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


I love Shakespeare so much that I can never understand why people want to make a religion of him. When you love someone, deeply and persistently, you don’t want to pretend your love is perfection and install him on the high altar of a shrine, far out of your reach. You want to be with your love every day, knowing him so intimately that even his little faults become part of his charm.

Where Shakespeare’s concerned, though, many people view the matter differently. Taught he was the height of greatness, they’ve somehow mistaken his birth for a kind of literary Second Coming, thinking every word he wrote must be perfect and without sin. People afflicted by this delusion tend to be oblivious to any matters of fact regarding Shakespeare: Mention the phrases he lifts from other sources, his need to tailor plays to practical use, or the vagaries of publishing in his time, and you meet a blank wall. To them, Shakespeare equals perfection. Every syllable is sacred. Nothing else need be said.

Shakespeare was apparently idolized in his own time, as Ben Jonson complained, but the lunacy of worshipping him didn’t begin till more than a century after his death. In the interim, which included 18 years of civil war in England, much valuable information about him was lost. When London’s theaters reopened in 1660, Shakespeare’s plays, now antique, needed and got heavy reconfiguring. Even so, his power was such that, by 1700, his prestige had rebounded. By midcentury, once the great actor-producer David Garrick ruled the London stage, the matter was settled: Other playwrights or modes of play might come and go; Shakespeare was eternal.

Garrick’s knowledgeable, sensitive interpretations of Shakespeare set the standard and remain pivotal in the history of acting. Simultaneously, he played a less well remembered role in establishing the Shakespearean religion. It was Garrick, creating the world’s first Shakespeare festival, who turned the sleepy rural town of Stratford-upon-Avon into a tourist mecca.

With sardonic aptness, James Shapiro, a Shakespeare scholar at Columbia, chooses Garrick’s adoration as the starting point for his new book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, a rueful history of Shakespeare worship’s darker side. For it seems that even in a field as narrow as dramatic poetry, once you declare that a god has walked the earth, satanic forces must instantly spring up to deny him. From Garrick’s veneration of Shakespeare’s unearthly powers, a counter-assumption was born: A lowly actor from a small-town background, like “the man from Stratford,” could not possibly have written these extraordinary plays.

With even-handed compassion, Shapiro chronicles the slow but steady growth of this dark belief, from its first scholarly murmurs, circa 1800, to its current Internet burgeoning. Wisely, he declines to ridicule its preachers, instead weighing their various claims fairly, in lucid, uncontentious prose, saving for the final chapter his reasoned rebuttal of their basic assumption. Secure in his knowledge of Shakespeare’s world, Shapiro feels no compulsion to pick quarrels with these cipher-hunters and conspiracy theorists, not even when their extravagance invents, for their authorial candidates, incestuous affairs with Queen Elizabeth. He takes no cheap shots at such easy targets.

Instead, cunningly, he makes his opponents’ lives, not Shakespeare’s, his principal subject, replacing their nitpicky disputes over unprovable biographical what-ifs with a fascinating, well-documented parade of literary eccentrics, displaying the torments that drive frustrated souls into revisionist mythmaking. Shapiro doesn’t flinch even when the frustrated souls carry beloved names: Henry James, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Sigmund Freud are among those whose disbelief in Shakespeare’s authorship he confronts, squarely and honorably.

Shakespeare himself started the problem. Like most ordinary people of his time, he left behind only the registration of his baptism, marriage, and death, plus a scattering of legal instruments, including his will—not much room to search for hints of genius. People wanting to enshrine the author of Hamlet as a spokesman for the world’s soul don’t like knowing only that he was accused of hoarding grain, and once sued somebody for nonpayment of debt.

Ironically, the first to undermine Shakespeare’s credibility were cultists trying to bolster it—by forging the additional evidence that so many sought. Shapiro narrates the tragicomic tale of William-Henry Ireland, the teenager who, in the 1790s, created fake Shakespeareana to gratify his self-aggrandizing antiquarian father. Four decades later, another self-aggrandizer, the tireless John Payne Collier, did his own forging, his genuine discoveries nearly lost in the ignominy after he was found out. With the Shakespeare-loving Victorian public forced to choose between sparse and suspect data, the road was open for those who would discredit Shakespeare entirely.

The first venturer down it was Delia Bacon (1811–1859), a Congregational minister’s daughter whose life fills the most astonishing section of Shapiro’s book. She might have become America’s first major playwright, but neither America nor her pious family was ready for that. Instead, disappointed, she nurtured the fantasy that Shakespeare had merely been a frontman for a conspiracy of anti-authoritarian courtiers, led by Francis Bacon, using plays to preach equality. Her friend Samuel F. B. Morse encouraged her notion that Sir Francis had hidden coded messages within the plays. Delia ultimately went insane (Shapiro firmly declines to take advantage of this fact), but not before intriguing Emerson, Carlyle, and especially Hawthorne, who subsidized her theory’s publication, which set off a half-century hunt for hidden ciphers.

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.