Brush Up Your... Marlowe?by Julia M. Klein
When James Shapiro ’77CC began plotting out Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, a friend unnerved him by asking, “What difference does it make?” Shapiro, the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, answered, “A lot,” without articulating why. This intellectually passionate book represents his more complete and considered response: The controversy matters, he suggests, because a belief in Shakespeare’s authorship affi rms the power of the human imagination.
The authorship debate, though mostly ignored by specialists, has long intrigued writers from Mark Twain and Henry James to Helen Keller and the now-obscure Delia Bacon. It has fl ourished because so little biographical information has survived about the Stratford-upon-Avon-born actor and grain dealer — and the facts that are known point to a man of modest education, travel, and life experience. How in the world, the doubters say, could such a man, neither an aristocrat nor an intellectual, write such masterpieces, with their literary sophistication and references to law, foreign languages, courtly customs, the classics, and European geography?
In Contested Will, Shapiro has two aims: to provide insight into the debate and to make what is known as the Stratfordian case, which he does with gusto. His account of the theories of skeptics is purposely selective (though a bibliographic essay usefully points readers to more information). “My interest,” Shapiro writes, “is not in what people think — which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms — but in why they think it.” Shapiro attempts to take the opposition seriously, locating its origins in the Higher Criticism that undermined Homer’s authorship and exposed the piecemeal composition of both the Old and New Testaments. But, in the instance of Shakespeare, he can’t help being dismissive of the briefs for Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, the only two claimants to whom he allots full chapters. (The playwright Christopher Marlowe and other alternative bards receive only passing mentions.)
The history of the skeptics, Shapiro writes, is “strewn with . . . fabricated documents, embellished lives, concealed identity, pseudonymous authorship, contested evidence, bald-faced deception, and a failure to grasp what could not be imagined.” He uncovers a scam himself, involving what he says is a forgery of a 19th-century manuscript that spread doubt about Shakespeare’s capacities.
In Shapiro’s view, to believe that anyone but Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays is to succumb to conspiracy theories, weird cryptographic excesses, social snobbery, and incipient lunacy, not to mention the anachronistic fallacy of reading Elizabethan and Jacobean literature as autobiography. This last is Shapiro’s particular bête noir, and he is lacerating on the subject, indicting such early Shakespeare scholars as Edmond Malone for pointing the (wrong) way. “The plays are not an à la carte menu, from which we pick characters who will satisfy our appetite for Shakespeare’s personality while passing over less appetizing choices,” Shapiro writes.
It seems ironic that, despite his aversion to autobiographical readings, Shapiro interprets the skeptics’ views through the lens of their life experiences — and even prides himself on it. He devotes considerable space, for example, to Delia Bacon (1811–59), an American teacher, writer, and aspiring playwright whose work, influenced by Shakespeare, was never staged. A friend of Emerson and Hawthorne, she would become the fi rst signifi cant proponent of the view that the philosopher-statesman Sir Francis Bacon (probably no relation), in concert with others, was responsible for Shakespeare’s plays. In the wake of a scandalous and abortive romance, Shapiro writes, she was set “on showing the world the difference between surface and deeper meaning, . . . a distinction she knew all too well.”