Monday, June 27, 2011

2,560: Contested Will by James Shapiro

Thanks to James Shapiro’s Contested Will, I am more than a little relieved to announce that normal service has now been resumed in my mind.  After reading John Michell’s Who Wrote Shakespeare?, I went through a phase of Marlovianism, believing (or, at least, finding it amusing to believe) that Christopher Marlowe, despite his murder in 1593, was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.  Now, fortunately, I’ve been pulled back from the distant shores of literary lunacy.

James Shapiro is a bona fide “Shakespeare Expert”, being a professor at Columbia University.  In Contested Will, he addresses the fascinating, if tendentious, subject of the Authorship Question.  The usual form for an author in  this field is, firstly, to dismiss the man from Stratford as the echt Shakespeare before trumpeting the qualifications of the author’s preferred candidate and creating some kind of conspiracy theory or circular argument to deal with any inconvenient problems with their pet theory.

The arguments against the man from Stratford tend to revolve around some or all of the following: there was little hagiography or commemoration of him in the immediate aftermath of his death; the author of the plays showed intimate knowledge of, inter alia, the law, Italy, France, falconry, sailing, military matters, which militates against the small-time business man and actor from Stratford; the “real” Shakespeare had an encyclopaedic knowledge of classics, whereas the man from Stratford was poorly educated; the absence of the man from Stratford’s own writing suggests that he may even have been illiterate; and, finally, the author Shakespeare was a man of lofty thoughts and morals, whereas the man from Stratford was a litigious and money-grabbing small time trader.

Having shown to their own satisfaction that the man from Stratford could not have written the works attributed to Shakespeare, the usual next step is to pick a candidate who seems to fit the bill better.  This is often done by imputing some autobiographical nature to the plays and then by twisting some facts to fit the case.  Finally, a more or less plausible story needs to be concocted to explain why the favoured candidate needed to publish under the name of Shakespeare rather than in his or her own name.  It’s even better if a secret code or some wordplay on the candidate’s name can be dredged up.  The poster boys for this technique are Sir Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford.  Both these have been touted as lost sons of Queen Elizabeth and, in the latter case, variations of  de Vere, the Oxfordian family name, have been found in the text of the plays – hardly surprising given the number of uses of words such as “ever” and “never”!

Shapiro takes a different approach to the question.  Instead of jumping into the plays and sonnets, he looks at the question through the prism of the lives and times of several of the more prominent anti-Stratfordians to show how they have affected the viewpoints of those writers.

Having refuted the very early claims against Shakespeare’s authorship, Shapiro shows how the influence of the emergence in the early 19th Century of the “Higher Criticism” theory, which used historical methods to examine authorship issues in texts, and its application to the Bible led inexorably to the questioning of the authorship of Shakespeare.  He then traces the history of the claims for Bacon and Oxford through the stories of their leading partisans before ably demonstrating why the criticisms of the man of Stratford as Shakespeare are misplaced.

Unlike many of Shapiro’s Shakespearean colleagues, he treats the authorship issue in a serious fashion, an approach which lends his conclusions even more force.  Shapiro’s views are largely centred around his knowledge of Elizabethan and Jacobean history and theatrecraft.  In particular, the arguments for the alternative Shakespeares depend upon the plays and sonnets being written from an autobiographical standpoint, a style of writing that Shapiro successfully argues was simply not common in Shakespeare’s time.  Shapiro does not deny that some of Shakespeare’s experiences and views would have come through but the extent of autobiography needed to support the alternatives goes way beyond this.

There is a huge amount of research and knowledge in this book and Shapiro writes in an entertainingly trenchant fashion, whilst dismissing the anti-Stratfordian arguments. His book is a great contribution to the debate and deserves to be read by everyone with an interest in the issue.  It has certainly changed my belief, not just by his examination of the evidence and his contextualisation of the times in which Shakespeare lived but also by his core belief, which he summarises thus:

“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 firsthand.  It is a stark and consequential choice.”

Denying the man of Stratford as Shakespeare is essentially to deny the power of imagination and creativity and to accept that one can only write about what one has experienced.  I don’t buy into that.


Song said...

Another book I'm tempted to buy. I found myself shaken quite abit out of my Marlowe-stance while reading Ben Crystal's book. From what I understood, Shakespeare wrote many of his lines for his actors - actors he knew and understood so well! When put like that, it's hard to believe someone from miles and miles away wrote those plays and sent them over to England. Come to think of it, why send them to England at all?... Also, Crystal mentions how Shakespeare's sense of geography is quite bad - just like someone who might have 'heard' of these places rather than 'seen' them.

Falaise said...

Risa - Shapiro is more focused on authorship than Crystal but many of Crystal's views are reflected in Shapiro's thinking about the theatrical world in Shakespeare's time and about the connection between the scripts and the acting company. Shapiro's writing is more formal than Crystal but still very entertaining as well as informative. It's also more widely informative on Shakespeare's world than you might think from the subject matter. I enjoyed your posts on Shakespeare on Toast, by the way.