What’s behind the Shakespeare wars

An eye-opening new history explains why the authorship dispute has lasted for 150 years

What’s behind the Shakespeare wars

The simmering Shakespearean authorship dispute over who really wrote his plays is now 150 years old. The characters may change, as new contenders rise to take on the man from Stratford—as philosopher Sir Francis Bacon gave way in the 20th century to the still current favourite, the 17th earl of Oxford—but the core arguments do not. In 1848, Samuel Schmucker, a Lutheran pastor in Pennsylvania, published Historic Doubts Respecting Shakespeare, a “skeptics’ playbook,” according to James Shapiro, whose Contested Will provides an eye-opening history. Schmucker set the template by stressing the chasm between the smallness of the man (a money-grubbing hick from Warwickshire) and the greatness of the works. It’s not the shrewdness of the pastor’s argument, though, but its irony that makes Historic Doubts historic. As Shapiro, an orthodox Stratfordian, happily recounts, Schmucker didn’t mean a word of it.

Schmucker, a critic of the emerging historical Jesus scholarship—which he saw as threatening belief in the divine Christ—was mocking its proponents by the satiric convention of turning their arguments against a target whose reality he never dreamt his readers would doubt. But irony has never been in short supply in the Shakespeare wars. Henry James pined, via a Hamlet metaphor, for some industrious scholar to find the true author by “the sharper point, the more extended lunge,” seemingly forgetting that the Prince of Denmark’s sword-thrust through the arras killed the wrong man. Nor has a religious subtext—Schmucker’s final ironic contribution—ever been lacking, for at bottom the authorship dispute is a theological quarrel.

Shakespeare long ago ascended to literary godhood. By 1728 Voltaire had noticed the English rarely referred to Shakespeare without prefacing his name with “divine.” Forty years later, when the actor David Garrick organized the ancestor of all Shakespearean festivals, he called the three-day event a “jubilee”—a word redolent with religious overtones. And after Helen Keller went over to the Baconian cause, she apologized to a friend for “heresy,” while leading Oxfordian Percy Allen titled his book My Confession of Faith.

It’s no coincidence the Bard-worshipping late 18th century saw the first forgeries and the first heresies. So little was known of the Stratford man, and what was known—lower-class birth, “small Latin and less Greek,” legal actions against his neighbours for paltry sums—scarcely appealed to gentlemen scholars. Who did appeal to them—men who saw The Tempest as the apogee of Shakespeare’s art and its philosopher-mage Prospero as a stand-in for the author—was Francis Bacon. Famous for his learned writing, and for dying from an experiment involving preserving raw chicken with snow (he caught a bad cold), Bacon was a far better fit for the top of the English literary pantheon. By the mid-19th century he was attracting massive support.

By the turn of the 20th century, though, Bacon’s star as an intellectual had waned, and so too had the place of The Tempest and Prospero in critics’ evaluations. In the age of Freud (an Oxfordian who saw his own Oedipus complex in action within Hamlet), great literature was seen as the expression of an author’s deepest—read unconscious—being, and Hamlet and its prince took the position they occupy still, as the Bard’s supreme creations. Now Bacon fit no better than Stratford Will himself, and the stage was clear for the earl. A new concept of the national deity demanded a new mortal form for him.

Shapiro understands the longing to make the man match the work, though he scorns the ignorance of the anti-Stratfordians when it comes to an Elizabethan playwright’s working life, the intense collaboration with actors and with other writers—several of Shakespeare’s later plays were joint productions. And a play like Pericles, with 827 lines from him and 835 by George Wilkins, could not have been written in a nobleman’s study, like some solitary modern novel.

What angers Shapiro is the denigration of imagination that underlies the anti-Stratfordians’ main article of faith. No matter the candidate, the brilliance of the author in capturing so many modes of life—aristocracy, royalty, the law and the military prime among them—means he must have lived those experiences. Rather than what William Shakespeare truly was: an imaginative genius better able than any poet before or since, as Theseus says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to give “airy nothing a local habitation and a name.”

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