By JEREMY McCARTER
Published: April 26, 2010
Shakespeare is not only peculiar in himself, but the cause of peculiarity in others. The surviving traces of his life, which the Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt describes as “abundant but thin,” depict a man whose parts aren’t entirely in sync: a provincial who grew wealthy but sued for paltry sums, a literary genius who seems never to have written a letter — or owned a book. But the alternate histories offered by people who reject Shakespeare’s authorship are far stranger, abounding in secret ciphers, baroque conspiracies and readings of the plays as fantastical as what’s in them. Barring the discovery of a doorstop-size autobiography or the invention of a time machine, we’ll never get a really satisfying explanation of how “Hamlet” and “Henry V” and all the rest were written, only varying degrees of improbability.
Five years ago, James Shapiro wrote “A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599,” a meticulous study that rendered a slice of the standard history less implausible. Now, in “Contested Will,” he addresses the authorship question itself. His refreshing method is to zoom all the way out, taking an interest “not in what people think — which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms — so much as why they think it.” Working its way back to the earliest doubters, Shapiro’s book offers both history and historiography, a mix that yields insights even for those who don’t know their “Othello” from their “Pericles.”
Shapiro, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, uses the fight over Shakespeare’s identity to show how our views of the past are shaped by the contingencies of the evidence that reaches us, and how we’re swayed by the changing spiritual weather of our own time. Though dozens of alternate authors have been proposed over the years — four more while he worked on the book, he writes — he concentrates here on what he calls the two “best-documented and most consequential” candidacies: those of the philosopher and courtier Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The shifts in their reputations over the last 150 years have been sufficiently extreme to think of them as the reverse of Ben Jonson’s famous praise of Shakespeare: they were not for all time, but of an age.
In Shapiro’s account, the mischief of the authorship controversy began with a kind of scholarly original sin. For a new edition of Shakespeare’s writing in 1790, Edmond Malone tried to put the plays in chronological order. He ransacked the texts for any fleeting corollary to Shakespeare’s life and times, an approach that Shapiro equates with having “carelessly left open a fire door.” Once you assume that Shakespeare could write only about things he experienced firsthand, the absence of certain pursuits from his spotty biographical record — falconry and seamanship, for instance — seems to disqualify him as the author.
Two changes in the 19th century brought a mob swarming through that door. New scholarship dared to challenge the sacrosanct authenticity of Homer and the Gospels. Soon afterward, a spate of popular biographies conveyed to a wide audience the scant facts of Shakespeare’s life — largely derived from surviving financial records and legal proceedings — without making clear that it would be strange to see much else survive from the 16th century. Among those bothered by the gap between the extraordinary plays and the rather ordinary life was a brilliant, troubled American, Delia Bacon. She refused to accept that a “stupid, illiterate, third-rate play-actor” could have written works of such “superhuman genius.” Her innovation was to seek the author’s identity in the plays themselves, sketching the “Wanted” poster that skeptics use to this day: a set of qualities that Shapiro distills to “pure motives, good breeding, foreign travel, the best of educations and the scent of the court.” For her, this described the polymorphous genius of the English Renaissance: Francis Bacon (no apparent relation to her), who she claimed led a group of politicians-turned-writers who worked jointly on the plays.
To figure out why people bought into this dubious theory, Shapiro uses a technique that could, in the hands of someone less committed to treating all sides fairly, be an instrument of vicious satire: he turns the skeptics’ arguments against them. When he applies to Delia Bacon’s work the kind of close reading that led her to conclude that frustration and lack of prospects forced Francis Bacon to take up his quill, he finds her own frustration and lack of prospects talking. (She had been thwarted in a playwriting career and shamed by a love affair gone wrong; she would spend her final years in an asylum.) Shapiro finds a similar form of self-revelation in the Baconian advocacy of Mark Twain, who was, after all, a writer with a taste for pseudonymous autobiographical fiction.
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Illustration by Joon Mo Kang