James Shapiro on why skeptics believe someone other than William Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.
Tell me why you chose the title “Contested Will.”
The title works a couple of ways. First, it underscores that there’s ongoing disagreement about who Will Shakespeare really was. Second, it puns on Shakespeare’s Last Will and Testament, in which he notoriously left his wife Anne Hathaway their “second best bed.” We don’t know exactly what this means, but it sounds stingy to modern ears. There’s yet one more play on words: the title signals I’m challenging the kind of popular biography of Shakespeare—one that reads his life through his works, accepting them as autobiographical documents—typified by Stephen Greenblatt’s “Will in the World.”
What makes you so confident that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?
Because a score of his fellow writers—whose words survive in print and manuscript—tell us so. Because surviving documents—such as the official Revels Accounts for 1604—confirm that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. Because his name appears on over 50,000 copies of his works in his lifetime, when he was one of the most familiar faces in London. If you refuse to believe this and think it’s all faked or a fraud perpetuated by professors with a vested interest in doing so, all you are left with are conspiracy theories. We live in a culture addicted to conspiracy theories, a wiki-world in which everyone is an expert and there are two valid sides to every argument. Sometimes there really aren’t.
What are you hoping the book will do?
I don’t expect to persuade ardent anti-Stratfordians that Shakespeare wrote the plays. They have thought hard about these questions and it’s not only my conclusion with which they will disagree, but also my underlying assumptions about authorship. I don’t think that we can mine the plays and poems for evidence about their author’s life. Yet they do, and one my points is that nobody thought to do so for more than 200 years. But I hope to reach those who minds are not yet resolved and provide those who find themselves arguing with skeptics the right counter-arguments.
Another aim is to discourage my fellow Shakespeareans from reading the plays autobiographically; unless and until they stop doing so, the controversy will never go away.
Finally, I hope my book will show—at a time when some people believe that men never walked on the moon, that the Holocaust never happened, and that 9/11 was the work of the U.S. government—that it’s possible for reasonable folk to get at the root of conspiratorial thinking, and with luck, root it out. But I’m the first to admit that with the decline of truth and the ascent of “truthiness,” I just may fail.