Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

When I attended my very first Shakespeare Association meeting, the annual gathering of Shakespeare professors, I was an anxious graduate student, convinced that I was an imposter who didn’t belong. But I was quickly shocked out of my nervousness when a man popped to his feet and started haranguing us about the Earl of Oxford, whereupon an audience member jumped up to film our reactions. I think we were supposed to evince hostility, but all I remember is bewilderment. That was my first encounter with an Oxfordian, though not my last: cocktail conversation for anyone meeting a Shakespearean often devolves into questions about authorship.

But the one question no one ever seems to ask is what makes the anti-Shakespeareans so passionate? Why bother travelling to the SAA and hopping around like an agitated rabbit facing befuddled wolves? Contested Will is a fascinating entry into the authorship wars because Shapiro is interested in that question: the motives that drive people to discount Shakespeare as an author, even though not a single person ever questioned it during his lifetime. Thus Shapiro looks at the authorship question through the lens not of the various arguments, but of the creators of those arguments.

Most claims begin with the lack of contemporary evidence about Shakespeare’s life, melded with a fervent belief that such evidence as we have doesn’t live up to the plays.  In short, Shakespeare’s personality isn’t good enough: he’s too cheap (given records of legal wrangling), too uneducated (no university degree), and frankly, too unpoetical. That void in documentary evidence means that people first decide what type of person should have authored the plays, and then fasten on a candidate. Shapiro finds de-authoring Shakespeare to be a deeply personal act, generally driven by passionate belief that says more about its believer than about the Renaissance author. To give one example: Freud was deeply affected by his father’s death, and in the year thereafter formed his Oedipal theory, shaped partially by his conviction that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet shortly after his own father’s death. Naturally, it was a nasty shock when Shakespeareans discovered that Hamlet was written a few years before Papa Shakespeare died. Freud had identified a “real event” behind the play—the Oedipal struggle—and he needed an appropriate biography. The Earl of Oxford fit the bill; Freud promptly joined the anti-Shakespeare camp.

It would be easy to mock passionate anti-Shakespeareans such as Mr. Looney, or the 1946 leader of the Shakespeare Fellowship who decided to solve the mystery by psychic means and managed to chat with Bacon, Shakespeare, and Oxford. But Shapiro consistently avoids mockery, treating authorship arguments with scholarly respect, even kindness.

Contested Will is an enormously learned, thoughtful, and even-handed book, required reading for Shakespeareans, Oxfordians, Baconians, and every intelligent person interested in the question. And it’s particularly well timed, given the upcoming film, Anonymous, directed by Roland Emmerich. Emmerich’s film reportedly doesn’t stop with advocating Oxford’s authorship; it portrays the earl as the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I, who then became her lover—whereupon their incestuously produced child became the third Earl of Southampton. I foresee fraught cocktail conversations in the future.

My own response to authorship questions has been to point to Shakespeare’s friends. “I loved the man,” writes Ben Jonson, an author who competed with Shakespeare for years, “and do honor his memory (on this side Idolatry) as much as any. He was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature.” Jonson would guffaw at the idea that Shakespeare conspired with the Earl of Oxford, who died in 1604, before many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were written. I agree with James Shapiro and Jonson: we should celebrate the man with the imagination to create Lear and Juliet, not forgetting that he was, indeed, “honest.”

Mary Bly is a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University in New York City. She writes on boys’ plays, puns, and London—never on authorship questions.