DUNN LORING, VA —Rarely do I feel gratitude and even affection, toward a book with which I profoundly disagree. But such is the case with James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Simon & Schuster, 4/6/2010, 339 pp), a study of the Shakespeare authorship debate. Shapiro, who teaches at Columbia University, accepts the gent from Stratford as the real author, so I had to part company with him on page 8. After that, though, I found almost every page instructive, brilliant, and charming. His final argument made me swallow hard a few times.
Shapiro makes the strongest, subtlest case I’ve ever read for the orthodox view. He argues that the authorship dissenters — chiefly Baconians and Oxfordians (of whom I am one) — commit the modern but anachronistic error of seeking an author’s self-revelation in his writings.
This approach may yield insights when applied to the modern novel (think of Dickens, Tolstoy, Joyce, Hemingway, and hundreds of others), but, Shapiro contends, it has very little visible relevance to the Bard, who borrowed old plots and never dabbled in autobiography. What’s more, he adds, orthodox scholars commit the same error as the heretics they want to marginalize, searching for the real author’s life in his work.
Refusing to make easy mockery of the heretics, Shapiro, a model polemicist, courteously treats even those with whom he disagrees as his comrades in the pursuit of truth. He finds their errors reasonable and sees no point in insulting them (his two brief mentions of me are rather flattering).
I agree that the Shakespeare works aren’t autobiographical — except when they are. You can hardly make sense of the allusive Sonnets unless you realize, as the dedication implies, that they refer to real people and situations. But beyond that, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, knew — or was related to — more than a dozen important figures in the Bard’s poetic career: King James; the earls of Southampton, Pembroke, Montgomery, and Surrey (a great poet and Oxford’s uncle); Arthur Golding (another of Oxford’s uncles); William Cecil, the great Lord Burleigh (Oxford’s father-in-law and obvious model for Polonius); the writers John Lyly, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, George Chapman, Thomas Watson; and so on. All three of the men to whom the Bard’s works are dedicated nearly married Oxford’s three daughters (and Montgomery did in fact marry his daughter Susan!). And all these are not mere deductions from the plays and poems, but solid facts of Oxford’s life, easily verified.
Shapiro thinks that to posit real-life experience behind the Bard’s works is to belittle his matchless imagination; on the contrary, I think Hamlet and King Lear would stand as superb imaginative feats even if they followed their sources far more closely than they seem to. Would we admire the Bard more if he had written his plays without any literary sources at all? Or is his genius for dramatic adaptation rather one of the very things for which we admire him? Holinshed’s account of Macbeth has none of the mystery and magic of the Bard’s play. The better we know the meager things that inspired him, the more we marvel at his inspiration.
I appeal to the Sonnets. Precisely because they seem to be autobiographical, they have no dramatic center; they are as formless as life itself. Wonderful as their eloquence is, they are too self-absorbed to be very gripping. Many of them are poems of regret and self-reproach — not the stuff of which suspense is made. How many people would pay to hear all the Sonnets read in one evening? But a man planning to kill his wife, his uncle, or his trusting king — now that’s more like it!
I would respectfully dispute a number of Shapiro’s points. Like most academics, he misdates, I think, the years when the plays, especially Hamlet, were written, and he assumes that the two long poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece,” are “early” works, whereas I think they are among the Bard’s most mature, polished, and underrated productions. When they were published in 1593 and1594, they were at once hailed as masterpieces. Nobody thought the author was a beginner. But I will have to take these matters up in my next book.
Among the many things I learned from this book is that Helen Keller was a passionate Baconian; and by the way, she was also a good-looking young woman. She found it frustrating that people didn’t care what she thought about the authorship question. Shapiro not only informs us; he makes us feel the pathos of his subjects’ woes.
In one of P.G. Wodehouse’s stories, a character tells his friend, “Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays.” The friend answers approvingly, “Awfully decent of him.” And let the record show that James Shapiro’s book was awfully decent of him.
Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.