My Book Report - ‘Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?’

- October 22, 2012

"Doubting Shakespeare has gone on for a few hundred years.."

When I was an English lit major a few thousand decades ago, Master William Shakespeare was the be-all and end-all of British literary majesty. Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Milton—giants surely, but none as tall as the Bard of Avon.

But never once mentioned in any class—including two full semesters on The Works--was a sidebar diversion in scholarship casting doubt on Shakespeare’s actual authorship. Certainly, if the topic had come up, it would have been dismissed as laughable by professor and pupil alike.

Contrariwise, I’ve just finished reading the cleverly titled "Contested Will" by James Shapiro (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010, 339 pp., with index and bibliography, available at both the Main and the Southside branches of the Public Library), in which he convincingly answers his own titular question.

The hardcover was lent to me by Kay Marks, that smartly dressed, sharply witted local who’s a rabid reader, global traveler (alongside husband Tony, a professor emeritus of anthropology at SMU), and prairie dog activist, occasionally given to handing me a book and saying “Read this,” like a school assignment. But as all her suggestions have proved fruitful, so, too, was this ripe historical assessment of the various pretenders to Shakespeare’s throne.

Doubting Shakespeare has gone on for a few hundred years, starting around 1785 with the first printed anti-Will rant. Western civilization, beginning to think for itself, pondered the unanswerable: “Was there really a Homer?” and “Was Jesus only a man?” This pervasively disputive miasma settled, perhaps inevitably, onto Shakespeare, developing into a 19th-century cottage industry of challengers defiantly proposing their own nominees, one after another.

There was Delia Bacon, for instance, a Connecticut schoolteacher who was among the first to nominate Elizabeth Tudor’s counsel Sir Francis Bacon (though she assumed no relation to him) as the real creator of Romeo, Falstaff and Puck. Indeed, Sir Francis was a credible choice, characterized by Shapiro as “the father of modern scientific method, a worldly courtier, a talented writer, and a brilliant philosopher.” In her day, Delia was said to be eloquent, persuasive, much admired, and quite convincing in her assertions. Sadly—again, perhaps inevitably—she died in an asylum. 

In the late 1800s, the limelight fell on Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, educated, literate, and quite the man about London town, rumored as both son and lover (!) to Elizabeth I, His case was devoutly championed by one John Thomas Looney (sorry, but it’s pronounced “Loney”), whose 1920 Shakespeare Identified and laid substantial groundwork for much speculation to come. As interest in Francis Bacon declined, de Vere’s star rose.

(It continues to rise: Consider last year’s film "Anonymous," a big-budget epic with Rhys Ifans as de Vere and Vanessa Redgrave as Elizabeth Regina. The German director, Roland Emmerich, insists, and spectacularly so, that Oxford be proclaimed the true artist. FYI: Emmerich also made "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow, " "10,000 B.C", and  "2012." Grain of salt, anybody?)

Following a close study of all aspirants, and detailing known collaborations ("Pericles," "The Two Noble Kinsmen," and the lost "Cardenio)", Shapiro concludes with a candidate of his own…but whose identity, if somewhat predictable, I shall here keep to myself.

As he writes, “Over time, and for all sorts of reasons, leading artists and intellectuals from all walks of life joined the ranks of the skeptics. I can think of little else that unites Henry James and Malcolm X, Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller and Orson Welles or Mark Twain and Sir Derek Jacobi.”

Quite a sterling cast of characters, and quite a book. And yes, Kay, as you see, I really did read it. Thanks once more!