Deciding Who Wrote Shakespeare matters to me

by Mr. Sheehy

Though I liked the reviews I’d read of James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, I did not think I’d be interested in reading it. Ultimately I have always thought the question of the authorship of Shakespeare’s work to be a bit of a bore–a sidetrack to my study of the plays. As a teacher, spending time on this question in my Shakespeare class seemed to be the equivalent of spending a civics class studying whether President Bush ordered the September 11th attacks. I said as much back in April in response to a comment on my article about Bill Bryson’s biography of Shakespeare, calling the authorship question pointless.

But somewhere at the end of the summer I needed an audio book that would hold my attention. I had gone through eleven of them through the summer and was ready for something a bit heady, especially as I grew excited about teaching Shakespeare in the fall. It helped when I discovered that my library had purchased Contested Will. It actually fit my qualifications for audio books perfectly. To listen to the audio version of a book, I require books that I would like to read but likely never would read in a text version–something I would just never find the time to peruse and that would never be able to bump the top must-reads from their perches. Contested Will seemed to fit the bill (pun very much intended), so I gave it a shot despite my disinterest in its topic.

Well, that disinterest was then.

This book was great. It begins mostly as a history of the authorship question. Shapiro traces the discipline of questioning Shakespeare’s authorship beyond the usual inaugural patron saint Delia Bacon all the way to the famous scholar Edmund Malone. Malone didn’t actually question whether the man from Stratford wrote the plays, but his work set a precedent for how to read the plays differently (searching them for autobiographical clues), and that way of reading the plays has become the cornerstone of the authorship-questioning movement.

The way Shapiro writes this book is intriguing to me, as he withholds his own case until the end of the book. In fact, he withholds so much that a bit more than halfway through it, hearing his descriptions of the arguments of famous Oxfordians (those who believe the plays were written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford), I found myself thinking, “Well, I can’t blame them for thinking Oxford wrote the plays. Considering what we seem to know about William Shakespeare, Oxford’s case sounds about as good.”

Since I sincerely thought such a thing, it’s a good thing I finished the book. My comments now serve mostly as a nice lesson in why you don’t attend a conspirator’s convention without a good guide who can give an intelligent rebuttal. In that enclosed world of carefully scripted arguments, things can begin to make sense. Open the door to the fresh air, however, and things change a bit.

Shapiro opens the door to the fresh air at the end of the book and overwhelms the stuffy room of conspiracy and authorship questions so convincingly that by the last word I could barely sniff their presence. Shakespeare's birth place.  Stratford upon AvonHe brought up a heavy batch of scholarship and reasons I was not aware of before and used them to overwhelm the arguments of anti-Stratfordians.

Of course it is not surprising I was so unaware of Shapiro’s arguments, since I have stood firmly upon my belief that this was all a waste of time. It is that stance of mine that has most dramatically reversed, however, and it was moved by Shapiro’s final insight. He points out throughout Contested Will that the arguments against William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon are built upon one main idea: the inconceivability that a poor glover’s son-become actor with no university education and an apparent bent for usury could have written the greatest plays of the English language. Shakespeare deniers from Twain (he thought Francis Bacon wrote the plays) to Freud (he threw in for the Earl of Oxford) insist that only a person who has experienced the things written about in the plays could possibly have written them.

What these deniers ultimately deny, then, is the ability of the human imagination to conceive of that which it has not directly experienced. The attacks on the man from  Stratford, as they have been put forward, have all been attacks on the imagination as much as they have been attacks on Shakespeare.

In agreeing with Shapiro on this, I realized how wrong I’d been about my apathy towards this question. Now, instead of brushing off the authorship question with a few jokes about pajamas and Internet connections, I plan to spend at least one day in our Shakespeare class working through the arguments, their rebuttals, and their consequences. I want to remind this roomful of students, each one of them carrying a bountiful imagination, of the stakes of the argument. I’d hate for some peddler of Elizabethan conspiracies to undercut the power of their minds by downgrading the imagination of William Shakespeare.

Thanks for reading.


Shakespeare’s Birthplace on Flickr by: Elivis Payne