James Shapiro: Contested Will

Cover of Contested WillThere is nothing in the writings of Shakespeare that does not argue the long and early training of the schoolman, the traveller, 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 these qualities.

“James Corton Cowell (1805)”

James Shapiro is a Shakespeare scholar and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Contested Will is his fourth book about William Shakespeare.

This one is about the “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” conspiracy theory. Shapiro deals mainly with two of the most prominent alternative candidates, Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. He follows the evolution of “Baconian” and “Oxfordian” thinking on this topic. The story involves some pretty famous people: Mark Twain was a Baconian; Sigmund Freud an Oxfordian.

Anonymous film posterHe tells the story well, making considerable effort to put himself in the shoes of the original Baconians and Oxfordians, mindful of the level of historical evidence that was available to them at the time they were thinking and writing about the topic. The whole is leavened with a touch of dry wit. Unfortunately, the book was published too early (2010) to have caught the apotheosis of Oxfordian thinking—a Holywood movie, Anonymous, which was released in 2011. But Shapiro expressed his view on that in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. In a subsequent Huffington Post interview the film’s director, Roland Emmerich, accused Shapiro of “just outright lying” about the level of evidence that supports Shakespeare’s authorship (and undermines the claims for Oxford). Maybe he hadn’t read this book, which sets out the case in detail.

Why do people feel they need to go looking for alternative authorship for Shakespeare’s plays and poetry? The quotation at the head of this post pretty much says it all. Shakespeare’s life is poorly documented, and what is available is often rather dull and petty—bills and court cases. There’s no hint there of the man who produced the works of epic imagination that have come down to us.

I have scare quotes around the name and date of James Corton Cowell for a very good reason—he didn’t exist. The University of London’s Senate House Library contains the text of two lectures allegedly delivered by Cowell to the Ipswich Philosophic Society in 1805, setting out the Baconian case for the first time. Unfortunately, as Shapiro shows, these documents are a hoax, referring to details of Shakespeare’s life that came to light only decades after the lectures were supposedly delivered. But, hoax or not, the words attributed to Cowell set out the “Shakespeare authorship problem” very succinctly.

Shapiro points out the logical errors from which this supposed “problem” has been concocted.

1. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

For instance, the fact we don’t have documentary evidence that Shakespeare attended school doesn’t mean he never attended school—Shapiro points out that we have no evidence of anyone attending school in Stratford at that time, although we do have evidence that several of Shakespeare’s contemporaries in the town went on to university. Presumably they had some schooling before that!

The fact we don’t have any documentation of the books Shakespeare owned doesn’t mean he owned no books. (How many of us alive today could seriously expect to leave a list of our books that could be retrieved four centuries from now?)

2. You don’t need to experience something to write about it

There is a perception today, born out of the demands of readers and the teachings of creative writing classes, that authors should put their personal experiences into their writing. Many people have read Shakespeare with the expectation that his writings say something about him—that the sonnets reveal deep details of his emotional life, and that the plays draw on a wealth of experience of travel. But sometimes authors just do some research and then make stuff up. Shapiro reports that there is very little evidence of any author inserting autobiographical information into their text in the Elizabethan age, and no evidence that readers or audiences expected such stuff.

And anyone who insists that Shakespeare had to have experience of everything he wrote about should deduce that he was a noble, love-lorn, teenage, vicious, scheming, murdering, fat, drunken, woodland sprite, among other things. So any attempt to reconstruct the man from the writing is selective, and the writings are so copious that everyone gets to choose the bits that fit their personal theory best.

3. It’s difficult to fit another author into the historical constraints

We know, for instance, that Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw no inconsistency between the man they socialized and worked with, and the works he claimed as his own. We can see how Shakespeare’s plays were carefully tuned to the buildings in which they were to be performed, and the actors who were to perform them. And we can watch Shakespeare’s style evolve during the course of his career. These are significant problems for anyone who wants to finger Edward de Vere as the author of the plays, for instance, since de Vere died before many of the plays were first performed. Quite a remarkable conspiracy is required if de Vere is to have produced a stock-pile of plays that fit comfortably into the detail of Shakespeare’s later life.

Shapiro lays all this out in detail. Of course, none of it proves that Shakespeare wrote the poetry and plays attributed to him; but then, the burden of proof rests with those who claim he didn’t.

And, on the matter of burden of proof, one of the most remarkable things recorded in this book is that the authorship question has actually been debated in front of judges on more than one occasion. Shouldn’t judges be out, you know, listening to real legal stuff?

In 1987, three US Supreme Court judges heard opposing arguments from Stratfordians (for Shakespeare) and Oxfordians (for de Vere)  in a moot court before a thousand spectators. And one of the first things the Oxfordians were told was that the burden of proof rested with them. There was a unanimous verdict in favour if Shakespeare.

In 1988, three senior judges of appeal in the UK were persuaded to hold another moot court examining the same question, in front of an audience of five hundred. There was another unanimous verdict for Shakespeare.

That about wrapped it up for the Oxfordians’ enthusiasm for (mock) legal recourse. However, in 2014 another authorship trial was staged, this time in Canada, at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. One Supreme Court and two Appeal Court judges gave their time. It was a light-hearted affair, and the lawyer representing Edward de Vere contented himself with trying to cast doubt on Shakespeare’s authorship, rather than advancing specific arguments for de Vere. It was broadcast by CBC Radio, and the recording is still available on-line from CBC. If you have 54 spare minutes and want to hear some of the pro and con arguments rehearsed (along with a few good jokes), you might want to give it a listen.

2 thoughts on “James Shapiro: Contested Will”

  1. Yes, it’s an interesting old debate. I like the CBC program “Ideas”. Always worth a listen. Great when driving home from Halifax or puttering around in the evening, as it comes on at 9pm weeknights.

    1. It’s also interesting how much hoax material has been produced, on both sides, over the years – some for commerical gain (selling fake manuscripts and signatures, for instance), but some, like the “James Corton Cowell” material, seems to be just an effort to create a sense of legitimacy for an existing claim.

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