May 25, 2010


Contested Will: Why have so many intelligent people been so dotty about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays? (Francis Phillips, 25 May 2010, MercatorNet)

In case readers tremble at this title, thinking that yet another eccentric contender for the mantle of the man from Stratford has come forward, let me reassure them at the outset: James Shapiro, a professor at Columbia University, tells us early on in this erudite and entertaining book that “I happen to believe that William Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him”. In a further startling display of common-sense, he adds that he doesn’t believe that truth is relative “or that there are always two sides to every story.”

What interests Shapiro then, is not Shakespeare’s identity but why it has ever been challenged; why, during the last 200 years, there has been so much ink spilled by literate and scholarly persons trying to shoehorn highly improbable candidates into Shakespeare’s Tudor slippers. Indeed, I myself know a clever and well-read man who actually re-named his home “De Vere House”, in honour of a popular contender, the 17th Earl of Oxford, so I have a personal interest in what Shapiro discovers.

He emphasises that for two centuries after Shakespeare’s death his authorship of the plays and poems was never in question. It was not until 1785 that the matter first arose, gathering impetus during the Victorian period so that by 1850 there were innumerable books and articles on the subject. Choosing Francis Bacon and Aubrey de Vere as representative of this strange literary activity, Shapiro reminds the reader that Shakespeare did not live in an age of memoir and that the known facts of his life are very few. No-one thought to interview his friends or his family after his death until a generation had passed and it was too late. Shapiro speculates, though he does not develop this idea - as Clare Asquith has done in Shadowplay - that the playwright might have followed a suspect faith (Catholicism) and therefore might have deliberately destroyed much evidence. Certainly, the very few explicit references to contemporary events in the plays suggest that Shakespeare chose not to employ them.

What is clear is that from the 18th century Shakespeare scholar, Edmund Malone, onwards, the altered sensibility and self-consciousness of the age caused investigators to assume that the plays – and especially the Sonnets – must be autobiographical; that their author “could only write about what he had felt or done, rather than heard about, read about, borrowed...or imagined.”

I love me some me, how could he not love him some he?

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 25, 2010 5:53 AM
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