James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? addresses what is often called the Shakespeare authorship controversy. I hesitate to use that phrase, since I am reluctant to accept its underlying premise—indeed, I belong to the large group of academics who dearly wish that this particular debate would disappear.
Year after year, when students in my Shakespeare classes are invited to ask questions, invariably someone wants to know whether Shakespeare really wrote the plays. My response has always been an emphatic “yes.” The notion that a glover’s son from Stratford lacked the intellectual resources and the experience to write the plays entails both a narrow notion of social class and an impoverished account of literary imagination. Moreover, it relies on an elaborate rewriting of received history. In short, I tell my students, the argument against Shakespeare, with its multiplying entities and logical elaborations, fails the test of Ockham’s razor. In this case, as in most, the simpler solution—that a man from Stratford named William Shakespeare wrote the plays that circulated under his name—is the better solution. The anti-Stratfordian position is a solution without a problem.
And yet the authorship controversy refuses to go away. Shapiro’s book expresses puzzlement, even alarm, over this persistence. The author of a prize-winning biography of Shakespeare (and a former teacher of mine), Shapiro has little doubt that Shakespeare wrote the plays traditionally credited to him. Indeed, Contested Will addresses not the controversy itself, but the conditions that made that controversy possible, perhaps even inevitable, as well as the developments that have contributed to its longevity. Taking readers on a fascinating trip through several hundred years of Shakespearean scholarship, Shapiro depicts the controversy not as the febrile imaginings of a lunatic fringe of pseudo-scholars, but rather a manifestation of some of the central preoccupations of English literary culture.
Shapiro treats proponents of the anti-Stratfordian position with respect and even sympathy, refusing to dismiss their view as simply mistaken and irrational, and instead deftly connects it to broader cultural developments. (It may surprise readers to view the roster of prominent people who have been associated with the cause: Helen Keller, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud were all to some degree doubters.) Contested Will ties skepticism about Shakespeare’s authorship to an increasingly widespread view that all literature is self-expression. Within such a framework, literary compositions are seen as transmuted forms of autobiography—and in this light it is not hard to judge the man from Stratford an inadequate source for the sublime poetry that has been gathered under his name.
While he is patient with the quixotic amateurs who have contributed most to the literature of anti-Stratfordianism, Shapiro shows less equanimity when it comes to his fellow scholars—beginning with Edmund Malone (1741–1812), one of the founding fathers of Shakespeare scholarship, whose obtrusive and ultimately unsupportable claims about the association between work and life opened a Pandora’s box that has never been closed. Surveying present-day academics, Shapiro expresses impatience with those who, in his estimate, have failed to deal adequately with the anti-Stratfordians. He accuses them of a smug unwillingness to engage in argument, which has left the wider public exposed to vigorous, if ultimately false, claims. As George Bernard Shaw once pithily remarked, all professions are conspiracies against the laity, and Shapiro accurately perceives in academic English a profession that has lost touch with the wider public it ostensibly serves.
Yet it is difficult to see how academics can respond effectively to the anti-Stratfordians. As Shapiro himself demonstrates, the argument against Shakespeare is extremely protean: as soon as one potential candidate for authorship loses momentum, a new champion emerges. It is easy to conclude that these arguments are motivated by deep and never fully articulated commitments impervious to reasoned response. Shapiro’s book is a lucid and deeply persuasive account of the phenomenon, but it is unlikely to convince any of the current anti-Stratfordians to abandon the field. What it will do is inform the curious but undecided—people like the students in my classes, who have heard vague mutterings and want to know if there is anything to the rumors.
Contested Will concludes with a brief account of an exchange with a colleague who, on learning that Shapiro was considering a book on the topic, asked, “What difference does it make who wrote the plays?” For Shapiro it makes an enormous difference, and he poses a stark choice between a Shakespeare of extraordinary imaginative power, capable of giving “airy nothing” a “local habitation and a name,” and some other individual who directly translated life into drama that can then be decoded to reveal actual experience. There is something slightly paradoxical about this. The imaginative, Stratfordian Shakespeare is an author of such power that he transcends the mundane circumstances of life, and biography is deployed to demonstrate the pointlessness of the biographical. Shapiro’s argument here is the flip side of the anti-Stratfordian claim: both arguments depend on biography. Contested Will maintains an authorial claim as though it were necessary to identify Shakespeare as the man from Stratford in order to vindicate the powers of imagination. But surely the plays and the poems can speak for themselves; their energy and beauty are not dependent on the particular attributes of the biological person who composed them. The way the plays engage with the supernatural provides a pertinent example. It seems unlikely that even the most committed Stratfordian or anti-Stratfordian will maintain that the writer of the plays encountered fairies in the woods, saw ghosts on battlements, witches on a blasted heath, and spirits nimbly performing for a potent magician. Of course, the writer may well have seen all these things, or things like them, in the theaters of London.
Related: The Catholic Bard, by Clare Asquith
Was He or Wasn't He? by John T. Noonan Jr.
More Acts to Come, Clare Asquith's review of Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare
Conceits & Ribaldries Included, Celia Wren's review of The Book of William