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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

Katherine Duncan-Jones
Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
By James Shapiro (Faber & Faber 367pp £20)

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The usual suspects

I approached this book with a heavy heart. Why should such an able scholar as James Shapiro devote a whole book to the non-question of who wrote Shakespeare? Didn't Samuel Schoenbaum cover the Baconians et al in great detail in his Shakespeare's Lives (1970)? And in the end, how much does 'authorship' matter?

I am delighted to confess that my instinct was wrong. The self-contradictory subtitle 'Who Wrote Shakespeare?' turns out to be a line spoken by a foolish character in a play called High Life Below Stairs, written as long ago as 1759. Schoenbaum's book is indeed weighty and, in a rather unpleasant way, entertaining. He was especially cutting in his comments on female biographers of Shakespeare, including some distinctly able ones such as Charlotte Stopes and Marchette Chute, the former being mocked for having children and a cat, the latter for being a mere librarian who, as such, could write only a 'pop biography'. Shapiro's approach is quite different. His interest is not so much in 'what people think' as in 'why they think it', and he often sheds powerful light on the social and religious contexts in which scepticism about Shakespeare has flourished. In welcome contrast to Schoenbaum, Shapiro has a remarkable gift for empathy with his human subjects, and is curious and tenacious in exploring their life stories.

The founding mother of Baconianism was Delia Bacon, about whom Schoenbaum was horribly sarcastic. She was the youngest child of a 'visionary Congregationalist minister'. While her domineering eldest brother Leonard was sent to Yale, her own formal education ended at fourteen. Yet wide independent reading equipped her to move on from teaching schoolgirls in New England to delivering public lectures to large mixed audiences in New York, where she got to know Ellen Terry and wrote a play about the American Revolution in a strongly Shakespearian - or rather, perhaps, Baconian - style. But it was never performed, being harshly criticised by her brother, who also, Laertes-like, savagely scuppered his sister's warm but apparently entirely innocent friendship with a younger man. Things got even worse for Delia Bacon in 1853 when she made her only visit to England. She called on Thomas Carlyle, who greeted her theories with shrieks of loud laughter - 'Ach Gott!'. However, he gave her good advice to search the archives of the British Museum, but she went instead to St Albans and tried to get Francis Bacon's tomb opened up in search of manuscripts that would prove her theory. She was keen to have the Shakespeare monument in Stratford dismantled for the same end, but fortunately for posterity it was soon apparent that obsession had tipped into mania. After a brief incarceration in Warwickshire she ended her life in an asylum in America. Shapiro's account is sober and thoughtful. He sees Delia Bacon's theories as implicitly posing a challenge to the anti-monarchical principles on which America had been allegedly founded, as well as to her own cruelly unsupportive family.

Biographers of Mark Twain, Henry James and Freud, according to Shapiro, have avoided 'looking too deeply into these authors' doubts' about the man from Stratford. He remedies this. Mark Twain, a late but exuberant convert to Baconianism, was convinced that all major writers have written chiefly about themselves, as he freely admitted that he had always done. He recruited the brilliant deaf-blind writer Helen Keller to his cause on the same simplistic grounds. According to Twain, the Stratford hick couldn't possibly have known so much about the law as the author of those plays evidently did. However, Shapiro teases out an inherent contradiction in Keller's position, since she herself provided 'living evidence that a great writer didn't need to see or hear things herself to write about them'. Henry James appears to have been a general doubter about 'William of Stratford', without being unambiguously committed to a specific candidate. Perhaps his doubts reflected wider preoccupations with the hidden and sometimes systematically disguised lives of creative artists. The most startling case history is that of Sigmund Freud, who actually used J T Looney's Shakespeare Identified (which proclaimed Shakespeare to be Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford) as part of the treatment of one of his patients, an American doctor called Smiley Blanton. Very reluctantly, Blanton read the book, and wasn't convinced. However, he admired it more than he expected, and 'was relieved that he didn't have to consider his therapist a crackpot'. Freud's own conviction, however, took deep root, and when awarded the Goethe Prize in 1930 he wrote a speech largely devoted to his claim that 'the nobly born and highly cultivated, passionately wayward, to some extent déclassé aristocrat Edward de Vere' had written those sonnets and plays. It seems that Freud never fully understood the Positivist ideology to which Looney (pronounced 'Loany') had been committed, which had strong strands within it both of fascism and anti-Semitism.

Moving towards the present day, Shapiro finds it 'not entirely clear' why Oxfordians have proved to be both more numerous and more pugnacious than the 'champions of other aristocrats'. Alan H Nelson surely hoped to bring their activities to a close with his substantial scholarly biography, Monstrous Adversary, published in 2003. But if the already well-known fact that Oxford died in 1604, disappearing from the scene well before the composition of King Lear and The Tempest, hasn't deterred his followers, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Nelson's far fuller documentation has likewise failed to thin their ranks, currently carpet-bombing Wikipedia.

The study is book-ended with excellent résumés of Shakespeare scholarship. In the opening section I think Shapiro is too hard on Edmond Malone, whom he sees as guilty of initiating the practice of trying to discover 'the man' behind Shakespeare's works. Yet Malone's own self doubts, when moving from editing to life-writing, may have been the reason why he never completed his own biography of Shakespeare. This pattern was to be repeated: both E K Chambers and Samuel Schoenbaum spent many years collecting materials for Shakespeare biographies that they never completed. In the closing section James Shapiro deftly assembles some of the many compelling reasons to believe that the man from Stratford did indeed 'write Shakespeare'; and in an epilogue he deplores the post-millennium appearance of biographies in which speculations about Shakespeare's inner life are made on the basis of his literary works. I am relieved to find my own, first published in 2001, unmentioned.

Katherine Duncan-Jones's 'Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life' will be published in paperback this month (Methuen Drama).