What do the following have in common: Henry James, Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Sigmund Freud and Malcolm X? They all believed that William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him.
On the eve of Shakespeare's birthday last week I attended a talk given in London by James Shapiro, author of 1599 : A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. He was talking about his latest book, Contested Will which I have just finished. Like 1599, it is very scholarly and very readable. Shapiro is very easy to listen to as well. In the book he deals with the two main claimants to Shakespeare's works: Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford. The latter still has a large following, despite the fact that he died in 1604, before some of Shakespeare's greatest plays were written.
The main reason for supporters of Oxford and Bacon (and others) to doubt Shakespeare's authorship was that, as well-travelled aristocrats, they would have had the experiences that Shakespeare never had which informed the plays. In the last section of the book, when Shapiro very convincingly shows that Shakespeare did write the plays using his wonderful imagination, he quotes from an anonymous poet in 1593:
A man may write of love, and not be in love, as well as of husbandry, and not go to plough, or of witches and be none'. It's as apt a description of the author of Shakespeare's Sonnets, As You Like It, and Macbeth as any I know.
The book is full of interesting information about the authorship controversy. I especially liked Shapiro's account of the 'trial' held in the United States in 1987 before three judges of the Supreme Court to decide whether Shakespeare or Oxford had written the plays. They decided in favour of Shakespeare, stating that the Oxfordians had not made their case. One of the three, the present Chief Justice John Paul Stevens, has reportedly said more recently, that if he 'had to pick a candidate today, I'd say it definitely was Oxford.' So the debate goes on, fuelled, Shapiro says, by the internet. He dreads the release of the film Anonymous which will push the 'Prince Tudor' theory: that Queen Elizabeth and Oxford were lovers whose son was the Earl of Southampton...
Shapiro says he's glad he's finished the book so that he can get back to the plays themselves. He mentioned in passing that he's thinking of writing a new book on 1606, along the lines of 1599. I hope he does. In the meantime, read Contested Will.
[Read Booker-winner Hilary Mantel's review on the Guardian site here (followed by lots of comments and debate), and Ben Crystal's in the Independent here. James Shapiro's own site is here, and he was interviewed on Radio 4's 'Front Row' here.]