Contested Will

James Shapiro on why skeptics believe someone other than William Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

How do you and other defenders of Shakespeare answer these arguments?
I spend the last quarter of “Contested Will” setting out the evidence, and to my mind it’s conclusive. There’s plenty of evidence that can be found in the printed texts of his plays, small details that confirm that only a man of the theater could have written them. Then there’s further confirmation provided by other Elizabethan poets, dramatists, and historians—all of whom knew Shakespeare and whose recollections indicate that the man from Stratford did indeed write the plays.

Can this argument ever be resolved based strictly on objective evidence?
What constitutes evidence? Supreme Court Justice Stevens, who believes that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays, thinks that the circumstantial evidence is sufficient to make the case. Shakespeare scholars have a different view of evidence, and hold a comparatively dim view of what Justice Stevens and others believe adequate. So the controversy is in part about what constitutes evidence, especially when we are dealing with so few documents, which are subject to different kinds of interpretation. Some find this exciting; others exasperating.

Is that why you believe it’s more interesting to look not at what people believe about Shakespeare’s authorship, but why they believe it?
Having spent the past four or five years investigating this controversy, I can say with some confidence that it doesn’t take long to learn what people are arguing. Nor, after a while, do these arguments seem all that interesting, since positions are fixed and debate pointless. What I find fascinating, though, is when and why people think what they do, and how cultural forces or values have shaped the debate and subtly altered our views of authorship.

What does it matter who wrote the plays? What is at stake?
When I began researching the book I was sympathetic to the idea that it didn’t really matter, that what counts are the plays themselves, though I still sensed that a lot more was at stake. What I learned was that the plays, once reattributed to others, were being reinterpreted in what to my mind were disturbing ways. If you follow Delia Bacon [the first Baconian], you end up arguing that the plays are left-wing revolutionary tracts; if you are a disciple of J. T. Looney [the first Oxfordian], you have to conclude the plays are deeply reactionary and that their author despised democracy. I’m not comfortable with either position and now believe that anyone who asks “what difference does it make?” hasn’t confronted just how much is contested here.

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