Contested Will Looks at the Nuts Who Think Shakespeare Didn't Write Shakespeare

James Shapiro examines the colorful history of anti-Stratfordism

Next came the scholar named, with unhappy aptness, John Thomas Looney (1870–1944), pronounced "loney." His disillusionment came from being outmaneuvered in a power struggle for control of a minuscule "Church of Humanity," founded on Positivist principles. Antimodernist and antidemocratic, Looney sought an aristocratic guiding spirit behind Shakespeare's venerated texts, and found Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Oxford, still the deniers' favored candidate today, has the problems of every aristocrat the anti-Stratfordians have proposed as author. Neither his meager verse output nor the private life that his proponents find mirrored in the plays makes a convincing fit. Nobody can explain, without imagining elaborate political intrigues, why he or any nobleman would bother spinning out endless yards of theatrical stuff; nor have they found any evidence linking Oxford, or other lordships, to Shakespeare's troupe, except as patrons and audience members.

Few aristocrats, in fact, have ever ranked among the world's notable playwrights. Molière's father kept a furniture shop, Ibsen's a pharmacy. Alcoholic fathers and shabby-genteel circumstances mark playwrights' backgrounds: Chekhov, Shaw, O'Neill. The Stratford glove-maker's son fits right in. That his poetic powers surpass all others should provoke wonder and admiration, not conspiracy theories. Yet people, especially Americans, seem to prefer believing that Shakespeare spoke from on high. The need to graft such false prestige onto him, as Shapiro makes clear, shows how little his worshippers understand his true value.

Francis Bacon, at work on Macbeth
Courtesy Simon & Schuster
Francis Bacon, at work on Macbeth


Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
By James Shapiro
Simon & Schuster, 339 pp., $26

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