#230: A STARK AND CONSEQUENTIAL CHOICE. The question of Shakespeare’s authorship has never been a burning issue for me. I’ve never thought that the works of Bacon and Shakespeare could be attributed to the same person, though I probably overrate my abilities to judge; the Earl of Oxford, the other hot contender, I knew only from a lone poem in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. What drew me to read James Shapiro’s book on the topic, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Faber, 2010), aside from that nifty punning title, was having so much enjoyed Shapiro’s earlier book 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare. I was further pleased to discover that, stating upfront his conclusion that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, the body of the book is an investigation not into who wrote the plays but into how the question arose at all—a much more interesting topic, to my taste. The first chapter goes into the aggrandizing of Shakespeare’s reputation after his death, painting a critical target on his back, so to speak, and the nineteenth century Higher Criticism, which was busy deconstructing not only Homer but the Bible. The middle chapters of the book, the attributions to Bacon and Oxford, are a bit more laborious to read than the rest, but with entertaining special guest star weigh-ins from Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Sigmund Freud. I won’t rehearse his arguments in the final chapters in support of Shakespeare’s claim, except to say that they reflect long years of studying and teaching Shakespeare, and a thorough familiarity with the (London, theatrical) world of the plays. The passage on print compositors’ contribution to the varied spellings of Shakespeare’s name, for instance (with that troubling hyphen that insists on sneaking in) is just one example of how things may not mean what we, looking back from four hundred years’ distance, assume they mean. This knowledge of the time gives Shapiro’s arguments an ample supply of clinchers.
And in the epilogue he writes: “The controversy over Shakespeare’s authorship has proven to be, in retrospect, a long footnote to the larger story of the way we read now.” He writes about the often unchallenged modern tendency to read books as disguised autobiography, the idea that nothing in a work of literature can come from anything but personal experience. Write what you know, the writing teacher’s perennial advice, becomes a point of creed: no man such as “the Stratford poacher,” as Delia Bacon dismissively called Shakespeare, could have created the wide-flung worlds and personae of the plays attributed to him. But surely all this derides the power of imagination. I can never think of the topic without remembering the first time I read Claudius’s confessional speech in the third act of “Hamlet”: how, how, how did anyone capture so precisely a murderer’s guilt, a fratricide: “May one be pardoned and retain th’offense?” Shapiro, in beginning the book, asked himself, what does Shakespeare’s authorship matter, and immediately thought “A lot.” So much of the current hot debates on representation and the uses of experience and imagination are contained in that response. The last lines of the book are: “We can believe that Shakespeare himself thought that poets could give to “airy nothing” a “local habitation and a name.” Or we can conclude that this “airy nothing” turns out to be a disguised something that needs to be decoded, and that Shakespeare couldn’t imagine “the form of things unknown” without having experienced them first-hand. It’s a stark and consequential choice.”
By James Shapiro:
Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Faber, 2010.
1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare. Harper, 2006.