Nothing changed in 2010: the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) still doesn’t grant that William Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford, England, might not actually have written Richard III, King Lear, or the other “Shakespeare” plays. The programs for Shakespeare plays still recite the same stale “facts” about the life of the Stratford man and still blithely credit him with the plays. As we wrote in this space a couple of years ago, the question of who wrote Hamlet just doesn’t seem to be up for discussion.
We don’t blame Stratford General Director Antoni Cimolino for keeping mum on the subject — how better to keep people from being mad at you! Still, we must point out that on the other side of the continent, Oregon Shakespeare Festival executive director Paul Nicholson has now joined the long list of theater luminaries on record as doubting that the Stratford man deserves credit for writing Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice. (Nicholson runs the largest Shakespeare festival in the United States, nearly up to the scale of the Stratford Festival.)
According to a September 23, 2010 article in Southern Oregon’s Mail Tribune, Mr. Nicholson has noticed how implausible it is that the Stratford man could have had the intimate knowledge of law, falconry, life at court, and English history that the playwright clearly did. Mr. Nicholson also points out that William Shakespeare was only in his twenties when the sonnets were written; most of the sonnets, of course, are poems written from the standpoint of a man of mature years in relation to a much younger man. Mr. Nicholson is one of several other actors and directors at at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival who recently signed the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare,” which has been circulating online since it was drafted in 2007. See this website. (Presumably the Oregon Shakespeare Festival itself takes no official position on the question of authorship.)
What Mr. Cimolino, Des McAnuff, Lucy Peacock, Martha Henry, Brian Bedford, and others at the Stratford Festival really think about the authorship question, we’d love to know. Some of them, we suppose, think it doesn’t matter and don’t take any interest in it; we’ve met a a surprising number of Shakespeare lovers who feel that way. Personally, we think it does matter. A work of art has so much more interest when you know a bit about its creator and his life.
At any rate, we are gratified to see that the debate over who wrote Shakespeare is heating up, as evidenced by this well-written, well-researched new book by James Shapiro. To the author’s credit, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare gives Shakespeare lovers something different from the usual Shakespeare “biographies,” which invariably rehash familiar material about the historical and cultural climate during which the plays were written but have little to say (because little is known) about the Stratford man. Contested Will gives us, instead, a history of the controversy over who really wrote the works of Shakespeare.
It’s a good story, with plenty of colorful characters. There was William-Henry Ireland, who in 1794 first began “discovering” correspondence to and from William Shakespeare (including a letter to him from Queen Elizabeth!), then manuscripts of the plays (King Lear!), then “lost” plays of Shakespeare. (We were reminded of P.D.Q. Bach, whose compositions, like The Short-Tempered Clavier, the “Erotica” Variations for banned instruments and piano, and the opera A Little Nightmare Music, have been “discovered” by Peter Schickele over the course of the last 40 years.) James Boswell was among those taken in by Ireland before he was exposed as a fraud (though not until a new “Shakespeare” play, Vortigern, was debuted in London).
Another forger, John Payne Collier, produced so much phony Shakespeare memorabilia in the 1830s and 1840s that it took Shakespeare scholars decades to sort it out from the real thing. And then there was Delia Bacon, the first major proponent of Francis Bacon as the author of Shakespeare, a pioneer (as a woman) in the field of literary scholarship who got the attention of Hawthorne and Emerson, but whose monomania and paranoia (she was afraid to publish her findings for fear that others would steal her ideas) eventually led her to the madhouse.
It wasn’t until we were halfway through Shapiro’s book that we realized that we’d been taken in ourselves. It gradually dawned on us, as we were reading about what Emerson, Mark Twain, and Freud thought about Shakespeare authorship, that Shapiro had an agenda: he intended, ultimately, to portray Oxfordians and other anti-Stratfordians as mere dabblers in the subject (Twain), or perhaps a little neurotic (Freud), or caught up in passing trends like the “Higher Criticism” that had challenged traditional notions of authorship of books of the Bible.
Not till the latter pages of Contested Will does Shapiro get to the present-day groundswell of support for the authorship of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. By then, though, his mask is off and the book’s pages drip with scorn and ridicule. True it is that there has been no shortage of nutty ideas associated with the question of who wrote Shakespeare. Here we think, for instance, of those who not only maintain that Oxford wrote the plays and sonnets, but also insist that the Earl of Southampton (presumed subject of the homoerotic sonnets) was also the love child of Oxford and Queen Elizabeth. Personally, we don’t have much trouble telling the loony stuff from the solid arguments for Oxford; Shapiro, clearly a smart guy and a scholar, ought to have been able to do it too. But he chose not to.
For the last couple of decades, the main tactic of Stratfordians has been simply to ignore the doubters (and the Oxfordians) and to marginalize the whole issue by preserving a chilly silence. Now, clearly feeling the heat, they’re starting to fight back. Contesting Will represents one of the first open counter-attacks.
Meanwhile, in southern Ontario just seven miles east of Stratford, a new controversy is brewing that may end up affecting more lives that the debate over who wrote Shakespeare. We gather (solely from the evidence of a number of lawn signs) that transportation officials are proposing to widen that part of Highway 7/8 that runs through Shakespeare from two lanes to five. (This is the route most folks take to get to the Stratford Festival.) A number of houses and shops are already pretty close to the highway, and some are clearly going to have to be torn down or moved if the project goes through. We sympathize with the locals, but take no sides.