We know more about the life of William Shakespeare than is commonly supposed—more than we do about any other playwright of his time apart from Ben Jonson. That doesn’t mean there is not a great deal we don’t know. The record, dating back to the last years of the 16th century and the first years of the 17th, is full of blanks and uncertainties. And undercutting everything else, there is the Big Question: did he write the plays and poems that have been attributed to him?

Such, at any rate, is what millions of people have been encouraged to think of as the Big Question. But in reality, it is no question at all. The most that can be said is that, like other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, Shakespeare sometimes collaborated with colleagues. But the idea that William Shakespeare was not the man who wrote the works of Shakespeare flies in the face of both evidence and common sense. It is not even an interesting theory, but rather quite simply a delusion.

Reputable Shakespeare scholars—the “Stratfordians,” to use the terminology of their opponents—have been understandably reluctant to involve themselves in the authorship controversy. Occasionally they have delivered a detailed refutation of an anti-Stratfordian argument, and sometimes they have let fly an irritable riposte. For the most part, however, they have maintained an eloquent silence. But it has not much mattered what they have done, because the campaign against “the Stratford cult” has gone marching on.

Over the past 150 years, hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been published asserting that Shakespeare was an impostor, and at least 70 alternative candidates have been put forward as the real author of his works (or the real authors, since they are often depicted as working in groups).

The history of the controversy has given rise, in turn, to a substantial literature of its own. There are at least half a dozen extended surveys and numerous shorter discussions. Much of this work is of high quality, and anyone familiar with it might be forgiven for wondering whether we need another full-length book on the subject.

But James S. Shapiro’s Contested Will (Simon & Schuster, 384 pages) quickly dispels any such doubts. Not only does it display the same broad and humane scholarship that can be found in Shapiro’s previous books, notably A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. It also brings the story up-to-date (a virtue that counts for more on this occasion than is initially apparent). And most striking of all, Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia, is primarily interested in motives and mentalities—not so much in what the anti-Stratfordians think (which has already been widely chronicled) as in why they think it.

For practical purposes the authorship controversy can be said to have originated with Delia Bacon, an American who was born in a log cabin in Ohio in 1811 and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, where she attended a school run by a sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Delia was the first person to claim in print—in an article published in New York in 1856—that Shakespeare’s plays were written, in large part at least, by her namesake Francis Bacon. She moved to England and set out her ideas in a bulky book, published in 1857. After an abortive attempt to dig up Shakespeare’s grave, she suffered a complete breakdown; she was committed to a mental hospital and died in 1859.

But even as the waves were closing over her, she was becoming a famous woman. Hardly anyone read her book, but her message spread rapidly, publicized by the press in many different countries. The time was ripe for it. Delia Bacon had had a number of shadowy precursors, as well as contemporaries, who were thinking along the same lines. By the middle years of the 19th century, the idea that Shakespeare might not have written Shakespeare was undoubtedly floating around.

It was partly, as Shapiro argues, a product of the clash between two different ways of looking at Shakespeare. While the poet was increasingly regarded as a demigod—and even more so after the rise of the Romantics, with their messianic view of the value and importance of poetry itself—the biographical facts of Shakespeare’s life that were being brought to light by researchers seemed meager and mundane. Where, in the humdrum life lived from 1564 to 1616, could scholars and critics locate the source of all that greatness? To decide that the plays and poems must have been written by someone else, someone more obviously extraordinary, was one way of resolving the discrepancy.

Still, it was a pretty desperate expedient. Another factor must have been at work in making the idea of hidden authorship acceptable, and Shapiro finds it in the growth of the so-called Higher Criticism—the application of historical methods to the study of biblical texts that paved the way for the German scholar David Friedrich Strauss’s demystification of the gospels in The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (1835). “The shock waves of Strauss’s work,” Shapiro writes, “soon threatened the lesser deity Shakespeare, for his biography too rested precariously on the unstable foundation of posthumous reports and more than a fair share of myths.”

One example of the influence of the Higher Criticism appears in a curious volume entitled Historic Doubts Respecting Shakespeare by a young Lutheran pastor named Samuel Mosheim Schmucker. It was first published in Philadelphia in 1848, a full eight years before Delia Bacon’s initial manifesto, and in it Schmucker outlined what were to become the standard objections to Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays. Only there was a catch. Schmucker’s argument was not meant to be taken seriously.

In fact, his book (originally entitled The Errors of Modern Infidelity) was a satire on David Friedrich Strauss, and the bold new line about Shakespeare was designed to ridicule the methods of the Higher Criticism by showing how they could be used to prove something self-evidently absurd.

Religious skepticism provided Shakespearean unbelievers with an important precedent, but how far it directly influenced them is another matter. Delia Bacon was the daughter of a Congregationalist minister. She suffered bruising emotional experiences at the hands of a candidate for the ministry with whom she had been in love. She was left bitterly disappointed with her church, which had failed to support her at the tribunal that had looked into the affair, and became convinced that she had a mission to expose error on a grand scale. Her initial essay on Shakespeare, Shapiro tells us, was “suffused with the language of the debates over the Higher Criticism and the life of Jesus.” But he also concedes that she made no attempt to emulate the scholarly techniques of the Higher Critics: “She was content to insist, rather than demonstrate.”

There is even less evidence of a debt to biblical scholarship—in fact, none at all—in the two Shakespeare heretics of the generation succeeding Delia Bacon’s whom Shapiro goes on to consider in detail: Mark Twain and Henry James. Twain’s involvement in the authorship controversy makes a good story. It was already exercising him when he was an apprentice pilot on the Mississippi just before the outbreak of the Civil War, arguing the case for Bacon with his instructor. He was still worrying away at it 50 years later in his last book, Is Shakespeare Dead? But running through the twists and turns, Shapiro discerns a steady theme—Twain’s conviction that great fiction is necessarily autobiographical, and that nothing we know about the historical Shakespeare suggests that he had the breadth or depth of experience on which the works draw. “To write with powerful effect,” Twain observed, “a man must write out the life he had led—as did Bacon when he wrote Shakespeare.” Except that he was not really sure that it was Bacon who had done the writing, and did not greatly care, either. The important thing is that it was not Shakespeare.

On this point, at least, Twain was close to Henry James. James was the more cautious of the two, and he may not have had any alternative candidates to suggest, but the idea that the deplorable Man from Stratford had written the plays seemed to him out of the question. And though he preferred to keep his view of the matter to himself in public, he had no such inhibitions in private. “I am ‘a sort of’ haunted,” he wrote to a friend, “that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”

Twain and James were not only major literary figures; they were major American literary figures. And the position they occupy in Shapiro’s book—unmatched by that of any non-American equivalent—is a reminder that from Delia Bacon onward, Americans have played a large, perhaps disproportionate role in the anti-Stratfordian movement. There have naturally been many Englishmen involved as well, along with writers from places as far apart as Budapest and Buenos Aires, Italy and India, Poland and Australia. But Americans have predominated.

They have been especially active in the field of cryptography and code-breaking. The most celebrated Baconian in the later 19th century was Ignatius Donnelly, three-term congressman, expert on Atlantis, and author of a 1,000-page study of hidden Baconian ciphers in Shakespeare entitled The Great Cryptogram (1888). Donnelly’s successors “refined” his methods, which has meant pursuing them to fantastic lengths. Other American enthusiasts took up the cause of fresh claimants or searched for buried relics they believed would clinch their case.

Is there anything specifically American about all this? For the most part, only in the sense that it was a game into which Americans entered with particular zest.

The one American Baconian with a larger historical vision seems to have been Delia Bacon herself. Strictly speaking, she was not a pure Baconian but rather what later became known as a “groupist,” convinced that the plays were the collective work of a secret band of aristocrats and thinkers. “A new Round Table,” she called the group, with Francis Bacon in charge of ideas and Sir Walter Raleigh superintending the poetry. It might be said that they stood for the spirit of enlightenment in general. But their primary aim, in Delia Bacon’s view, was political. They were republicans, ardently opposed to the despotism (as Delia Bacon saw it) of the Elizabethan and Jacobean monarchy. The plays were designed as covert propaganda for their cause.

This effort to discern a proto-American philosophy in Shakespeare’s work helps explain, for Shapiro, why as cool-eyed an observer as Ralph Waldo Emerson displayed unusual respect for Delia, even though he never accepted her theories. Emerson “understood that implicit in her argument was that Americans, whose culture was so shaped by republican values, were likely to be better readers of Shakespeare than Englishmen,” Shapiro writes.

Shapiro, who displays a surprising sympathy for Delia Bacon, encourages us to think of her work less as pseudo-scholarship than as a daring “what if” fantasy. For if her dream conspiracy had existed, and if it had succeeded, both the English civil war that took place three decades after Shakespeare’s death and the breach between Britain and the American colonies might have been avoided.

These would not have been small consequences, and certainly we are free to admire her boldness. But one must add that her fantasy was wildly unhistorical, left an enormous amount unexplained even on its on terms, and had nothing to do with the actual authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.

In one respect, she offered the best of both worlds. Delia Bacon wrote at a time when Americans frequently deplored the fact that Shakespeare’s outlook had been “feudal”—undemocratic, downright un-American. This was a view voiced with particular energy by Walt Whitman and was so widely held that it helped generate a riot over the 1849 staging of rival productions of Macbeth in New York that resulted in 145 casualties, with 25 dead. By contrast, Delia’s Shakespeare—or Shakespeare syndicate—had been in the vanguard of social progress, and thereby worthy of Americans’ unqualified esteem.

But at the same time, almost all the members who made up Delia’s fantasy group of ghostwriters were blue-blooded, with whatever personal advantages that conferred—as opposed to the real Shakespeare, the provincial son of a glovemaker. The real author of the plays, she wrote, “carries the court perfume with him, unconsciously, wherever he goes.”

Unlike the idea of Shakespeare the proto–republican, which found few takers, the notion of an aristocratic Shakespeare enjoyed lasting success. Among most subsequent Shakespearian schismatics, it was an article of faith that the plays could only have been written by someone far better acquainted with the ways of palaces and mansions than the Man from Stratford could have been. (It was also assumed that he must have been far better educated and more widely traveled.) As long as Francis Bacon—author of The Advancement of Learning and Novum Organumwas the principal rival claimant, the aristocratic bias of the anti-Stratfordian movement was less obvious, since he was so much more than an aristocrat.

But around the beginning of the 20th century, fresh claimants began to press forward, mostly noble lords who were better known for their pedigree than their achievements. The sixth Earl of Derby and the fifth Earl of Rutland both attracted considerable support, but it was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who eventually supplanted Bacon as the most popular contender.

Oxford’s foremost champion was a schoolmaster from the north of England named J. Thomas Looney (pronounced “Loney”—there must surely have been times when he was tempted to change the spelling). Shapiro gives an interesting account of Looney’s early life. Raised as a Methodist, at the age of 26, in 1896, he became a positivist, a disciple of Auguste Comte—or rather, a member of the faction of English positivists dedicated to putting into practice Comte’s scheme for a highly ritualized “religion of Humanity.” At one time he hoped for a career as a positivist priest. When that fell through, he found an outlet in the labors that led to his book “Shakespeare” Identified (identified as the Earl of Oxford), which was published in 1920.

Shapiro handles Looney politely, but little if anything of the Oxfordian theory is left standing by the time he has finished. To take only one objection, Oxford died in 1604, before King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and half a dozen of Shakespeare’s other plays had been staged. Looney’s way around this is to argue that either these plays had already been written and were doled out one by one by Oxford’s executors, or that Oxford had left rough drafts, which were knocked into shape by lesser writers (which explains why they contain references to events that occurred after his death).

And then, compounding implausibility with bizarre judgment, Looney abandons both lines of argument when it comes to The Tempest and says that it cannot be by Oxford (i.e., Shakespeare) at all—it is too mediocre.

That Looney should have made so many converts is testimony to the power of the will to believe. Some Oxfordians have devoted large books to the subject. Some have been men and women of high reputation in other fields. (Performers who rallied to the cause included Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, and Leslie Howard.) And there is at least one famous convert whose enthusiasm continues to embarrass many of his own admirers.

Sigmund Freud was won over after reading “Shakespeare” Identified in 1923. He went public with his views on an appropriately prestigious occasion, upon receiving the Goethe Prize in 1930—and if anything, his commitment only increased over the years.

Freud originally had no trouble fitting the historical Shakespeare into a Freudian schema. In the 1890s he read the recently published biography of Shakespeare by the Danish critic Georg Brandes and was suitably impressed by its contention that Hamlet was the product of an emotional crisis following the death of the playwright’s father. It was a setback when Brandes subsequently announced that the dates did not fit: new documentation showed that Hamlet had been written earlier than he had supposed.

One of the attractions of the Oxfordian theory to Freud, as Shapiro explains, was that it enabled him to reintroduce the idea of the play being written by someone who had previously lost his father (in Oxford’s case, when he was a child). But that hardly seems sufficient reason for Freud swallowing the whole Looney line. We need a deeper explanation, and the critic Norman Holland points to one in his book Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, where he writes that Freud’s feelings toward Shakespeare “were not devoid of filial ambivalence.” The great man is the father we both admire and resent.

Shapiro does not venture into such speculations. Instead, he concentrates on the political anomaly in which Freud found himself involved. For Looney had not abandoned his positivism. He may not have advertised it in “Shakespeare” Identified, but neither did he conceal it; and careful readers of the book would have found it easy to recognise the more ominous aspects of his creed—hostility to democracy and individualism and nostalgia for an authoritarian medieval past. Freud certainly did not share these attitudes, but Shapiro cannot help feeling, with evident justice, that in Looney’s case he was willing to turn a blind eye to them.

The whole question became more urgent in the course of the 1930s. Looney passed the essential test: the Nazis, he wrote, filled him with “disgust and aversion.” But he also showed impatience with the Nazis’ foremost victims. When he sent a letter of welcome to Freud in 1938, after Freud’s arrival as a refugee in London, he could not resist trying to enlist his support in solving the Jewish problem—the problem being, in his view, Jewish distinctiveness, and the only solution being what he called “fusion” with the surrounding population. If only Jews stopped being themselves, everything would be fine.

There is a sense in which Looney was back where he had started. He had first become preoccupied with the authorship question after years of teaching his pupils The Merchant of Venice. It gradually bore in on him, disconcertingly, that the historical Shakespeare was more like Shylock than like Shylock’s intended victim, Antonio. The Man from Stratford had been a tough businessman who lent money, had gone to the law to call in loans, and had returned to Stratford to acquire land and enhance his fortune by hoarding malt (the town’s principal trading commodity). Surely the plays could only have been written by someone as high-minded as Antonio—or the Earl of Oxford. Looney did not live long enough to learn of modern research that revealed Oxford to be a decidedly disagreeable character, both in his financial dealings and his personal affairs, but one wonders whether it would have changed his mind if he had. Social status was the thing. And as Shapiro points out, The Merchant of Venice also offered him a blueprint for his solution to the Jewish problem. Shylock’s daughter Jessica elopes, and Shylock undergoes forced conversion: it is a play that achieves much of its supposedly happy ending—the cruel and dismal part—through “fusion.”

Almost all anti-Stratfordians in the past took a low view of the real Shakespeare. It was not only that their arguments obliged them to dwell on his humble origins and limited education. One would have thought that might have been enough. But again and again they also made him out to be a positively shabby and even sordid character.

Delia Bacon set the tone with her denunciation of him as a stupid and ignorant peasant who had latched on to a “dirty, doggish group of players.” For later schismatics, he was a miser, a huckster, “the Stratford butcher-boy,” and an incorrigible liar. Henry James, in a conversation that Shapiro refrains from quoting, called him “the Stratford lout.” It became commonplace to describe him as drunken and illiterate.

Apart from anything else, this buildup of hatred seems profoundly illogical. For if one were to accept the delusion that Shakespeare was merely the front man for the real author, what would have been wrong about his taking part in the authorship stratagem, since the real author or authors would have planned it that way?

But then this is not a field in which logic is to be looked for. There is no simple answer to the question of why people become anti-Stratfordians, but it seems clear that in many cases the major underlying factor has been a tremendous animus toward Shakespeare. Or a “filial ambivalence,” if you prefer. We may not dispute the value of his plays—but that only makes us all the more determined to take them away from him.

Shapiro is a sober writer. He tries to give the authors with whom he disagrees a fair hearing, and although he has a dry wit, he tends to play down the purely comic aspects of his subject. As a result, his readers may be left with an insufficient grasp of how crazy the whole authorship controversy can be—and often is. He does of course recount a number of weird episodes, such as the conversations through a medium that the president of the principal Oxfordian organization conducted with Shakespeare, Bacon, and the Earl of Oxford in the 1940s. But you will have to go to other literary historians to learn about the Baconians, who argue that along with Shakespeare’s own not inconsiderable works, Bacon also wrote Don Quixote and the essays of Montaigne; or about the study that claims that Shakespeare’s plays were written in her spare moments by Queen Elizabeth I. This last work was praised by Erle Stanley Gardner for its “persuasive logic.” It is enough to make you lose faith in Perry Mason.

In the end, however, Shapiro’s measured approach pays off. It makes his concluding explanation of why he is so confident that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare particularly impressive. This is as good a place to go to if you have been exposed to the arguments for alternative authorship and started wondering whether there is something in them. In the closing pages of the book, Shapiro also makes it admirably clear where he stands on the claim that Shakespeare lacked the “life-experience” to have written the plays. It disheartens him, above all because “it diminishes the very thing that makes Shakespeare so exceptional: his imagination.”

Meanwhile, developments in modern Shakespeare scholarship have made it harder than ever for champions of rival claimants to make out a plausible case. Twenty-five years ago the Oxfordian movement was fading, as the Baconian movement had faded before it. It might well have been assumed that within a generation it would be virtually extinct. But instead it has enjoyed a dramatic resurrection—what Shapiro calls “one of the most remarkable and least remarked episodes in the history of Shakespeare studies.”

Shapiro gives a lively account both of the forms this comeback has taken and of the main forces behind it. First, there was the skill with which Oxfordians took advantage of the “fairness doctrine” in the media. Then came an increased public willingness to credit conspiracy theories. (He has a vintage quotation from Lewis Lapham linking “the standard mythography” on which Shakespeare’s authorship was based with Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, and the CIA.) Finally, there is the new platform for ideas, including half-baked ideas, provided by the Internet.

At the same time he notes the recent proliferation of websites dedicated to Christopher Marlowe and wonders whether Marlowe may not be destined to oust Oxford as the foremost rival claimant. The poet undoubtedly has much to recommend his getting the top spot, but his elevation would also create problems. It would be disturbing, for instance, to think that the same man found it necessary to write both The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta.

One way or another, the authorship controversy seems bound to rumble on. Since it is essentially a nuisance and a distraction, this is not a prospect that lifts the spirits. We can console ourselves with the thought that Shakespeare will at least survive such maltreatment, but it would be a better world if he did not have to face it in the first place.

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