In the Shakespeare wars, James Shapiro fights for the Bard -

In the Shakespeare wars, James Shapiro fights for the Bard

A Q&A with the orthodox Stratfordian about Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and other non-believers


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.


In the Shakespeare wars, James Shapiro fights for the Bard

  1. Anyone genuinely interested in knowing why so many eminent people, including at least five U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and many of our greatest writers, thinkers and Shakespearean actors, have expressed doubt that William Shakspere of Stratford wrote the works attributed to him should read the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare." The Declaration has been signed by over 1,700 people, including two U.S. Supreme Court Justices and more than 300 academics. It can be read, and signed, at the website of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition:

    Here's what Prof. Shapiro wrote about the Declaration in his book: “It is a skillfully drafted document, the collaborative effort of some of the best minds committed to casting doubt on Shakespeare's authorship. Its title is inspired, combining the uplift of a historical declaration with that long-established sense of fairness that guided juries to just verdicts, ‘reasonable doubt.' A whiff of the courtroom is apparent throughout, as 'the prima facie case for Mr. Shakspere' is shown to be 'problematic' and the connections between the life of the alleged author and the works 'dubious.' The testimony of a score of expert witnesses — including Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, and Justice Blackmun — is introduced into the record. And by not specifying a single candidate, it brings together under one roof proponents of all of them.” So much for claims that there's no Shakespeare authorship controversy.

    • Hey, I've taken a look and thanks to me, not only do several supreme court justices doubt it, but W. Shakespeare himself!

  2. Professor Shapiro:

    Do your homework: Marlowe's grave is not at Westminster Abbey. Pretty basic stuff, good professor!

    Have you really studied Marlowe's death?

    You should watch Rubbo's Much Ado About Something documentary.

    • There is a memorial plaque, dedicated in 2002, with the aforementioned question mark on his date of death.

  3. How Shapiro could get such a basic fact wrong about Marlowe's burial is baffling.

  4. Why are you so desperate to believe Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare? Genuinely curious, that's all!

  5. It's the unmarked grave part, also, that's really always struck me as odd. Of course, William Shakespeare's private life bearing no interest to anything literary or intellectual – that's also bugged me!

    So you have Shakespeare (no education, no evidence of a literary life) and you have Marlowe – the only candidate with a proven track record of writing on a "Shakespearean level." This is where the other candidates fail – neither Oxford or Bacon could write Shakespearean. Period!

  6. Ithamore –

    Great question. I can only speak for myself, but I certainly undertstand why Marlovians are so passionate. Think about it: Marlowe, the darling of the London stage in the early 1590s, the pioneer of blank verse (which you find in every Shakespeare tragedy), buried in an unmarked grave. He "dies," and the works attributed to Shakespeare start appearing. But wait! The early works of Shakespeare are very close in style to the late works of Marlowe (sorry, you need to do the experiment yourself – read late Marlowe, then early Shakespeare. This nails it for me. But again, you need to the readings yourself). But Marlowe lived in the shadows – Queen's Secret Service. He knew powerful people. But he was charged with heresy. He could face the gallows. If you were Marlowe, what would you do? Have your day in court (good luck . . .British courts were ruthless with perceived heretics) or use you connections and make a run? So you make a run. You go in hiding. Do you suddenly stop writing your plays? I don't think so. Writing was in Marlowe's blood. He was a prodigy. Brilliant literary mind. Do you see where I'm going?

  7. Well……could it be that Marlowe,in order to save his neck,'staged 'his own death,and then,after taking refuge with the Skakespeares,he and Billie had a grand ol; time inventing stuff……and all was well!

    • Marlowe hid in Shakespeare’s attic/basement (delete as appropriate), and then by pigeon-post sent all those great plays first to the Globe and then to the Rose theatre to be performed under S’s name. Or, he skedaddled to Italy/Spain (delete as appropriate) and faxed his plays to a guy called Shakespeare. Anything will do, any wild assumption (replacing plausible and within the limits of reason reconstruction), any candidate, except of course William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. Prof. Shapiro is right to alight on the pathological nature of the anti-Shakespeareans (conspiracy theorists). Oh, I forgot the important argument, I have avidly and carefully read both Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s plays and it is quite clear to me (and not only to me, but to any Elizabethan drama scholar worth his/her salt) that we are dealing with two different writers, with different preoccupations, who place different emphases on different aspects of human experience as well as exploring different dramatic possibilities and paths.