Review: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare by James Shapiro (Simon & Schuster 2010)
Thomas Hunter, Ph.D.
Let’s start with the good news about James Shapiro’s Contested Will. The good news is that for the first time a Stratfordian has become familiar in some detail with Oxfordians and Oxfordian history. The bad news is the distortion, twisting, and misrepresentation Shapiro feels obliged to employ in telling the Oxfordian story.
Shapiro goes out of his way to protest the history of shabby, if not hostile, treatment of authorship proponents by the scholarly community. As his narrative plays out, however, it becomes clear that Shapiro’s attitude toward authorship is as shabby and hostile as that of any of the traditional scholars he criticizes. It doesn’t take long for the book’s surprisingly collegial initial façade to deteriorate into the more familiar hard face of Stratfordian bias and intolerance.
From concept to conclusion, Contested Will is another perversion of scholarship to make a point. We have seen this before in Alan Nelson’s monstrous biography of Oxford.
Shapiro conducts no substantive analysis of authorship issues. He provides no discussion of the merits. His approach is to talk about the personalities of authorship. His modus is to explain away authorship by explaining away its proponents through the years. His book is one prolonged, detailed ad hominem attack — pure and simple.
Substantive arguments concerning the true author of Shakespeare’s works do not count in Shapiro’s world, since the mere fact of questioning authorship is by definition deviant behavior. Shapiro’s quest thus becomes the search for the motives that drive such errant behavior.
The central question for Shapiro is: Why after two centuries, did so many people start questioning whether Shakespeare wrote the plays?
A similar question on another issue might be: Why after so many centuries did so many people start questioning whether the sun revolved around the earth?
The answer to both questions is: Because that is where the evidence led. But like the Catholic Church and the Inquisition, Shapiro prefers to persecute the doubters rather than face the mounting evidence against his understanding of the universe.
Shapiro’s approach raises a serious question about Shapiro’s book and about Shapiro himself: What motivation drives Shapiro to find the reasons for questioning Shakespeare’s authorship in those questioning authorship, and not in the evidence against the Stratfordian view?
We will return to this question after we see how Shapiro attacks authorship proponents.
Notably, Shapiro focuses on Sigmund Freud, who famously held for Oxford but whom Oxfordians have never thought to be an example of one who has done primary research and analysis on the authorship issue. Shapiro spends parts of two chapters, 18 pages in all, on Freud and has a field day exposing supposed obsessions and fetishes that dismiss Freud as just another Oxfordian lunatic.
For Shapiro, Delia Bacon was the first of the deviants, craved fame, and was mad. Mark Twain was consumed by self-promotion; obsessed with his legacy; pre-occupied with twins, imposters, and pen names; stole from Sir George Greenwood; and believed in ciphers. Shapiro is gentler with Helen Keller but also tars her with the cipher brush. Henry James was only interested in creating powerful fiction and obsessed with his own genius and legacy.
Shapiro dismisses J. Thomas Looney as being motivated by religious zealotry. Other motivations found by Shapiro among notable authorship supporters include overbearing egotism, profit motive, and lunacy. He never finds simple interest in the truth as the motivation of any authorship proponent. Shapiro’s message is: With motivations like these, how can authorship be taken seriously?
As a result, the book never presents or deals with the long history of serious Oxfordian scholarship, such as Dr. Earl Showerman’s work on Shakespeare’s use of classic Greek sources, or Robert Detobel’s demonstrations of the role of nobility in the creation of the plays, or Dr. Noemi Magri’s brilliant work on Shakespeare’s knowledge of Venice and Italy, or Nina Green’s, Barbara Flues’ and Robert Brazil’s work with original texts and documentary sources and Green’s and Brazil’s criticism of the shoddy work of Alan Nelson and others presenting alleged scholarship on Oxford.
Shapiro dismisses Roger Stritmatter’s pioneering dissertation by stating that his graduate committee was woefully misinformed. He does not deal with the research by Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky that demonstrates the problem with the traditional dating of The Tempest – dating that has been used to support the weary, inaccurate argument that Oxford had died before several of the plays were written — an argument that Shapiro uses freely.
Shapiro’s short history of Blackfriars Theater omits Oxford’s early involvement there in developing the boys’ troupe as detailed by the work of Katherine Eggar.
To appear in Shapiro’s chapter about Oxfordians is to subject ones self and one’s work to innuendo, misrepresentation and pejorative comment. Charles Wisner Barrell’s work on the Ashbourne portrait recounted in his landmark January 1940 Scientific American article is characterized by Shapiro as “claims” later “exposed as an embarrassing case of wishful thinking.” Shapiro accepts as fact the Folger’s lame attempts to answer Barrell that have been refuted by Barbara Burris and reported in the New York Times.
The blithe representation of opinion as fact occurs hundreds of times in this book. One wonders, for one small but key example, what documentation Shapiro has to support his statement that the Stratford man was familiar with courtly ways because he had “visited royal palaces scores of times.”
The offenses to logic and scholarship go on and on in this book to the extent that perhaps they are — in a perverted way — a compliment to what laborers in the authorship vineyard have accomplished. For, if their work has received such attention from one of the establishment’s anointed, perhaps it is a measure of how the establishment might be running scared after all.
For example, Shapiro’s argument for the Stratford man provides one of the grandest examples of circular reasoning in all of scholarship. His argument proves to be little more than this: Shaksper (my spelling) wrote the works because his name appears on them.
If your assumption that Shaksper is Shakespeare provides incontestable proof to you that he is the playwright, then all of your statements relying on that assumption will be unassailable, won’t they? The minute you allow the possibility that Shakespeare is a pen name, this indisputable position crumbles to dust. It is possible, for example, to go page by page, paragraph by paragraph, document by document through S. Schoenbaum’s documentary life of Shakespeare and find not one example that demonstrates that Shaksper was the literary Shakespeare.
Finally, one of Shapiro’s odd predispositions, appearing especially in his discussion of authorship proponents, is his concept of scholarship as competition, and not as a search for truth. This equates to the Stratfordian predisposition to think that Elizabethan playwrights — including Shakespeare — were motivated not by the creation of art but by competition, by greed, and by putting butts in the seats. The point is that Shapiro’s concept of scholarship tells us more about himself than about his understanding of Shakespeare, both the man and the work.
After a couple hundred pages, however, Shapiro’s method begins to catch on , and we begin to suspect that Shapiro is really writing about Shapiro. We certainly would not want to adopt Shapiro’s methods, but if we did, we realize that his motive behind this book becomes clearer with every insinuation and attack: He wishes to replace the legendary Edmond Malone as the bearer of Shakespearean truth!
For it was Malone, Shapiro argues, who introduced the cult of personality — the idea that the plays and poems could reflect autobiographical information — into Shakespeare criticism.
Malone committed the original sin of Shakespearean criticism that opened the floodgates of the unfortunate and misguided questioning of the very identity of the man who wrote under the name Shakespeare. It was Malone who spawned the Irelands, Garricks, Freuds and Looneys of the world.
Shapiro seeks to correct Malone’s error: to assure us that writers of the time simply did not admit personal elements into their work, and that Shakespeare’s magnificent literature is explained by genius and imagination.
Is this all a manic exercise by Shapiro to seize the crown of Shakespearean authority from the vaunted brow of the sainted Malone?
What is disturbing is that Shapiro turns his focus on Malone into accusing Eva Turner Clark of seeking to be the Edmond Malone of Oxfordians. Shapiro presents no documentation of this objective for Clark. You can see where this leads. Shapiro is so busy knocking Malone off his pedestal that he applies to Clark another example of the kind of baseless innuendo that populates his book. Shapiro gives no substantive discussion of Clark’s research into dating the plays or of her groundbreaking work on hidden allusions within the plays. He just dismisses her as wanting to be the Oxfordian Malone.
The problem with Shapiro’s obsession with Malone and with autobiography as the basis of authorship inquiry is that his notion springs from a superficial version of literature’s creative process that misrepresents the role played by the author’s experiences. It is a concept that suggests Shakespeare could have visited castles or picked up a book to learn about the aristocracy or rubbed elbows at the Mermaid with fellow actors who played before royalty and used that alleged knowledge to recreate the lives of the nobility. Shapiro’s concept stops at what an author writes about, not what he creates.
Ricky Gervais was asked why he didn’t write the television show The Office until he was forty years old. While Gervais pondered, an associate said, “Because you would have failed at it.” And Gervais agreed. He would have failed because it took him that long to live through working at offices of various types until they became part of his experience that he could then recreate for his show. He could have visited offices, he could have talked with office workers, he could have looked up office in Wikipedia. But it is an entirely different thing to have lived through it, to have experienced the kinds of things that happen in offices and the kinds of people who work there. Ricky Gervais is no Shakespeare. The experience he depicts is not nearly as intense and meaningful, but the principal is the same.
It is precisely Shakespeare’s profound depiction of human experience that makes the playwright Shakespeare. His royal characters emerge as complex, deeply realized human beings because the author has been there and has seen the situations and the conflicts that produce character, irony, action, and consequence.
What can be more personal, hence more exquisite, than Sonnet 29, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,/I all alone beweep my outcast state/And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries/And look upon myself and curse my fate” or the combative Sonnet 121, “No, I am that I am, and they that level/At my abuses reckon up their own”? How does a professor of literature such as Shapiro, supposedly sensitive to the power and nuance of Shakespeare, equate such poetry with that impersonal doggerel adorning Shaskper’s grave, “And curst be he that moves my bones”?
Contested Will requires more attention than can be given to it here. Shapiro has gone beyond simply dismissing the huge body of authorship research and analysis out of hand, but not much beyond. For he does not fairly present the case for authorship, not even the basics. This book is essentially a work of specious scholarship since it does not address the issues or the real work done by Oxfordians but instead attacks Oxfordians. Shapiro’s book needs analysis like that accorded Alan Nelson’s faux biography Monstrous Adversary. Many of Shapiro’s defenses of Shaksper are preposterous and contradictory, such as his contention that identifying an author by his pen-name is the equivalent of lying. When I refer to Mark Twain, I don’t feel particularly guilty of subterfuge. In his lengthy section on Mark Twain, Shapiro refers to the author by his familiar pen-name, almost never as Samuel Clemens. Does that mean that Shapiro is lying through his teeth?
So this is how one of the most renown self-appointed crusaders against Shakespeare authorship of our time makes the case to end all cases, to put an end to the authorship debate once and for all: by attacking its proponents. The problem with that approach is that there are more proponents, especially for Oxford, every day. Will Shapiro be delving into the personal obsessions of the Supreme Court justices who have declared reasonable doubt (and in one case beyond a reasonable doubt) against the Stratford man?
Sooner or later, orthodox defenders of the traditional bard like Professor Shapiro are going to have to face issues. Shapiro doesn’t do it. He is chatty and breezy. But so was Bryson. At least Shapiro has some credentials. Oxfordians were hoping for better from this world-recognized Shakespeare expert. Get beyond the ad hominem attacks, however, and nothing much is there. Anyone who wants to learn about the history and current state of authorship research and analysis would do much better to read Warren Hope and Kim Holston’s newly revised The Shakespeare Controversy. Shapiro’s book is an attack, and attacks add nothing to the debate.
R. Thomas Hunter, PhD is a supervisory officer for an insurance company broker-dealer in Farmington Hills, MI and University of Michigan Hopwood Award winner. He chairs the Oberon Shakespeare Study Group, which is devoted to the greater understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare through the authorship issue. Hunter contributed an article, “Contesting Shapiro”, about James Shapiro’s then forthcoming Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? to the Fall 2009 edition of the Shakespeare Fellowship newsletter, Shakespeare Matters (8:4).
Note: This review was edited March 20, 2010 to reflect changes in the final proof of Shapiro’s book when available. LT