Saturday, May 08, 2010

Contested Will discussion

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro
Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $26.00
ISBN: 1416541624

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:

  • A seeming paucity of facts and first-hand data surrounding Shakespeare

  • Lack of understanding of Elizabethan custom (such as the difference between a will and the filing of the deceased’s inventory of belongings)

  • Changes in scholarship, which included shifting approaches in exploring Biblical events or Homer’s existence then applied to Shakespeare

  • The deification of Shakespeare: David Garrick‘s three day Jubilee in September 1769 at Stratford-upon-Avon being the “the point at which Shakespeare stopped being regarded as an increasingly popular and admirable dramatist, and became a god” (according to historian Christian Deelman)

  • Forgeries and fake documents cloud the waters. Shapiro goes into some detail on the Ireland Shakespeare forgeries, which were quickly exposed by Edward Malone. Malone took aim at the documents but also focused on the “experts” that did not catch easy clues and anachronisms to show documents were fake. Other forgeries include the James Corton Cowell manuscripts, documenting James Wilmot’s alleged ‘proof’s that Francis Bacon wrote the plays (while others have cast doubt on their authenticity, Shapiro proves they are fake). Other forgeries include Richard Fenton’s Tour in Quest of Genealogy and John Payne Collier’s “finds”, both of which attempt to support Shakespeare’s authorship but doing so through false documents

  • Facts and documents that do survive about Shakespeare tend to revolve around uninspiring events, such as business and legal dealings. How can anyone so touched by the Muses be so concerned about day to day concerns? The inability to reconcile Shakespeare's works and his life has been a major sticking point for many people. A corollary to this problem is the belief that authors of such ability don’t write for money but for the future.

  • The changing views of writing, which depends on the era judging Shakespeare. Related topics include the need to find deeper meaning or a conspiracy

  • The belief, increasing in the last 150 years, that an author’s works include autobiographical events. How could a writer from such a modest background know so much about the law and the court, for example, or write about foreign lands he never visited?

  • 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:

  • Delia Bacon--I'll limit my comments to the link

  • Mark Twain, who was heavily invested in “writing as autobiography”

  • Helen Keller used “the ten eyes of my fingers” to find acrostics in the plays

  • Henry James thought it unlikely that Bacon wrote the plays but found it impossible that Shakespeare could have...he was able to get a good story, “The Birthplace”, from his doubt

  • Orville Ward Owen and his “cipher wheel”

  • Sigmund Freud helped change the view that Prospero was Shakespeare’s most autobiographical character, resting initial psychoanalytic foundations on Hamlet as much as Sophocles

  • John Thomas Looney (rhymes with ‘bony’) and his book ”Shakespeare” Identified, providing the first serious look at de Vere as the author and heavily influenced Freud. Also interesting was Looney’s involvement in Richard Congreve’s short-lived branch of the Church of Humanity

  • Sherlock Holmes, who reveals that the works were written by Roger Manners, fifth earl of Rutland, in Alias William Shakespeare by Claud W. Sykes

  • The use of mediums in several published books, one as late as 1943, to provide the authorship answer

  • 1987’s ”In re Shakespeare: The Authorship of Shakespeare on Trial”, in which three U.S. Supreme Court Justices (William Brennan, Harry Blackmun, and John Paul Stevens) listened to arguments attempting to prove de Vere’s claim to authorship and found in favor of Shakespeare. Stevens, “somewhat ambiguous” during the mock trial, later changed his mind and the other two justices later expressed doubt in their votes. The next year another moot court in London also found for Shakespeare, but the publicity of these losses helped the de Vere cause.

  • 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.

    Shakespeare Nursed by Tragedy and Comedy
    Painted by George Romney, engraved, by Benjamin Smith
    Picture source


    Howard Schumann said...

    Denial, ridicule and entrenched belief systems are extremely potent defenders of the status quo. Too bad that a supposed scholar like Mr. Shapiro does nothing but reinforce this.

    Dwight said...

    Have you read Shapiro's book? He does nothing along those lines, and if I've misrepresented that it's my fault, not his. If you can counter any of the facts about Shakespeare's life or facts about playwrights or publishing he presents in his final chapter, I'm more than willing to listen.

    Dwight said...

    Let me rephrase that now that I’ve read back through my post a couple of times. I think I’ve made clear that Shapiro presents mostly history and facts. Any opinions he presents first- and second-hand reports to back them up. As I clearly pointed out, he does not present what he views as a proof. He’s just as hard on spurious scholarship supporting Shakespeare as anyone else. If any of what he presents is incorrect, again, I’m more than willing to listen.

    elizabeth said...

    The Oxfordians have gotten into the Wikipedia Shakespeare authorship pages so be aware that they
    have been altered.

    I counted at least seventy pages that
    have been altered, including the Baconian and Marlovian authorship pages.

    As far as Shapiro is
    concerned, I separate Strat biographers from Strat critics of the Shakespeare texts.

    The first keep rehashing the same documents that have been around for four hundred years but they never convey the whole story, i.e., that Blackfriar's Inn was a bawdyhouse that among other "unenumerated properties" were left to the Halls in Shaksper's will.

    In fact Bacon's aristocratic aunt, Lady Elizabeth Russell, owned an estate adjacent to the Blackfriar's whorehouse.

    She organized her neighbors into what may be history's first neighborhood association in an attempt to well, regulate the zoning, one might say, in opposition to the operation of Shaksper's whorehouse.

    The neighbors sent a petition to Archbishop John Whitgift (Bacon's tutor at Cambridge) but since Southwark was Whitgift's Anglican "living" he turned the petition down.

    A second piece of evidence is another letter written by lady Russell to the effect that she has been forced to erect a "tall, strong wooden fence" between her estate and Shaksper's establishment.

    Shaksper died very rich, worth at least a million in today's pounds, he spent much of his ill-gotten gain buying up lands around Stratford.

    In the 19th century a Baconian lawyer named Reed traveled to Stratford to try to make an estimate of Shaksper's wealth
    and there met another
    cleric who had been studying the question for years.

    The Stratford cleric made a hobby of traveling around Warwickshire looking through the records offices for property that Shaksper might have owned. It turns out that Shaksper owned a whole lot of property in Warwickshire and that doesn't count the "apartmenst next to the Swan" he owned in partnership with a notorious London criminal, Frances Langley. Ballads were sung about Langley.

    The Puritans seized the Blackfriar's bawdy house from the Halls just prior to the English Civil War.

    I love the great Strat critics of the Shakespeare texts, but the
    Strat biographers have nothing interesting to say, it's just conventional cover for the British myth of innate genius.

    Dwight said...

    Thanks elizabeth. The thing I like about Shapiro is he does include recent discoveries as well as looking critically at older, established documents and 'truths'. And in this case he is mostly looking at documents and Elizabethan/Jacobean examples that mostly deal with the authorship question, so neither strictly biography or textual criticism but rather a blend of the two.

    I'm beginning to see that S. authorship is like politics or religion.

    Howard Schumann said...

    Dwight - I don't think the issue is one of factual inaccuracy, though there are some. For example, Shapiro tries to show that the hyphenation of Shakespeare's name in the dedication on Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece was because of:

    "he typographical problem which could result from placing a -k- next to an long italic -s- such that the two letters would collide and “break,” creating a messy delay in the print shop."

    There's only one problem here, the name of William Shakespeare is neither hyphenated nor italicized in either Venus and Adonis or The Rape of Lucrece. As a matter of fact, the first instance of its hyphenation appears in the text of "Willobie His Avisa", an anonymous work in the early 1590s, not in any title page or dedication. In Avisa the hyphenated name is not, as Shapiro’s theory requires us to predict, italicized. It is also spelled with the –e- after the k.

    But aside from factual errors, the book fails to deal with the evidence that points strongly in the direction of Edward de Vere as the author. As Professor Roger Stritmatter says, "Shapiro elected to take the easy way out. The result is a book which deprives readers of the opportunity to experience critical thinking, promotes Shapiro’s own career at the expense of a failure to grapple honestly with the real perplexities of the case he purports to examine, and apparently has fooled an awful lot of gullible reviewers into thinking that the mythology from Stratford has any future."

    LAL said...

    Start here for things Shapiro got wrong:

    LAL said...

    Start here for things Shapiro got wrong:

    Dwight said...

    Thanks for the additional links and names to check out. I realize that facts left out, if relevant, can misconstrue the true nature of things.

    I'll have to check out everything on Monday...I'm about to take something to sleep through the night with this cold and hopefully handle Mother's Day events.

    LAL said...

    Sorry for the double post. Feel free to remove one. I was having browser and sign in problems and thought my comment had been lost when the box came up blank.

    You might want to check out this review too.

    Niederkorn is agnostic on the authorship issue.

    Anyone can read the Wikipedia discussions. I've read a couple of Wikipedia artcles recently that mention "Shakespeare's" sonnet form and iambic pentameter without a single reference to the Earl of Surrey or Arthur Golding, Edward de Vere's uncles. Apparently Oxfordians haven't gotten everywhere yet.

    Justice Stevens said last year the case for Oxford is beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Thanks for looking into this further, Dwight.

    Dwight said...

    LAL, don't worry about the double post.

    I’ll apologize upfront if I responded curtly yesterday, but I did so for a couple of reasons (besides being sick). One thing I’ve noticed in reviews of Shapiro’s book is they are criticizing him for a book he did not write instead of the one he did. He makes it clear up front that he’s exploring the history of the authorship question, limiting the alternatives to Bacon and de Vere as representative of the investigations in general. In the last chapter he makes it clear he is expounding his reasons for why he believes as he does, not claiming it to be proof. That’s why I avoided going into much detail on that chapter…I do NOT want to get into the authorship question here. I am interested in the history of it though, which is why his book appealed to me. The major complaint I have on his look at the history of the claim of de Vere is Shapiro shortchanges the resurgence of such claims and studies since the 1980s.

    I can see where a reader may think he is trying to have it both ways, laying out his belief while not presenting similar details on the other side. But again, he makes it clear at the beginning what he is doing and the train of reasoning he is using for what he presents—you don’t have to agree with his choices, but I don’t think you can claim he says he will do one thing and goes in another direction. Plus, I’m not into assigning motives…to me that’s a destructive game.

    I plan on looking at the critics and links listed, but it won’t be until tomorrow. Where I’ll be more critical of the book is if his history is incorrect or any of the significant reasons he lists for believing as he does is flawed. Again, I am not going into the authorship question here.

    fred said...

    Dwight, I respect your position about avoidance of the authorship issue and wish to discuss Shapiro's book on its own merits, although I have some little difficulty seeing how one can go about entirely and objectively separating the two. You may appreciate this essay about Shapiro's book:

    Mr. Wilkinson's two key comments:

    1. "The beginnings of a peace process can never involve a complete open-mindedness to the others’ position; at best there is the beginning of a conversation."

    2. "Shapiro is caught in a basic contradiction, as follows. He sets out to diagnose the assumption that both many Stratfordians, and Oxfordians, are caught in, the fundamental theme of his book, namely the biographical assumption that Shakespeare’s works reflect his life. And he does this on the presumption that his own position is neutral, is correct, is ‘how it is’, and is not an assumption, and so that he can then ‘diagnose’ the creators and supporters of alternative authorship narratives"

    I think the 2nd comment is interesting. (I've not read Shapiro's book.) It causes me to throughly disagree with Shapiro, if that is in fact Shapiro's position. Shapiro would turn the Shakespeare canon into nothing more than a literary exercise and, besides that, I think such a position is ridiculous on its face: I submit a person's imagination is a product of, and subject to the constraints of, his or her own life.

    I "discovered" the authorship issue a decade ago and find it to be of great fascination on several different, and profound, levels.

    I also discovered your blog due to this discussion and I now see you are "currently reading" The Mill On The Floss, so now I'll have to see what you have to say about that.

    Dwight said...

    Thanks Fred. I'm not sure how much I'll get to today...just got into work and not sure how much I'll get to today. Trying to get some due diligence out of the way to close a round of funding (not to mention the head cold).

    I wouldn't agree with the way Wilkinson's put that second point, at least the way I read the book. The way I would phrase his point, rightly or wrongly, is that there should not be an overreliance on autobiography (for or against experience) as a requirement for who did write Shakespeare. His point, and one I quoted, is that everything did spring from the person's imagination (which will include reliance on experience in varying degrees).

    And I agree, it's hard to separate the two issues as I say I'd like to. Unfortunately. I find the history interesting and the chapter on the Bacon movement in the 19th century was fascinating to me.

    Regarding The Mill on the Floss, I listened to it on my communte but feel I need to read it before I write on it. I want to re-read The Histories first though, so it may be a while before I get to it. I probably need to do a post on books I listen to (a recent enjoyment) at least.

    Dwight said...

    LAL, I checked out Hunter's article and for the most part I'll restate what I said earlier...he criticizes Shapiro for what he didn't write more than for what he did. "Shapiro conducts no substantive analysis of authorship issues." Exactly...that's not where he was going.

    Hunter complains about what Shapiro fixates on, claiming distortion or whatever, but I don't see it. His descriptions of Shapiro's discussion on Freud and Delia Bacon are far from the tone and content of what was included. Hunter's complaint, and mine, is that recent history along the Oxford front was not presented in the history.

    I liked Niederkorn's article much better, but I had to pause when I came to "His second premise is that those who don’t believe in Will of Stratford have something wrong with them." OK, maybe I didn't read the book the same as everyone else because I just didn't get that at all...the same for his comments on Shapiro talking about Malone and Bacon. Here's one example: "Shapiro heaps ridicule on Baconians’ claims of finding ciphered messages in the First Folio." Again, I didn't get that at all. *shrug* Maybe I'm just not attuned to things. But then Niederkorn has some well-founded bones to pick with Shapiro for misrepresenting what he has written. But once again Shaprio's last chapter is misrepresented for what he's trying to 'accomplish.'

    I'll do some additional reading at some of the links found with the articles...thanks again...and move back on to the last of Parade's End.

    LAL said...

    Did Richard Whalen also review a book Shapiro didn't write?

    It appears Shapiro doesn't want discussion either as was made clear at the Folger and Aspen and Tom Hunter may have given up on that idea.

    I think the hyphen error is on a par with Dr. Nelson's "white herrings" but there's more. E.g., there's no evidence Timon of Athens was ever performed at the Globe.

    If you're interested Robert Detobel will probably have an article on his site soon.

    This one's on 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare:

    For a history of the authorship question see The Shakespeare Controversy: An Analysis of the Claimants to Authorship, and Their Champions and Detractors by
    Warren Hope and Kim R. Holston.

    For listening I recommend Mark Anderson's Shakespeare By Another Name on CD.

    Okay, I'll shut up now.