Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $26.00
I enjoyed James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599 and wanted to read his latest book on Shakespeare as soon as I could. I didn’t realize Wikipedia had a long article on the Shakespeare authorship question as well as many additional sites going into details on that topic, pro and con. Fortunately Shapiro frames the history and the debate extremely well. So what are some of the conditions that lead to a challenge in Shakespeare’s authorship? Some are obvious, others more subtle:
Shapiro then looks at two often mentioned candidates for authorship, Sir Francis Bacon and the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, and the history of their candidacy. Shapiro’s intent is not to be all-inclusive in looking at alternatives (since there are dozens of names floated as the “true” author) but to use these two as representative of other claims. Along the way he goes into detail on famous deniers, interesting characters, and staged events including the following examples:
Shapiro doesn’t seek to prove Shakespeare’s authorship, instead using the last chapter to lay out the evidence and circumstances that makes him confident in Shakespeare’s claim. In discussing the deniers’ claims about other authors Shapiro can seem to stray into many of the same types of arguments that the deniers use, such as assigning a motive for certain beliefs or behavior. The difference between the two is that Shapiro always details first- and second-hand accounts that support his comments. Probing the mentality of prominent Shakespeare deniers ends up inverting the authorship question: instead of asking how could someone from such a humble background write with such genius, I found myself wondering how such a list of seemingly smart people could believe such incredible speculation. Not to say that Shapiro eases off Shakespeare scholars who participate in the same flights of imagination masquerading as research.
In the Epilogue, Shapiro addresses the idea that the “controversy over Shakespeare’s authorship has proven to be, in retrospect, a long footnote to the larger story of the way we read now.” For those that wish to see autobiography from the writings, Shapiro points out that the writer’s “plays are not an a la carte menu, from which we pick characters who will satisfy our appetite for Shakespeare’s personality while passing over less appetizing choices. He imagined them all.” In lieu of notes, Shapiro provides a biographical essay that provides plenty of facts not included in the text. I’m now ready for a trivia question on the connection between Charlie Chaplin and Malcolm X.
Painted by George Romney, engraved, by Benjamin Smith