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For nearly two centuries, the authorship of William Shakespeare's plays has been challenged by writers and artists as diverse as Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Henry James, Helen Keller, Orson Welles, Malcolm X, and Sir Derek Jacobi. How could a young man from rural Warwickshire, lacking a university education, write some of the greatest works in the English language? How do we explain the seemingly unbridgeable gap between Shakespeare's life and works?
Contested Will unravels the mystery of Shakespeare's authorship, retracing why and when doubts first arose, what's at stake in the controversy for how we value Shakespeare's achievement, and why, in the end, there can be no doubt about who wrote the plays.
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James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University and the award-winning author of several books, including 1599 and Contested Will. He serves on the Board of Governors of the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Board of Directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company. James lives in New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
This is a book about when and why many people began to question whether William Shakespeare wrote the plays long attributed to him, and, if he didn’t write them, who did.
There’s surprising consensus on the part of both skeptics and defenders of Shakespeare’s authorship about when the controversy first took root. Whether you get your facts from the Dictionary of National Biography or Wikipedia, the earliest documented claim dates back to 1785, when James Wilmot, an Oxford-trained scholar who lived a few miles outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, began searching locally for Shakespeare’s books, papers, or any indication that he had been an author—and came up empty-handed. Wilmot gradually came to the conclusion that someone else, most likely Sir Francis Bacon, had written the plays. Wilmot never published what he learned and near the end of his life burned all his papers. But before he died he spoke with a fellow researcher, a Quaker from Ipswich named James Corton Cowell, who later shared these findings with members of the Ipswich Philosophic Society.
Cowell did so in a pair of lectures delivered in 1805 that survive in a manuscript now located in the University of London’s Senate House Library, in which he confesses to being “a renegade” to the Shakespearean “faith.” Cowell was converted by Wilmot’s argument that “there is nothing in the writings of Shakespeare that does not argue the long and early training of the schoolman, the traveler, and the associate of the great and learned. Yet there is nothing in the known life of Shakespeare that shows he had any one of the qualities.” Wilmot is credited with being the first to argue, as far back as the late eighteenth century, for an unbridgeable rift between the facts of Shakespeare’s life and what the plays and poems reveal about their author’s education and experience. But both Wilmot and Cowell were ahead of their time, for close to a half-century passed before the controversy resurfaced in any serious or sustained way.
Since 1850 or so, thousands of books and articles have been published urging that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays. At first, bibliographers tried to keep count of all the works inspired by the controversy. By 1884 the list ran to 255 items; by 1949, it had swelled to over 4,500. Nobody bothered trying to keep a running tally after that, and in an age of blogs, websites, and online forums it’s impossible to do justice to how much intellectual energy has been—and continues to be—devoted to the subject. Over time, and for all sorts of reasons, leading artists and intellectuals from all walks of life joined the ranks of the skeptics. I can think of little else that unites Henry James and Malcolm X, Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller and Orson Welles, or Mark Twain and Sir Derek Jacobi.
It’s not easy keeping track of all the candidates promoted as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. The leading contenders nowadays are Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford) and Sir Francis Bacon. Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, the Earl of Derby, and the Earl of Rutland have attracted fewer though no less ardent supporters. And more than fifty others have been proposed as well—working alone or collaboratively—including Sir Walter Ralegh, John Donne, Anne Whateley, Robert Cecil, John Florio, Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Southampton, Queen Elizabeth, and King James. A complete list is pointless, for it would soon be outdated. During the time I’ve been working on this book, four more names have been put forward: the poet and courtier Fulke Greville, the Irish rebel William Nugent, the poet Aemelia Lanier (of Jewish descent and thought by some to be the unnamed Dark Lady of the Sonnets), and the Elizabethan diplomat Henry Neville. New candidates will almost surely be proposed in years to come. While the chapters that follow focus on Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford—whose candidacies are the best documented and most consequential—it’s not because I believe that their claims are necessarily stronger than any of these others. An exhaustive account of all the candidates, including those already advanced and those waiting in the wings, would be both tedious and futile, and for reasons that will soon become clear, Bacon and Oxford can be taken as representative.
Much of what has been written about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays follows the contours of a detective story, which is not all that surprising, since the authorship question and the “whodunit” emerged at the same historical moment. Like all good detective fiction, the Shakespeare mystery can be solved only by determining what evidence is credible, retracing steps, and avoiding false leads. My own account in the pages that follow is no different. I’ve spent the past twenty-five years researching and teaching Shakespeare’s works at Columbia University. For some, that automatically disqualifies me from writing fairly about the controversy on the grounds that my professional investments are so great that I cannot be objective. There are a few who have gone so far as to hint at a conspiracy at work among Shakespeare professors and institutions, with scholars paid off to suppress information that would undermine Shakespeare’s claim. If so, somebody forgot to put my name on the list.
My graduate school experience taught me to be skeptical of unexamined historical claims, even ones that other Shakespeareans took on faith. I had wanted to write my doctoral dissertation on “Shakespeare and the Jews” but was told that since there were no Jews in Shakespeare’s England there were no Jewish questions, and I should turn my attention elsewhere. I reluctantly did so, but years later, after a good deal of research, I learned that both claims were false: there was in fact a small community of Jews living in Elizabethan London, and many leading English writers at that time wrestled in their work with questions of Jewish difference (in an effort to better grasp what constituted English identity). That experience, and the book that grew out of it, taught me the value of revisiting truths universally acknowledged.
There yet remains one subject walled off from serious study by Shakespeare scholars: the authorship question. More than one fellow Shakespearean was disheartened to learn that I was committing my energies to it, 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 professors 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—with the notable exceptions of Samuel Schoenbaum, Jonathan Bate, Marjorie Garber, Gary Taylor, Stanley Wells, and Alan Nelson—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.
This was forcefully brought home not long ago when I met with a group of nine-year-olds at a local elementary school to talk about Shakespeare’s poetry. When toward the end of the class I invited questions, a quiet boy on my left raised his hand and said: “My brother told me that Shakespeare really didn’t write Romeo and Juliet. Is that true?” It was the kind of question I was used to hearing from undergraduates on the first day of a Shakespeare course or from audience members at popular lectures, but I hadn’t expected that doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship had filtered down to the fourth grade.
Not long after, at the Bank Street Bookstore, the best children’s bookstore in New York City, I ran into a colleague from the history department buying a stack of books for her twelve-year-old daughter. On the top of her pile was a young adult paperback by Elise Broach, Shakespeare’s Secret, which I learned from those who worked at the store was a popular title. I bought a copy. It’s a fascinating and fast-paced detective story about a diamond necklace that once belonged to Queen Elizabeth. The mystery of the necklace is worked out only when another mystery, concerning who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, is solved.
The father of the story’s young heroine is a Shakespeare scholar at the “Maxwell Elizabethan Documents Collection in Washington, D.C.” (whose “vaulted ceilings” and “long, shining wood tables” bear a striking resemblance to those of the Folger Shakespeare Library). He tells his curious daughter that there’s “no proof, of course, but there are some intriguing clues” that “Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford” was “the man who might be Shakespeare.” When she asks him why people think Oxford might have written the plays, he explains that Oxford had “the perfect background, really. He was clever, well educated, well traveled,” and “events of his life bear a fascinating resemblance to events in Shakespeare’s plays.” He adds that “most academics still favor Shakespeare,” though “over the years, Oxford has emerged as a real possibility.” But it doesn’t take her long to suspect that Shakespeare wasn’t the author after all; by page 45, after learning that Shakespeare “couldn’t even spell his own name,” she decides: “Okay, so maybe he didn’t write the plays.”
An unusual twist to the story is the suggestion that Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Oxford had a clandestine relationship, which explains why Oxford couldn’t claim credit for writing the plays falsely attributed to S...
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