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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?by James Shapiro
This is a book about when and why many people began to question whether William Shakespeare wrote the plays long attributed to him, and, if he didn’t write them, who did.
There’s surprising consensus on the part of both skeptics and defenders of Shakespeare’s authorship about when the controversy first took root. Whether you get your facts from the Dictionary of National Biography or Wikipedia, the earliest documented claim dates back to 1785, when James Wilmot, an Oxford-trained scholar who lived a few miles outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, began searching locally for Shakespeare’s books, papers, or any indication that he had been an author—and came up empty-handed. Wilmot gradually came to the conclusion that someone else, most likely Sir Francis Bacon, had written the plays. Wilmot never published what he learned and near the end of his life burned all his papers. But before he died he spoke with a fellow researcher, a Quaker from Ipswich named James Corton Cowell, who later shared these findings with members of the Ipswich Philosophic Society.
Cowell did so in a pair of lectures delivered in 1805 that survive in a manuscript now located in the University of London’s Senate House Library, in which he confesses to being “a renegade” to the Shakespearean “faith.” Cowell was converted by Wilmot’s argument that “there is nothing in the writings of Shakespeare that does not argue the long and early training of the schoolman, the traveler, and the associate of the great and learned. Yet there is nothing in the known life of Shakespeare that shows he had any one of the qualities.” Wilmot is credited with being the first to argue, as far back as the late eighteenth century, for an unbridgeable rift between the facts of Shakespeare’s life and what the plays and poems reveal about their author’s education and experience. But both Wilmot and Cowell were ahead of their time, for close to a half-century passed before the controversy resurfaced in any serious or sustained way.
Since 1850 or so, thousands of books and articles have been published urging that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays. At first, bibliographers tried to keep count of all the works inspired by the controversy. By 1884 the list ran to 255 items; by 1949, it had swelled to over 4,500. Nobody bothered trying to keep a running tally after that, and in an age of blogs, websites, and online forums it’s impossible to do justice to how much intellectual energy has been—and continues to be—devoted to the subject. Over time, and for all sorts of reasons, leading artists and intellectuals from all walks of life joined the ranks of the skeptics. I can think of little else that unites Henry James and Malcolm X, Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller and Orson Welles, or Mark Twain and Sir Derek Jacobi.
It’s not easy keeping track of all the candidates promoted as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. The leading contenders nowadays are Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford) and Sir Francis Bacon. Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, the Earl of Derby, and the Earl of Rutland have attracted fewer though no less ardent supporters. And more than fifty others have been proposed as well—working alone or collaboratively—including Sir Walter Ralegh, John Donne, Anne Whateley, Robert Cecil, John Florio, Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Southampton, Queen Elizabeth, and King James. A complete list is pointless, for it would soon be outdated. During the time I’ve been working on this book, four more names have been put forward: the poet and courtier Fulke Greville, the Irish rebel William Nugent, the poet Aemelia Lanier (of Jewish descent and thought by some to be the unnamed Dark Lady of the Sonnets), and the Elizabethan diplomat Henry Neville. New candidates will almost surely be proposed in years to come. While the chapters that follow focus on Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford—whose candidacies are the best documented and most consequential—it’s not because I believe that their claims are necessarily stronger than any of these others. An exhaustive account of all the candidates, including those already advanced and those waiting in the wings, would be both tedious and futile, and for reasons that will soon become clear, Bacon and Oxford can be taken as representative.
Much of what has been written about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays follows the contours of a detective story, which is not all that surprising, since the authorship question and the “whodunit” emerged at the same historical moment. Like all good detective fiction, the Shakespeare mystery can be solved only by determining what evidence is credible, retracing steps, and avoiding false leads. My own account in the pages that follow is no different. I’ve spent the past twenty-five years researching and teaching Shakespeare’s works at Columbia University. For some, that automatically disqualifies me from writing fairly about the controversy on the grounds that my professional investments are so great that I cannot be objective. There are a few who have gone so far as to hint at a conspiracy at work among Shakespeare professors and institutions, with scholars paid off to suppress information that would undermine Shakespeare’s claim. If so, somebody forgot to put my name on the list.
My graduate school experience taught me to be skeptical of unexamined historical claims, even ones that other Shakespeareans took on faith. I had wanted to write my doctoral dissertation on “Shakespeare and the Jews” but was told that since there were no Jews in Shakespeare’s England there were no Jewish questions, and I should turn my attention elsewhere. I reluctantly did so, but years later, after a good deal of research, I learned that both claims were false: there was in fact a small community of Jews living in Elizabethan London, and many leading English writers at that time wrestled in their work with questions of Jewish difference (in an effort to better grasp what constituted English identity). That experience, and the book that grew out of it, taught me the value of revisiting truths universally acknowledged.
There yet remains one subject walled off from serious study by Shakespeare scholars: the authorship question. More than one fellow Shakespearean was disheartened to learn that I was committing my energies to it, as if somehow I was wasting my time and talent, or worse, at risk of going over to the dark side. I became increasingly interested in why this subject remains virtually taboo in academic circles, as well as in the consequences of this collective silence. One thing is certain: the decision by professors to all but ignore the authorship question hasn’t made it disappear. If anything, more people are drawn to it than ever. And because prominent Shakespeareans—with the notable exceptions of Samuel Schoenbaum, Jonathan Bate, Marjorie Garber, Gary Taylor, Stanley Wells, and Alan Nelson—have all but surrendered the field, general readers curious about the subject typically learn about it through the books and websites of those convinced that Shakespeare could never have written the plays.
This was forcefully brought home not long ago when I met with a group of nine-year-olds at a local elementary school to talk about Shakespeare’s poetry. 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.
Not long after, at the Bank Street Bookstore, the best children’s bookstore in New York City, I ran into a colleague from the history department buying a stack of books for her twelve-year-old daughter. On the top of her pile was a young adult paperback by Elise Broach, Shakespeare’s Secret, which I learned from those who worked at the store was a popular title. I bought a copy. It’s a fascinating and fast-paced detective story about a diamond necklace that once belonged to Queen Elizabeth. The mystery of the necklace is worked out only when another mystery, concerning who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, is solved.
The father of the story’s young heroine is a Shakespeare scholar at the “Maxwell Elizabethan Documents Collection in Washington, D.C.” (whose “vaulted ceilings” and “long, shining wood tables” bear a striking resemblance to those of the Folger Shakespeare Library). He tells his curious daughter that there’s “no proof, of course, but there are some intriguing clues” that “Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford” was “the man who might be Shakespeare.” When she asks him why people think Oxford might have written the plays, he explains that Oxford had “the perfect background, really. He was clever, well educated, well traveled,” and “events of his life bear a fascinating resemblance to events in Shakespeare’s plays.” He adds that “most academics still favor Shakespeare,” though “over the years, Oxford has emerged as a real possibility.” But it doesn’t take her long to suspect that Shakespeare wasn’t the author after all; by page 45, after learning that Shakespeare “couldn’t even spell his own name,” she decides: “Okay, so maybe he didn’t write the plays.”
An unusual twist to the story is the suggestion that Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Oxford had a clandestine relationship, which explains why Oxford couldn’t claim credit for writing the plays falsely attributed to Shakespeare: “If there were some connection between Oxford and Elizabeth that meant the royal name would be besmirched by his ambitions as a playwright.” In the end, the secret of the necklace reveals “that Edward de Vere was Elizabeth’s son.” More surprising still is the hint that the relationship between son and mother didn’t end there, for when he came of age, Oxford “might have been her lover” as well.
Elise Broach provides an author’s note in which she explains that the “case for Edward de Vere as Shakespeare is compelling,” and that while “there is no proof that Edward de Vere was the son of Elizabeth I, there is clear evidence of a connection between them, and the notion that he might have been either her lover or her son continues to be discussed.” As for her own views: “As a historian” (who did graduate work in history at Yale) “I don’t find the evidence to be complete enough—yet—to topple the man from Stratford from his literary pedestal. But as a novelist, I am more convinced.”
I put the book down, relieved that the nine-year-old boy had stuck to Shakespeare’s authorship and not asked me about Queen Elizabeth’s incestuous love life. The question of how schoolchildren could learn to doubt whether Shakespeare wrote the plays may have been answered, but only to be replaced by more vexing ones: What led a writer as thoughtful and well informed as Elise Broach to arrive at this solution? What underlying assumptions—about concealed identity, Elizabethan literary culture, and especially the autobiographical nature of the plays—enabled such a conception of Shakespeare’s authorship to take hold? And when and why had such changes in understanding occurred?
In taking this set of questions as my subject, this book departs from previous ones about the authorship controversy. Earlier books have focused almost exclusively on what people have claimed, that is, whether it was Shakespeare or someone else who wrote the plays. The best of these books—and there are a number of excellent ones written both by advocates and by those skeptical of Shakespeare’s authorship—set out well-rehearsed arguments for and against Shakespeare and his many rivals. Consulting them, or a handful of online discussion groups such as “The Shakespeare Fellowship” (for a pro-Oxford bias), “The Forest of Arden” (for a pro-Shakespeare one), and “Humanities.Literature.Authors.Shakespeare” (for a glimpse of how nasty things can get), will offer a sense of where the battle lines are currently drawn, but will fail to make clear how we got to where we are now and how it may be possible to move beyond what seems like endless trench warfare.
Shakespeare scholars insist that Christopher Marlowe could not have written plays dated as late as 1614 because he was killed in 1593, and that the Earl of Oxford couldn’t have either, because he died in 1604, before Lear, Macbeth, and eight or so other plays were written. Marlowe’s defenders counter that Marlowe wasn’t in fact killed; his assassination was staged and he was secretly hustled off to the Continent, where he wrote the plays now known as Shakespeare’s. Oxfordians respond that despite what orthodox scholars say, nobody knows the dates of many of Shakespeare’s late plays, and in any case Oxford could easily have written them before his death. Shakespeareans reply that there is not a shred of documentary evidence linking anyone else to the authorship of the plays; advocates of rival candidates respond that there is plenty of circumstantial evidence—and, moreover, many reasons to doubt Shakespeare’s claim. Positions are fixed and debate has proven to be futile or self-serving. The only thing that has changed over time is how best to get one’s message across. Until twenty years ago, it was mainly through books and articles; since then the Web has played an increasingly crucial role. Those who would deny Shakespeare’s authorship, long excluded from publishing their work in academic journals or through university presses, are now taking advantage of the level playing field provided by the Web, especially such widely consulted and democratic sites as Wikipedia.
My interest, again, is not in what people think—which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms—so much as why they think it. No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world in which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story. Groups are locked in opposition, proponents gravitating to their own kind, reinforced in their beliefs by like-minded (and potentially closed-minded) communities. There are those who believe in intelligent design and those who swear by the theory of evolution; there are those who believe that life begins at conception and those who don’t. Then there are those whose view of the world is shaped for better or worse by conspiracy, so while most are convinced that astronauts walked on the moon, some believe that this event was staged. More disturbingly, there are those who survived the Holocaust and those who maintain it never happened. I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story. At the same time, I don’t want to draw a naive comparison between the Shakespeare controversy and any of these other issues. I think it’s a mistake to do so, except insofar as it too turns on underlying assumptions and notions of evidence that cannot be reconciled. Yet unlike some of these other controversies, I think it’s possible to get at why people have come to believe what they believe about Shakespeare’s authorship, and it is partly in the hope of doing so that I have written this book.
I should say at this point that I happen to believe that William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed to him, a view left unshaken by the years of study I have devoted to this subject (and toward the end of this book I’ll explain in some detail why I think so). But I take very seriously the fact that some brilliant writers and thinkers who matter a great deal to me—including Sigmund Freud, Henry James, and Mark Twain—have doubted that Shakespeare wrote the plays. Through their published and unpublished reflections on Shakespeare I’ve gained a much sharper sense of what is contested and ultimately at stake in the authorship debate. Their work has also helped me unravel a mystery at the heart of the controversy: Why, after two centuries, did so many people start questioning whether Shakespeare wrote the plays?
There’s another mystery, often and easily confused with this one, that I cannot solve, though it continues to haunt both Shakespeareans and skeptics alike: What led to the playwright’s emergence (whomever one imagines he or she was) as such an extraordinary writer? As for the formative years of William Shakespeare—especially the decade or so between his marriage to Anne Hathaway in the early 1580s and his reappearance in London in the early 1590s, by now an aspiring poet and playwright—they are called the “lost years” for a reason. Was he a lawyer, a butcher, a soldier, or teaching in a Catholic household in Lancashire during those years, as some have surmised? We simply don’t know. No less inscrutable is the “contested will” to which the dying Shakespeare affixed his signature in 1616. The surviving three-page document makes no mention of his books or manuscripts. And, notoriously, the only thing that Shakespeare bequeathed in it to his wife, Anne, was a “second best bed.” Not only the nature of their marriage but also the kind of man Shakespeare was seems bound up in this bequest. Was he referring, perhaps, to the guest bed or alternatively to the marital bed they had shared? Was he deliberately treating his wife shabbily in the will or did he simply assume that a third of his estate—the “widow’s dower”—was automatically her share? We don’t know and probably never shall, though such unanswerable questions continue to fuel the mystery surrounding his life and work.
With these challenges in mind, this book first sets out to trace the controversy back to its origins, before considering why many formidable writers came to question Shakespeare’s authorship. I quickly discovered that biographers of Freud, Twain, and James weren’t keen on looking too deeply into these authors’ doubts about Shakespeare. As a result, I encountered something rare in Shakespeare studies: archival material that was unsifted and in some cases unknown. I’ve also revisited the life and works of the two most influential figures in the controversy, the allegedly “mad” American woman, Delia Bacon, who first made the case for Francis Bacon, and the schoolmaster J. T. Looney, the first to propose that Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the plays. For a debate that largely turns on how one understands the relationship of Shakespeare’s life and works, there has been disappointingly little attention devoted to considering how Bacon’s and Looney’s experiences and worldviews determined the trajectory of their theories of authorship. Scholars on both sides of the debate have overlooked a great deal by taking these two polemicists at their word.
More than any subject I’ve ever studied, the history of the authorship question is rife with forgeries and deception. I now approach all claims about Shakespeare’s identity with caution, taking into account when each discovery was made and how it altered previous biographical assumptions. I’ve also come to understand that the authorship controversy has turned on a handful of ideas having little directly to do with Shakespeare but profoundly altering how his life and works would be read and interpreted. Some of these ideas came from debates about biblical texts, others from debates about classical ones. Still others had to do with emerging notions of the autobiographical self. As much as those on both sides of the controversy like to imagine themselves as independent thinkers, their views are strongly constrained by a few powerful ideas that took hold in the early nineteenth century.
While Shakespeare was a product of an early modern world, the controversy over the authorship of his works is the creation of a modern one. As a result, there’s a danger of reading the past through contemporary eyes—from what Shakespeare’s contested will really meant to how writers back then might have drawn upon personal experiences in their works. A secondary aim of this book, then, is to show how Shakespeare is not our contemporary, nor as universal as we might wish him to be. Anachronistic thinking, especially about how we can gain access to writers’ lives through their plays and poems, turns out to be as characteristic of supporters of Shakespeare’s authorship as it is of skeptics. From this vantage, the long-standing opposition between the two camps is misleading, for they have more in common than either side is willing to concede. These shared if unspoken assumptions may in fact help explain the hostility that defines their relationship today, and I’ll suggest that there may be more useful ways of defining sides in this debate. I’ll also argue that Shakespeare scholars, from the late eighteenth century until today, bear a greater responsibility than they acknowledge for both the emergence and the perpetuation of the authorship controversy.
THE EVIDENCE I continued to uncover while researching this book made it hard to imagine how anyone before the 1840s could argue that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays. This working assumption couldn’t easily be reconciled with the received history of the controversy, one that, as noted earlier, goes back to James Wilmot in 1785, or at least to James Cowell in 1805. Aware of this uncomfortable fact, I held off until the very end of my research on consulting the Cowell manuscript in the Durning-Lawrence Library at Senate House Library in London. Before I called it up I knew as much as others who had read about this unpublished and rarely examined work. It was one of the jewels of a great collection of materials touching on the life and works of Francis Bacon, assembled at great expense by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence and, after his death in 1914, by his widow, Edith Jane Durning Smith, who shared his keen interest in the authorship controversy. Upon her death in 1929, the collection was bequeathed to the University of London, and by 1931 the transfer of materials was complete. A year later the leading British scholar Allardyce Nicoll announced in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement in an essay titled “The First Baconian” the discovery of Cowell’s lectures. It was Nicoll who put the pieces of the puzzle together, relying heavily on a biography written in 1813 by Wilmot’s niece, Olivia Wilmot Serres. Serres’s account, while not mentioning her uncle’s meeting with Cowell or his Shakespeare research, nonetheless confirmed that Wilmot was a serious man of letters, had lived near Stratford, was an admirer of Francis Bacon, and had indeed burned his papers. Nicoll was less successful in tracing James Corton Cowell, concluding that he “seems to have been a Quaker” on the grounds that “he was in all probability closely related to the well-known Orientalist E. B. Cowell, who was born at Ipswich in 1828.”
Armed with this information, I turned to the lectures themselves, which made for gripping reading—how Cowell began as a confirmed Shakespearean, how his fortuitous encounter with Wilmot changed all that, how Wilmot anticipated a widely accepted reading of Love’s Labour’s Lost by a century, and perhaps most fascinating of all, how Wilmot uncovered stories of “odd characters living at or near Stratford on the Avon with whom Shakespeare must have been familiar,” including “a certain man of extreme ugliness and tallness who blackmailed the farmers under threat of bewitching their cattle,” as well as “a legend of showers of cakes at Shrovetide and stories of men who were rendered cripples by the falling of these cakes.” I thought it a shame that Cowell had not taken even better notes.
And then my heart skipped when I came upon the following words: “it is strange that Shakespeare whose best years had been spent in a profitable and literary vocation should return to an obscure village offering no intellectual allurement and take up the very unromantic business of a money lender and dealer in malt.” The sentence seemed innocuous enough; scholars and skeptics alike have long drawn attention to these well-known facts about Shakespeare’s business dealings. But having long focused more on when than on what people thought what they did about Shakespeare, I remembered that these details were unknown in 1785, or even in 1805. Records showing that Shakespeare’s household stockpiled grain in order to produce malt were not discovered until the early 1840s (and first published in 1844 by John Payne Collier). And it wasn’t until 1806 that the Stratford antiquarian R. B. Wheler made public the first of what would turn out to be several documents indicating that Shakespeare had engaged in money lending (in this case, how in 1609 Shakespeare had a Stratford neighbor named John Addenbrooke arrested for failing to repay a small sum). While an unsent letter in which another neighbor asks Shakespeare for a loan had been discovered in the late eighteenth century, the scholar who found it chose not to announce or share his discovery; it remained otherwise unknown until 1821. So Shakespeare’s grain hoarding and money lending didn’t become biographical commonplaces until the Victorian era.
The word “unromantic” in the same sentence should have tipped me off; though there was a recorded instance of its use before 1800, it wasn’t yet in currency at the time Cowell was supposedly writing. Whoever wrote these lectures purporting to be from 1805 had slipped up. I was looking at a forgery, and an unusually clever one at that, which on further examination almost surely dated from the early decades of the twentieth century. That meant the forger was probably still alive—and enjoying a satisfied laugh at the expense of the gulled professor—when Allardyce Nicoll had announced this discovery in the pages of the TLS. The forger had brazenly left other hints, not least of all the wish attributed to Cowell that “my material may be used by others regardless whence it came for it matters little who made the axe so that it cut.” And there were a few other false notes, including one pointed out by a letter writer responding to Nicoll’s article, that Cowell had gotten his Warwickshire geography wrong. It also turns out that Serres, the author of Nicoll’s main corroborative source (the biography of Wilmot) was a forger and fantasist. Much of her biographical account (including the burning of Wilmot’s papers) was invented, and she later changed her story, asserting she was actually Wilmot’s granddaughter and the illegitimate daughter of King George III. Her case was even discussed in Parliament and it took a trial to expose her fraudulent claim to be of royal descent. So Olivia Serres, at the source of the Cowell forgery, would also prove to be the pattern of a Shakespeare claimant: a writer of high lineage mistaken for someone of humbler origins, whose true identity deserved to be acknowledged.
I’ve not been able to discover who forged the Cowell manuscript; that mystery will have to be solved by others. His or her motives (or perhaps theirs) cannot fully be known, though it’s worth hazarding a guess or two. Greed perhaps figured, for there is a record of payment for the manuscript of the not inconsiderable sum of eight pounds, eight shillings—though this document may have been planted, and we simply don’t as yet know when or how the Cowell manuscript became part of the Durning-Lawrence collection. But, given how much time and care went into the forgery, a far likelier motive was the desire on the part of a Baconian to stave off the challenge posed by supporters of the Earl of Oxford, who by the 1920s threatened to surpass Bacon as the more likely author of Shakespeare’s works, if in fact he had not done so already. A final motive was that it reassigned the discovery of Francis Bacon’s authorship from a “mad” American woman to a true-born Englishman, a quiet, retiring man of letters, an Oxford-educated rector from the heart of England. Wilmot also stood as a surrogate for the actual author of Shakespeare’s plays: a well-educated man believed to have written pseudonymously who refused to claim credit for what he wrote and nearly denied posterity knowledge of the truth.
All of the major elements of the authorship controversy come together in the tangled story of Wilmot, Cowell, Serres, and the nameless forger—which serves as both a prologue and a warning. The following pages retrace a path strewn with a great deal more of the same: fabricated documents, embellished lives, concealed identity, pseudonymous authorship, contested evidence, bald-faced deception, and a failure to grasp what could not be imagined.
© 2010 James Shapiro
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