Critical Mass

NBCC Featured Review: William S. Niederkorn on Contested Will, by James Shapiro

By William S. Niederkorn

Critical Mass reguarly highlights exemplary reviews by NBCC members. This week, in a review originally published by The Brooklyn Rail, William S. Niederkorn considers James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Simon & Schuster)

In April 2003, I was invited to the Edward de Vere Studies Conference, held annually at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, to speak about the history of the coverage of the Shakespeare authorship question over a span of 150 years in the pages of the New York Times. For the sake of inclusiveness the name has since been changed to the Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference, but even then it was a diverse gathering, mostly Oxfordians and other anti-Stratfordians, and also including Stratfordians interested in the subject, which at their own conferences is avoided, if not banned.

My survey ended with my 2002 article on the case for de Vere, a.k.a. Oxford, and then I said that I had — as I continue to have — no favorite candidate in the controversy and that if hard evidence were found for Will of Stratford as the author of Shakespeare's works, I would love to break the story.

And so it was with much anticipation that I opened James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

The considerable effort expended on the authorship debate has in recent years prompted Stratfordians to write defensive biographies of Will of Stratford, as well as books and articles attacking rival authorship theories, but until now no one of the stature of Shapiro, who holds an endowed professorship at Columbia, has offered a book-length study of the issue. So at the outset, Shapiro should be commended for his courage just for going there.

Setting the tone for the book with an anecdote, he begins with a story first reported in the Times Literary Supplement in 1932, and that I first heard about at that same 2003 conference. It concerns a manuscript said to have been found in the estate of a prominent Baconian, Edwin Durning-Lawrence, who died in 1914.

The manuscript appeared to be the draft for a lecture given at the Ipswich Philosophic Society (Arthur Cobbold, president) on February 7, 1805, by one James Corton Cowell, about his conversations with Dr. James Wilmot (1726-1807), who was living near Stratford-on-Avon and said he had had doubts about Will of Stratford since about 1785. The TLS article hailed Wilmot as the earliest doubter of Will's claim to the authorship, and the first to propose the possibility of an alternative candidate, Francis Bacon.

Flash forward to 2003, when Daniel Wright, the Concordia English professor who founded and organized the conference, gave a talk discussing the research of an English physicist, John Rollett, who since 1976 has lived in Ipswich, about 150 miles east of Stratford-on-Avon, and who decided to check the story out. To begin with, Rollett could find no record of an Ipswich Philosophic Society per se, and in the extensive genealogical work done on the Cowell and Cobbold families, no references to the said lecturer or president. He then examined the manuscript in question at the London University Library, where it was archived, and it looked to him as if the paper and the handwriting dated to much later than 1805.

Wright said Rollett had apparently unmasked a forgery, and he extolled the work as an example of how authorship scholars were digging for the truth, not just trying to support their own anti-Stratfordian views. Rollett has told me that in December 2003, he, Wright, and the Stratfordian scholar Alan Nelson, along with one of Wright's students, met at the library and examined the manuscript again. Based on his knowledge of the subject, Wright noticed that a number of the Baconian arguments made in the manuscript were not put forward until long after 1805. Agreeing with Rollett about the paper, Nelson supposed the manuscript was a forgery and said he would have it examined by a paleographer.

In Contested Will, however, Shapiro gives the impression that he has just unmasked the forgery himself. Not until his prolix bibliographical essay at the end of the book does he make any concession by way of credit, and here's all he says: “The only previous effort I know of to examine the Cowell manuscript is described in Nathan Baca's report of Daniel Wright's unpublished research on Cowell and his suspicion that the document may be a forgery, in Shakespeare Matters 2 (Summer, 2003).” Rollett is not mentioned at all. Obviously, Shapiro did not pick up the phone and call Wright, which could have saved him from such a blunder. Shapiro does repeatedly credit Nelson, though, for other work, and Nelson is cited, among others, in the acknowledgments for “help I've had along the way, in matters large and small.”

This is not an auspicious beginning for Contested Will.

Early on, Shapiro states his first premise: “I happen to believe that William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed to him.” (Anti-Stratfordians do, too, by the bye, but they regard William Shakespeare as a pseudonym.)

To counter the perceived lack of evidence for Will's possession of books, a much-touted issue Shapiro tried unsuccessfully to address in his last book, he laments the loss of “a list of Shakespeare's possessions” that, he asserts, Will's son-in-law filed in court with Will's will, the one that gives Anne Hathaway his “second best bed.” He writes, “Had the inventory that John Hall brought with him to London survived — or if by some miracle it ever surfaces — it would finally silence those who, misunderstanding the conventions of Elizabethan wills and inventories, continue to insist that Shakespeare of Stratford didn't own any books and was probably illiterate.” But why couldn't the longed-for list, if it did surface, show no books at all? Only a believer could shift such a conjecture into an absolute certainty.

His second premise is that those who don't believe in Will of Stratford have something wrong with them. It's the same as it ever was with die-hard Stratfordians. Everyone who has doubts, no matter how well reasoned, they regard as unsound. Such people have “turned against Shakespeare,” as Shapiro's repeated refrain goes. This is tendentious; no authorship scholar would ever describe herself as one who has turned against Shakespeare.

Shapiro keeps his Stratfordian blinders on throughout the book. He concentrates on the easy targets, attacking famous figures who took a peripheral interest in the case for Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere, and he lumps them with the two most notorious Shakespeare forgers, both Stratfordians, for good measure.

He forces the square peg of William Henry Ireland's forgeries into the round hole of “authorship controversy,” whereas it is obviously more related to the academic establishment's mania for Will of Stratford.

But he could hardly do the same with the forgeries of John Payne Collier, who rode them to position himself as the leading Shakespeare scholar of his day. And as he cites what he considers to be the genuine discoveries of the Collier era — Will of Stratford's grain hoarding and money lending — suddenly Shapiro seems to be on the brink of capitulating.

He writes: “A tipping point had been reached; it was only a matter of time before someone would come along and suggest that we were dealing with not one man, but two. An essay called 'Who Wrote Shakespeare?' appeared in 1852 in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal. Surveying the field, its anonymous author acknowledged the obvious: 'Is it more difficult to suppose that Shakespeare was not the author of the poetry ascribed to him, than to account for the fact that there is nothing in the recorded or traditionary life of Shakespeare which in any way connects the poet with the man?' “

In another consideration that might push him toward the anti-Stratfordian side, Shapiro shows that he understands well the relationship between revisionist views on Jesus and Homer (developments which he appears to accept) and those on Shakespeare. He introduces the little-known work of Samuel Mosheim Schmucker, a young Lutheran from Pennsylvania who in 1848 published a tract to defend Christian tradition by comparing doubts about Jesus with doubts about Will of Stratford. In an effort to make his own case by exaggeration, Schmucker facetiously stated at length a series of arguments against Will of Stratford. But it's all sleight of hand on Shapiro's part: “Schmucker had drafted the skeptics' playbook,” he concludes.

Everything went wrong, Shapiro writes, when scholars started trying to read topical allusions into Shakespeare's works, and he blames Edmond Malone (1741-1812), the lawyer whose work is generally acknowledged as the cornerstone of modern Shakespeare scholarship. The only way out for Shapiro, it seems, is to ban all topical interpretation: Shakespeare never alluded to anything, or if he did we don't know enough to be able to say what he was alluding to.

Malone is also faulted for perceiving the Sonnets as autobiographical. It stands to reason Shapiro would deny that the Sonnets are autobiographical, because authorship scholars have a field day with them while for Stratfordians they are problematic.

Malone is also to blame, in Shapiro's opinion, for the long-held erroneous view that Shakespeare was the sole author of his plays. The evidence of other writers' work in the canon is now widely accepted.

In Henslowe's Diary — a singular piece of documentary evidence on the early commercial public theater, discovered by Malone, and which contains no mention of Shakespeare — it is seen that often two or more playwrights were paid to write one play. As a Stratfordian, Shapiro wants to believe that the co-authored works in the Shakespeare canon came about because Shakespeare worked with other playwrights in “equal, active partnerships.” He disparages the idea that Shakespeare took previously existing material and improved on it, which seemed plausible to Malone for plays like Titus Andronicus and Pericles.

Nor does Shapiro support the idea that works by Shakespeare might have been revised after he wrote them, as might seem possible for plays like Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Timon of Athens. He doesn't even consider the possibility that Shakespeare might have cultivated a group of writers and worked with them like a master with apprentices to write, say, Love's Labour's Lost.

For once, Shapiro knows he has gone too far and says, “I have been hard on Malone in these pages, perhaps unduly so.”

It's nothing, though, compared to what he does to Delia Bacon, “for triggering…the Shakespeare authorship controversy.” His slanted rendition of her life story, as in other Stratfordian tellings, would make for a good study in character assassination, though the worst he says about her actually comes when in spite of himself he makes a concession. Referring to her theories that the plays of Shakespeare were politically radical and collaborative, he writes, “Had she limited her argument to these points instead of conjoining it to an argument about how Shakespeare couldn't have written them, there is little doubt that, instead of being dismissed as a crank and a madwoman, she would be hailed today as the precursor of the 'New Historicists.' ” Thus Shapiro would lay responsibility for an intellectually unstable academic fad at Delia Bacon's door.

The enthusiasm Delia Bacon created for Francis Bacon's candidacy as principal author of the Shakespeare canon led to extremes. Like his predecessors, Shapiro heaps ridicule on Baconians' claims of finding ciphered messages in the First Folio.

That vulnerability has long been deplored by anti-Stratfordians. As George Greenwood wrote in his book Is There a Shakespeare Problem? (which Shapiro doesn't seem to have consulted), “One cannot but recognize how greatly the position of him who ventures to express heretical views concerning the Shakespeare authorship is prejudiced by the wild utterances of some extreme Baconians — Baconians enrages, as I may call them.”

Delia Bacon, Shapiro says “was content to insist, rather than demonstrate” her theory of Shakespeare, and “when that didn't suffice, she turned to invective,” but Shapiro is content to attack the extreme positions, make handy use of ridicule, and avoid contending with the serious authorship scholars.

Greenwood, for example, who had no preferred candidate and whose works are still highly regarded by anti-Stratfordians, is mentioned by Shapiro only for his influence on Helen Keller and Mark Twain. It amuses Shapiro to focus on a few of the distinguished writers who doubted the traditional authorship case, and to attack what he determines to have been their motivations for doing so.

Mark Twain did it because he had “a conviction that great fiction, including his own, was necessarily autobiographical.” Helen Keller “joined a movement committed to the belief that literature was ultimately confessional.” Shapiro can't quite penetrate the motives of Henry James, but manages to insinuate that James was thinking as much about himself as about Shakespeare, that he couldn't bridge “the rift between the received biography and the poetic genius,” and (shades of the old snobbery accusation that Stratfordians have unjustly used for over a century to repudiate authorship scholars) that he “found the recorded facts of Shakespeare of Stratford's life 'supremely vulgar.' “

But Shapiro misses the main point: Whatever the reasons they used to support their views amid the emerging theories of their time, the idea that Will of Stratford was not the great poet, whether it was their own impression or suggested to them, was meaningful to them. These writers, reading the works with singularly ingenious intensity, each intuitively felt that the traditional story did not add up.

Shapiro commits another blunder, in discussing a section of Greenwood's The Shakespeare Problem Restated (1908) that Twain inserted into his book Is Shakespeare Dead?

“Again the ironies are great,” Shapiro writes. “Twain plagiarized Greenwood's words.”

But Twain did not pass Greenwood's words off as his own. As the New York Times reported on June 9, 1909 (an article included in my report to the 2003 conference), Twain “mentioned Mr. Greenwood's book in his own work, but neglected to mention Greenwood's name.” He set the quoted material up as its own chapter, and “at the bottom of the page on which the chapter starts there is the simple announcement: 'From Chapter XIII of The Shakespeare Problem Restated.' “

Next, Shapiro sets his sights on J. Thomas Looney, who was the first to contend (in his 1920 book “Shakespeare” Identified) that Edward de Vere wrote the works of Shakespeare. Shapiro shows some appreciation for the book (“a tour de force”), then overrates it (“the most telling book on the authorship controversy to have appeared, and in this respect it has yet to be surpassed”). But all of that pales when he turns to scrutinizing Looney's religious convictions as a Positivist.

Like Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard, who has equated alternative Shakespeare authorship studies with Holocaust denial, Shapiro doesn't hesitate to wield the most outrageous analogies. Consider his views on Looney's assertions of Shakespeare's appreciation for the Middle Ages and the old nobility: “Looney's retrograde vision comes too close for comfort to Freud's account of the Nazi rise to power in 1933, when he described 'the ideal of Hitlerism' as 'purely medieval and reactionary.' ” Though he admits that Looney was “highly critical of the Nazis,” Shapiro concludes, citing The Merchant of Venice, that “Looney's solution to the authorship problem, like the resolution of the play's 'Jewish problem'…was of a piece.”

Use of such analogies cheapens the gravest of matters and aims to silence intellectual questioning of an academic issue. All of this is indicative of how extreme these Stratfordians' absolutism really is.

In logical terms, Shapiro's weapon of choice is the fallacy argumentum ad hominem: When it comes to Freud's becoming an Oxfordian, Shapiro once again attacks the person. To choose from a host of examples: “Freud's rejection of Shakespeare seems both inevitable and necessary — though, like the claims of many others, it reveals more about the skeptic than it does about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays.” And: “His attraction to group authorship may say more about his own creative anxieties.”

The notion of Hamlet as an autobiographical work is an old idea that has persisted among Stratfordians and Oxfordians alike. For Oxfordians there are many neat fits. For one, de Vere's father died when he was 12, and his mother soon remarried. Freud used Hamlet to illustrate his Oedipal theory, and the Oxfordian interpretation made his case even better. Shapiro's spin on this: “Freud's decision to embrace the Oxfordian cause was, at best, self-deceiving.”

There are other problems with Shapiro's logic. He notes that Looney “found it 'impossible' to believe that Shakespeare could have quit the stage and 'retired to Stratford to devote himself to houses, lands, orchards, money and malt, leaving no traces of a single intellectual or literary interest,'” and continues sarcastically: “No writer of this stature could have cared that much about money. Shakespeare of Stratford was either a hypocrite or an imposter. His [Looney's] logic is unassailable — but only if you believe that great authors don't write for money and that the plays are transparently autobiographical.” It's a sweeping generalization, and it misses the point. Looney was not speaking of all authors, and what truly amazed him was that such an author as Shakespeare would quit writing.

While belittling Looney as much as he can, Shapiro at the same time overstates the importance of “Shakespeare” Identified, claiming that “to this day” it “remains the bible of all those who subscribe to the belief that the Earl of Oxford was the true author of the plays.” Many Oxfordians have not even read it, as copies of its two editions, of 1920 and 1949, are rare. Oxfordian scholarship has advanced considerably since the book was published. Top authorship scholars know well that it has faults, and can do a better job of elucidating them than Shapiro does.

If Shapiro has a bible on the Earl of Oxford it is Alan Nelson's Monstrous Adversary, a life of de Vere that is one of the most bilious biographies ever written. Riddled with errors, which Oxfordians have pointed out since its publication in 2003, Nelson's book is an embarrassment to scholarship. Contested Will, whose title is cast in the same syntactical form as Nelson's and which revels in the same spirit, is almost as bad.

Though both books assemble a great deal of interesting information, they are patently biased and need to be read skeptically. While it is hard to find one page of Nelson's book that is free of unfair statement, though, Shapiro can occasionally sound seductively considerate. He characterizes Nelson's book as “harsh,” but also “authoritative,” and recycles Nelson's opinions.

The customary way to dismiss the Oxford case is to note that Oxford died in 1604, name some Shakespeare plays and insist they are of later date. Shapiro names nine. But the traditional dating of the plays is largely based on the assumption that Will of Stratford wrote them, so it's a circular argument. There is no definitive post-1604 dating. That is why Stratfordians keep introducing new “Shakespeare” works that date from after de Vere's death. It happened with the insertion of the poems “Shall I Die?” and “A Funeral Elegy” into editions of the Shakespeare canon, and now it is apparently happening again with a play appropriately titled Double Falsehood, which the Arden Shakespeare is adding to its Complete Works.

In relating events in the history of the Oxfordian case, Shapiro begins to sound like a breathless TV commentator focused, in spite of himself, on his opponent's actions: “In retrospect, the outbreak of World War Two derailed an Oxfordian movement that had already begun to lose its momentum…For the next forty years, the remnant of the once flourishing movement in both Britain and America hung on…As the years slid by, expectations dwindled.” And then: The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality by Charlton Ogburn “rode the wave of some sweeping cultural changes…Oxfordians were learning how to use the levers of democracy to fight back…The moot court proved to be a turning point…It didn't take long for the British media to seize upon a now legitimate and newsworthy story…Oxfordian success on television was reinforced by major magazine and newspaper coverage…The sympathetic coverage in Atlantic and Harper's was nothing compared with the stories that now began to appear in the New York Times, thanks to the efforts of William Niederkorn, a self-professed 'agnostic' on the authorship question.”

Indeed, Shapiro assigns a share of the blame for the Oxfordian theory's momentum to me. Incidentally, in a brief exchange of email messages with him, which he quickly cut off, I said I was agnostic, not “an agnostic,” with its tone of heretical religiosity. I count myself among journalists who aim to be objective, but if authorship articles are not slanted toward their side, Stratfordians get upset. The worst Shapiro can say about me seems to be that I spoke at an Oxfordian dinner and an Oxfordian conference: Oxfordians were “delighted when Niederkorn spoke to them at their annual Oxford day banquet in April 2002.” I have spoken at three Oxfordian conferences — as well as the dinner — all different groups, and at all of them I have strongly affirmed that I take no side in the controversy. I would be happy to speak at a Stratfordian conference, but have not yet been invited, though I have spoken on neutral stages at the invitation of the University of Tennessee Law School and the Rowfant Club of Cleveland.

And that brings up a related point. Among the conferences where I have spoken, Stratfordians have always been welcome to present papers. At one that I attended, Alan Nelson was honored at the awards banquet. The Oxfordian, the best American academic journal covering the authorship question, publishes papers by Stratfordians. By contrast, there is no tolerance for anti-Stratfordian scholarship at the conferences and journals Stratfordians control.

Eventually, Shapiro comes to my article of August 30, 2005, in the New York Times, “The Shakespeare Code, and Other Fanciful Ideas From the Traditional Camp,” and he quotes the beginning: “The controversy over who wrote Shakespeare's works has reached a turning point of sorts. A new biography of the Earl of Oxford improves on the unorthodox argument that he was Shakespeare, while fantasy has now been firmly established as a primary tool of other, more traditional Shakespeare studies.” He continues: “The wheel had come full circle: now the Shakespeare scholars were the fantasists. Niederkorn offered the following pronouncement on how things stood: 'On both sides of the authorship controversy, the arguments are conjectural. Each case rests on a story, and not on hard evidence.'” What Shapiro fails to mention is that he was one of the fantasists I criticized in the article. Judging by the timing, it may even be what set him off on the whole anti-authorship tirade that is now Contested Will. In any case, some disclosure was in order, and Shapiro failed to provide it.

Perhaps he even contributed to the hatchet job that appeared on the front page of the New York Observer a month later, aimed at silencing my coverage of the authorship issue in the Times. In his bibliographical essay, he recommends it “for a helpful analysis of Niederkorn on Shakespeare.” And he repeats the same derisive remark used in the Observer article, another trademark Stratfordian analogy, saying that my “rhetoric smacked of that employed by Creationists eager to see intelligent design taught in the schools alongside evolution.”

That was for my suggesting that authorship studies be made part of the standard Shakespeare curriculum. If another reason for open-minded discussion of the authorship issue in Shakespeare studies were needed, Contested Will provides it, because it shows just what students are now having to swallow.

The first three parts of Contested Will cover Shakespeare scholarship, such as it was, up to the mid-19th century; the Baconian theory; and the Oxfordian theory. In the fourth and final part, Shapiro forcefully sums up the Stratfordian case, marshaling all he can contend to support his dogma.

He lists a host of contemporary references to Shakespeare's work, as if they provided solid proof for his contentions, but — a common Stratfordian astigmatism — he doesn't see that nothing connects all these references with the actor/glover from Stratford and that they could just as easily refer to someone using “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym.

Shapiro makes the usual impossible demands upon the challengers, while projecting professorial certainty about highly questionable claims of his own. If “Shake-speare” had been a pseudonym, Shapiro says, “a score of publishers who at various times over a quarter-century owned and published Shakespeare's works, and then their various printers and compositors, and then those to whom they sold their rights, would each in turn have had to be let in on the secret — and carried it to the grave.” Why would they have had to be told? There is a tone of desperation throughout this part of the book, as if Shapiro were trying to convince himself.

At a climactic point of his summation, in citing the second epilogue of Henry IV Part 2 as evidence for Will of Stratford, Shapiro seems to lose rationality completely in his insistence that Shakespeare himself delivered this speech on the Elizabethan stage. The epilogue says: “If you look for a good speech now, you undo me. For what I have to say is of my own making.” If the speaker were the playwright, he would need no apology and would be able to make a good speech. A substitute speechmaker is more likely an actor or actor-manager. He could even be anti-Stratfordian Will.

A section on “Jacobean Shakespeare” is a stew of Stratfordian supposition about the Blackfriars playhouse and the nature of the co-authorship of some of the so-called late plays. No one knows how these works were co-authored, or even if they were collaborations in the sense of playwrights' getting together and planning what they would write. But Shapiro persists in pushing Stratfordian theory. His concluding anecdote about how John Fletcher botched a scene in the co-authored play The Two Noble Kinsmen, to the point that he didn't even seem to know what Shakespeare had set up in the foregoing, hardly supports a supposition that the play could not have been finished, or reworked, by Fletcher in Shakespeare's absence. It seems only too likely that Shakespeare was not present, because if he were, as “the more experienced partner” he would have corrected Fletcher's mistakes. More likely Fletcher was doing a job, fixing up an old play. For what reason one can only speculate, but it could be, for instance, to get around objections by a Jacobean censor who blocked it from being performed.

In his epilogue to Contested Will, I am pleased to see that Shapiro has come around to agreeing with the point of my 2005 article, as he criticizes recent Stratfordian biographies, especially Greenblatt's Will in the World, with its ham-handed efforts to connect Will's life to Shakespeare's works. Shapiro even admits his own waywardness, which I also took to task: “I flinch when I think of my own trespasses in classrooms and in print, despite my best efforts to steer clear of biographical speculation.”

The reason for his about-face is that, as he puts it, “the more that Shakespeare scholars encourage autobiographical readings of the plays and poems, the more they legitimate assumptions that underlie the claims of all those who dismiss” the case for Will of Stratford, which in effect is what I had said.

Circumstantial biographical evidence has certainly been wielded more effectively by anti-Stratfordians. You can bet Stratfordians would make the most of “autobiographical readings” if they had them. It isn't even fair. Will does not have a biographical record with as much data as his challengers have.

The solution Shapiro now embraces, to renounce all “biographical speculation,” offers Stratfordians hope that, short of the discovery of, say, a Shakespeare manuscript in the handwriting of Oxford or one of the other contenders, the Stratfordian case will hold up, at least for believers.

To back up this idea vis-a-vis the Sonnets, Shapiro points to a sonnet sequence by one Posted in Critical Mass