The subtitle of James Shapiro’s engaging new book is a tease. Shapiro, the author of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), is in no doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is the author of the works published in his name: not Sir Francis Bacon, or Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe, living on in secret after his apparent death in a brawl in 1593 (before most of Shakespeare’s works were written), or one of the more than 50 alternative candidates who have been proposed since the mid-19th century.
The case for Shakespeare is made cogently and convincingly. Shapiro cites contemporaries who identified him as the author of the plays, and shows that the early printing history corroborates the attribution. The textual vestiges of rehearsal and staging practices, and of collaboration with other writers, demonstrate that the playwright was a working member of a theatre company, not a courtier or someone writing plays in his closet and delivering them fully formed to the actors. Moreover, the author can’t have died as early as 1604, as the Earl of Oxford did, because his late writing reflects the changes in dramaturgy brought about by the increasing use of indoor playhouses, and by Jacobean developments in court masques. Shapiro weaves together various strands of recent scholarship to make a case which is about as watertight as it can be.
The unbelievers, not the alternative ‘Shakespeares’, are the subject of Contested Will: no rival claimant makes an entry until around a hundred pages in, as Shapiro seeks to establish the conditions from which the controversy emerged. These include the widening gulf between the deification of the Bard that began in the 18th century and the mundane biographical facts. In the main, the surviving documents of William Shakespeare’s life concern financial and legal transactions: they suggest at best a shrewd businessman, at worst a grasping money-lender and grain-hoarder, hardly someone fit to be acclaimed, as he was at the Stratford Jubilee of 1769, as ‘the god of our idolatry’. The veneration persisted through the 19th century. But this was also a period when various kinds of holy writ were being questioned, and Shapiro illuminatingly assimilates the authorship controversy to radical theories about the non-existence of Homer as an individual author, and about the mythic nature of the Gospels.
The thirst to find evidence for the sort of Shakespeare people wanted produced the forgeries of William-Henry Ireland in the 1790s (which included a letter from Elizabeth I thanking him for his ‘prettye Verses’) and John Payne Collier in the 1830s and 1840s (which showed Shakespeare to have been a well-connected member of metropolitan literary circles from an early stage). But for Shapiro the real villain is Edmond Malone. The usual story is that Malone, as he himself claimed, swept away the accretion of anecdote and folklore around Shakespeare, and founded modern empirical scholarship, according to which all statements must be substantiated by reference to documentary evidence. The problem, according to Shapiro, is that Malone included Shakespeare’s works as part of that biographical evidence: Constance’s grief over the death of her son Arthur in King John must reflect Shakespeare’s grief at the death of his own son, Hamnet; a reference to cuckoldry in Sonnet 93 indicates that Anne Hathaway was unfaithful; and so on. As Shapiro comments, perhaps Shakespeare was thinking of his own life at those moments, perhaps he wasn’t: ‘We’ll never know.’ But Malone opened the door for readers to assume that the works could be decoded as biographical evidence. Put this together with the increasing doubt that the works did in fact fit the life, Shapiro argues, and readers will start looking for another life, another author, in the details of the text. Some literary detectives went a stage further, looking for clues to the author’s identity not merely in the meanings of words and phrases, but in complex hidden patterns of letters and signs.
As Shapiro notes at the outset, thousands of books and articles have been published proposing an author other than Shakespeare and, since the debate now thrives mainly online, a comprehensive overview of the controversy is almost impossible. Shapiro wisely concentrates on two leading claimants – Bacon and Oxford – and on some of their most prominent adherents. Among the best-known Baconians are Delia Bacon, Mark Twain, Helen Keller and Henry James; among Oxfordians, Freud and J.T. Looney. Shapiro is a gifted storyteller, whether describing Helen Keller’s visit to Mark Twain in 1909, or his own discovery that a key document, the transcript of two lectures by James Corton Cowell from 1805, regarded by Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians alike as a founding text in the controversy, is itself a fabrication. (Cowell was supposedly the first to question Shakespeare’s authorship in public, nearly 50 years before the controversy properly took off.) ‘My heart skipped,’ Shapiro writes, as he noticed the crucial anachronism.
Previous Stratfordians, such as Samuel Schoenbaum in Shakespeare’s Lives (1970), have derided rival claims by quoting some of the more extreme statements made on their behalf. In 1930, for instance, Henry Wellington Wack, an American Baconian, vilified the rustic impostor ‘Shaxper’ as ‘a butcher and taphouse tippler … a Stratford lout … a vacuous liquor-lushing loafer … this hill-billy … best known for his guzzleosity’. George Elliott Sweet in 1956 argued that Elizabeth I was the true author: ‘When would a busy queen have time to write plays? … It is a well-known maxim that you go to a busy person to get things done. The very fact that there are no plays with Elizabeth as authoress creates the suspicion there must be hidden plays of hers.’
Many such entertaining quotations can be gathered, but Shapiro proceeds differently: he places the previously much mocked Delia Bacon and Looney in the company of Henry James and Freud, takes them seriously and tries to understand the development of their ideas. He is aware that Bacon was mentally ill towards the end of her life, but pays due respect to her work and so can give what reads as a fair account of her failings. Similarly, he avoids easy jokes about Looney’s name, instead tracing his history as a leader of the Church of Humanity, thereby revealing the alarming right-wing politics that underpinned his advocacy of the Earl of Oxford. Shapiro analyses all his subjects – but in particular Twain and Freud – psychobiographically: he discusses their lives, attitudes and relationships in order to understand why they rejected Shakespeare, much as Janet Malcolm, in The Silent Woman (1994), turned the tables on biographers of Sylvia Plath by intruding on their domestic lives.
According to Shapiro, mainstream Shakespeare scholars have collectively ignored the authorship controversy because it is their evil twin: ‘The more that Shakespeare scholars encourage autobiographical readings of the plays and poems, the more they legitimate assumptions that underlie the claims of all those who dismiss the idea that Shakespeare wrote the plays.’ Shapiro himself made an impressive contribution to Shakespeare biography in 1599, even if the book was more interested in Shakespeare’s surroundings than his personal experiences. He expresses remorse for this, and for other past sins of biographical interpretation in his writing and teaching. It’s time to stop, he exhorts, and to attend to Theseus’ famous speech in Act V of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which claims that the poet deals in ‘shaping fantasies’, and gives ‘to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name’. Shapiro doesn’t doubt that Shakespeare drew on personal experience, but declares: ‘I don’t see how anyone can know with any confidence if or when or where he does so.’
Whether the world at large will obey this call to give up looking for the life in the work is another matter. Some, of course, are already persuaded. Colin Burrow scrupulously resisted biographical readings in his 2002 edition of Shakespeare’s poems, and, reviewing Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004) in the LRB, he deplored ‘the heuristic poverty of biographical explanations of works of art’. Others, however, including Katherine Duncan-Jones in her Arden edition of the Sonnets (1997, shortly to be reissued in a revised edition) and René Weis, in Shakespeare Revealed (2007), have continued to deal in biography: Duncan-Jones explores the case for William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, as the young man of the Sonnets; Weis points out such details as the greater frequency of medical characters in Shakespeare’s plays after his daughter Susanna’s marriage to Dr John Hall. Can we – should we – tell ourselves not to be interested in such information? For some critics (not including Burrow) avoiding biographical readings has been a way of ignoring the troubling evidence that Shakespeare loved a man.
In an admirable effort to counteract assumptions that Shakespeare’s world was much like our own, Shapiro quotes the sonneteer Giles Fletcher, who wrote in 1593 that ‘A man may write of love, and not be in love, as well as of husbandry, and not go to the plough, or of witches and be none.’ ‘If Giles Fletcher could compose sonnets to “try” his “humour”,’ Shapiro says, ‘Shakespeare could have done so too.’ True, and not true. For whatever reason, people feel that Shakespeare’s works speak directly to them, and that they speak of something recognisable as an emotional reality.
For Shapiro, the milestones in biographical criticism are Malone’s Shakespeare publications of the late 18th century, and the growth of autobiography as a genre in the late 20th century. More could be said about the growing assumption in the Romantic age that literature was drawn directly from life, an assumption often encouraged by writers. The Prelude was avowedly autobiographical; and Macaulay, reviewing a Life of Byron in 1831, wrote: ‘He was himself the beginning, the middle and the end of all his own poetry – the hero of every tale – the chief object of every landscape. Harold, Lara, Manfred, and a crowd of other characters, were universally considered merely as loose incognitos of Byron; and there is every reason to believe that he meant them to be so considered.’ It’s hardly surprising, then, that 19th-century readers took Hamlet and Prospero to be versions of Shakespeare. Moreover, long before the growth in autobiography, the popularity of the Bildungsroman encouraged people to read novels as realistic narratives which must have drawn on their authors’ lives; Jane Eyre, subtitled ‘An Autobiography’, is one example, David Copperfield another.
The Brontës tried to conceal their identities behind the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and the consequences were, first, that their works were scrutinised for evidence of their gender and identity, and, second, that once their identities were known, the fit between lives and works was felt to be so complete that the story of their isolated existence in the bleak parsonage became as popular as their novels. The impulse to read literature as autobiography is wider and deeper than Shapiro allows for, and by no means confined to Shakespeare criticism. But, in many cases, as with Byron or the Brontës, the life and works are so interwoven in popular perception that there can be no controversy over authorship. Why has Shakespeare attracted all this questioning?
Shapiro is right to identify as one cause the perceived disparity between the banal life and the transcendent works, and he could have said more about the role of class. Turning towards Bacon or Oxford makes the author at least a nobleman. Shapiro discusses ‘Prince Tudor’ theory: the belief that the Earl of Oxford had to write pseudonymously because he was the secret lover of Elizabeth I; there is a parallel theory that Bacon was the disowned son of the queen. Intriguingly, these theories have been particularly popular in America: even though many Baconians there have portrayed their hero as a progressive proto-democrat who opposed his tyrannical, feudalist mother, they have nonetheless liked the idea of his having royal blood. Meanwhile, many British Baconians and Oxfordians have represented their man as a tragic lost prince, the thwarted founder of a lost dynasty under whom Britain would have ascended to true greatness.
Thinking about why the ‘true’ Shakespeare is, supposedly, so elusive can take us back to the writings themselves. Shapiro asserts that in Shakespeare’s time literature was ‘rarely if ever a vehicle for self-revelation’, and that ‘autobiography as a genre and as an impulse was extremely unusual.’ It is certainly true that the relation between life and art was then understood very differently from the ways Romantic poets, Victorian novelists or modern readers of biographies have understood it (though in the age of the ghost-written autobiography, our understanding of the relation between the actual and the written self may be more sophisticated than Shapiro acknowledges). Nevertheless, many Elizabethan and Jacobean writers put versions of themselves into their works. Spenser introduces himself into his poems in the persona of Colin Clout, and celebrates his own wedding in his Epithalamion. Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella includes teasing references to real people and events, and suggests identification as well as ironic distance between Sidney and Astrophil. Sidney’s niece Lady Mary Wroth retold fictional versions of her unhappy marriage and her adulterous affair with her cousin over and over again in both the framing and inset narratives of her prose romance Urania. Admittedly, none of these was a writer for the public stage (though Wroth did write a closet drama, Love’s Victory, which again drew on her personal life). Still, there is a great deal of evidence that 16th and 17th-century writers enjoyed playing on the boundary between self-disclosure and self-concealment. Although Delia Bacon overstated her case when she asserted that Elizabethans habitually wrote in ‘puns, and charades, and engines, and anagrams, and monograms, and ciphers, and puzzles’, and although this led her to unwarranted conclusions, she was not wrong that Elizabethans frequently wrote allegorically, partly because they lived in an age of censorship, but also because they seem to have enjoyed ingenious polysemic games and the fruitful ambiguities they created.
Are Donne’s poems sincere professions of feeling based on personal experience, or are they witty and provocative exercises in role-play? They can be read both ways: Donne and his contemporaries knew that, paradoxically, authenticity is one role among others. Shakespeare too knew this, simulating psychological truth and depth in his soliloquies, and writing for the gifted Richard Burbage, who was praised for an innovative acting style that ‘painted’ nature. The Sonnets are one of the most consummate performances in these poetic games of self-revelation and self-concealment. We will never know for certain if the poet really loved a young man or a ‘dark lady’, or who they were, but reading the poems makes it hard not to wonder.
Shapiro never invokes, as we might expect him to, the familiar theory of the Death of the Author. Perhaps he feels it is outworn; or perhaps for Shapiro the author is not really dead, just unavailable, except in fragmentary and fugitive glimpses. He repeats from 1599 his plausible contention that a section of the printed epilogue from Henry IV Part 2, which includes the phrase ‘what I have to say is of my own making,’ represents Shakespeare coming forward at the end of a court performance to speak in his own person as author of the play. Shapiro is not oblivious to the attractions of speaking with the dead: ‘It’s the closest we ever get in his plays,’ he says, ‘to hearing Shakespeare speak for and as himself.’ So sometimes it is acceptable to seek, and find, the real Shakespeare in the text. In the end, banning all biographical criticism of Shakespeare is an excessive reaction. It’s true that biographical criticism can be dispiritingly reductive, but it needn’t be. Shapiro knows that our response to Shakespeare’s works is both sharpened and enriched by a knowledge of his world; are we to suppress any urge to consider how Shakespeare might have existed in that world?