Friday, October 28, 2011

Contested Will

Simon and Schuster recently sent me the paperback edition of James Shapiro's Contested Will, which addresses the very timely authorship question. 

Since I clearly have not had time to read it, I'm reporting long-time contributor Carl Atkins' guest review that he did for us back in December 2010:

I was actually pleasantly surprised. It was much more readable than I expected. I had read his "1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare" and found it to be rambling, disjointed, and filled with conjecture, so I was not expecting good things from a book about such a difficult subject. Yet "Contested Will" is, for the most part, tightly written, well structured, straightforward, factual without being too dry, and absorbing. It details the history of the authorship controversy, interestingly laying the blame on one of the most renowned Shakespeare scholars, Edmond Malone. He notes that Malone, frustrated at being unable to uncover any documents to help flesh out the biography he hoped to write about Shakespeare, began to look to the plays for biographical references. This opened the door for anti-Stratfordians to launch their only means of attack.

If the book has any fault it is only in spending a bit too much time detailing the course of the Oxfordian cause. I found myself getting a bit bored by the end of that section. But only a bit.

It is a testament to Shapiro's cool-headedness that he spends two-thirds of the book discussing the (circumstantial) evidence against Shakespeare's authorship and ends with 27 pages debunking it.

What is most impressive is that Shapiro does not come across as someone with an axe to grind, or as a scornful elitist. He actually sounds like someone who is presenting the evidence for all to see. He makes no pretense about what side he is on, but he makes the evidence very clear.

I did not think I would like a book about the authorship question because I do not think it is an important question. But this book is more about understanding the history of the authorship question than about resolving the controversy. That is a more interesting topic. This is a book I would recommend to all interested in Shakespeare. It is fun to read.


Sabrina Feldman said...

Contested Will is an entertaining read, but James Shapiro is far more interested in psychoanalyzing skeptics than in considering their arguments. He also has a policy of never corresponding with authorship doubters, so his book is a one-way conversation. In my opinion, Shapiro doesn’t understand the roots of skepticism. A person who sees a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat may not know how the trick works, but he or she can still feel certain that sleight of hand is involved. It is the same way with people who question whether William Shakespeare wrote the Shakespeare canon. Although authorship doubters have a wide range of opinions about Shakespeare’s identity, they share a conviction that he was not the man from Stratford, however he pulled off the authorship trick. This conviction has little to do with an inability to believe that genius can arise from humble origins (obviously it can, and does all the time). Rather, it is founded on the belief that Shakespeare’s works cannot be reconciled with the records of petty lawsuits, tax evasion, grain-hoarding, six shaky signatures spelled six different ways, no more than a second best bed, and so on.

More importantly, to my way of thinking, traditional scholars have failed to adequately explain why William Shakespeare was credited with writing not only the Bard’s canonical works, but also a series of ‘apocryphal’ Shakespeare plays during his lifetime and for many decades afterwards. Because scholars have never viewed the Shakespeare Apocrypha as a coherent group of plays, they haven’t looked for evidence that the works were mainly authored by a single playwright, who might also have played a role in creating the 'bad quartos.' Stylistic threads linking these lesser works suggest they shared a common author or co-author who left the following sorts of fingerprints in his writings: wholesale pilferings (especially from the works of Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene during the late 1580s and early 1590s, consistent with Robert Greene’s 1592 attack on WS as an “upstart crow"), bombast, a breezy style, clumsy blank verse, a salty sense of humor, food jokes, crude physical slapstick, inventive slang, very funny clown scenes, a penchant for placing characters in disguise, jingoism, bungled Latin tags and inept classical allusions, unsophisticated but sweet romances, shrewish and outspoken women, camaraderie among men, an emphasis on who is or isn’t a gentleman, and a complete lack of interest in political nuance and philosophical digressions. The overall sense is of a brash and confident writer with little more than a grammar-school education, seeking to create works of maximum popular appeal by whatever means necessary, with little regard for posterity.

The existence of two bodies of work exhibiting distinct poetic voices printed under one man’s name invites legitimate speculation concerning whether WS was the main author of the canonical works, or the apocryphal plays.

Sabrina Feldman, author of The Apocryphal William Shakespeare (to be published in mid-November)

Anonymous said...

My favourite part of Contested Will is when it quotes an analogy from Henry James saying that the anti-Stratfordians are Hamlet, thrusting behind the arras for the real culprit. Shapiro responds with (paraphrasing) "Did he not realize Hamlet gets the wrong man?"

Sabrina, about this: Rather, it is founded on the belief that Shakespeare’s works cannot be reconciled with the records of petty lawsuits, tax evasion, grain-hoarding, six shaky signatures spelled six different ways, no more than a second best bed, and so on.

I agree that this is a motivator. The problem, I think, is that the range of viewpoints and attitudes among Shakespeare's characters are high in number, different in kind and also contradict each other. Because of this it is difficult to know which viewpoints and attitudes are reflections of Shakespeare, so the foundation is rocky to start with.

And based on the points you raise -- petty lawsuits, tax evasion, etc. -- it can be said that Shakespeare might have been a jerk and hypocrite. He wouldn't be the first or last talented artist to be like that.

Alexi said...

It's funny, Sabrina, because some of the qualities you list are part of the "Apocryphal" plays are found, to some extent, in EVERY SINGLE SHAKESPEARE play, from Henry VI, Part 1 to Henry VIII. What is the player speech in Hamlet but a bombastic pastiche of Marlowe?

The gist of your theory, in my eyes, is that "All of the high-faluting stuff in Shakespeare, (read: all the stuff I like,) is the work of the 'real' author, while all the apparently 'lesser' sections are someone's else's." I apologize for oversimplifying, but this feels like an arbitrary distinction to introduce, and seems to discount the idea that Shakespeare could incorporate both high and low content and could grow and develop as a writer.

Oh, and, as Shapiro interestingly points out, the legal records under Shakespeare's name also represent his wife's activities in Stratford, as all economic records were made in the name of the head of a household. So it's quite possible Anne was the one taking care of the family through moneylending and grain-trading (the most common supplemental source of income among Stratford householders).

Anonymous said...

Alexi, the distinction Sabrina makes is not more arbitrary than that you will find few orthodox scholars who would deny it. The disagreement with Sabrina would concern what part of the works published under Shakespeare's name should be ascribed to Shakespeare from Stratford.

Sabrina Feldman said...

What interests me, and mystifies me, is that the traditional Shakespeare authorship theory doesn't explain the direct title page evidence that WS wrote a series of lesser plays that scholars are certain he didn't really write. For instance, on May 2, 1608, the London bookseller Thomas Pavier applied for permission to publish “A Yorkshire Tragedy written by Wylliam Shakespere.” Soon after, Pavier began selling copies of the play at his shop on Cornhill Street in London. The 1608 title page boasts that A Yorkshire Tragedy had been “acted by his Majesty’s Players at the Globe” and was “Written by W. Shakspeare.” The King’s Men did routinely play at the Globe, and William Shakespeare was their leading playwright. Pavier’s claim, if it were false, would have been a remarkable deception practiced on London’s reading public. Pavier could have been denounced in print by any of William’s contemporaries, but as far as is known this never happened. He reprinted A Yorkshire Tragedy under William Shakespeare’s name in 1619, three years after the actor’s death. Although the play was excluded from the 1623 First Folio and 1632 Second Folio of Shakespeare’s works, it was added to the 1664 Third Folio and 1685 Fourth Folio.

Despite this direct historical evidence pointing to William Shakespeare as A Yorkshire Tragedy’s author, and the lack of evidence pointing to any other author, modern scholars reject the possibility that William wrote it. Their reasoning is two-fold: A Yorkshire Tragedy’s author was not capable of writing at the Bard’s level, and the play was excluded from the First Folio. “If the Folio did not exist,” admitted the renowned Shakespearean scholars Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor in William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, “we could not distinguish—without resorting to stylististic evidence—between the documentary testimony for King Lear (1608) and the documentary testimony for A Yorkshire Tragedy (1608): both look equally valid, and hence both are equally worthless.”

Scholars’ willingness to entertain Middleton as A Yorkshire Tragedy's author, but not William Shakespeare, is puzzling. Here is a play printed under William Shakespeare’s name, during his lifetime, and performed by his theatrical company. There is no evidence that any of his contemporaries disputed his authorship. So why are modern scholars so sure that William Shakespeare didn’t write A Yorkshire Tragedy? One can’t just say that direct title page evidence of William’s authorship is irrefutable when the play is good, but meaningless when the play is bad, without better justification. The same holds for other plays now assigned to the Shakespeare Apocrypha.