!' Hahaha

  20. I would imagine Jonson's words were limited to the age he lived in, but he hit the nail on the head this time.

    I have a book that has copies of Shakespeare's letters in, so people knew quite a bit about the man, but it's never enough. I remember feeling a little sad that many of his sonnets were written for men. There was I imagining this fair maiden at his side.:-)

    Didn't Ben Jonson work for the Lord Admirable's theatre as a actor and playwright? That was around the same period you speak of so I wouldn't be surprised if what you say is right.

    Latin, yes. it would have opened up a new area of reading for Shakespeare, Ben Jonson was also fluent in Latin.

    William Shakespeare's father's position and wealth made it possible for him to get into grammar school. Sadly when he was only 15, he had to give up being a scholar and go to work. In spite of that the Bard didn't do too badly, did he, Doug?

    I believe although English, Shakespeare belongs to the world.

    At school we called him Willy Waggle Dagger.

  21. Well put Catfish Red. Welcome back by the way.

  22. Yes, Jonson could only see so far, as can we all in our time.

    Yes, Cassandra, I'm pretty sure the journal of Philip Henslowe (manager of the Lord Admiral's Men) mentions Jonson getting his first start there. It's the only day-to-day chronicle of a theatrical company from that period to survive. Jonson's first trade was as a bricklayer. Not the shy type, he later had a collection of his plays published while he was alive. Shakespeare only cared about his epic poetry dedicated to the Earl of Southhampton.

    I had a similiar reaction to the sonnets. The ones about his "dark lady'" and her hair "nothing like the sun" and her bad breath aren't always all that flattering either! No wonder she dumped him!

    He did not badly at all. It's rather interesting to read how much social mobility there was in those times. A lot more than I imagined. One of Will's schoollmates became a printer n London and did rather well for himself too.

    'Willy Waggle Dagger'? lol, I hadn't heard that one. Might be close to what his grammer school mates called him back in his youth!

  23. Isn't that just so annoying? Although I don't think seeing ahead to where our own path is leading is a good idea.

    I suppose being a brick layer is a good trade. One can't have too many houses.

    I think the Earl of Southamption was quite a handsome guy!
    Shaky dumped, how could she?

    Yes, imagine being lumbered with that name at school. :-)

  24. Yes, I agree--I'd just as soon not get a preview of some political developments.

    I imagine blacklaying is satisying in a way--you can see what you've done at the end of the day. Churchill used to lay bricks as a hobby. I don't know how he found time for all this--what with historical writing, travel, political speeches,
    landscape painting, journalism, saying wity stuff at dinner parties, copious bourbon consumption, etc.

    I think Churchill must have been a front for somebody else. Quick, somebody get me a book contract!

    Some historians say many of the sonnets were commissioned to Shakespeare by Southampton's mother, to talk her son into marrrying a woman her mother picked out, that way perserving his handsomeness in the progeny. (Probably also to keep the young man distracted from the Earl of Essex, a rather unstable, headstrong gent as you know.)

    I'll bet our Dark Lady only dumped Shakespeare because she couldn't see far enough ahead ;-) Probably hit her head against a brick wall over it.

    Kids can be brutal on odd names. I had a friend at middle school named Gay Green! One can only imagine.

  25. Teehee, I agree, anyway I like the element of surprise in politics.

    Churchill reckoned he did a lot of thinking brick laying. I wondered if he thought the skill would come in handy to build a similar defence system to the French with our own Maginot Line, built by Churchill himself, what a man, hahahaha.

    I kind of understand where the Earl of Southampton's mother was coming from, so many of the men in Shakespeare's circle were bisexual. Will there ever be grandchildren to carry on the name through the male line she must have asked herself. Anyway, he ended up in the tower of London. I read an article about prisoners of elite status in that place. It seems it wasn't all bad if one played their cards right. It was furnished somewhat like a bachelor pad. I bet they were even allowed visitors!
    Yes, the Earl of Essex also came to a sticky end, he was executed wasn't he?

    To imagine, the Dark Lady could have been left a bed if she had hung on in there.;-)))

    Yes, even innocent names can be turned around. A boy who lived a few houses away from where I lived in London had his surname of Dickinson shortened. Children can be very cruel. I preferred to be everyone's friend.

  26. Politics in these present days can be daunting enough sometimes, not matter who one votes for.

    I think the "thinking" part of physical labor worked for a lot of leaders. Churchill wrote that using a different part of your brain helped him a lot--hence painting and the bricks. I can hear him saying "We will fight the "Naz-zis" to the last brick!"

    Woody Allen once said being bisexual doubles your chances of getting a date on Saturday night. ;-) But I'll bet your theory is spot on. Have some children as soon as possible or lose the title! These were days were anybody could be healthy, then contract a "sweating sickness" and be dead in one day. No wonder she was concerned. And what an advocate she had in the sonnets of Shakespeare.

    Yes, Southampton was spared being done in for his part in the Essex Rebellion of 1601, a very daffy event in my mind. The queen took pity on Southampton's because of his mother's pleas and his relative youth. (Essex wasn't so lucky.) I think there's a portrait somewhere of the young Earl in the Tower---with a cat. The surroundings looks like bachelor digs indeed! NO "hi-fi" record player or Frank Sinatra albums though.

    Yes, the Dark Lady could have scored "the third best bed!" in Will's will. Talk about regret!

    Good for you not to be catty as a schoolgirl. My record is not quite that good, and I'm pained by those one or two instances more than any bullying I got now and then from bigger kids.

    Getting through childhood can be hard enough and the temptation to pick out people somehow different or more awkward than others seems a trait of many youth.