The Playgoer: James Shapiro's "Contested Will"

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Thursday, July 01, 2010

James Shapiro's "Contested Will"

Longtime readers of this blog may remember how arguing with Shakespeare authorship deniers used to be a common feature.  Luckily for you and me alike, that's now subsided. 

But I have been massively enjoying James Shapiro's definitive account of this whole mess in his latest book, Contested Will.  It is significant because it is the first time a bona fide Shakespeare scholar has really held forth on this topic, and not been afraid to engage--and calmly refute and decimate--longstanding rumors, myths, and flawed theories.

I've only just begun reading and skimming through it but let me share some highlights so far.  First, here's Shapiro explaining why legit academics can and should engage these fringe claims:

More than one fellow Shakespearean was disheartened to learn that I was committing my energies to it [the authorship controversy], as if somehow I was wasting my time and talent, or worse, at risk of going over to the dark side.  I became increasingly interested in why this subject remains virtually taboo in academic circles, as well as in the consequences of this collective silence.  One thing is certain: the decision by professor to all but ignore the authorship question hasn't made it disappear.  If anything, more people are drawn to it than ever.  And because prominent Shakespeareans...have all but surrendered the field, general readers curious about the subject typically learn about it through the books and websites of those convinced that Shakespeare could never have written the plays.
Or to put it another way: think of the "birthers."  Yes, it's risky to dignifiy them with a response...but do you really want their claims to be the only ones out there when someone Googles "obama + birth + certificate"?

What Shaprio proceeds to do, for about 300 highly readable pages, is simply narrate the history of all the various claims throughout the years and show how they were all founded on some combination of misinformation, faulty historical reasoning, outright forgery and fraud, if not all of the above.  In conclusion, he offers what seems a great primer on just what the basic facts of Shakespeare's life are, why it is we don't know more, and how that doesn't in anyway "disqualify" him from having authored the plays that have always born his name.

One misperception that fuels the fires of doubt is a kind of "presentist" assumption about obsession with private life and the celebrity of authors today applying to all times:
Shakespeare did not live, as we do, in an age of memoir.  Few at the time kept diaries or wrote personal essays (only thirty or so English diaries survive from Shakespeare's lifetime, and only a handful are in any sense personal; despite the circulation and then translation of Montainge's Essays in England, the genre attracted few followers and fizzled out by the early seventeenth century, not to be revived in any serious way for a hundred years).  Literary biography was still in its infancy; even the word "biography" hadn't yet entered the language and wouldn't until the 1660s.  By the time popular interest began to shirt from the works themselves to the life of the author, it was difficult to learn much about what Shakespeare was like.  Now that those who knew him were no longer alive, the only credible sources of information were letters, literary manuscripts, or official documents, and these either were lost or remained undiscovered.
(emphases added)
By laying out the historical circumstances so clearly--one of the benefits of reading a scholar actually trained in the study of the period, not some amateur professional from another discipline playing armchair Elizabethan, like most of the conspiracy theorists--Shapiro reminds us of basic facts that show there are very good reasons we know so little about Shakespeare's life, as opposed to some DaVinci-Code-esque conspiracy.

Take this issue of biographical interest in Shakespeare beginning only in the later 17th century, a full fifty years after the playwright's death.  Shapiro reminds us that a lot happened in those intervening decades to make the trail grow cold.
There may well have been bundles of letters, theatrical documents, and even a commonplace book or two that outlived Shakespeare, but...the extinction of the family line by the end of the seventeenth century and the sale and subsequent demolition of Shakespeare's home, New Place, helped ensure their disappearance.
Yes, there's something even I never realized--by 1700 the man had no heirs.  And it's pretty hard to perpetuate an estate and the survival of personal effects without them.  Not to mention the tearing down of the man's house!  (And let's not forget the burning down of his primary theatre, The Globe, in 1613.)

The later family history is indeed fascinating:
Shakespeare's sister Joan lived until 1646.  His elder daughter,Susanna, died in 1649 and his younger one, Judith, was still alive in 1662; a local vicar with an interest in Shakespeare made a note to seek her out and ask her about her father, but she died before this conversation took place.  Nobody thought to seek out Shakespeare's granddaughter, Elizabeth, who was eight years old when Shakespeare died; she was only one of his four grandchildren to live past the age of twenty-one or wed, but she bore no children in her two marriages and the family line ended with her death in 1670.
That vicar story, by the way, is only one of several d'oh! moments where we were maybe so close to preserving Shakespeare's life after all.  For instance, Shapiro also uncovers an obscure story of a country doctor who pays a visit to Susanna--not to ask about her playwright-father but her late doctor-husband, John Hall!  Turns out Hall had left behind some valuable medical research and so this visitor got to sit in the house reviewing those books while god knows what else sat on the shelf behind him.

Yep, it may have come down one asked.  Shapiro details several missed opportunities of these family and friends still living in Stratford till the 1670s. Or maybe they weren't missed.  Maybe someone did ask and never wrote it down.  Or they did write it down and--like 99% of all personal documents from the period--they got lost!

In short, history happens.

Another thing that happened in the decades immediately following Shakespeare's death was a little something called the English Civil War.  Remember that, under Cromwellian rule,all public theatres were shuttered from the 1640s until the "Restoration" of the monarchy in 1660.  This violently disrupted an entire Elizabethan/Jacobean theatrical tradition that could have provided a direct line back to Shakespeare, The Globe, and his company--and probably led to the further neglect, if not outright destruction, of countless records and papers.

So, in sum, there were very good historical reasons that the paper trail is thin.  Coincidental, bad-luck reasons, perhaps, but that's history.

Finally, before anyone writes off Shapiro as just another "bardologist," know that he actually blames Shakespeare cultists for all the authorship confusion as much as the deniers.  For it was they who tried to ascribe so much significance to the man over the plays in the first place.  Insisting that only a "Great Man" could write great plays, the bard-worshipers of the 18th and 19th centuries flat-out fabricated and invented biographical "facts" (and documents) of their own to fill the annoying gaps.  This only let the door open, of course, for the counter arguments that the "man from Stratford" could not be that same "great man."

What Shaprio ultimately preaches, then, is not Shakespeare-idolatry, but realism and honesty.  Let's simply admit what we don't know, acknowledge that it's natural and common not to know such facts about people who lived that long ago, and embrace the ambiguities and frustrations of history for what they are--rather than inventing our own.

Sounds like a good summer read, no?


Stephanie Hopkins Hughes said...

No. It's just more of the same stuff that's been coming from the Academy ever since thinkers have been raising questions about Shakespeare's empty biography. The problem isn't a lack of information, we have more than enough information about William, the problem is that none of it ties him to the London Stage. What genius ever left the scene of his triumphs to return to a hometown two days ride by horseback where he spent the rest of his fairly long life suing his neighbors for a few pounds?

So go ahead and enjoy the book, but one would do better to read something about the authorship itself, and not some diatribe against the people who've been doing the real research.

Playgoer said...

Being July 4th weekend and all, I hardly want to get into a fight right now. So I'll just say how happy I am the blog has been blessed with the comments of the founder of the Oxfordian Society Journal herself!

In rebuttal all I'll say is a) the book is hardly a "diatribe." I myself would be much harsher, but Shapiro bends over backwards to be fair and simply evaluate evidence.

And b) as for writers walking away from their fame...JD Salinger, anyone?

poet ape said...

You might be interested in the new book - The De Vere Code - by Globe actor, Jonathan Bond. It deals with the authorship of the sonnets and presents new evidence demolishing the Stratfordian case for the sonnets using Stratfordian scholarship. Those who say that there isnt any evidence that connects Oxford to the works of Shakespeare should definitely read this book.

Mark Rylance, actor and former Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, says of it: “wonderfully articulate and engaging... His discoveries and conclusions regarding the authorship question are compelling... a pleasure to read”

and Charles Beauclerk, Earl of Burford, heir of the family of Edward de Vere, says: “Hats off to Jonathan Bond! This is an absorbing, beautifully crafted work, which provides what no other book on Shakespeare has provided: proof of the authorship of that most mysterious volume, Shake-speares Sonnets”

Troubador said...

"What genius ever left the scene of his triumphs etc..."

What genius created a string of masterpieces for over twenty years and allowed someone else to take credit for it? I find that far harder to swallow than the notion they might turn their back on their success.

Anonymous said...

The plays and poems are here for us to experience and benefit from; all the rest is fruitless distraction.

Martha said...

I'm probably unwise to stir this cauldron up with another comment, but--I've just found your blog, and really enjoyed your review of Shapiro's book, which I'm reading now, too. I particulary loved your comparison of the "authorship" fanatics to the Obama "birthers"--that's precisely what they're like, and precisely why the question matters. As long as people are willing to accept contorted thinking and false reasoning in place of solid logic and an understanding of what constitutes evidence, we're all at risk of having the really important decisions our country faces driven by those ignorant thought-processes. It's especially disturbing when people with any claim to education start thinking that way. Shapiro's book is an excellent antidote; kudos to you for blogging about it!