A Shakespeare Scholar Takes on a ‘Taboo’ Subject

Photo_4391_landscape_large Jennifer Howard in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The most startling thing about Contested Will, James Shapiro's new book about the Shakespeare authorship debate, is not what it concludes about who really wrote Hamlet and King Lear. Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, is an unrepentant Stratfordian, a firm believer that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon created the plays and poems associated with his name.

What will surprise fellow Stratfordians—as well as doubters who want to dethrone Shakespeare and install Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford), Francis Bacon, or another contender in his place—is Shapiro's argument that the different camps have more in common than they admit. As Shapiro sees it, Stratfordians, Marlovians, Oxfordians, Baconians, and the rest share an anachronistic insistence on what he calls “reading the life out of the works.” In other words, they try to find autobiographical details in the plays and poetry that will confirm the true identity of the author.

Among mainstream Shakespeare scholars, Contested Will may be disconcerting for another reason. The book, just out from Simon & Schuster, argues that the authorship question is the one subject that they have deliberately neglected.

“More than one fellow Shakespearean was disheartened to learn that I was committing my energies to it,” Shapiro writes in the prologue, “as if somehow I was wasting my time and talent, or worse, at risk of going over to the dark side. I became increasingly interested in why this subject remains virtually taboo in academic circles, as well as in the consequences of this collective silence.”

Shapiro has not, in fact, gone over to the “dark side.” Contested Will includes a chapter on why he continues to believe that the Stratford candidate is the genuine article. But rehashing the authorship debate is not the purpose of the book. It does not attempt an exhaustive review of the merits of the competing claims. As Shapiro explicitly says, what interests him is not what people think about the authorship question but why they think it and how their personal and historical circumstances help shape that.