The Playwright from Stratford

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.

Back-story for the Dusty Bookshelf challenge:

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:

Other reviews:
Vulpes Libris
Steep Stairs Review
California Literary Review
Any others I should link to?

About cherylmahoney

I'm a book review blogger and Fantasy writer. I have published three novels, The Wanderers; The Storyteller and Her Sisters; and The People the Fairies Forget. All can be found on Amazon as an ebook and paperback. In my day job, I'm the Marketing Specialist for Yolo Hospice. Find me on Twitter (@MarvelousTales) and GoodReads (MarvelousTales).
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6 Responses to The Playwright from Stratford

  1. ChrisB says:

    I don’t think the Stratford man wrote the plays, describing why would take a large number of twitter sized textlets. But here’s a few unanswered questions

    His parents, siblings and children were illiterate. Take a proper look at Shakspere 6 surviving signatures. Are you sure S could write? How could the greatest write in Eng have a completely illiterate family?

    To get into Stratford school he would have to be able to read & write (*before*) he went. Who taught him? (Unfortunately being a genius is not enough to learn to R&W) Also his father would have to had paid for him to attend. Why would he do that when he could use the young S to generate money for the family?

    Why did S give up writing, come back to Stratford and then lend money and hoard grain? Is this the soul of the age or a business man?

    When Shakspere died he was a millionaire in modern terms. How did he accrue so much money whilst writing his works? (and whilst reading the all of books he read as their sources (in Latin, Greek, French & Italian BTW))

    How did he gain such detailed knowledge about Italy?

    Shapiros doesn’t answer these points, and someone should. FYI I would (respectfully) direct you to AJ Pointons book


    • Thanks for coming by the blog, and you raise very interesting points! I’m going to have to respectfully hold to my opinion, though.

      The idea that Shakespeare’s family was illiterate is new to me–I’d be curious regarding the evidence for that. As to the grammar school, Shakespeare’s father was bailiff, which would have entitled his son to a free education in the local school.

      I absolutely believe Shakespeare was a business man. I don’t think there’s anything mutually exclusive in being a great artist AND wanting to make money. I don’t know how much money he made directly off of his plays, but he was a part-owner in his theatre company, which was immensely successful during his lifetime and I would surmise accounted for a great deal of his wealth.

      Most of Shakespeare’s plays seem to come from a limited number of sources, and I’ve never been convinced he spoke multiple languages. He was in London, and if he needed a bit of help here and there to put some basic French, for example, into his plays, there’s no reason he couldn’t find someone who spoke French. And he actually has geographical errors about Italy–but again, whatever knowledge he does demonstrate could be gleaned in a cosmopolitan place like the London of his day.

      I will, however, keep in mind AJ Pointons, and thank you for the suggestion!

      • ChrisB says:

        Thanks for the reply!

        Hmm, the comments about illiteracy are fairly well known I thought – just typically not mentioned in S bios (its kind of awkward) Of his daughters: Judith could only make a sort of swirly mark; Susannah could rather scrawl her name but could not read – she admitted this to someone who came to view her husband’s papers. Google has pictures (of the former). (Judiths signature is almost a work of art :))

        Of course S’s own signatures are just plain scary. (Did a spider write that? No? The greatest literary genius in English did? You’re kidding!)

        I guess some of the other points are what I’ve read, and they may or may not be accurate. Unfortunately, the arguments on both sides are being delivered as a politician might – eg with plenty of misinformation and quoting out of context.

        I actually try and read both sides, I read Shapiros book and was impressed by some of it, but he just doesn’t satisfactorily answer the big ticket issues for me…

        Regards Chris

  2. Justin says:

    Oh, and Jesus and Mohammed did not study theology either. But then again they both had an omniscient private tutor, which is an advantage. I am looking forward to reading this book, which I heard about on Elaine Charles’ radio show called The Book Report. You can listen to the archived shows on

    I do not believe in conspiracies because I think that humans are just not competent enough to carry them out. No, I am sure that it was Will all along.

  3. dianem57 says:

    I think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, too. I particularly like your line, “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.” Everyone needs some training in their field, of course, but there’s a clear line between competency and genius. Shakespeare was clearly a genius.

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