Best Known for His Guzzleosity

Helen Hackett

  • Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro
    Faber, 367 pp, £20.00, April 2010, ISBN 978 0 571 23576 6

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.

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[*] 20 January 2005.