The establishment strikes back: Contested Will

A statue intended to represent William Shakespeare adorns the gardens of the Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario

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.) 

Paul Nicholson

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.

Edward de Vere

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.


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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Dear MK
    You wrote: ‘As for de Vere, samples of the writings under his own name are radically different than Shakespeare, showing him to be in the group of university educated writers that openly mocked the man from Stratford. I also find it extremely telling that none of his contemporaries doubted that he wrote the plays.’
    You say no one questioned the attribution. But in the previous sentence you indicate that he WAS indeed discredited – some of that discrediting takes the form, in the Parnassus plays, of mocking the idea that the author was NOT an educated classically educated gentleman. The famous Groatsworth allusion invokes whoever it is as an ‘upstart crowe’, i.e., someone, an actor, who wears ANOTHER’s feathers. And if we can study the First Folio, THE major source of the Stratfordian attribution, without getting a very strong whiff of rotten fish we have studied it rather superficially. Witness, as just one example, the Droeshout portrait, which is clearly deliberately and very skilfully designed to be anatomically impossible. See:

    I know there is a divide here which it is very hard to imagine crossing from your side. But its worth remembering we too were most of us Stratfordians also; it is possible to rethink here in the light of evidence, and I invite you to do so. At any rate to go on dialoguing, even if you continue to disagree, which I much appreciate.

    Best regards


  2. Thank you very much for recommending the Jonathan Bate book. I will indeed check it out. As to your points:

    (a) The samples we have of de Vere’s writing are, I think, almost all from his earlier years, before the Shakespeare plays and sonnets appeared. It would hardly be surprising if de Vere’s mature style didn’t resemble his youthful style. Compare, for example, the “school” stories P. G. Wodehouse wrote from 1900 through 1915 to the masterpieces he wrote from 1920 through 1950 — you wouldn’t think it was the same author. Or compare the style of John Cheever’s early stories from the 1930s to that of the gems he wrote in the 1960s. I would note that some researchers think that the vocabulary in de Vere’s known writings correlates meaningfully to the vocabulary of the “Shakespeare” works and that the styles aren’t radically different at all, though I don’t know how much stock I put in that.

    (b) My own view is that the evidence of what Will Shakespeare’s contemporaries thought about who wrote the plays is so meager and so equivocal that nothing of value can be drawn from it.

    (c) True, the authorship question didn’t flower until 200 years later. But surely it’s not merely a quirk of the romantic movement to think that there will generally be a noticeable relationship between an author’s work and his life.

  3. Still can’t buy that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. As for de Vere, samples of the writings under his own name are radically different than Shakespeare, showing him to be in the group of university educated writers that openly mocked the man from Stratford. I also find it extremely telling that none of his contemporaries doubted that he wrote the plays. The authorship question only comes to play 200 years later during the romantic movement where writers believed their life and art were intertwined.

    Jonathan Bate wrote a fantastic book called The Genius of Shakespeare in 1997 looking at this very question. He talks about the case of de Vere. Stratfordians have not been putting their heads in the sands, no matter how you wish it so. I’d recommend checking out the book.

  4. Heward:

    Joe Sobran was referring to a passage in the short story “The Reverent Wooing of Archibald,” which leads off the Mr. Mulliner Speaking collection (and can of course be found in several anthologies).

    But I feel certain this wasn’t the reference I was thinking of, because I hadn’t read this story within the last couple of years. I’m pretty sure that the bit I’m remembering was in a Jeeves-Wooster book. If you’re remembering a passage from a Blandings novel, maybe there are as many as three references in Wodehouse to the authorship question!


  5. Heward:

    I am now revisiting all the Wodehouse I’ve read during the last year and will keep at it till I find that reference. Then will come the test. Reading it in context, will you and I be able to agree on what it implies about Wodehouse’s view on Shakespeare authorship any better than you and Shapiro could agree on that speech of Ulysses from Troilus and Cressida?

    I enjoyed your piece a great deal. You dug in and addressed Shapiro’s strongest themes, the ones that make me feel uneasy on the one day out of seven that I (like you) doubt whether that Stratford fellow might not, after all, have written the stuff. In fact, I didn’t realize how far Shapiro was sucking me in with his insidious attacks on the proposition that a man’s writing reveal the man until I read your piece, taking it head-on. And you did what Shapiro was too lazy to do with his critique of the Oxfordian case; he mocked the weak, the equivocal arguments for Oxford, instead of wrestling with the strongest pieces of evidence.

    Yet while I fully agree that the speech of Ulysses — and many other passages in Shakespeare — prove the essentially feudalistic worldview of the author, I’m not fully convinced that the feudalistic worldview necessarily points very strongly to Oxford, as opposed to the Stratford man. The feudalist point of view was surely shared by all strata of Elizabethan society, not only by the aristocrats. As a player whose livelihood depended a lot on the patronage of the aristocrats, wouldn’t it be expected that the actor/theatrical manager W. Shakespeare had the same views of “degree” as Edward de Vere? Through the Victorian era, at least, the merit of staying in own’s “station” was a tenet of the lower and middle classes as much as it was of the upper classes.

    I look forward to reading the new edition of Brief Chronicles.



  6. Dear Emsworth
    As with Captain Oates, it may be some time before I find the Wodehouse comment – though there is one allusion at the end of the late lamented Joe Sobran’s review of Shapiro, but without a reference

    Somewhere in your essay on the above the battle politics of Wodehouse you recognise he does show his hand in old age as a Conservative – what, after all, one would expect. (There will never be a revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows, wrote Orwell, and I think there can never be an overt fascist movement in England while there is a constitutionalist Conservative party.)

    Now, I think that the creator of so many wild wheezes and aliases for breaking into the Paradise of Pigs, and above all the creator of Psmith, had the natural Shakespearian feel for disguise, and would have taken it as read that the matter was, to coin a phrase, open to ‘reasonable doubt’. His doyen, Nietzsche, after all takes it absolutely for granted that the Stratford man did not, and could not have, written the plays, for the same reasons that Whitman took it for granted. Of course Nietzsche does not know about Oxford and tries ingeniously to make Bacon fit the bill in Ecce Homo. But I am sure he would have felt that Oxford ‘fitted’ like a glove, a very aristocratic glove! Wodehouse has a very, an incredibly, light touch, but he is nevertheless a thoroughgoing Nietzschean sceptic, something embodied in Jeeves, who is, like Hamlet, simultaneously Ubermensch and thoroughgoing feudalist! I agree he does not show his hand; Jeeves tells Bertie ‘You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound’. But Bertie is not capable of being the Ubermensch! Wodehouse is a Nietzschean, I conclude. And I infer, PROBABLY an authorship sceptic – as a proponent, after all, of the higher, aristocratic, commonsense.

    I hope you enjoy my attempt to sweep up Shapiro. How anyone can so totally fail to see the aristocratic positioning at the very heart of Shakespeare beats me! But we live in an epoch alienated from its aristocratic starting point. And it is not an arriviste proletarian aristocratic stance, like DH Lawrence’s, or a reasoned middle class one like Sam Johnson’s; it is second nature, as Ben Jonson understood in the panegyric (another bit of that poem never read by the Stratfordians).

    Anyway enough of these tomfooleries. I must Psmith-like get down to serious idleness, otherwise known as work…

    Enjoying the badinage!


  7. It’s a solution in search of a problem. Haven’t seen any traffic jams.

  8. “The Hamlet of Shakespeare.” That’s quite good.

    I don’t feel extra lanes are necessary. Have you ever encountered traffic jams on the way through?

  9. Heward:

    I would surely like to be convinced that Wodehouse was an anti-Stratfordian, but I’m not at all sure. I do remember a jocular reference to the authorship question — can’t remember in which novel — but it seemed to me that Wodehouse simply thought it was funny that there should have been an issue, not that he was signalling that he was leaning one way or the other.

    It would be more like Wodehouse, I think, to stay above any issue on which people were sharply divided, something I’ve written about in connection with his political views a couple of times. See this post ( and this one ( Still, there’s no one I’d rather have on the Oxfordian side.

    I’ve added your blog to my roll! Looking forward to reading your essay on the Shapiro book later this week — I started into it but realized that I needed a bloc of concentrated time. Good stuff.


  10. Dr. Waugaman: I’m not a subscriber, so I hope I’ll somehow be able to read your review when it comes out. Yes, the discussion of de Vere’s Bible jumped out at me, too. I haven’t done any original research in this area, but Shapiro dismissed the evidence of the Bible so cursorily that one can only conclude that he has willfully ignored the more sophisticated examination of the passages that you cite.

  11. Dear Emsworth
    You will remember that Wodehouse, if not an Oxfordian, was fairly clearly not a Stratfordian, I think he makes the allusion in one of the Blandings novels! I agree with Douglas Adams that he is up there in the cosmos with Mozart as a comic writer.

    It would be fun to link with your blog. Mine includes a review of that tantalising and frustrating book of Shapiro’s at:


  12. Mr. Wilkinson: How true! And it would only be justice if a Shakespeare festival could be established in Oxford!

  13. Pity its so far from Mississippi – it could have been rerouted through Oxford…

    Heward Wilkinson

  14. Thanks for your discussion of Shapiro’s book. My review of it will appear in a future issue of the Psychoanalytic Quarterly. Here’s an excerpt–
    “Shapiro briefly discusses de Vere’s Bible. He believes so few of Shakespeare’s biblical allusions are marked in it that it offers no evidence of de Vere’s authorship. The data, however, are more complex—de Vere and Shakespeare showed similar levels of interest in specific passages. The more times Shakespeare echoed a given biblical verse, the more likely it is that de Vere marked it (for instance, he marked 88% of passages that Shakespeare alluded to six times). Further, the marked metrical Psalms at the end of de Vere’s Bible have recently revealed what may be the largest new literary source for Shakespeare’s works in the past several decades.”

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