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Resolving the irresolvable

April is nearly upon us, bringing with it Shakespeare’s birthday and, just before that, the publication of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy – a major addition to the bibliography surrounding the vexed question of who really wrote those amazing plays and poems.

Edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (true masters of forbearance), the new volume aims to establish itself as the go-to defence of Shakespeare’s claim. Summoning over 20 of the world’s top scholarly minds to their cause, Edmondson and Wells’ anthology tackles the issue from numerous angles – literary, scientific, biographical – while enlisting experts in Marlowe, Bacon and the Earl of Oxford to oversee a thorough dismantling of the three most persistent alternative theories.

There’s a lovely little piece in today’s Observer trailing the book. As someone who has spent many years untangling the passions and preoccupations of Shakespeare authorship sceptics, I found the following paragraph particularly resonant:

James Shapiro of Columbia University in New York, says that doubters will not disappear, but adds: “This volume will make responding to the next film, or the next campaign, or the next question posed about Shakespeare’s authorship that much easier.”

There’s a refreshing realism here; a sign of how far the Stratfordian establishment has come from its former state of denial. Now, not only do they recognise the necessity of mounting some kind of defence, they realise that such a defence – no matter how scientific or mathematical – will never quite be enough to put the issue to bed. Why? Because, on its most basic but important level, the authorship debate isn’t about facts and reason – it’s about people’s passions, and their irrational entanglement with great and seductive art. What one side wants (clarity and closure) isn’t the same as what the other side wants (speculation and subjectivity). The authorship question won’t go away because people don’t want it to go away.

None of which, of course, means one shouldn’t try. So Long, Shakespeare is my fictional attempt, exploding the hidden passions into a transatlantic adventure-mystery; Shakespeare Beyond Doubt is its factual counterpart. Neither will put an end to the speculation, but hopefully – as Shapiro says – both will make the Stratfordian defence that little bit easier.

Book review: two reflections on the Shakespeare authorship issue

(NOTE: This review first appeared in the summer 2010 edition of Around the Globe. I am posting it here as a kind of bibliographic addendum to my novel So Long, Shakespeare, which imagines what would happen it the Shakespeare-sceptics had their way, and the man from Stratford was no longer the author of ‘Shakespeare’s’ plays and poems.)

More than ever, the authorship debate has become the elephant in the room of Shakespeare scholarship – an unyielding embodiment of perceived gaps in Shakespeare’s biography, and the theories advanced to fill them. Outside, hammering at the window, a baying mob has swelled to unprecedented proportions: ‘Look! An elephant! How can you not see?!’ Inside, the learned scholars, devoted to the glover’s son from Stratford, scarcely blink. ‘Mere amateurs,’ they scoff. ‘Their historical knowledge is suspect, their research shoddy, their arguments unsound. Even if there was an elephant in this room – which there most certainly is not – we should not be persuaded of it by such dilettantes.’

Mock trials, TV documentaries, international conventions: the modern world, with its love of conspiracy and cover-up, has been kind to the sceptics. At the centre of it all, the internet – and especially Wikipedia – offers a democratised way of spreading the word, unencumbered by prejudice and fuelled by the absence of counter-argument. There is only the odd ‘pro-Stratfordian’ page, but site upon site sets forth arguments for alternative authors – the Earl of Oxford still favourite – all gleefully deflating the myth that someone as unremarkable as the Stratford ‘Shakspeare’ could have written those towering plays.

Given the passions, reputations and even livelihoods involved, it can be hard for both camps to step back and regard the debate as a remarkable thing in itself. Perhaps it is a sign of progress, then, that two sober new additions to the sprawling authorship bibliography, from opposite sides of the divide, seek to do just that, establishing a middle ground in which all may find their attitudes and arguments illuminated.

As well as having co-founded the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (doubtaboutwill.org), William Leahy is the man behind the pioneering MA in Authorship Studies at Brunel University. Presumably with that in mind, he has edited ‘Shakespeare and His Authors’: a collection of academic essays bearing out his claim that the debate ‘relates to all sorts of notions of identity, power, authority, ownership, cultural superiority and the transmission of conventional, dominant knowledge(s).’

Leahy is a sceptic himself, but his determination to balance the book is successful. Several contributors, like the Globe’s Dominic Dromgoole, aren’t doubters at all, and of those who are, only the historian William Rubinstein fails to resist a descent into anti-Stratfordian polemic. The range is impressive, too. At one end, Andrew Bennett meditates on how Shakespeare’s unknowability is entwined with romantic notions of the author; at the other, social psychologist Sandra Schruijer probes the dynamics of the stand-off between sceptics and scholars. In between, Mark Rylance is compelling on how his acting has been assisted by consideration of different authors, while Graham Holderness engagingly assesses the perils of reading Shakespeare’s plays autobiographically.

This latter idea becomes a dominant trope in James Shapiro’s ‘Contested Will’: an important book, which represents the first time a top scholar – fresh from penning one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated recent biographies – has turned in an entire volume dedicated to the authorship controversy.

Shapiro admits that several fellow Shakespeareans were ‘disheartened’ to hear of his new project, and it is tempting to see ‘Contested Will’ as the point at which Shapiro’s own scholarly patience snapped. But if this book is reactionary, anyone expecting an all-guns-blazing denunciation of authorship crackpottery will be disappointed. Steadfast in his beliefs, Shapiro is nonetheless fascinated by the minds and motives of sceptics, and his courageous clear-sightedness is to be applauded.

Any history of the controversy is bound to be entertaining, and Shapiro turns up numerous fantastic tales of forgery, deception and delusion. Equally arresting, however, is his emphasis that ‘orthodox’ Shakespeareans have, over the years, been as wayward as the doubters themselves. So while it’s all very well to condemn the forgery that prompted the mistaken belief that James Wilmot, the 18th century Warwickshire clergyman, was Francis Bacon’s first champion, one must acknowledge that the precedent had been set by the Stratfordian forgeries of William Henry Ireland and John Payne Collier. Likewise, one should be mindful that before anyone questioned Shakespeare’s authorship, some tried claiming that Shakespeare had written Christopher Marlowe’s plays. Though Stratfordians happen to be right, Shapiro says, nobody’s hands are exactly clean.

Nowhere is this shared guilt thicker than in the anachronistic compulsion to infer the author’s life from his plays – and in so doing project upon the plays, and their imagined author, one’s own preoccupations. It was in succumbing to this fatal urge, Shapiro argues, that Delia Bacon and John Thomas Looney (the first Baconian and Oxfordian respectively, commendable thinkers both) devised their radical theories, and it was for similarly personal reasons that Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud followed suit.

With their origins exposed, these theories – already hopelessly weak – evaporate into insignificance. But though that is good news for Stratfordians, Shapiro reminds us that the original liberty-taker, and thus Bacon and Looney’s ultimate precursor, was no sceptic, but the seminal Shakespearean Edmund Malone. He first resorted to inferential textual readings merely to date the plays, but was soon fleshing out Shakespeare’s life through the prism of the drama itself: a scholarly mischief which continues unchecked in biographies to this day. If academics think they are somehow distinct from the authorship cult, then, they are kidding themselves: not only does the doubt derive from the same intellectual, social and historical forces that shaped their own scholarship, they nurtured the conditions in which the ‘lunatic fringe’ has thrived.

Having revealed these affinities, Shapiro feels at liberty to reel off a litany of facts supporting Shakespeare’s claim which he underlines by explaining how scholars may soon see off the authorship problem for good. It’s a fascinating prospect, and makes you wonder: if the time comes when the questions do stop, and the elephant finally exits the room, will we mourn its passing?

Perhaps it needed a level-headed Stratfordian like Shapiro to show us that we will. For 150 years the controversy has rattled on, but ‘Contested Will’ delights in demonstrating how much it tells us, both about our engagement with Shakespeare’s conventional biography, and the power of his imagination to entrance and entangle our own.

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