5.18.2011

books on books, part 2: contested will by james shapiro

The second of the three "books on books" on my spring-summer reading list was Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare, by James Shapiro.

Contested Will is not an examination of who wrote Shakespeare's plays and poems, but rather of the Shakespeare authorship controversy itself. Shapiro looks at why, about 230 years after the death of William Shakespeare, a belief arose that he was not, in fact, the author of the plays and poems that bear his name – and why that belief persists to this day, supported by a thriving cottage industry. Contested Will is not so much about what people think – although some of the claims are necessarily woven in – as why they think it.

James Shapiro casts a keen, critical, and always skeptical eye at all claims both for and against Shakespeare's authorship. A Shakespeare scholar, he dislikes that the authorship question has been "walled off from serious study", as he puts it, within the scholarly community. In the excellent introduction – worth reading whether or not you read the whole book – Shapiro writes of an experience in his graduate school days that "taught me the value of revisiting truths universally acknowledged".

Shapiro also believes that the refusal of most Shakespeare scholars to even engage with the authorship question has been a mistake.
I became interested in why this subject remains virtually taboo in academic circles, as well as the consequences of this collective silence. One thing is certain: the decision by professors to all but ignore the authorship question hasn't made it disappear. If anything, more people are drawn to it than ever. And because prominent Shakespeareans [with some exceptions] have all but surrendered the field, general readers curious about the subject typically learn about it through books and websites of those convinced that Shakespeare could never have written the plays.
Although I don't doubt this, I may understand why Shakespeare scholars have preferred to close their eyes and stop up their ears. When one knows something to be true, it can be incredibly frustrating to be forced to defend facts, and to debate people who are heavily invested in fantasy. More power to people who can debate evolution with creationists, or who methodically prove that the Holocaust did indeed occur. I couldn't do it, and perhaps Shakespearean scholars have similar feelings.

The authorship question began in around 1850, about 230 years after William Shakespeare died. By 1884, there were 255 published works on the subject. By 1949, there were 4,500. At this point, Shapiro tells us, a running count would be impossible. It seems whole forests have been downed in attempts to disprove Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Famous adherents have included Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Derek Jacobi, Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud, Malcolm X and Charlie Chaplin.

As the number of works on the subject have multiplied, so has the number of candidates proposed as the true author of the plays and poems. Shapiro writes in the introduction: "A complete list is pointless, as it would soon be outdated. During the time I've been working on this book, four more names have been put forward." He focuses on Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (usually referred to as Oxford), not because he thinks those cases are stronger, but because "they can be taken as representative".

* * * *

Several factors gave rise to the Shakespeare authorship question. It's not a coincidence that the controversy appeared at the same literary moment as the detective novel. Also at that time, "Higher Criticism" biblical studies were rocking received literary wisdom. Philology scholars, painstakingly studying manuscripts, had proven that the Christian Bible was written hundreds of years after the death of Jesus. Similar study had demonstrated that the epics attributed to Homer were the "the products of different hands and different historical moments".

By Victorian times, Shakespeare had been deified nearly to the same degree as the writers of the Gospels, and many skeptics wanted to see a third literary god toppled. But authorship of the Scriptures and Homer had been proven through meticulous and extensive historical analysis. With Shakespeare, Shapiro writes, people were "content to insist, rather than demonstrate, that Shakespeare was as much a myth as Homer or Jesus".

Once set in motion, the authorship question has been fueled by two engines. One is anachronistic thinking – an ignorance of historical context – that projects modern modes of thought onto the past. Despite popular sayings such as "the more things change, the more they stay the same", other eras were radically different from our own. People had different expectations and so behaved differently; they asked different questions of their world and accepted different answers. This is not to say there are no historical parallels, or that we cannot empathize with people from earlier eras. But history can only be properly understood in context. (More about anachronistic thinking in a bit.)

The other fuel that feeds the authorship question are lies transmitted as fact. Shapiro writes, "More than any subject I've ever studied, the history of the authorship question is rife with forgeries and deceptions." He relates an early episode in the history of the controversy that illustrates this pattern, retracing a path that is seen again and again, full of "fabricated documents, embellished lives, concealed identity, pseudonymous authorship, contested evidence, bald-faced deception, and a failure to grasp what could not be imagined".

* * * *

The belief that Shakespeare of Stratford didn't write the plays and poems that bear his name hinges on three inter-related, incorrect assumptions.

Assumption #1: The autobiographical nature of authorship: the belief that all fiction is actually disguised autobiography, an idea that was born in Victorian times, but did not exist in Shakespeare's time.

Assumption #2: Since all fiction is autobiographical, authors can only write about what they themselves have personally experienced.

Assumption #3: Since authors can only write from personal experience, only a man of "good breeding", one with an aristocratic background and a high-quality formal education, could have produced works of such genius.

For me, this last assumption is particularly telling. Again and again, the authorship question makes assumptions about class. How could a commoner, a mere "glover's son" – as if genius is inherited through social status – have penned these works? Clearly only a member of the aristocracy could have done so. I find the assumption about fiction as autobiography bizarre, but the classist assumptions are downright offensive.

Shakespeare's sonnets, too, are read as autobiography:
The lists of Elizabethan Dark Ladies, Young Men and those with the initials W.H., H.W., W.S., or some similar combination. . . would take pages to list them all, the equivalent of an Elizabethan census. The most innocent and metaphorical utterances of the fictive speakers of Shakespeare's poems were interpreted as biographical fact.
Again and again, the same pattern appears. Mark Twain, who said his own work was always autobiographical, assumed all other writers' work was, too. Twain was also fascinated with themes of concealed and dual identities; his work is full of examples, including his own pseudonym. He was very keen to apply these fascinations to the Shakespeare plays and poems – if only someone would find the evidence. Referring to Twain, Shapiro writes:
Underlying his reasoning here was the presumption that Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers, or imagined.
Shapiro points out the sad irony of Helen Keller – often accused of merely lending her name to a ghostwriter's work, since a woman with her disabilities could not have authored best-selling books – joining a
movement committed to the belief that literature was ultimately confessional. Yet Keller was living evidence that a great writer didn't need to see or hear things herself to write about them. Though she knew this, she remained unable to accept that it was Shakespeare's ability to imagine things that mattered - and that what he found in books, as much as or more than what he experienced firsthand, stimulated his imagination, as it had hers.
The view that fiction was always autobiographical led authorship detectives on some bizarre trails. People pored through the plays, seizing on characters' actions as "clues" to who wrote them.
When desire outpaced what scholars could turn up, there remained only a few ways forward: forgery, reliance on anecdote, or turning to the works for fresh evidence about the author's life.
Yes, they turned to the work for evidence of the life. For example, if a character in a play had knowledge of falconry, it was assumed that the playwright had direct, personal experience with falconry. Therefore, only a gentleman who was a falconer could have written the play. But these techniques were only applied to certain elements of the plays. (For some reason, after seeing Macbeth, nobody claimed the playwright was a murderer.)

For decades – beginning, not coincidentally, around the time Morse code was invented – authorship detectives believed there were codes embedded in the plays, which, if properly deciphered, would prove the plays were written by [insert candidate's name here]. Untold hours and energy were consumed trying to "crack the Shakespeare code". Usually these imagined codes were the kind that can be made to reveal whatever one wants to discover. What's more, they would have been impossible to implant using Elizabethan typesetting practices.

* * * *

As far as I have seen, all the authorship claims follow a similar recipe. Begin with the premise that Shakespeare of Stratford couldn't have written the plays, because his "common" background precludes it. This premise is supported by a variety of falsehoods and aided by ignorance of Jacobean and Elizabethan England.

Add a second incorrect premise: that all the characters in the plays were based on actual historical individuals, who the playwright knew and disguised, a dramatic roman à clef.

Next, decide who each character represents. And since Shakespeare couldn't personally have known those people, therefore he couldn't have written the plays. (Never mind that there's no evidence to support any of this.)

Now that you've decided – not established or determined, just decided – that Shakespeare didn't write the plays, look for someone who more closely fits your idea of who could have written them – someone with the proper background, education, interests and personal history.

And finally, after you've settled on someone as the true author of the plays, search for scraps of information that you can claim as evidence.

You will need to massage – squeeze, pinch, pull and twist – the facts in order to make them fit your theory. Don't be shy about ignoring historical evidence and explaining away facts.

For example, Oxford, one of the most popular authorship candidates, died in 1604, before many of the plays were written; the plays contain topical references and allusions to events that took place after his death. These inconvenient details do not deter Oxfordians. They simply say that Oxford either wrote the plays before he died to be released posthumously (a claim for which they have no evidence), or the plays have been dated wrong (also no evidence), or that later writers added posthumous references to purposely plant false clues (also no evidence).

Shapiro quotes an exchange between Shakespearean scholar James Boyle and the writer James Lardner, who was covering the controversy for The New Yorker:
"The Oxfordians have constructed an interpretative framework that has an infinite capacity to explain away information. . . . All the evidence that fits the theory is accepted, and the rest rejected." When Boyle added that it was "impossible to imagine a piece of evidence that could disprove the theory to its adherents", Lardner asked, "What about a letter in Oxford's hand...congratulating William Shakespeare of Stratford on his achievements as a playwright?" Boyle didn't skip a beat, mimicking an Oxfordian response: "What an unlikely communication between an earl and a common player! Obviously, something designed to carry on the conspiracy of concealment. The very fact that he wrote such a letter presents the strongest proof we could possibly have!"
Two of the most commonly heard arguments against Shakespeare are perfect examples of the anachronistic thinking that permeates the debate. It is said that William Shakespeare of Stratford could not have written the plays and poems because he was illiterate. Supposed evidence for this is twofold: Shakespeare "couldn't even spell his own name" and he owned no books, as no books were mentioned in his will. However, during Shakespeare's lifetime, English spelling had not yet been standardized. I read the Diary of Samuel Pepys online, a work written by an educated bibliophile a half-century after Shakespeare's death. Pepys' spelling, especially of proper names, varies widely, even within the same entry. In fact, Oxford and Bacon both spelled their names several different ways. Regarding the absence of books in the Shakespeare will, Elizabethan wills didn't enumerate most household possessions. Those were found an "inventory of the testator's household effects," that is, a list of possessions. (Shakespeare's inventory has not been found, although it is referenced as having existed.) The wills of many other Elizabethans who were highly literate also contain no mention of books.

I also think the popularity of this phony "controversy" is yet another example of widespread confusion about the difference between fact and belief. Not all ideas are facts. Everyone should have equal access to ideas – but not all ideas are of equal value. This is the confusion that leads people to believe that creationism should be taught in school, or that Holocaust denial deserves serious scholarly debate. Obviously there are other motivations at work by the proponents of those ideas – religious fundamentalism, bigotry – but many people without those motivations will listen to "both sides" and weigh anything as potential evidence.

* * * *

After unpacking the themes of the authorship detectives, Shapiro makes an elegant and, to my mind, unassailable case for Shakespeare the playwright. This includes a wealth of references to Shakespeare and his work by his contemporaries, memorial tributes and other written historical evidence.

It's now known that Shakespeare co-authored five plays with other playwrights, a fairly common practice at the time. (This was brand new to me, and very interesting.) It's even known with some degree of certainty who wrote which parts. This fairly demolishes the Oxfordian theory; Shapiro notes that the Oxford crew has been silent on this topic.

In addition, the theories on how such a massive hoax - 36 plays, 154 sonnets, a hugely popular theatre company, fierce competition, thousands of copies of the work circulated, and more than 230 years without a single mention - could have been perpetrated simply do not hold up.

Finally, in a brilliant epilogue, Shapiro discusses many modern readers' tendency to assume that fiction is autobiographical. He feels that many Shakespeare scholars unwittingly feed the authorship debate by going the same route. In Shakespeare's time, Shapiro writes,
The evidence strongly suggests that imaginative literature in general and plays in particular . . . were rarely if ever a vehicle for self-revelation. . . . Even if Shakespeare occasionally drew in his poems and plays on personal experiences, and I don't doubt that he did, I don't see how anyone can known with any confidence if or when or where he does so. Surely he was too accomplished a writer to recycle them in the often clumsy and undigested way that critics in search of autobiographical traces – advocates and skeptics of his authorship alike – would have us believe. . . .

You would think that the endless alternatives proposed by those reading his life out of the works – good husband or bad, crypto-Catholic or committed Protestants, gay or straight, misogynist or feminist, or, for that matter, that the works were really written by Bacon, Oxford, Marlowe and so on – would cancel each other out and lead to the conclusion that the plays and poems are not transparently autobiographical. . . .

What I find most disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination.
Shapiro paints a picture of an imaginative, curious man, a gifted poet and playwright, living in multi-ethnic, polyglot London, reading voraciously, and absorbing a wealth of information about all sorts of things for which he had no personal experience. Examples from our own times are everywhere. One of my favourite novels is Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. The narrator is an abused woman; Doyle was neither. I wrote a novel in the voice of a teenage girl who uses a wheelchair. Of the various criticisms of that book, no one – including all the wheelchair users who read it – ever thought the narrator's voice was inauthentic.

It is said that the person who wrote the Shakespeare plays must have travelled to Italy, and needed an intimate knowledge of falconry. Does that mean the playwright was also a murderer? A thief? A witch? Here's a candidate for King Lear authorship because he had three daughters! Was he also a king? Did he go insane?
The plays are not an a la carte menu, from which we pick characters who will satisfy our appetite for Shakespeare's personality while passing over less appetizing choices. He imagined them all.

34 comments:

James said...

Although I don't doubt this, I may understand why Shakespeare scholars have preferred to close their eyes and stop up their ears.

It's the same reason why astronomers aren't interested in hearing about Roswell, mathematicians aren't interested in hearing about squaring the circle, and physicists aren't interested in hearing why Einstein was wrong: the arguments are old, repetitive, and are often made from a position of ignorance. They might be fun the first few times, but after a while, seeing yet another person make the same arguments that your thesis supervisor's thesis supervisor was rebutting back in his day grows stale.

Eventually, after enough repetitions of the same old same old, it's not only convenient to simply file the 93rd repetition of argument X in the Crank Pile, it's extremely tempting to dismiss the sender as Yet Another Idiot.

At least the Shakespeare doubters seem to be a more coherent bunch than many of the science cranks, who tend to produce stuff like this or, at the extreme, the legendary Time Cube.

James said...

I've just added Contested Will to my Kobo queue. I'm looking forward to reading it! :)

laura k said...

It's the same reason why astronomers aren't interested in hearing about Roswell, mathematicians aren't interested in hearing about squaring the circle, and physicists aren't interested in hearing why Einstein was wrong

Exactly. I understand what Shapiro means, that Shakespeare scholars have left the field open to the cranks - especially online - but how much time can you waste on nonsense?

I've just added Contested Will to my Kobo queue.

Awesome!

James said...

I understand what Shapiro means, that Shakespeare scholars have left the field open to the cranks - especially online - but how much time can you waste on nonsense?

It's not an unreasonable criticism, and it's common in other fields (evolutionary biologists also get it a lot). One of the biggest problems with addressing the cranks is that they simply won't accept any counter-arguments. It's the same as the Birther situation: Obama released the short-form certificate, they say, "Where's the long form?"; he releases the long form, they say, "Where's his college transcripts?", etc etc. The Hawaii Free Press had a great spoof on that problem.

Addressing the cranks generally doesn't change anything -- though, in the case of creationists, it has made them more subtle and more effective at infiltrating state education boards.

M@ said...

There was a surge in the Who-is-Shakespeare "scholarship" when I was in university, in the mid-90s. I'm not sure why -- probably someone had published a successful (and stupid) book on the subject. I was lucky enough to have a very good Shakespeare prof who took pains to "teach the controversy" -- in that he reviewed the issue and provided some good counter-arguments. I don't remember whether he explicitly drew any conclusions but I never gave the authorship crap much thought after that. (Thank you, Graham Roebuck!)

One of my biggest frustrations with being a minor Shakespeare enthusiast is that I periodically end up in conversations about Shakespeare or his plays where someone says "of course, if Shakespeare even wrote the plays..." I wish I had a short, incisive, effective way to completely end this way of thinking. What I do now is spit on their shoes and walk away, which isn't effective but feels awesome.

Anyhow, all this to say that I'm definitely going to get hold of this book. I can't wait.

James said...

One of my biggest frustrations with being a minor Shakespeare enthusiast is that I periodically end up in conversations about Shakespeare or his plays where someone says "of course, if Shakespeare even wrote the plays..." I wish I had a short, incisive, effective way to completely end this way of thinking.

Every time I hear this "controversy" raised, I'm reminded of the old line, "The Odyssey was written by Homer or, if not Homer, someone else of the same name."

laura k said...

@ M@, that's interesting, as when I was in university, it wasn't on the radar at all. So the current popularity took me by surprise.

Shapiro doesn't really give a crib-notes or blog-comment version of a response, but I'm sure if you read the book, you'll be able to come up with one for yourself.

When I hear that "...if he even wrote the plays" line, I've taken to saying, "There's actually no evidence - zero - that anyone else them, and tons of evidence that Shakespeare wrote them" and usually compare it to fake moon-landing or Holocaust denial. That way I can say something without getting into a debate.

laura k said...

One of the biggest problems with addressing the cranks is that they simply won't accept any counter-arguments.

That's why spitting on shoes is the only proper recourse.

Seriously though, the little anecdote I quoted in this post from James Boyle is exactly how it goes.

laura k said...

Also, I love that some wmtc readers are interested in this! My first "books on books" post, on Robert Darnton's "The Case for Books," floated by without response. That's ok, I wanted to write about it anyway, but it's nice that this resonated for some folks.

James said...

Seriously though, the little anecdote I quoted in this post from James Boyle is exactly how it goes.

Yup. One of the axioms of conspiracy theory mongering is that any evidence against the theory is actually evidence for the cover-up.

James said...

Also, I love that some wmtc readers are interested in this!

I've got a bit of an interest in the study of pathological scholarship -- mostly from the sciences side (creationism, moon hoaxers, anti-Einsteiners, etc), but the same principles apply across disciplines. This title will fit nicely into my collection of books on the subject.

laura k said...

I didn't even know there were anti-Einsteiners!

James said...

I didn't even know there were anti-Einsteiners!

Oh yes. They're an interesting bunch, usually trying to insist that Newton had it right all along. Crank Dot Net has a good collection.

Howard Schumann said...

Rather than try to clarify all the distortions, misinformation, and ad hominem attacks in Shapiro's book and repeated in your article, I will post a comment by Jeremy Crick of the de Vere Society.

"In each play, the poet displays an easy familiarity with all the courtly formilities and shows a shrewd understanding of how powerful factions at court competed over policy. The poet was using his deep knowledge of the world he inhabited to give a solid frame to his soaring imagination. Oxfordians aren't snobs - we follow the evidence and all the evidence points to the poet being a senior courtier and there is no evidence that Shakespeare ever once attended court.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, however, was also the Lord Great Chamberlain of England. Ever likely that he chose to adopt a nom de plume. It was common practice then as it is now and it didn't require a conspiracy to establish or maintain.

Stratfordians have always been in despair over the fact that not one single document has ever been discovered from his lifetime that proves that William Shakespeare of Stratford was an author. That he never appeared to have written any letters home - in spite of being apart from his family so often. That he was content to bring his children up to be illiterate.

That there is not one literary reference in his long and detailed will - no books, no manuscripts, no collection of the Shakespeare Quarto editions to be handed down as heirlooms in remembrance of the 'soul of the age'. That must have been quite a conspiracy - to erase all Shakepeare's literary material from the archive record. Either that or it just wasn't there in the first place.

How much Stratfordians would love to have the compelling historical evidence, as Oxfordians do, of the poet's travels through France and Italy. In a series of letters home to his father-in-law Lord Burghley, Oxfordians have documentary proof that Edward de Vere visited every town and city mentioned in the many plays he chose to set in Italy. Edward de Vere shows again that he is using his detailed acquired knowledge of the princely courts of Italy to inspire him.

Stratfordians have no choice - they must renounce looking for the poet's life in his works, the chasm between them is too great. It is astonishing how impoverished their view of the poet must be in rejecting The Sonnets, for surely they must consider all the despair, passion and guilt displayed here to be nothing more than a whimsical Platonic exercise.

Jeremy Crick
Website Editor, De Vere Society

James said...

Here's a great comment on the whole crank issue by science writer Govert Schilling, talking about the whole Zecharia Sitchin "Planet X / Nibiru" thing:

"And it is not surprising; you devote so much time, energy and creativity to fascinating scientific research, and find yourself on the tracks of the most amazing and interesting things, and all the public at large is concerned about is some crackpot theory about clay tablets, god-astronauts and a planet that doesn't exist."

deang said...

When one knows something to be true, it can be incredibly frustrating to be forced to defend facts, and to debate people who are heavily invested in fantasy.

A perfect summary of why I don't get involved in anti-evolution debates. It just bewilders me. I can give them the facts, but when they won't accept them, what more can I do?

deang said...

My first "books on books" post, on Robert Darnton's "The Case for Books," floated by without response.

But it provoked a lot of thought, especially in this WMTC reader.

laura k said...

But it provoked a lot of thought, especially in this WMTC reader.

I often think that if no one comments, no one has read the post. Next time I think that, I'll remember this comment!

laura k said...

Howard Schumann's comment is a perfect microcosm of the Oxfordian arguments.

It starts out with a false assumption that misunderstands the very act of artistic creation:

The poet was using his deep knowledge of the world he inhabited . . .

Adds a bald-faced lie:

not one single document has ever been discovered from his lifetime that proves that William Shakespeare of Stratford was an author.

Throws in some bizarre assumptions based on non-evidence and misunderstandings about life in Shakespeare's time:

never appeared to have written any letters home . . . That he was content to bring his children up to be illiterate.

Adds yet more lies and misunderstandings of how playwrights worked in those days - eg, playwrights didn't own their manuscripts, they owned working copies of scripts, which they used in rehearsals - manuscripts were not important and were owned by publishers - Shakespeare couldn't "hand down" what he didn't own!

And we have no idea what Shakespeare owned, because the inventory of personal effects did not survive.

no books, no manuscripts, no collection of the Shakespeare Quarto editions to be handed down as heirlooms in remembrance of the 'soul of the age'.

And adds yet more assumptions of what the life of the playwright must have been like based on selective cherry-picking of the plays (i.e. must have travelled in Italy, but not must have been a murderer).

compelling historical evidence, as Oxfordians do, of the poet's travels through France and Italy.

This one always cracks me up, as if the plays and sonnets are travelogues, with rich details of Italy or France. They are obsessed with the idea that de Vere traveled to the places mentioned in Shakespeare's plays.

Oxfordians have documentary proof that Edward de Vere visited every town and city mentioned in the many plays he chose to set in Italy.

And this proves...? Absolutely nothing!

Many thanks to Howard Schumann for providing this thread with a perfect example of the lies, false assumptions and shoddy reasoning that characterize the Oxfordian argument. Unfortunately for them, no matter how many times one repeats a lie, it is still a lie.

This concludes the "debate" portion of the thread. Stay tuned for accusations of censorship!

James said...

Oxfordians have documentary proof that Edward de Vere visited every town and city mentioned in the many plays he chose to set in Italy.

And this proves...? Absolutely nothing!


And when did he visit the Faerie Court of Oberon and Titania?

Anyone who read Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics knows that Shakespeare gained his poetic skill as a reward when Morpheus commissioned A Midsummer Night's Dream to be performed before the very court it depicted.

allan said...

It looks like Howard has an email alert set-up to notify him if any website mentions this issue, so he can zip on over, paste in his pre-written paragraphs (which some might call "spam" since he's not actually part of the conversation) and skeedaddle, never to return.

laura k said...

And when did he visit the Faerie Court of Oberon and Titania?

Exactly.

And PS: there are no ad hominem attacks in Contested Will. If Howard S has identified any and wants to prove that claim, he is welcome to come back for that purpose.

Howard Schumann said...

If you read the statement I wrote, you will notice that I quoted Jeremy Crick of the de Vere Society, so your accusation that I pasted in some pre-written paragraph of mine is false.

Shapiro does not discuss any arguments raised by Oxfordians of the present day, but simply launches a spurious attack on people such as Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Helen Keller, Delia Bacon, and James Looney.

As far as the segment of the article by Jeremy Crick, that is a statement of fact. Tell me one thing from that statement that is untrue.You may have a disagreement with the interpretation but there is no denying the facts.

Regarding the evidence that the plays were written by someone who had intimate knowledge of the court. Of the 37 plays, 36 are laid in royal courts and the world of the nobility. The principal characters are almost all aristocrats with the exception perhaps of Shylock and Falstaff. From all we can tell, Shakespeare fully shared the outlook of his characters, identifying fully with the courtesies, chivalries, and generosity of aristocratic life. Lower class characters in Shakespeare are almost all introduced for comic effect and given little development. Their names are indicative of their worth: Snug, Stout, Starveling, Dogberry, Simple, Mouldy, Wart, Feeble, etc.

The history plays are concerned mostly with the consolidation and maintenance of royal power and are concerned with righting the wrongs that fall on people of high blood. His comedies are far removed from the practicalities of everyday life or the realistic need to make a living. Shakespeare's vision is a deeply conservative, feudalistic and aristocratic one. When he does show sympathy for the commoners as in Henry V speech to the troops, however, Henry is also shown to be a moralist and a hypocrite. He pretends to be a commoner and mingles with the troops in a disguise and claims that those commoners who fought with the nobility would be treated as brothers.

There was no conspiracy. The use of a pseudonym was a means for the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men to protect the source of their plays from censorship by the authoritarian monarchy. It is no secret that plays suspected of criticizing the court were banned and that playwrights were put in the tower. There is also considerable evidence that Marlowe was killed because of his writing.

About his travels to Europe, the level of detail in the plays about Italy can only have been accomplished by someone who was there. There is a book coming out in November “The Shakespeare Guide to Italy”, by Richard Roe which will document this in such detail that it can not be questioned.

About the Sonnets, they are written by a man who is clearly much older than William of Stratford. Conventional chronology dates the sonnets to between 1592 and 1596. At this time, William of Stratford would have been in his late twenties and early thirties (Oxford was 14 years older). Even if we up the date to 1599, William of Stratford was still in his thirties. The sonnets tell us that the poet was in his declining years when writing them.

He was "Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity," "With Time's injurious hand crushed and o'er worn", in the "twilight of life". He is lamenting "all those friends" who have died, "my lovers gone". His is "That time of year/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs that shake against the cold." The sonnets that most contradict Will of Stratford's life story are those about shame and disgrace to name and reputation. Here Shakespeare's biographers have nothing to go on.

The Sonnets are full of joy, pain and passion of the most heartfelt kind. I would sooner believe that the Psalms of David were a literary exercise.

laura k said...

Shapiro does not discuss any arguments raised by Oxfordians of the present day, but simply launches a spurious attack on people such as Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Helen Keller, Delia Bacon, and James Looney.

Howard, like those referred to in this post, you seem content to insist rather than demonstrate. I read every word of this book, and since I have strong positive feelings for Keller, Twain and Freud, I would be especially alert for ad hominem and/or "spurious" attacks on any of them. There were none. That is because Shapiro doesn't attack anyone personally. He refutes theories and suppositions with facts.

Once again, if you have any proof - that is, quotes, page numbers - that Shapiro engages in ad hominem attacks, spurious or otherwise, you are welcome to return with them.

If not, please do not return.

As far as the segment of the article by Jeremy Crick, that is a statement of fact. Tell me one thing from that statement that is untrue. You may have a disagreement with the interpretation but there is no denying the facts.

Most of what you quoted from Crick is supposition based on false assumptions and false premises. What is factual - such as Oxford's travels - is utterly irrelevant.

Thanks for stopping by, now goodbye.

laura k said...

The Sonnets are full of joy, pain and passion of the most heartfelt kind. I would sooner believe that the Psalms of David were a literary exercise.

This guy seems to think that if art is not autobiographical, it is somehow inferior, "a literary exercise". "I would sooner believe" - he's offended at the thought.

Indeed the Sonnets are full of joy, pain and passion. So therefore they must be autobiographical? How on earth does that follow?

And does it only work for plays and poetry? Did Michaelangelo experience everything he painted or sculpted?

These are rhetorical questions, of course. I'm not inviting Howard or anyone else from his camp to debate me.

James said...

The Sonnets are full of joy, pain and passion of the most heartfelt kind. I would sooner believe that the Psalms of David were a literary exercise.

Ironically, there is no reason -- other than tradition -- to attribute any of the Psalms to David.

By the way, I have proof that Edgar Allen Poe didn't write the stories attributed to him: after all, he was never buried alive, nor sentenced to be tortured under a pendulum by the Inquisition.

Conversely, I have proof that Poe murdered a man and hid the body under his floorboards...

laura k said...

Disclosure:

Howard came back and instead of providing examples of ad hominem attacks, he mischaracterized Shapiro's arguments.

Howard misreads the intent of Shapiro's book, which is not to refute every point made by Oxfordians, Baconians and the rest, but to show that all the authorship claims follow a similar (nearly identical) pattern of misreadings, misinterpretations and baseless conjecture.

Again, Howard is content to "insist rather than demonstrate".

Howard says "I know you're mind is closed" (projection, anyone?), and states that instead of refuting Oxfordian arguments (again, not his intent) Shapiro "finds something wrong with" people like Freud, Twain, Keller, etc.

In fact, that is not what Shapiro does at all. He shows that Freud, Twain and others used the same false premises - literature as autobiograhy, Shakespeare was uneducated, etc. - then forced their theories into false unsupported conclusions.

Since Howard didn't have any examples of ad hominem attacks, or the examples he gave were not actually in Shapiro's book, I didn't put his comment through.

I've indulged this "debate" long enough.

allan said...

Looks like Laura wrote "Howard's End".

laura k said...

We don't want to Forster that kind of thinking.

laura k said...

Now he's on about Shakespeare's children supposedly being illiterate.

"Evidence" for this: no school records for them. Guess what? No school records for anyone in any similar village in that era!

Scholars have shown that a basic education in those days was the equivalent of a modern university degree, except with advanced Latin. Students went directly from those country schools to Oxford and Cambridge. I guess they were illiterate when they did.

Give up, Howard. Try your nonsense elsewhere.

James said...

Howard came back and instead of providing examples of ad hominem attacks, he mischaracterized Shapiro's arguments.

Accusations of ad hominem are very popular in this sort of thing, but more often than not, it only reveals a misconception of what "ad hominem" actually is.

"Your argument of X & Y -> Z is invalid because X isn't true, and you're ignorant for thinking it is" is not an ad hominem argument (though it is name-calling).

An ad hominem would be "You're a banker, therefore I can dismiss your argument out of hand." Arguments don't depend on the qualifications of the person making the argument, and dismissing an argument based on the background of the arguer is a fallacy.

Dismissing the arguer based on the quality of his arguments, on the other hand, is sensible -- though not always polite.

(Not that I'm suggesting that Shapiro engaged in name-calling. The confusion of name-calling for ad hominem is just the most common manifestation of false ad hominem accusations.)

laura k said...

There are no ad hominem attacks or name-calling in Shapiro's book. One of the things that led Shapiro to explore the issue is his high regard for some of the well known people who were Oxfordians - that, and the academy's "off limits" attitude.

I suppose Howard mistook this post for a place to debate Shakespeare authorship. That's my own fault for allowing his initial comment.

johngoldfine said...

This is a wonderful review (and please banish the idea that no comments=no readers, laura! Darnton is an old favorite and your thoughts interested me but did not, for some reason, stimulate any in response.)

It's not only a wonderful review, but a wonderful comment string.

I can add a personal note. When people pick up and begin riding some irrational theory like creationism, or Holocaust-denial, or, as here, Oxfordism, in some cases such obsession becomes the sign of, if not the cause of, a wider breakdown in mental health.

I met a girl in high school in 1962who went on to become a Ph.D in linguistics, a tenured professor, and my friend for many years. But a time came when all her many accomplishments deserted her, and her conversation consisted only and passionately and paranoically of pro-Oxford rants and proselytization.

Pretty obviously, if it had not been Oxfordism, she would have found some other ism that made specious sense of the world (and, hard as it is to believe, eventually she began to see the Shakespeareans the way anti-Semites see Jews: as a totalizing explanation for All That Has Gone Wrong In The World.)

I haven't been able to talk to her in several years.

laura k said...

Hey John, thanks for that note re comments and readers, I appreciate it.

It does seem as if many people who obsess on these types of theories are mentally unstable or at least socially maladapted. I've often wondered about that.