I recently tackled my first Nonfiction book of the year for the Non-fiction Non-memoir Challenge, and it conveniently addressed my Dusty Bookshelf challenge too. The book: Contested Will by James Shapiro. Clever little pun there, as it’s a book about the Shakespeare authorship question.
How long has it been on my shelf? Since Christmas, 2010, so a little over a year. Erm. I am SLOW about getting to nonfiction.
I almost never buy unread books, so how did I get it? As noted, Christmas. It was a gift.
Now that I’ve read it, am I keeping it? Probably for the moment, though it could go in some future, panicked, “I have no shelf space” purge.
Considering the subject of the book, I should probably start by discussing biases. I’m a Stratfordian, meaning I think the man from Stratford wrote the plays–that is, I think Shakespeare really was Shakespeare. Shapiro is a Stratfordian too, which may be one reason I liked his book; it doesn’t hurt when you agree with a conclusion. But that wasn’t the only reason. It was a very engaging, scholarly but entertaining look at the history of the authorship question, and of cultural attitudes towards Shakespeare, his plays, and writing on a broader level.
Shapiro takes us through the history of the authorship controversy, starting with early impressions of Shakespeare and how the authorship question first arose. He looks in-depth at two chief contenders for the role of secret author, Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford. He then concludes with a section on the evidence for Shakespeare really being Shakespeare.
It’s a scholarly book that isn’t at all dry. Shapiro examines the people who were involved in pushing opinion one way or another. Many are recognizable names, like Mark Twain (a Baconite) and Sigmund Freud (an Oxfordian). Many proposed extraordinarily entertaining theories. The Baconites wanted to read codes and ciphers hidden in the plays, and came up with things that make The Da Vinci Code look simple and rational by comparison. The Oxfordians tend to push for vast conspiracies hiding the true identity of the playwright.
For myself, I’ve always been a Stratfordian because the arguments against the man from Stratford seemed so flimsy, and Shapiro has reinforced that feeling. There seem to be three chief arguments, and they’re all frequently examined throughout Contested Will.
1) Shakespeare didn’t have enough education – This discounts the very solid grammar school in Stratford at the time, which had a curriculum more like a university philosophy degree than the grammar schools we think of. It also discounts the possibility of self-education, and, most importantly, the capability of genius. To say that Shakespeare couldn’t write his plays because he didn’t go to university is to say that Abraham Lincoln couldn’t write the Gettysburg Address and Mozart couldn’t have begun composing at four years old.
2) Shakespeare didn’t have the right life experience – Shapiro discusses extensively how people first started viewing Shakespeare’s writing as autobiographical. This was fascinating, exploring the different cultural expectations over the centuries and the amazing amount of fiction people come up with about what Shakespeare “must” have known/felt/thought/lived. In Shakespeare’s day, autobiographies were virtually unheard of, and the expectation was not that playwrights were drawing on their own life experiences. As to the supposed extensive knowledge Shakespeare would have needed, of court life, falconry, geography, foreign languages and so on, I might concede this point if anyone claimed he had lived in Stratford all his life. But he didn’t–he lived in London, the metropolis of his day. If he didn’t speak French, he could find a Frenchman to help him out. He could learn what he needed to, and let’s not forget he wasn’t perfect: he did have sailors land on the shore of Bohemia, a land-locked country.
3) There aren’t records of Shakespeare as a playwright – There are actually frequent contemporary references to Shakespeare as actor and playwright, which Shapiro highlights at length in the last section of the book. We don’t have Shakespeare’s papers and manuscripts, but apparently no one went looking for them until the 1800s. Shakespeare died in 1616 – by the time scholars were trying to find his papers, all the witnesses were long since dead, and even his direct family line had died out.
Shapiro paints a fascinating picture of scholarship over the centuries, showing how cultural understandings of different times changed the views on Shakespeare. A couple of trends emerge. One is a tendency to deify Shakespeare, to make him and his plays impossibly insightful and profound. They are insightful and profound. But 400 years of scholarship and analysis endows them with so much insight that of course people question whether a glover’s son from Stratford could possibly be that brilliant. No one could be that brilliant, if he had really intended even half of what people have read into the plays. (And the frequent attack on him as a glover’s son smacks of classism too.)
The second trend that keeps showing up is the desire of scholars to make Shakespeare look like themselves. I’ve noticed this before. I had a college professor (female) who was convinced that Shakespeare was a woman. Not Queen Elizabeth–some unidentified, well-educated, multi-lingual, upper-class woman (because there were a LOT of those in Elizabethan England…) The tendancy seems to be for scholars to project how they want Shakespeare to be, and then go look for someone who fits the part.
I’m sure this book is much better if you already have a solid knowledge of Shakespeare. It’s in-depth, and Shapiro goes for the details more than the broad strokes. But if you like the details, the last section of the book is great fun, when he gets into the evidence for Shakespeare writing Shakespeare. It’s almost a collection of anecdotes about Shakespeare’s life in London, the players he worked with, the other writers he knew…I really enjoyed the glimpses of Shakespeare’s life.
So in the end, I ended up more firmly convinced in my stance as a Stratfordian. For one thing, the theories of the other groups seem so poor (and often funny), it bolsters the man from Stratford’s claim. For a second thing, I like the man from Stratford. I like the glover’s son who went to the big city, became an actor and a playwright and rose to fame, who wrote great art but also wrote according to the constraints of actually putting the plays on, who responded to the muse but also intended to make some money. But then, I’m a mix of artist and pragmatist in my writing–so maybe I’m projecting onto Mr. Shakespeare too!
Author’s Site: http://www.jamesshapiro.net/