James Shapiro's "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?"

Among the many reviews of James Shapiro's Contested Will, a few stand out, but none more so than William S. Niederkorn's review, “Absolute Will,” in The Brooklyn Rail. Most appropriately, it was a“review of the day” selection of the National Book Critics Circle (April 7). It is neutral about the author's identity and we strongly recommend it. Here are some excerpts:

“Early on, Shapiro states his first premise: 'I happen to believe that William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed to him.'”

“His second premise is that those who don’t believe in Will of Stratford have something wrong with them. … Such people have “turned against Shakespeare …”

“Shapiro keeps his Stratfordian blinders on throughout … He concentrates on the easy targets, attacking famous figures who took a peripheral interest in the case for Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere, and he lumps them with the two most notorious Shakespeare forgers, both Stratfordians …”

“Everything went wrong, Shapiro writes, when scholars started trying to read topical allusions into Shakespeare’s works, and he blames Edmond Malone (1741-1812), the lawyer whose work is generally acknowledged as the cornerstone of modern Shakespeare scholarship. The only way out for Shapiro … is to ban all topical interpretation.”

“Delia Bacon, Shapiro says “was content to insist, rather than demonstrate” her theory of Shakespeare, and “when that didn’t suffice, she turned to invective,” but Shapiro is content to attack the extreme positions, make handy use of ridicule, and avoid contending with the serious authorship scholars.”

“Greenwood, … whose works are still highly regarded … is mentioned by Shapiro only for his influence on Helen Keller and Mark Twain. It amuses (him) to focus on a few of the distinguished (authorship doubters) … and attack what he determines to have been their motivations for doing so.”

“Shapiro misses the main point: Whatever the reasons they used … the idea that Will of Stratford was not the great poet … was meaningful to them. These writers, reading the works with singularly ingenious intensity, each intuitively felt that the traditional story did not add up.”

“In discussing a section of Greenwood’s The Shakespeare Problem Restated (1908) that Twain inserted into his book Is Shakespeare Dead? 'Again the ironies are great,' Shapiro writes. 'Twain plagiarized Greenwood’s words.' But Twain did not pass Greenwood’s words off as his own.”

“Shapiro doesn’t hesitate to wield the most outrageous analogies. Consider his views on Looney’s assertions of Shakespeare’s appreciation for the Middle Ages and the old nobility: “Looney’s retrograde vision comes too close for comfort to Freud’s account of the Nazi rise to power in 1933 …”

“If Shapiro has a bible on the Earl of Oxford it is Alan Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary, a life of de Vere that is one of the most bilious biographies ever written. Riddled with errors … Nelson’s book is an embarrassment to scholarship. Contested Will, … which revels in the same spirit, is almost as bad.”

“The customary way to dismiss the Oxford case is to note that Oxford died in 1604, name some Shakespeare plays and insist they are of later date. Shapiro names nine. But the traditional dating of the plays is largely based on the assumption that Will of Stratford wrote them, so it’s a circular argument.”

“Among the conferences where I have spoken, Stratfordians have always been welcome … the best American academic journal covering the authorship question publishes papers by Stratfordians. By contrast, there is no tolerance for anti-Stratfordian scholarship at the conferences and journals Stratfordians control.”

“He lists a host of contemporary references to Shakespeare’s work, as if they provided solid proof for his contentions, but … he doesn’t see that nothing connects all these references with (Shakspere) and that they could just as easily refer to someone using 'Shakespeare' as a pseudonym.”

“At a climactic point of his summation, in citing the second epilogue of Henry IV Part 2 as evidence for Will of Stratford, Shapiro seems to lose rationality completely in his insistence that Shakespeare himself delivered this speech on the Elizabethan stage.”

“In his epilogue to Contested Will, … Shapiro has come around to agreeing with the point of my 2005 article, as he criticizes recent Stratfordian biographies, especially Greenblatt’s Will in the World, with its ham-handed efforts to connect Will’s life to Shakespeare’s works.”

“Circumstantial biographical evidence has certainly been wielded more effectively by anti-Stratfordians. You can bet Stratfordians would make the most of 'autobiographical readings' if they had them… Will does not have a biographical record (like) his challengers have.”

“Anti-Stratfordian scholars are conspicuously absent from his acknowledgments, which include what reads like a Stratfordian Politburo. The book is sure to be a prize winner; if Shapiro were British he would be knighted for it.”

So congratulations to William Niederkorn for an outstanding review! And congratulations to Professor James Shapiro for a book that's well-suited to its stated purpose.

We would be remiss, however, if we didn't mention that Shapiro, despite his ad hominem attacks, had compliments for the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt. Here's what he had to say about it: “It is a skillfully drafted document, the collaborative effort of some of the best minds committed to casting doubt on Shakespeare's authorship. Its title is inspired, combining the uplift of a historical declaration with that long-established sense of fairness that guided juries to just verdicts, 'reasonable doubt.' A whiff of the courtroom is apparent throughout, as 'the prima facie case for Mr. Shakspere' is shown to be 'problematic' and the 'connections between the life of the alleged author and the works' no less 'dubious.' The testimony of a score of expert witnesses — including Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, and Justice Blackmun — is introduced into the record. And by not specifying a single candidate, it brings together under one roof proponents of all of them. The declared purpose is to get as many people as possible to sign on to the commonsensical position that 'it is simply not credible for anyone to claim, in 2007, that there is no room for doubt about the author.'”

That's all nice and good, but having praised the Declaration, why didn't he try to bury it? One would think that he might have attempted a point-by-point rebuttal, but no. Instead he stopped there, moved on to the chapter on “Shakespeare,” and presented evidence that he thinks makes a convincing case for his man, but which we don't. There is too much wrong with it to try to give a comprehensive treatment here. Suffice it to say that we don't think he has refuted a single point in the entire Declaration. His treatment of evidence is riddled with errors of fact and logic, full of mischaracterizations and question-begging of the sort that any English professor should recognize. We offer one egregious example to illustrate the point. At the bottom of page 225, Shapiro writes as follows: “Early in his career Shakespeare showed great care in seeing into print his two great narrative poems, Venus and Adonis, and Lucrece, bestsellers that went through many editions. While his name didn't appear on the title pages of these volumes, dedicatory letters (sic) addressed to the Earl of Southampton and signed 'William Shake-speare' are included in italics in the front matter of both. It's the first time the notorious hyphen appeared in the printed version of his name, a telling sign, for skeptics, of pseudonymous publication.”

It's true that Shakespeare apparently took great care in seeing these poems into print, but Professor Shapiro didn't do the same in examining them, because the name “Shakespeare” is not, as Shapiro says, “hyphenated” in either volume. It's hard to imagine how he could have made such an obvious error about both of these volumes. But there's more. It's an exaggeration to call the dedications to the Earl of Southampton “letters.” They're usually referred to as dedicatory epistles, and one wonders if Shapiro isn't perhaps elevating them to the status of “letters” because, in fact, there isn't a single extant letter that William Shakspere of Stratford ever wrote to anyone. That's quite remarkable for an author who Shapiro claims was a highly visible public figure, a collaborator with other writers, and a traveler between London and Stratford.

Saying that the epistles were “signed” “William Shakespeare” is also misleading, since the name was “a printed version of his name,” as he says in the next sentence. But perhaps the most significant oversight is something he passes right over. He says that, “his name didn't appear on the title pages of these volumes.” Why was that? Anonymous publication was common, but why put the author's name beneath the dedicatory epistles and then not also include it on both title pages if he was the author? What was the point of suggesting he was the author in one place, but not putting the name on the title page, which was the most logical place to put the author's name? By itself, this means nothing; but it is the kind of anomaly that turns up over and over again in the authorship controversy, and Shapiro just ignores it as if it doesn't exist.

Shapiro says early on in his book that his interest is not in what people think, so much as why they think it. This allows him to give short shrift to examining the evidence. Since he has taken this position, it seems only fair that doubters should be free to focus in turn not on what Shapiro thinks, but why he thinks it. The answer is very clear. As Professor Warren Hope wrote in his review article, “James Shapiro decided to write this book because he ran into many people who doubted that Will Shakspere of Stratford wrote the plays and poems of Shakespeare when he went on a tour to sell his last book, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. At least, that is what he said in the promotional material in the back of the paperback edition of that book. But he was quick to point out that he did not plan to join the debate. It is somehow refreshing to have a college professor frankly and publicly announce that he is going to research and write a book on a subject about which he has a completely closed mind: 'It's an exasperating question, for the evidence is overwhelmingly conclusive that only William Shakespeare of Stratford could have written these plays and poems.'”

Shapiro's mind was closed from the start. Like the Catholic authorities who refused to look through Galileo's telescope, he knew all he wanted to know about the evidence. So he politely refused to communicate with doubters, saying that he wanted to find his own way. Of course one needs to be selective, but Shapiro selected only believers. We've come full circle. After starting with an open-minded Supreme Court justice who emphasizes weighing all the evidence, we finish with a man who has all the answers, and so isn't interested in alternative points of view. I have no idea whether Shapiro is a first-born or later-born, but he clearly fits Sulloway's profile of one bound by tradition. He is committed to a received tradition into which he was socialized as an English professor and high priest of Stratfordian orthodoxy. That's why he thinks what he thinks.