One of the most persistent literary controversies is the question of who really wrote the plays and sonnets attributed to William Shakespeare. The first documented challenge to his authorship of the works did not appear until 1785, 169 years after his death. But since then, as noted Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro demonstrates in his enlightening and highly entertaining Contested Will, it has never stopped.
In a marvelous display of literary detection, Shapiro traces the origins of the various alternative theories with candidates such as Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford. He shows why the theories arose when they did and exposes the forgeries and deception as well as the misunderstandings of Shakespeare’s age that kept them alive. Along the way we meet such fascinating and now-forgotten personalities as the two most influential persons in the controversy, popular lecturer Delia Bacon, the allegedly “mad” American woman (she spent the last two years of her life in an asylum) who first proposed Francis Bacon, and J.T. Looney, the British schoolmaster who was the first to put forth the name of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James and Helen Keller were among the many others who were also certain that the glover’s son from Stratford could not possibly have written works of such sophistication and elegance.
Shapiro, the author of the widely praised A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, which received the Samuel Johnson Prize in England, emphasizes that Shakespeare should not be seen as “our contemporary” and that he was not “as universal” as we often like to think of him. He also explores the process that, after Shakespeare’s death, led to setting the genius of his works apart from other writers of his age. Among other treats, there is a rich discussion of Henry James’ analysis of The Tempest, perhaps the best essay written when that play was regarded as the last one Shakespeare wrote and the most autobiographical.
The author is keenly aware that it is much easier to explain unfounded assumptions than to show that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. In the brilliant last section of the book, Shapiro presents evidence that convinces him that Shakespeare was indeed the author. Among much else, the author of the plays had to have intimate knowledge of the actors in the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, and be a shrewd judge of each one’s abilities. In the printed text there are examples of Shakespeare’s writing the name of the actor playing the part rather than the character’s name. Secondly, much that his fellow writers wrote about Shakespeare has survived, and in even private documents, where his “true identity” surely would be acknowledged, Shakespeare is the name we read. Shapiro then presents documentation from the last years of Shakespeare’s working life, when he was working with collaborators, writing in a different style, and in a new kind of playhouse.
Shapiro is most concerned that those who think Shakespeare of Stratford did not have the life experience to write the plays overlook “the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination.” This sophisticated and very readable title is pure delight. All readers may not agree with Shapiro’s conclusions, but he certainly convinced me.