Will Contested

Conspiracy theories aside, argues Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro, Shakespeare really did write Shakespeare.

Will Contested: Who Wrote Shakespeare? By James Shapiro Simon & Schuster 352 pp., $26

Could the creator of Hamlet and Macbeth really have been a regular guy from the sticks who spent a lot of time worrying about low-brow things like making a living? Or was he (or she) a person with the background befitting such a genius? An earl, perhaps. Maybe a famed philosopher scientist. Or a certain grand lady who may have had spare time to write “King Lear” when she wasn’t busy ruling England.

Great minds have ruminated over the was-Shakespeare-really-Shakespeare question for more than two centuries, and many have come up with a seductive answer: no way.

Helen Keller doubted the bard was that genial balding man in the portrait. So did Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud. More recently, Supreme Court justices have joined the train of doubt.

But it’s all hogwash and flapdoodle, claims Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, who uses a variety of classier words to make his case in a convincing new book.

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? won’t resolve the debate, of course. But it manages to make doubters sound like addled conspiracy theorists, no mean feat considering that many of them are (or were) well-respected thinkers.

The very long list of would-be Shakespeares includes prestigious names too, like Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, and, yes, Queen Elizabeth. Or perhaps the true author was an even larger presence on the world stage: An anonymous writer in 1852 was so disturbed by the prospect of the bard being the bard that he (or she) wondered if maybe divine intervention – a helping hand from above – explained Shakespeare’s genius.

As he did in his previous book, “A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599,” Shapiro leans toward a serious tone. But despite its academic flavor, “Contested Will” manages to come alive when eccentric characters start stealing the narrative.

There’s a forger who convinced just about everyone that he had a new Shakespeare play and letters from Queen Elizabeth to the board. And a would-be codebreaker who finds bizarre hidden messages (although, sadly, no “Hi Mom!”) in Shakespearean plays. Most colorfully of all, an American author from the 19th century spawns scandal in her personal life before turning Francis Bacon into a prime who-wrote-Shakespeare suspect.

It was her case for Bacon that set two riverboat pilots on the Mississippi River to squabbling over Shakespeare. One of them was named Samuel Clemens – Mark Twain.

The man named William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon was, as records suggest, very interested in making and keeping money. And Twain just couldn’t bear the thought that such a “grossly commercial” man could be so incredibly brilliant. (There’s delicious irony here: Despite his harrumphing, Twain himself was obsessed with making money and became, as Shapiro puts it, the first author to turn himself into a brand. You might say Twain was a grossly commercial genius.)

Doubters have also questioned Shakespeare’s modest background: How could his past have produced such a worldly writer? But countless history and artists have used research and creativity to fill the holes left by their experience and education.

There’s another reason to doubt the skeptics: A grand Shakespeare authorship conspiracy here would require many people to be involved. And they all would have had to keep their mouths shut, even after Shakespeare passed away in middle age.

That’s just too hard to believe. People talk, and they give up secrets. They did it then, and they do it now.

Then there’s motive: Why would anyone fake plays and sonnets in the first place?

Ultimately, though, the true fault of the Shakespeare conspiracy theorists lies lack of imagination about imagination. They can’t handle the idea that the extraordinary can be rooted in the ordinary, that what comes out of our mouths (and pen-holding fingers) is not a mishmash of what enters our ears and eyes.

But Shapiro stumbles when he complains that readers try too hard to find hints about Shakespeare’s loves and losses in his plays and sonnets.
Even if Shakespeare drew on his life experiences, Shapiro writes, “I don’t see how anyone can know with any confidence if or when or where he does so.... It’s wiser to accept that these experiences can no longer be recovered.”

So we shouldn’t bother to wonder about what this man was like, whether he sang and loved and suffered like the characters he created? Nah. That turns Shakespeare into some sort of robot, robbing him of the humanity he understood so well.

To borrow some wording from a guy who wrote plays a long time ago (maybe an earl or queen or something, who knows): there’s more to appreciating creations, and their creators, than is dreamt of in Shapiro’s philosophy.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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