May 18, 2010

BOOKS: Contested Will, James Shapiro (2010)

A slightly different take on the "Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?" controversy.

Shapiro isn't particularly interested in the arguments for or against Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford (though it's clear that he believes Shakespeare really was Shakespeare); instead, he presents a history of the debate.

It was nearly two centuries after Shakespeare's death before the arguments began, and Shapiro suggests that it all started with a 1790 edition of Shakespeare's complete works edited by Edmond Malone, who was one of the pre-eminent Shakespeare scholars of his day. Rather than present the plays by type -- comedies, tragedies, and so on -- as had been the tradition before, Malone attempted to arrange them chronologically, which meant that he needed to figure out the order in which they'd been written. No one had ever attempted that before, and Malone based much of his ordering on his own conjectures about which lines and events in the plays were topical references to historical events. Even more perilously, he attempted to date specific sonnets by cross-referencing the emotional states of the poems' speakers to specific events in Shakespeare's own life.

Once you head down the road of assuming that things in the work are references to Shakespeare's life, Shapiro argues, it's nearly impossible not to take the next step, and assume that everything in the plays must have some grounding in Shakespeare's life and education; and from there, it's a simple step to arguing that Shakespeare couldn't have written X because he didn't know enough about the law (or sailing, or high society, etc., etc.).

From there, Shapiro presents the history of the two major contenders to be the "real" Shakespeare -- Francis Bacon, who dominated the debate in the 19th century (Mark Twain was a Baconian), and the Earl of Oxford, who became the trendy favorite in the early 20th century (Sigmund Freud was a prominent believer in Oxford).

Why does it matter? Ultimately, Shapiro argues, the debate over who wrote Shakespeare is a debate over what we believe literature to be. If we believe (as Twain did, among others) that great literature can only come from the author's personal experience and history, then the claims of Bacon and Oxford are understandably appealing. But in accepting that notion, we deny the power of the human mind to create worlds that never were and to imagine things which it has never known. Believing that Shakespeare the man was incapable of being Shakespeare the poet is a sadly limiting view of humanity, one which denies the existence of genius and creativity.

Shapiro does a fine job of presenting what could be dry literary arguments in a lively style, and I very much enjoyed his overview of the debate.

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