Who wrote Shakespeare? Author James Shapiro offers an answer.

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By Lloyd Rose
Sunday, June 6, 2010

CONTESTED WILL

Who Wrote Shakespeare?

By James Shapiro

Simon & Schuster 339 pp. $26

The question of whether William Shakespeare, the petty bourgeois from Stratford, was capable of producing the crown jewels of English literature has exercised cranks, partisans and legitimate scholars for 225 years. Francis Bacon has proved to be an also-ran. The current money is on Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who had the acceptable aristocratic and educational pedigree for the job -- presuming, that is, that you must practice falconry in order to write about it. Following this line of reasoning, we can assume that de Vere had seen his father's ghost, an opportunity denied Shakespeare, as his own father was still alive when "Hamlet" was written.

Surely, this is a Tempest in an academic teapot if ever there was one, and James Shapiro doesn't take the theories themselves overly seriously. The real, and fascinating, focus of "Contested Will" is on the circumstances and personalities surrounding the genesis of those arguments, the way the historical and personal shaped the theoretical.

Along the way, Shapiro visits not only the best-known of the alternative-proposers (Delia Bacon, the 19th-century champion of her unrelated namesake; J.T. Looney -- pronounced "Loney," please -- the former positivist sect member whose 1920 "Shakespeare Identified" made the case for Oxford), but also such brilliant and opinionated dissenters as Mark Twain (Bacon), Sigmund Freud (Oxford) and Henry James (ambivalent -- no surprise there). James was put off by the "sordid material details" of the man from Stratford's life, including an unseemly attention to money. Twain never quite specified why he favored Bacon, just remained eager, in his pugnacious, populist way, "to see our majestic Shakespeare unhorsed." By far the most interesting motives, as one might expect, are Freud's. Shapiro's mind-boggling account of how Freud abandoned Shakespeare for Oxford when he realized that the former's authorship threatened the reality of his Oedipal theory (which he believed was actually better illustrated by "Hamlet" than by "Oedipus Rex") is worth the whole book.

It was Freud who wrote that there is a "powerful need" in human beings to know the answer to "the riddle of the miraculous gift that makes an artist." But crazier impulses than need came into play with Shakespeare antagonists -- one Oxfordian claimed to have contacted Shakespeare, Bacon and de Vere at seances, and Ignatius Donnelly tried to have Francis Bacon's tomb opened so he could get to the manuscripts he was certain were buried with him.

This is very near to the more morbid elements of modern celebrity worship, and Shapiro dryly makes clear the growing, sometimes absurd, deification of Shakespeare since his death. A major contributor to the "Swan of Avon" mythos was the 18th-century English actor David Garrick, who had become a star playing Shakespeare and built a shrine to him on his estate. He was called "Shakespeare's priest," and his congregation extends down through the 19th century: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Heine, Emerson, Matthew Arnold, Carlyle, Melville. (It may have been this adulation that got under the always iconoclastic Twain's skin.)

In 1913 the scholar J.M. Robertson suggested that the Bacon theory would never have taken hold "had not the idolatrous Shakespeareans set up a visionary figure of the Master." By that time, as Shapiro points out, attitudes, even of the faithful, were shifting. The iconic Shakespeare character of the 19th century was the majestic patriarch Prospero, a benevolent magician in complete control of his world who sets that world right. But the 20th century belongs to the haunted, uncertain Hamlet, lost in the labyrinth of Elsinore and killer of a king.

The book is rich with insight and analysis. Shapiro's examination of how the social situations of Looney and Delia Bacon contributed to their theories is sensitive and convincing. He sketches an incisive picture of Twain as the first author-corporation, complete with marketing plan. His proposal that practical theatrical reasons account for Shakespeare's turn to tragicomedy at the end of his career is bracingly down-to-earth. And in his attack against those who would limit what an artist can produce to what he has directly experienced, he champions not only common sense but creativity. How did the humble glover's son from the provinces write all those varied and complex characters? "He imagined them all."

Lloyd Rose is a former chief theater critic for The Washington Post.


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