James Shapiro is a Shakespearean scholar at Columbia University in New York, an orthodox Stratfordian—meaning he believes that the plays and sonnets commonly ascribed to William Shakespeare were indeed written by him and not by the 17th Earl of Oxford or Christopher Marlowe or any of a good dozen pretenders to the throne. Shapiro’s Contested Will is an eye-opening account of an authorship dispute now 150 years old. He spoke with Senior Writer Brian Bethune:
Q: Looking at the issue historically, does it seem plain to you that the authorship controversy is a theological quarrel?
A: Exactly, and at every level. Academics have veered away from religion in Shakespeare’s time—except for the not very helpful issue of whether he was Protestant or Catholic—because they would have to face the very religious language that runs through Shakespeare studies, and the authorship dispute. Look at Delia Bacon’s religious crisis just as she first launched Francis Bacon’s claims, or the way the contemporary interest in historical Jesus scholarship and the doubts that it raised about Christ, figured in hers and others’ thinking about Shakespeare. “Heresy” is not a word I used myself in the book, but it was the language used by critics then when choosing sides on the true author— “heresy” or “my confession of faith”—or Garrick calling his three-day festival a “Jubilee.” And the early forgeries were clearly relics—when William-Henry Ireland produced the documents, believers would kiss them.
Q: Once Shakespeare was deified people began to feel the man from Stratford wasn’t large enough—not sufficiently high-born, well-travelled or educated—for the scale of his achievement. Devotees started mining his works, which is all they had, for hints. And not just the heretics?
A: The orthodox are sinners too, if I can keep up the language. What I really wanted to do was point out how dangerous, if seductive, it is to deduce facts from Shakespeare’s imagination. The assumptions of Stratfordians are so close to what the doubters say—that we can find the life in the works—that Shakespeare professors should ask themselves some hard questions. We all draw inferences from Shakespeare’s imagination, and turn them into articles of faith, when it’s just the power of his imagination. We now know a lot about him, but still not what we want to know: what was in his heart. That’s the problem.
Q: You neatly show how the dispute is a dialogue of the deaf with the response to one of the newest pieces of evidence.
A: You mean the margin note in Camden’s Britannica? Yes, here’s a brief description of Stratford, printed in 1590, that mentions two distinguished citizens [a bishop and a judge] and an early 17th-century local vicar made a margin note, adding Shakespeare as a third eminent son. To me this is proof of Shakespeare’s early fame; to the man who discovered it, a committed Oxfordian, it just shows how early the plot to disguise Oxford’s authorship had taken root!! It’s pointless to try to discuss this, given the radically different assumptions about it.
Q: The anti-Stratfordian cause has attracted a lot of prominent authors and thinkers. What did you make of their arguments?
A: Mark Twain is the only one I came out of this with diminished respect for. Here’s a guy who re-invented himself down to his own name, who hired a—I made up this term, which I hope works—a stunt-writer to go to the South African gold fields for him and gather “experience.” Though as it turned out, Twain couldn’t use it, because the stunt guy died on the way home of blood poisoning after stabbing himself in the mouth with a fork—you can’t make this stuff up. But after doing all that himself, Twain simply dismissed Shakespeare’s imagination, saying no glove-maker’s son could write these plays about royalty and aristocracy. Of course, Twain also came to think Queen Elizabeth was a man.
Q: What about Freud?
A: I adored Freud. Still do, but on his Oxford belief …. Freud hinged his whole Oedipus Complex theory on Hamlet, and the accepted notion that John Shakespeare [William’s father] had died just before it was written, so that the entire unconscious Oedipal longing came pouring out of William. When doubt was cast on whether John died before or after Hamlet, Freud’s response essentially was “Well, show me somebody whose father died before.”
Q: As the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death—with all its attendant hoopla—approaches in 2016, how is the marathon faring? Who is the leading contender for Hamlet’s creator?
A: Putting Shakespeare himself aside for a moment, Oxford still leads the field, though Christopher Marlowe—a former contender who faded—is catching up. Go to Westminster Abbey and look at Marlowe’s grave. In 2002, his death date of 1593—and he needs to be alive long after that to be Shakespeare—suddenly spouted a question mark. If the administrators of Poets’ Corner could be convinced of that, which is utterly denied by the surviving original document of the Elizabethan inquest that examined his death, who knows what could follow. Next year comes Anonymous, directed by Roland Emmerich, of all people, which will plug the Oxford cause. In the rock-paper-scissors world of pop culture, movie beats book, and this film may well be a Emmerich disaster movie for Shakespeare teachers.
Q: In Contested Will, you make an overwhelming case that William Shakespeare was exactly who his contemporaries thought he was, the imaginative genius who wrote the plays bearing his name. What else can you and other Stratfordians do?
A: My next book will be on Shakespeare in 1606. We too often accommodate what the doubters stress—and which has become the popular concept—of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan only. He was a Jacobean too, who wrote many of his greatest plays in King James’s reign, long after Marlowe and Oxford died. I will show the Jacobean influence in taste, style and performance place. We as a profession don’t teach Shakespeare enough in a historically conscious way. That’s what we need to do.