The Chronicle Review

A Shakespeare Scholar Takes on a 'Taboo' Subject

James Shapiro explores the authorship question—and why few in academe will touch it

Yunghi Kim for The Chronicle

"Contested Will is really a much more polemical book than I'm used to writing or even than I'd like to write," says James Shapiro.
March 28, 2010

The most startling thing about Contested Will, James Shapiro's new book about the Shakespeare authorship debate, is not what it concludes about who really wrote Hamlet and King Lear. Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, is an unrepentant Stratfordian, a firm believer that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon created the plays and poems associated with his name.

What will surprise fellow Stratfordians—as well as doubters who want to dethrone Shakespeare and install Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford), Francis Bacon, or another contender in his place—is Shapiro's argument that the different camps have more in common than they admit. As Shapiro sees it, Stratfordians, Marlovians, Oxfordians, Baconians, and the rest share an anachronistic insistence on what he calls "reading the life out of the works." In other words, they try to find autobiographical details in the plays and poetry that will confirm the true identity of the author.

Among mainstream Shakespeare scholars, Contested Will may be disconcerting for another reason. The book, just out from Simon & Schuster, argues that the authorship question is the one subject that they have deliberately neglected.

"More than one fellow Shakespearean was disheartened to learn that I was committing my energies to it," Shapiro writes in the prologue, "as if somehow I was wasting my time and talent, or worse, at risk of going over to the dark side. I became increasingly interested in why this subject remains virtually taboo in academic circles, as well as in the consequences of this collective silence."

Shapiro has not, in fact, gone over to the "dark side." Contested Will includes a chapter on why he continues to believe that the Stratford candidate is the genuine article. But rehashing the authorship debate is not the purpose of the book. It does not attempt an exhaustive review of the merits of the competing claims. As Shapiro explicitly says, what interests him is not what people think about the authorship question but why they think it and how their personal and historical circumstances help shape that.

To sort that out, he returns to the birth of Shakespeare studies, going back to the 18th century and the debate over forged Shakespearean documents created by an overenthusiastic bardolater named William Henry Ireland. A Stratfordian named Edmond Malone exposed Ireland's forgeries. "Malone is traditionally seen as the good guy in the story of how we have come to know what Shakespeare was like," Shapiro says in an interview. "One of the things that was hard for me was to discover that, as great a scholar as he was, he opened up a Pandora's box."

Although he spent a lifetime searching for genuine documentation of Shakespeare's life, Malone "didn't find the treasure trove he had hoped," Shapiro says. Too much time had passed, and papers and eyewitness testimony had been irretrievably lost. So Malone "decided to use the plays and sonnets as evidence. That was a line he should not have crossed," Shapiro says.

Malone was the first scholar to make a serious attempt to list Shakespeare's plays in the order in which they had been written. That sounds harmless enough. But Shapiro argues that in the process of building a chronology, Malone "began sifting the plays for allusions to contemporary events and court intrigue," which encouraged other interpreters to scour the plays in search of clues hidden there by their author. Shapiro writes, "Malone helped institutionalize a methodology that would prove crucial to those who would subsequently deny Shakespeare's authorship of the plays (after all, the argument runs, how would anybody but a court insider know enough to encode all this?)."

Shapiro argues that generations of subsequent readers debating the authorship question have been unable to resist the urge to look for autobiographical detail in Shakespeare's works. Many of their arguments depend on such readings.

For instance, Shapiro says, "Oxfordians stop me at a conference or a talk and they say, 'The Earl of Oxford was captured by pirates. The Earl of Oxford had three daughters,'" while the glover's son from Stratford had two daughters and never fell into the hands of pirates (as far as we know). Ergo Oxford must have written Hamlet and King Lear. "If you believe you can read the life out of the works—and they have spectacular evidence, as do Shakespeareans—you can find anyone's life in those characters," Shapiro says.

Shapiro did not originally intend to write Contested Will at all. His previous book, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (HarperCollins, 2005), explores the interplay of political events and literature in the fertile period during which Shakespeare produced Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and possibly Hamlet as well. That book took Shapiro "15 years from inception to completion." he says. Intended for a general audience, it was widely reviewed and earned a considerable amount of praise, but it did not accomplish all its author had hoped it would.

"I was wrongly confident, when I finished it, two things would follow. One, that people would see—because it was a very well-documented year in Shakespeare's life—that there was really nothing to the claims that anyone else wrote Shakespeare," Shapiro says. He also thought the book would make it clear that "you couldn't really write a cradle-to-grave biography of Shakespeare, and you shouldn't really read his life out of the works." Post-1599, partisans on all sides continued to try. Shapiro cites another highly regarded recent book on Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World (W.W. Norton, 2004), as an example of what he's talking about. Describing Greenblatt as a friend and colleague and "the best reader of Shakespeare in America today," Shapiro calls Will in the World a "brilliant but also dangerous book, because it legitimates the approach." If an authority of Greenblatt's stature takes that approach, he says, "it is very hard to tell someone who believes the Earl of Oxford wrote the books that he or she can't follow the same kind of logic."

So Shapiro decided to set aside the book he had intended as a follow-up to 1599: a close look at the year 1606, during the period that produced Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth. "I'd gotten considerably older in writing 1599," Shapiro says. "I wanted to turn to 1606, which was a year when Shakespeare was writing about characters who were considerably older."

First, Shapiro decided, he needed to take a closer look at the authorship debate. "Contested Will is really a much more polemical book than I'm used to writing or even than I'd like to write," he says. "But given the state of Shakespeare biography today and given the rising interest in the belief that someone else wrote Shakespeare's plays, I thought it would be good to stop and spend four or five years—knowing I don't have that many more books in me—to tackle this subject."

Shapiro casts the history of the authorship debate as a cautionary tale of how modern readers want to read the literature of a pre-autobiographical age the way we read more recent writing. Some of the leading literary lights of the past 300 years have fallen victim to that temptation. "Anybody who's been an academic and sat in on departmental meetings has discovered that very smart people can say very dumb things," Shapiro says. "Writers who have been very influential in my intellectual life—Freud, Henry James, Mark Twain—in this case wrote and said some very dumb things. That has to be explored."

Mark Twain, for instance, refused to believe that Shakespeare of Stratford—"that grossly commercial wool-stapler"—could have written so well about the law and law courts, because he was not trained as a lawyer. "A man can't handle glibly and easily and comfortably and successfully the argot of a trade at which he has not personally served," Twain asserted. Shapiro notes that Twain insisted his own work was all, one way or another, autobiographical, an assumption he extended to Shakespeare's works as well.

Although he disagrees vehemently with most of what Twain and other doubters believed, in Contested Will Shapiro writes about some of literary history's most vocal anti-Stratfordians with sympathy and respect. Some, like Twain, James, and Freud, remain household names. Helen Keller, a friend of Twain's, unexpectedly turns up in this history, too. She never succeeded in publishing her thoughts on the authorship question; her publisher insisted she continue to focus on her own autobiographical writings because that's what her readers wanted.

In Contested Will, Shapiro reintroduces several figures who made significant contributions to the authorship debate, including the 19th-century American bluestocking Delia Bacon and an early 20th-century Englishman named J.T. Looney. Delia Bacon's story in particular is the stuff of instability and tragedy. A brilliant intellectual and champion of women's education who had a remarkable early career as a public lecturer, she spent 15 years working on a theory that Francis Bacon was at the heart of a group of political subversives who expressed their opposition to Tudor policies through the plays. (Shapiro says that the shared last name was not the reason she put her weight behind Bacon.)

Delia Bacon was convinced that the man from Stratford could not have written the works. "Others would refine the taxonomy, but Delia Bacon was the first to propose it: pure motives, good breeding, foreign travel, the best of educations, and the scent of the court were necessary criteria for an author of works of 'superhuman genius,'" Shapiro writes. "The biographical record confirms that Shakespeare of Stratford fell well short of all these benchmarks. It defied 'common sense' and 'was too gross to be endured' to persist in the false belief that such a sad excuse for a man would have written the plays."

Though plagued by a reluctance to share or print her work, suspicious that others might steal it, Delia Bacon did publish her theories in a "rambling and almost unreadable" book, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (1857), thanks to a "quiet subvention" from Nathaniel Hawthorne. A couple of years later, Bacon went mad and died in an asylum.

J.T. Looney fared somewhat better, despite his unfortunate name. (It rhymes with "bony.") Looney got his start in a fringe religious group known as the Church of Humanity. That didn't pan out, and he turned with equal fervor to the authorship question. Looney's 1920 book, 'Shakespeare' Identified, "remains the bible of all those who subscribe to the belief that the Earl of Oxford was the true author of the plays," Shapiro writes.

Meanwhile, Shakespeareans through the years have more or less ignored the question of who wrote Shakespeare's plays. The subject "is not something you can write about and publish about" in respectable academic venues, Shapiro says. "The authorship controversy has generated very, very, very few mainstream books." The great Shakespearean scholar S. Schoenbaum "covered it pretty effectively" in his 1970 book, Shakespeare's Lives, revised in the early 1990s, "but it's close to taboo in a field where you can write almost anything."

Shapiro understands why. "My first thoughts were that it's a waste of time and that it's not very interesting and that these people are cranks," he says. "What I ended up realizing was that it's just too close to what Shakespeare biographers themselves do." In his view, for mainstream Shakespeareans, "the assumptions are too close to challenge." Compounding the problem has been the lag in understanding how collaborative Elizabethan and Jacobean playwriting often was, a lack of historical context that has complicated many attempts to figure out how Shakespeare worked and what might have influenced him.

It's tempting for Shakespeare partisans to dismiss those who contest his authorship as cranks and eccentrics. Shapiro makes the case that mainstream Shakespeareans have done themselves and the man from Stratford no favors with that attitude. People are more likely these days to pick up information about Shakespeare from movies like Shakespeare in Love and from the Internet than from a literature professor's class. That, Shapiro says, ought to be very worrisome to the scholars who spend their lives becoming authorities on the subject. Expertise doesn't do much good if no one seeks it out.

Delia Bacon's book did not find a wide audience in the 1850s, although her ideas managed to reach the likes of Mark Twain. If she were working today, she could have spread her theories far and wide via the Internet. Much of the Shakespeare lore and speculation online comes from anti-Stratfordians, who Shapiro says have proved much Web-savvier than their rivals with secure academic perches. "Those who would deny Shakespeare's authorship, long excluded from publishing their work in academic journals or through university presses, are now taking advantage of the level playing field provided by the Web, especially such widely consulted and democratic sites as Wikipedia," Shapiro points out in Contested Will.

He checks in daily with several anti-Stratfordian e-mail lists and Web sites (he calls them addictive). What will those anti-Stratfordians make of Shapiro's proffered olive branch, if that's a fair way to describe Contested Will? Linda Theil, a supporter of Oxford's, got hold of an advance reader's copy of Shapiro's book and posted a review of it in December 2009 on the Shakespeare Oxford Society's Web site. Describing the book as "interesting, even-handed, and lucid," Theil writes: "There is a lot here to think about, consider, and dispute; but to my way of thinking, James Shapiro has made, in Contested Will, a stride toward armistice in the 'trench warfare' of authorship inquiry."

Oxfordians (and probably Baconians and Marlovians, too) were almost certainly not expecting that. Many of them will not look as kindly on Shapiro's book as Theil does, however.

Roger Stritmatter is general editor of Brief Chronicles, a new online journal produced by the Shakespeare Fellowship, a U.S.-based pro-Oxford group. (There is another stateside Oxfordian group called the Shakespeare Oxford Society.) He is an associate professor of humanities at Coppin State University, which demonstrates that it is possible to be an anti-Stratfordian and get tenure. Stritmatter agrees with Shapiro that the authorship debate is taboo in most quarters of academe. But he says that the anti-Stratfordian movement (in various incarnations) "has a significant beachhead within academia," particularly within theater history.

Still, because anti-Stratfordians have often "been treated in a very shabby manner" when attending mainstream meetings like that of  the Shakespeare Association of America, Stritmatter says, "I think we prefer at this point in time to put our energies into less traditional venues"—a point that Shapiro makes as well.

Beyond that, however, the two scholars part company. "I think the book is a fake olive leaf," Stritmatter says of Contested Will. "A better metaphor might be a Trojan horse."

In Stritmatter's view, Shapiro "seems to feel that Oxfordians are written about and not talked to. He does early on say we have more in common than we have differences, but then he proceeds throughout the rest of the book to undo the promise of that statement."

Both Stritmatter and Earl Showerman, president of the Shakespeare Fellowship, are irked that Shapiro focuses on long-gone literary history at the expense of recent anti-Stratfordian scholarship such as Mark Anderson's 'Shakespeare' by Another Name (Gotham, 2005). In an e-mail message, Showerman acknowledged that Shapiro "is not unkind or derisive in his language." Still, he reads Shapiro's book as an attempt to delegitimize anti-Stratfordians "by serving up the ancient history of the authorship question in the context of document forgers and misguided amateur scholars and writers" instead of addressing the current arguments in the debate.

The Shakespeare Fellowship considers Shapiro's book enough of a public-relations challenge that the group plans to mail copies of Brief Chronicles to a thousand Shakespeare professors with membership in the Modern Language Association. "Such a proactive mailing will go a long way toward blunting the potential negative impact of Shapiro's book," Stritmatter wrote in a letter sent in late December to group members.

Shapiro responds that he is well aware of recent Oxfordian work. "I've read it all, and I go to some lengths to steer readers in my bibliographical essay to this work, online and in print," he says. "Anderson's 'Shakespeare' by Another Name is included among the books I most urge those interested in the controversy to read. My own copy is well thumbed, because it exemplifies many of the problems with Oxfordian thinking. ... The plays are not autobiographical in the ways they want and need to believe."

He's interested that "anti-Stratfordians can't quite understand that my book is primarily directed against mainstream Shakespeareans and not them." The real disagreements, Shapiro says, "are about underlying assumptions about finding the life, and topical allusions, in the works."

It remains to be seen what the reaction will be among "the orthodox," as the Shakespeare Fellowship's Roger Stritmatter calls the majority of scholars who stand behind the man from Stratford. (Interestingly, Stritmatter already sees many divisions in Stratfordian ranks on matters such as whether Shakespeare was Roman Catholic.)

The early mainstream reviews of ­Contested Will have been mostly raves, with illustrious writers such as Hilary Mantel (in the Guardian), John Carey (in the London Times), and Michael Dobson (in the Financial Times) praising Shapiro's lively style and tolerance as well as the evidence he presents on the Stratford man's behalf. Unlike Shapiro, they have very little time for the doubters. "Contested Will is a terrific read, but fully explaining the authorship controversy isn't a job for a Shakespearean scholar: It's a job for a pathologist," Dobson wrote.

Meanwhile, the authorship debate shows no signs of fading away. Francis Bacon's star has waned, eclipsed long ago by the Earl of Oxford's. Now Christopher Marlowe's star is on the rise. "It looks like there's a shelf life to every candidate" of about 75 or 80 years, Shapiro says. "There's a lot more energy and enthusiasm behind Marlowe. To me it's still the same argument. It's just a different life being read into the same plays."

Jennifer Howard is a senior reporter for The Chronicle.