Books that claim to unlock the mystery of who really wrote Shakespeare's plays are so plentiful that they practically constitute their own genre (anti-Shakespeare studies?). At first glance, I thought James Shapiro's Contested Will was another entry in that category, but I was wrong--Shapiro's book is actually an examination of why people refuse to accept that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him and what their choices for the "real" author say about them and their times.
I admit that Shapiro is preaching to the choir here--I'm one of the people who believes Shakespeare wrote the plays (or most of them--some of them are collaborations), with some assists from the actors, stage managers, and printers who cobbled together the printed versions that we have come to know as Shakespeare's work (or sometimes unassists--whoever decided to stick in all that Hecate and witch song and dance junk in Macbeth committed a crime against theater). Why do I believe this? Because, quite simply, the arguments people have put forth for why he didn't write them just aren't good enough for me. Give me a serious reason why this man could not have written these plays and I'll begin to look for a new author.
There have been many proposed "Shakespeares", but Shapiro concentrates on the two most popular contenders--the well-educated, well-traveled Sir Frances Bacon, and well-educated, well-traveled Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. The Bacon theory was launched in the 19th century by Delia Bacon, a well-educated, somewhat traveled American woman (no relation to Francis) who simply didn't believe it was possible for a working class "glover's son" from Stratford, a sometime actor could possibly write the works of genius attributed to him. This is 19th century classism at its finest--because Shakespeare had not traveled to Europe or indulged in falconry, spent time mingling at court or given a classical education, he couldn't have written about these things. Yes, because it's not like Shakespeare couldn't have found information about Italy or court life in books, the same way he found the plots for Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet and got the information, accurate or not, for his history plays. Bacon (Delia) searched around for a more likely suspect and came up with Bacon (Francis), the explorer and philosopher. Why the hell not, I guess, though he seems to have been an awfully busy man to have had a sideline in theater.
Shapiro shoots holes in the Bacon (Francis) theory and points out facts about Bacon (Delia) that make her motives, credibility, and sources questionable. Nevertheless a number of people bought it, until the new contender came to town, our friend de Vere.
The Earl of Oxford became popular in the post Freud era when ideas about the subconscious and Oedipal desires were all the rage. People latched ont Oxford because his father died when he was young and he did not like his mother's second husband. Thus, Hamlet. Or I guess the urge to write a new version of the Hamlet story that had already been around for decades. Freud was a big time de Vere-ian. Others, especially the types who are always attracted to conspiracty theories and firmly believe that people in power have tons more secrets than everyone else, developed the idea that de Vere was actually Elizabeth's illegitimate son, fathered by her uncle when she was fourteen. Oh, and then Elizabeth and de Vere became lovers and had a bastard son, Henry Wriothesley (I always have trouble pronouncing that). This was what they did before the days of the Internet, I guess--have lots of interfamily sex and write plays.
Mark Twain was a strong proponent of the de Vere theory, but he was ready to be convinced that Shakespeare didn't write the plays. Like Delia Bacon, he firmly believed that writers could only write about what they had experienced themselves, which makes sense, I guess, coming from an author whose fiction works are mostly semi-autobiographical. I guess I would have liked to have sat in on a conversation with Twain and maybe Jules Verne ("So, where do you stash that submarine, Jules?" or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ("How do you find time to write between playing the violin and solving mysteries?") or maybe even Henry James ("You know, James, I used to think you were one of those 'inverts' but after reading your books and seeing all those men and women dealing with romance, well, I guess I was just wrong."). In Mark Twain's world, either science fiction and fantasy did not exist or those writers were leading much more exciting lives than him. I can't even imagine what he would have said to the Reverend Dodgson.
Shapiro describes the reasons why the de Vere theory doesn't work, but more importantly (or at least more interestingly...to me), looks at the people who came up with these ideas and why they developed them. Nevertheless, the Oxford fan base went up and down throughout the 20th century; I think he's currently in right now.
The main reason why it has been so easy for people to argue against Shakespeare's authorship is that so very, very little is definitively known about him, actually less than people think; a lot of what people think are truths are actually myths that have been around so long that they are now casually taken as facts. Some of these are courtesy of the cottage industry in fake Shakespeare--fake letters written by him, fake plays, fake diaries. By the time these were disproved, the information in them had already settled into the public's mind.
There is so much that we don't know about Shakespeare's life that what we do absolutely know has taken on an inordinate weight. The bulk of the few documents that survive deal with Shakespeare's businesses in Stratford--sale of malt, sale of land, disputes about payment. When 19th century readers looked at these, they translated them to mean the real William Shakespeare was a penny-pinching business man, who spent his time arguing about small amounts of money owed to him by neighbors. How could anyone so prosaic and so concerned about the humdrum write so eloquently about the human condition? Of course those who believe that are ignoring all the documents from Shakespeare that we don't have. Maybe there were notes to friends agonizing over his inability to solve a problem with a character in one of his plays, or a million drafts that change one word in each line, or essays where he wrote passionately about what it means to live and be human. Maybe he did write those; maybe we didn't. We just don't know one way or the other. We know so little.
And if Shakespeare was concerned about his businesses, why does that make him any less of an artist? Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company, Nathaniel Hawthorne for a custom house. Let's face it, a life in the arts has never been easy. I guess that in the 16th century, actors and writers still needed "day jobs." If Shakespeare had businesses in Stratford that helped pay the way for him and his family, good for him. At least he wasn't working as a waiter in a tavern or temping at the Inns of Court.
So there you have it, my overly long appreciation of Mr. Shapiro's book. Obviously he didn't have to work hard to sell me on it. If you believe that someone else wrote Shakespeare's plays, then you probably will read it and sneer, "This is the worst pack of lies, flawed logic, and stupidity I've ever wasted my time on." This is one of those issues where people take a side, and once they're there, it's very hard to get them to change. But I'd still say read it--who knows, you may decide to come over to our side. You'll like it, it's beautiful here.