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“First, my fear; then, my curtsy; last my speech. My fear is your displeasure. My curtsy, my duty. And my speech, to beg your pardons.” …but who wrote these lines? Ay, there’s the rub!

Title: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, by James Shapiro

Completed: February 29, 2012 (#15)

Recommendation: Thorough and definitive: Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Those skeptical of the “Man from Stratford” come in two varieties (and I do not mean “Baconians” and “Oxfordians”):

The first variety is smaller and comprises various offended geniuses who cannot support the notion that the son of a Stratford glover who, gasp, dabbled in a little grain speculation on the side and, gasp, even sued defaulting debtors on occasion could possibly merit mention alongside Homer as Western civilization’s greatest bard. Into this category fall the likes of Mark Twain (to an absurd degree that demeans his own literary achievements), Henry James (to a milder and more circumspect degree), and Freud (to an all-consuming degree, as one might expect), as well as some lesser lights, such as Helen Keller.

The other variety–let us refer to them as the garden variety–is composed primarily of what one might euphemistically term “conspiracists.” A more apt description is “crackpots.” By way of example: Delia Bacon (1811-1859)–founder of the Baconian school, non-relation of Francis Bacon, and author of the modestly entitled The Advancement of Learning to Its True Sphere as Propounded by Francis Bacon and Other Writers of the Globe School, Including the Part of Sir Walter Raleigh–was well and truly unhinged, insane in the clinical sense.

Simply stated, her thesis ran as follows:

  • Francis Bacon was quite a man of letters, a genius really.
  • His Instauratio magna was a work of genius, the very sort of thing that one imagines a genius would produce.
  • It’s unlikely that two geniuses occupied this earth at precisely the same historical time and place.
  • The author of the Instauratio magna must therefore have been the same person as the author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare.
  • Q.E.D.: As the night followeth the day, the missing fourth part of the Instauratio magna is the Collected Works of You-Know-Who.
  • To wit: Bacon is Shakespeare.

Let us not forget the acrostic ciphers encoded into the plays that establish this ironclad thesis beyond a shadow of a doubt. (For those who desire a more nuanced and less dismissive summary than the above, please conduct your search off A Superfluous Man‘s premises in one of the darker corners of the Internet’s febrile imagination. Or better yet, consult Mr. Shapiro’s book, which is more charitable and measured in its criticism than this reviewer has been.)

Exeunt Baconians.

There matters (convincingly?) lay until one J. Thomas Looney (1870-1944), mirabile dictu, appeared on the scene with his Oxfordian theory, namely that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the plays. This is the currently reigning theory among Shakespeare skeptics and is by far the best represented on conspiracist websites.

But wouldn’t it require a rather widespread conspiracy of the Elizabethan court, press, theater scene, and readership to have maintained Oxford’s anonymity for so long, you ask? Deeper down the rabbit hole we go:

Despite objections, the Prince Tudor theory [i.e., that Oxford was Queen Elizabeth's lover] gained adherents, especially in America. It was perhaps inevitable that the theory gave way to an even bolder one, known in Oxfordian circles as Prince Tudor, Part II. According to its proponents, Oxford was not only Elizabeth’s lover but her son as well. The man who impregnated the fourteen-year-old future queen was probably her own stepfather, Thomas Seymour. So it was incest, and incest upon incest when Oxford later slept with his royal mother and conceived Southampton. There is more: Southampton was only the last of the virgin queen’s children; by then she had already given birth to the Earl of Essex as well as Mary Sidney and Robert Cecil.

The Reader’s guess is as good as A Superfluous Man‘s as to how this theory is germane to the authorship controversy, but it figures quite prominently in the recent Hollywood movie, Anonymous.

Both the Baconian and Oxfordian theories share a common thread: It is simply inconceivable to adherents of these schools that a man such as Shakespeare–lacking the means, education, and courtly experience of Tudor and Stuart era aristocrats–could have conjured up the language and setting of the plays. Surely no one of such a prosaic biography could have written such poetry! And so the skeptics go in search of someone with a more fitting biography.

Twain was a proponent of this view. As any schoolchild knows, his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is celebrated for its drawn-from-life, minutely accurate portrayals of American dialects as Huck travels down the Mississippi. Twain, as Shapiro documents, was wedded to the idea that one can only write convincingly that which one knows from direct experience, and Twain knew the South. To Twain, Shakespeare’s command of legal terminology is the coup de grâce to the Man from Stratford’s candidacy:

‘Shakespeare couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s works, for the reason that the man who wrote them was limitlessly familiar with the laws and the law courts.’ Ealer replied that Shakespeare could have learned about the law from books, at which point Twain ‘got him to read again the passage from Shakespeare with the interlardings.’ Ealer was forced to concede that ‘books couldn’t teach a student a bewildering multitude of pilot-phrases so thoroughly and perfectly that he could talk them off in book and play or conversation and make no mistake that a pilot would not immediately discover.’ Twain thought his argument irrefutable: ‘a man can’t handle glibly and easily and comfortably and successfully the argot of a trade at which he had not personally served.’

Extrapolating from this argument, the author of the plays must not only have been familiar with the law, but also with other aristocratic pursuits and tastes of the time. Shakespeare names hundreds of plants and flowers in his work? He must have had deep knowledge of botany. Shakespeare mentions falconry? Well, he must have run in hunting circles.

It scarcely need be mentioned that due to his familiarity with the mores of Moors, Romans, Egyptians, Italians, Jews, Frenchmen, fairies, witches, ghosts, sorcerers, and whatever Puck is, Shakespeare must have been all of these, plus a King, too, and Caesar! Both rich and poor, he understood the minds of women as only a woman could do. Enter Sigmund Freud, to add a layer of biographical prurience as only he could do: Just like Hamlet, “Shakespeare” must have had the hots for his mother (or was it that he hated his father)?

Mr. Shapiro is unassailably correct in his conclusion regarding all this biographical speculation:

[M]ost disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination.

Quite so.

Who are Twain, James, Freud, Keller, Malcom X, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles–let alone Delia Bacon or Mr. Looney–to set bounds on what the greatest genius of the English language could or could not have imagined, whoever he may have been?

After surveying the arguments of Shakespeare skeptics, Mr. Shapiro concludes his book with a devastating dismantlement of the anti-Stratford factions. A Superfluous Man will not steal Mr. Shapiro’s thunder, as this is a book that will put paid to any doubts the Reader may have had as to the plays’ authorship.

And indeed, even if one feels compelled to reject William Shakespeare’s claim to glory, can we not find a more creditable candidate to unseat the Impostor of Stratford than Edward de Vere?

This Earl of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to travel seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home, and said, ‘My lord, I had forgot the fart.’