Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Shakespeare Controversy

Next month a new movie, Anonymous, will show the Earl of Oxford actually wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. I just finished Contested Will by James Shapiro which covers the subject rather well. Shapiro admits that it is impossible to cover every claim. There are too many and new ones pop up several times a year. Instead he covers the history of the controversy.

The book begins with Shakespearean scholarship in the late 18th through the mid-19th century. This is when Shakespeare went from being a talented writer to a literal deity (complete with shrines). People wanted to know more about the man who wrote the plays. Unfortunately, most surviving records were business records from Stratford. Not only did they reveal nothing about the plays but they showed that Shakespeare was interested in (shudder) making money. This led some people to create forged records. Others simply recommended that interested parties look to the plays and sonnets for clues to Shakespeare's personality. This advice was later taken literally.

In the mid-19th century a woman named Delia Bacon was pondering Shakespeare and Francis Bacon (no relation). At the time, Bacon had his own pedestal that rivaled Shakespeare's. How was it possible, Delia wondered, for England's greatest thinker to have lived at exactly the same time as her greatest playwright? To Delia, the obvious answer was that there was a single genius, Francis Bacon, who wrote the plays in secret. Delia was a respected lecturer and teacher and her theory was noticed. Others added their own refinements. One author noticed that Shakespeare seemed to know so much about law that he must have been a lawyer. This convinced others including Mark Twain and Helen Keller. Twain's last book was about how Shakespeare could not have written the plays. He included the law argument (plagiarizing entire chapters to buttress his argument).

Most of Twain's output was based on his own life experience and he reasoned that the same must have been true about the plays.

Twain was the last major supporter of Bacon. Around the same time that Twain's book came out a new theory was advanced. A man named J. T. Looney felt, as Twain did, that the plays must have been based on personal experience so he looked through ancient biographies until he discovered a nobleman who wrote some poetry and sponsored some players - Edward D'Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

This has been the major theory for the last hundred years although it lost popularity for several decades. It was revived in the 1980s and has remained popular since then, even inspiring the movie Anonymous.

Contested Will follows these theories as well as giving us a glimpse into the lives of the proponents of the theories. It ends by making the case for the man from Stratford. He shows how small the circle of theater people was and how impossible it would be to keep the authorship a secret. He quotes contemporaries, and he finds evidence in the plays themselves that only someone who was a member of the company could have written them.

The biggest question when disputing the authorship of the plays is why the real author would not openly proclaim himself? The Oxfordians have an elaborate explanation. Oxford was Queen Elizabeth's half-brother and lover. The plays and sonnets were written to express his feelings at different points in his life. If people knew who wrote the plays then they would figure out their real meaning. This convinced Sigmund Freud who used Hamlet to analyze Shakespeare (this only worked if the author of the plays had a traumatic event in his life). When the Oxford theory made a resurgence in the 1980s, talk of D'Vere's real heritage and his son, the secret Tudor prince, was suppressed in order to make the theory sound less far-fetched. 

One question that Shapiro never addresses is why the authorship matters? The answer to this does show up in his book. There is only a controversy because the historic Shakespeare does not meet expectations. Oxford and Bacon are preferred because they match preconceptions. This is rewriting history and once you start where do you stop? The Oxfordians a new heir to Elizabeth. In order to explain the decade between Oxford's last published poem and Shakespeare's first, they decided that Oxford wrote under other names, also. Some Oxfordians believe that nearly the entire output of the English Renaissance came from Oxford's pen.

The old maxim is that extraordinary claims need extraordinary proof but the anti-Stratfordians have turned that on its head. There is no proof strong enough to convince then that Shakespeare wrote the plays. If someone found a letter in Oxford's own hand congratulating Shakespeare on his latest play, they would see it as proof of the conspiracy.

While Shapiro's book will not convince the skeptics, it is a good read. It not only gives insight into Shakespeare and the process of producing Elizabethan plays, it also gives details on the lives of Twain, Helen Keller, and Sigmund Freud that are seldom heard.

1 comment:

Finn said...

Congratulations! A very good post and analysis of Shapiro’s book which I’ve also read. The anti-stratfordians all have a severe case of conspiracytheoryitis for which there is no known cure, not even an intensive course of common sense. Your amusing comment of a letter from Oxford congratulating Shakespeare on his latest play is a good caricature of that.