Contested Will

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

Contested Will

Who wrote Shakespeare? That is the question asked and answered in James Shapiro’s new book “Contested Will” (Simon & Schuster), which addresses the centuries-old authorship controversy from a unique perspective, focusing not on what Shakespeare doubters believe, but why they believe it. Of course, there’s abundant evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and the rest of the plays and poems attributed to him, but that hasn’t stopped the likes of Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia from joining the ranks of the skeptics. For their part, the doubters seem unable to consider the evidence from anything but a modern perspective, and cannot accept that a part-time actor with minimal formal education produced such literary masterpieces—“a stunning failure to grasp the power of the imagination,” writes Shapiro. 

With all of the above in mind, I questioned Shapiro about the authorship controversy, the skeptics and their beliefs, and why he’s absolutely certain that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him.

When and why did the authorship controversy arise?
Until I began researching the book the answer I would have given—based on the standard authorities, who agree on this—was 1785, when James Wilmot first claimed that Francis Bacon was the author of the plays. But I discovered that the document on which this claim was based is a forgery, so can say with some confidence that the controversy is more recent, dating back no further than the 1840s.

Why did it take more than two centuries before people began questioning Shakespeare’s authorship?
It took 200 years before an unbridgeable gap emerged between the mundane facts of Shakespeare’s life and the over-the-top deification of him. The gap made it impossible for some to believe that a man of modest origins and education could have written such divine works.

There are more than a few very famous Shakespeare skeptics. Who is the most remarkable or disappointing among them?
Smart people often think and say dumb things, so I don’t find it remarkable that Henry James, Helen Keller, Mark Twain—and more recently Supreme Court Justices Scalia and [John Paul] Stevens—have come out against Shakespeare. Most disappointing? Freud, but he would be the first to admit that when you take big swings you often strike out.

Who are the leading candidates proposed as the true authors of Shakespeare’s work?
For the first 70 years of the controversy the leading candidate was Sir Francis Bacon. Since the 1920s the Earl of Oxford has had the most support, though Christopher Marlowe is currently rising in popularity. But there are over 50 others, all with avid supporters, many with Web sites. And a new candidate surfaces every year or two.

How has the Internet given this controversy new life?
By the 1970s the authorship controversy was on life-support, and the anti-Stratfordians admitted as much. But the Internet has breathed new life into the movement. Wikipedia provides a level playing field, not to mention a bitter battleground for opposing sides. If you look into the controversy online you’ll discover that anti-Stratfordians are way ahead of mainstream scholars in promoting their cause.

Why is the authorship question taboo among Shakespeare scholars?
For most scholars, “Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?” doesn’t register as a serious question; it’s like asking a lunar scientist whether the moon is made of green cheese. What’s to discuss?  Also, nobody ever got tenure writing about the authorship question.

What are the major arguments against Shakespeare being the author of the plays?
First, that there’s not a lot of evidence about Shakespeare’s life, education, and learning, and even less evidence linking him directly to the plays. If you look at all this from a modern perspective, it certainly looks suspicious. That leads to the second major argument, which is also grounded in a modern perspective: that there must have been some kind of conspiracy to cover up the true authorship of the plays. There’s a third argument, and not surprisingly, this too is grounded in how we think about writing today. If we assume that the plays are autobiographical, then the life we find in the works corresponds a lot more closely to those of rival candidates than it does to the life of 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.

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.

James Shapiro’s Web site