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I am a great Shakespeare fan (as my post during last year’s Shakespeare Week proved) but the question of authorship has never really been of much interest to me. I was vaguely aware of the authorship controversy, but didn’t know any details. I never once questioned that Will of Stratford, despite the limitations of his life experience, had written the plays. But ultimately I always felt that who the author was had no impact on the power of the plays themselves. Then I read Contested Will and realised that I’m actually a die-hard Stratfordian and that I really do care that Shakespeare wrote the plays.
I thought Shapiro’s 1599, which I read last year, was exceptional. I’d encourage anyone to read it. So when I saw that his next book addressed the authorship question, my curiosity was piqued – would the man who had written 1599 question the authorship of the plays?
In the prologue, Shapiro recounts the story of how a nine-year-old boy questioned the authorship of the plays:
“When toward the end of the class I invited questions, a quiet boy on my left raised his hand and said: ‘My brother told me that Shakespeare really didn’t write Romeo and Juliet. Is that true?’ It was the kind of question I was used to hearing from undergraduates on the first day of a Shakespeare course or from audience members at popular lectures, but I hadn’t expected that doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship had filtered down to the fourth grade.”
Firstly, I should point out that despite the array of candidates on the hard-back cover, Shapiro only really looks at three – William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Initially I was disappointed by this, my appetite was whetted now and my utter ignorance craved knowledge of everything. But Shapiro is a master of odd details and well-written non-fiction so that soon I was so taken up with the conspiracy theories that I forgot to be disappointed that he didn’t address Mary Sidney’s or Christopher Marlowe’s claims in more depth.
He begins with Shakespeare and why the controversy arose, tying it in with the religious controversies of the day. Samuel Mosheim Schmucker reacted to David Friedrich Strauss’s work disproving Jesus with a parody which did the same for William Shakespeare. It was never Schmucker’s intention to prove that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays, he merely wished to prove that you could turn the same devices Strauss used to disprove the existence of Jesus to disproving the existence of anyone. From there the theories grew and became ever wilder.
He then has a chapter on Francis Bacon, then Edward de Vere. Shapiro has a knack for teasing out the details, telling a good story. From someone who had never heard of Delia Bacon before I was utterly fascinated by her. Though I may not agree with her theory, I found myself scribbling notes of things to look up at the library.
Often though, I found the conspiracy theories – which always seem to focus on the incest and illegitimate sons of Queen Elizabeth – laughable. More often than not evidence that proves Shakespeare wrote the plays is twisted into proof that it was all a cover up.
I found myself a little bewildered by the growing idea that all fiction is some way or other autobiographical. It’s not something that is in evidence in my own work or the work of friends. Shapiro has a wonderful grasp of Shakespeare’s era and points out that families, creativity and behaviour was so much different to our experience now, we simply cannot compare like-for-like. The idea that theories have been borne of our desire to identify with the playwright is a very interesting one, one that is completely reflected in me.
Shapiro concludes with a second Shakespeare chapter, describing his reasons for believing in Will of Stratford. I found myself agreeing on every point. In the Epilogue he states that it is important who wrote the plays which led to a lot of thinking on my part. From believing that I wouldn’t care who wrote them because I loved them as pieces in their own right, I realised that I also loved the man behind them. The glover’s son made good, who travelled to London and wrote exceptional plays and poems, retired to his hometown and lived forever. What writer doesn’t want to believe in that?
"When I first explored the idea of writing this book some years ago, a friend unnerved me by asking, ‘What difference does it make who wrote the plays?’ The reflexive answer I offered in response is much clearer to me now: ‘A lot.’”
Faber and Faber, 2010. ISBN-10:057123576X. 384pp.
For more on the authorship debate, here’s a Shakespearean article: Out damn’d conspiracy!
And an Oxfordian article: The real Shakespeare?
For an article on the upcoming Oxfordian film, Anonymous, (containing further links to Stratfordian and anti-Stratfordian sites): Roland Emmerich stirs up Shakespeare debate
[Nikki has other obsessions apart from Shakespeare and while she cannot claim to write as well as him, you can read about some of her obsessions on her blog]
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