April 23, 2011

Review: Contested Will, who wrote Shakespeare?

William Shakespeare's life was like most pre-modern lives: unrecorded. What we know about Shakespeare comes from a handful of legal deeds and reminiscences: we have no personal letters or documents, no diary, no autobiography. Shakespeare the man vanishes into history leaving us alone with his plays and his poetry. For some, since the 19th Century, this has been both frustrating and tantalising. They argue that such a great poet would have left some kind of legacy- maybe it has been obscured because the real poet was the son of Elizabeth I or a political intriguer or some other conspiracy saw fit to conceal the true authorship. Proponents for this view have ranged from great novelists and psychiatrists, right through to the inhabitants of the internet's zanier zones. James Shapiro's 'Contested Will' is an attempt to diagnose why these people think the way they do. Almost all scholars of Shakespeare accept the view that Shakespeare wrote the plays and there is very little, to my seventeenth century historian's mind that would incline me to think otherwise. So why, asks Shapiro have some very intelligent and thoughtful men and women thought otherwise?

This is an interesting topic. We often think of history as the record of what happened: actually though events only matter as people think they happened. Take the Norman Conquest: as an event it is banal, one army was defeated by another but reimagined it became an epochal moment for the conqueror and his conquered people. How people imagine the past matters. Shapiro offers us several factors- mostly personal for people to have taken on the sceptical mantle about Shakespeare. The key factor, he believes, is the idea that any poet or writer draws from his past: this idea, first documented in a footnote on Sonnet 96 by the great 18th Century critic Edward Malone, has become incredibly influential. It has led to great scholars searching in the life of Shakespeare for events which are reflected in his plays. It has led others to speculate about whether the grand subjects of the plays were generated from a grander life. Sigmund Freud argued for example that the Earl of Oxford wrote Hamlet because his father had died before the composition date and because Shakespeare's had not. There are plenty of other cases that Shapiro documents in his book: the key argument against Shakespeare's authorship is that he could not have known what the plays declared he did know, because he could not have experienced it.

This and the absense of evidence (something we will come to in a second) is the key part of the anti-Shakespeare case. It is based on the fact that as the author wrote about the pursuits of the aristocracy and about books, he must have had direct experience of them. Of course this need not be true. He could have observed this on the many trips to aristocratic homes to perform: he would have had access to literature on how to be a gentleman, he would have had access to all sorts of sources for foreign climates- the kind of access that yes might allow to him to make the mistake that Bohemia had a coastline! But that's not really the point. What Shapiro is arguing is that its a mistake to infer from anything in the plays that this was something that happened to Shakespeare himself: he buttresses this with a quote from T.S. Elliot who was bemused by the number of biographical allusions people found in his poems, a poet may not be speaking merely of himself.

So why do we make Shakespeare talk about Shakespeare or Elliot about Elliot? Why can't we leave the Wasteland or Hamlet to speak for themselves? Shapiro's history of the suggestion that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare supplies us with an answer which I think is interesting and comes back to why we read and how we read. He argues that the reason that so many have wanted to read the poetry in this way is partly a tribute to the poetry itself. We read and from the romantic era on have felt that we have to sympathise with the artist who created the work: we read the work not as exempla but in some sense as a psychological history. We also take that history and examine it- turning it into our own ideas- just as I am doing in this piece. We spin off, as Freud did, from Hamlet to the Oedipus concept or from Richard III to ideas about tyranny (see Delia Bacon) and these arguments, our arguments, from the plays are reinforced by the fact that we deemed the playwright to have seen these things. How much more convincing to say that Hamlet was an effort to get over the death of the Earl of Oxford's father- rather than an imagined father of Shakespeare- how much more convincing does it sound as a proof to a psychological theory.

The case for and against Shakespeare as the author of his plays is interesting but as Shapiro argues through his book, what is almost more interesting is the history of how people have responded to the plays. We look into the past for legitimations of our own ideas- Hobbes called this practice prudence, the utilisation of experience to suggest what will happen in the future. We do this with literature as well as with history and the other arts. We have preferred since the 19th Century to base this sense of legitimation on a connection between art and reality: this actually happened, he actually saw this, that's why his account is correct. But that is precisely not what history gives us. Many artists simply imagined what happened: Homer was not present at Troy, Virgil imagined the world of Aeneas. Even worse the past is incomplete. A jobbing actor and playwright (see Shakespeare, Marlow, Johnson, Dekker, Fletcher et al) did not leave much more than invoices behind them: if they did, even that evidence is fragmentary. Reading Shapiro it struck me how much evidence there is for Shakespeare: he has a missing twenty years but then so do senior politicians during the period (Henry Ireton for example). Several figures from the seventeenth century- from the civil war fifty years after Shakespeare- appear, are prominent for a moment and vanish again. The point is that the past has left small traces of itself behind- but the evidence is always incomplete and always fragmentary.

Shapiro's book is very interesting. I would reccomend it and it touches on things I haven't touched on here yet- the lives of the sceptics are fascinating- in particular the tragic figure of Delia Bacon. But his central point is the one discussed above: Shakespeare ultimately would not do for Bacon or Freud or any of the others here listed, they had to find someone better who had the experience to write the plays. That little revelation tells us a lot about the sceptics but also about ourselves.