While I was recuperating last week I read and enjoyed James Shapiro’s new book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? It’s an excellent history of the debates over the authorship of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare — and it’s primarily that, a history. Shapiro wants to understand how and why, at some point in the 19th century, people began to suspect that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays, and why they chose the alternative candidates they did. For the first hundred years of doubt, the preferred candidate was Francis Bacon; when that hypothesis became entangled in a dense web of ludicrous theories about cryptography and hidden acrostics, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was put forward — and is today the preferred candidate of most anti-Stratfordians.
The case against William Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays is based almost wholly on what Richard Dawkins calls, in a very different context, the argument from personal incredulity. People think that it’s just not possible for a poorly educated glover’s son from a provincial town to have written those plays, with their wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and even technical detail in a range of fields (from law to sailing). Leaving aside the question of whether Oxford or Bacon had more direct experience, across the whole range of Shakespearean reference, than the man from Stratford, we can note that this incredulity is based on a very low opinion of the learning that can be acquired from reading, even by a person of genius. The possibility that the glover’s son could have had the intellectual resources to draw more from books than most people draw from direct experience is never considered, even though the plays show unmistakeable signs of extraordinarily deep and broad reading.
Shapiro knows, and mentions at the outset of the book, that his fellow professional Shakespeareans have tended to be contemptuous of the hypotheses of alternative authorship, and is determined to be more respectful, even though he is convinced that William Shakespeare did indeed write the plays (and poems). He may succeed in this too well. In his last chapter, in which he lays out the case for Shakespearean authorship, he noticeably pulls his punches. The case for alternative authorship, especially that of the Earl of Oxford, simply cannot survive an encounter with what scholars now know about the composition and performance of the plays, especially the later ones, and I wish Shapiro had been more assertive in making this point.
But he does make it all the same, and the book is very much worth reading not only for its history — which is fascinating in its own right — but for that case. Is it likely that a man from the provinces with a limited education and a head for business wrote the plays of Shakespeare? In one sense, no — in the sense that it’s not likely that anyone could have written those plays, since they constitute some of the most amazing productions of the human mind. That they exist at all is a miracle. But if you go through the records of the theatrical companies of the era, and you listen to the testimony of people like Ben Jonson who knew Shakespeare as man and poet, and you scrutinize the surviving versions of the plays, I don't see how you could come to any other conclusion than this: Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.