There have been extraordinary writers who have lived extraordinary lives. But as literary history shows again and again, there have also been authors whose lives were outwardly unremarkable, but whose reading and imagination allowed them to wrote brilliant and varied works. And there, of course, is the key word. Imagination.
Why is Shakespeare such a great writer? Because he had the imagination to be one – aided by his reading, his acquaintances, his experience as a working actor and playwright in real theatres and (naturally) by some of his other life experience. Was it from personal experience that he knew how it felt to murder a king like Macbeth, smother a wife like Othello, go transvestite like Rosalind, plot assassination like Brutus or even agonise over assassination like Hamlet? Of course not. It was his imagination, knowledge of working theatre and sympathetic understanding of human nature that allowed him to dramatise these things.
As James Shapiro shows in this elegant, witty and compulsively readable book, all “alternative authorship” theories of Shakespeare are based on a fundamental confusion between autobiography and imaginative literature. Ever since the Romantic era (approximately 200 years ago) there has been a compulsion to believe that the author’s life and the author’s writings are indistinguishable. Novels, plays and poems are read for “clues” to the author’s self-revelation. In the age of literary biography, this compulsion has become a plague.
We get people who think you can read a good biography of Dickens and skip actually reading Dickens’ novels to know why Dickens is worth remembering. The author is stripped of the credit for having an imagination at all and his works are stripped of the very thing that made them memorable in the first place.
With Shakespeare, the “alternative” arguments usually take the form of wondering how a lower-middle-class small-town provincial guy, who never went to university, could possibly have written Hamlet and King Lear and the like. With naively snobbish assumptions, there then follows a hunt for more respectable candidates – usually aristocratic and university-educated. Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Southampton, Christopher Marlowe, Henry Neville and others. Like teenagers who confuse movie stars with the roles they play, “alternative authorship” advocates want the playwright Shakespeare to be one of his own noble characters (though oddly enough they never want him to be Shylock, Nick Bottom, Falstaff or Richard III).
Shapiro, who teaches at New York’s Columbia University, is scrupulously fair as he deals with the alternative theorists. He does not go for cheap shots and he treats their major writings with as much respect as he can. In Contested Will there is none of the wildly abusive language you find from all sides on the internet whenever you look up sites on the supposed “Shakespeare authorship problem”.Share
Yet there must have been times when Shapiro’s courtesy was near to breaking point. To read his account of 19th century attempts to “prove” Francis Bacon’s authorship of the plays by complex and fabricated ciphers and codes is to enter the world of irredeemable crackpottery. To read J. T. Looney’s rationale for believing Oxford wrote the plays is to discover a man whose snobbery approached fanaticism. (Read more.)