Book review: Contested Will by James Shapiro

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What do Henry James, Malcolm X, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Mark Twain and Sir Derek Jacobi have in common?

They are all Shakespeare doubters...members of a surprisingly large group of people who have questioned whether Shakespeare could have written Shakespeare.

Their argument generally runs along the lines that a grammar school boy, son of a Stratford glove maker, could not possibly have penned some of the most sublime literature in the English language.

Or, as James Wilmot, the 18th century Oxford scholar who really set the sceptic ball rolling, wrote: ‘There is nothing in the writings of Shakespeare that does not argue the long and early training of the schoolman, the traveller, and the associate of the great and learned.’

‘Yet,’ he added for good measure, ‘there is nothing in the known life of Shakespeare that shows he had any one of the qualities.’

For 200 years after Shakespeare’s death, no-one thought to argue that somebody else might have written his plays.

But since then dozens of rival candidates, principally statesman and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, Shakespeare’s fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, have been put forward as their true author.

The growth of the worldwide web has helped the authorship debate to mushroom and allowed the fantasists to give voice to all kinds of conspiracy theories.

Shakespeare scholar Shapiro unravels the mystery of when and why so many people began to question the veracity of the Bard and retraces a path strewn with false claimants, fabricated documents, concealed identity, bald-faced deception and ‘a failure to grasp what could not be imagined’.

Shapiro, a professor at Columbia University, is a die-hard believer in the ordinary, and yet intellectually extraordinary, man from Stratford but does not let his own unshakeable conviction stop him from examining the arguments with a cool head and empirical detachment.

His story is essentially one of snobbery and ignorance, and a blind refusal to accept that the plays and poems could only have been written by a well-heeled courtier with an expensive education and experiences of life in the upper echelons of society.

One of the most bizarre Shakespeare fantasists was Delia Bacon (no connection to Sir Francis) from Connecticut who in 1850 called the great man ‘a stupid, illiterate, third-rate play actor’. Despite the fact that she died in an asylum, her views remained surprisingly influential.

Another 19th century American, wealthy Detroit physician Orville Ward Owen, built The Cypher Machine, a giant spooling apparatus into which he fed samples of works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries to extract keywords and prove irrefutably that Sir Francis Bacon was the real genius.

Other sceptics have relied on the idea that Shakespeare’s works, particularly the Sonnets, contain coded messages pointing to the Earl of Oxford as the true author.

Like an eagle-eyed lawyer, Shapiro sifts through the evidence, weighs up the facts and discounts the theories one by one.

In the end, we see Shakespeare as he really was - a familiar man about town, remembered by his fellow actors as a frantic and gifted master of invention who was loved ‘on this side of idolatry’.

It just so happened that he also ‘held the keys that opened the hearts and minds of others’.

Shapiro’s intelligent book is an entertaining reappraisal of Shakespeare’s enduring fascination and a conspiracy story worthy of a play by the great man himself.

(Faber, paperback, £8.99)