Monday, July 11, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“CONTESTED WILL – Who Wrote Shakespeare?” by James Shapiro (first published 2010)
I am not naturally a cynical person and I really do delight in books that are both readable and right-headed. For this reason, averting my gaze from the dross I often have to read, I was delighted, six years ago, to be sent a copy of Professor James Shapiro’s Contested Will – Who Wrote Shakespeare? This was in the days, now apparently gone, when some newspapers gave reasonably generous space for book reviews. My review appeared in the Sunday Star-Times on 25 April 2010, and I reproduce it below, without alteration, as it appeared in the press.
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Imagine you really like a writer who shows knowledge of a wide variety of trades and occupations, gives plots that involve much foreign travel and many adventurous actions, shows a broad and sympathetic understanding of the way people feel and think, is acquainted with some foreign languages and knows how law courts, the army, politics, medicine and royalty work. You might be inclined to think that a writer who knows and understands so much must have experienced so much and lived a fairly adventurous life.
So what if you discover that the author in question lived a fairly humdrum sort of existence? You’ll feel a little disappointed, won’t you? In fact you might even be inclined to say that this author couldn’t possibly have written these various and brilliant works.
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”.
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.
Shapiro’s coup de grace is his brilliant final chapter in which he marshals all the good documentary evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship. Among other things, he shows that there is a wealth of solid contemporary references to Shakespeare as playwright. There is no such documentary evidence whatsoever for any of the proposed alternatives.
All alternative advocacy depends on a subjective (and very selective) reading of the plays and a good deal of fantasising. It makes no difference that at various times the likes of Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James and Derek Jacobi have approved “alternative” theories. Luminaries though they may be, none of these people was, or is, an expert on Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. None (with the exception of Jacobi, who should know better) had access to the modern scholarship, which shows the real conditions in which Shakespeare learned, worked and sometimes collaborated with other playwrights. The working life that is revealed by genuine textual analysis is a far cry from the notion of some aristocrat popping in to the Globe occasionally to drop off a play for Will Shakespeare to pass off as his own.
It is noteworthy that there is hardly one professional Shakespeare scholar who takes alternative authorship theories seriously. But then, with their love of conspiracy theories, the alternative advocates say this merely proves there is an academic conspiracy against them.
Shapiro makes another powerful point – just as much nonsense has been written about Shakespeare by alternative theorists, so has much nonsense been written by people who believe Shakespeare wrote his own plays. Remember, for example, that the Stratford-on-Avon tourist industry lives by taking people around places that have no proven connection with Shakespeare at all (the so-called Anne Hathaway’s cottage, Shakespeare’s Birthplace etc. etc.). We probably wouldn’t have had this whole argument over authorship if “Bardolators” in the 18th and 19th centuries hadn’t built up the image of Shakespeare as such a superhuman titan that virtually no human being could live up to him – let alone the real Shakespeare. But none of this alters the fact that real scholarship and real documentary evidence prove Shakespeare as the author.
I found myself reading this book from cover to cover over a couple of days. In fact I found it fairly un-put-downable.
I can’t finish without a distinctively New Zealand note.
Five years ago I reviewed a singularly silly book by Brenda James called The Truth Will Out, which argued, with the usual suspect reasoning, that Henry Neville wrote Shakespeare’s plays. I gave it the flick with some of the same arguments I’ve used here.
But for a couple of weeks the letters column was hot with people taking me to task for not mentioning the University of Auckland’s own Professor Emeritus MacDonald Jackson, who has done as much as anyone to prove how Shakespeare worked in the theatre company of which he was part.
So I’m delighted to report that when he comes to listing reliable modern scholars on Shakespeare’s texts, James Shapiro places Mac Jackson’s name at the top of his list.
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Update and for the record: Having given you, unaltered, the original review, I have to make some clarifying remarks. As you will see from the postings From Bard to Worse and Conspiracy Theories Yet Again, I have dealt before on this blog with conspiracy theories concerning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. When I posted From Bard to Worse, I allowed myself to be lured into a not-very-illuminating discussion with one conspiracy theorist, which you can see in the “Comments” section under that posting.
I refer (in the above review) to my review of Brenda James’ remarkably silly book The Truth Will Out. That review appeared in the NZ Listener on the 26 November 2005. It was part of an article on three books about Shakespeare, the other two being Clare Asquith’s plausible, but unfortunately overstated, Shadowplay, which argued that Shakespeare was a Catholic; and Peter Ackroyd’s pompously-titled Shakespeare: The Biography, which is no better nor worse than all the many other biographies of Shakespeare that have appeared in recent years.
Further details: Before he wrote Contested Will, James Shapiro had also written 1599, examining closely one year in Shakespeare’s working life. More recently he produced 1601:William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear which I reviewed (positively) for the NZ Listener 23 January 2016. I have some misgivings about the latter book, not because I fault Shapiro’s historical and literary research, but because it could lead some readers to think that the historical situation in which Shakespeare wrote his plays encapsulates the main meanings of the plays. Incidentally, conspiracy theories about the “real” authorship of the plays still thrive in their rabid way on the internet and some conspiracy theorists claim to have “trashed” Shapiro’s reasoning in Contested Will – but all this means is that they have thrown some abuse his way without plausibly refuting anything he has written.