28 June, 2010Issue 12.5LiteratureWriters

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Portraits of An Unknown Man

Mike Jakeman

foerJames Shapiro
Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Faber and Faber, 2010
384 Pages
ISBN 978-0571235766

Stanley Wells
Shakespeare, Sex and Love
Oxford University Press, 2010
282 Pages
ISBN 978-0199578597

It is always useful to remind ourselves of how little we know about William Shakespeare. Despite his status as the most famous playwright in the English language, much of his life is a mystery. In his book on the person behind the plays, Stephen Greenblatt notes the “abundant but thin” evidence of Shakespeare’s life. The primary sources that have survived are mostly administrative—a marriage licence, christening records, tax bills, affidavits, the odd cast list, and a will—the cumulative effect of which is to make Shakespeare seem “a drabber, duller person” than the one that we imagine from the exuberance of his plays.

Ironically, this dearth of biographical detail has not deterred literary critics as much as liberated them. It is, after all, easier to speculate, often wildly, on a shadowy subject than on one whose life is well documented. The result has been an extraordinary volume of criticism: British Library records reveal that over 2,000 books on Shakespeare were published in the last ten years, or a little over four each week. Another two works can now be added to this tottering pile, by two heavyweight Shakespeare scholars: James Shapiro and Stanley Wells. Their subjects—authorship and sex—are among the most contentious and well trodden areas of Shakespeare studies, but the authors shared approach is to show the necessity of reading the Bard in the context of his age.

The cover of Shapiro’s Contested Will, which shows a rogue’s gallery of Elizabethan dramatists and courtiers and asks us “Who Wrote Shakespeare?”, is a red herring; Shapiro is less interested in examining the credibility of each of the contenders than considering why particular men were championed when they were. This proves to be a fertile approach, and a useful position from which to question the theories of those who argue that Francis Bacon (the “Baconians”) was the real Shakespeare, and those who contest that the Bard was really Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (the “Oxfordians”).

But why doubt Shakespeare as an author at all? Shapiro identifies the source of the authorship debate in the writing of Edmond Malone, a Georgian-era Shakespeare scholar, who, frustrated by the lack of evidence available to write a biography of Shakespeare, wondered if the works themselves might hold some clues. Given the size of the Bard’s oeuvre, it is not surprising that Malone spotted parallels between the plays and contemporary knowledge of Shakespeare’s life. Hence the “pathetic lamentations” expressed by Constance at the death of her son, Arthur, in King John, could be a dramatic echo of Shakespeare’s feelings when his own son, Hamnet, died in 1596. Underlying Malone’s thesis was the thought that “he could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers or imagined.” If one is to believe this rather dubious assumption, the opposite must also be true—that Shakespeare was incapable of writing about what he had not experienced. It was this leap that began one of literature’s strangest quests: to prove that Shakespeare, our greatest dramatist, did not write his plays after all.

In essays on each of the two major schools, Shapiro, a committed “Stratfordian”, shows how the Baconians and Oxfordians made the same mistake: they were unwittingly influenced by the fashions of their ages, and thus failed to put Shakespeare in the context of his own. The Baconians’ conviction that their man had left verbal clues of his identity hidden in Shakespeare’s works is shown to be a reflection of the 19th century’s interest in sequences and ciphers, following the development of Samuel Morse’s code. Moreover, an unlikely revival of interest in the Oxford theory in the 1970s and 1980s is put in the context of renewed public interest in conspiracies in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and Watergate.

However outlandish their attempts to discredit Shakespeare might be, Shapiro treats his predecessors with respect. There is something undeniably comic in Shapiro’s description of the mad dash across the Atlantic undertaken by a Baconian, Elizabeth Wells Gallup, who becomes convinced that manuscripts were hidden in Islington’s Canonbury Tower; in her rival Orville Ward Owen’s determination to dredge the Severn river in search of the same item; and in Percy Allen’s attempt to solve the mystery through séances. Yet one suspects that Shapiro gives them more credence than they deserve in order to provide a stiffer opponent for his final essay, a barnstorming piece of rhetoric in which he uses the kind of unglamorous historical research absent from the work of the Baconians and Oxfordians to construct a robust defence of Shakespeare.

Shapiro also calls upon the work of an ally, Stanley Wells, whose work has shown that several of Shakespeare’s works were produced in collaboration with other contemporary dramatists, which has strengthened the Stratfordian claim. Yet although Wells sides with Shapiro on the authorship question, his latest study, Shakespeare, Sex and Love, shows how slippery the arguments can be.

His discussion of the sonnets is key. Given their first-person perspective, they are uniquely valuable to those determined to read Shakespeare autobiographically. While Shapiro is keen to highlight the dangers of assuming that the speaker is Shakespeare, Wells cannot resist speculating. His argument “that some, indeed many of them, reflect circumstances of the author’s own emotional and sexual life” is threefold: the poems are believed to have been written at the height of the craze for sonnet sequences in the 1590s, but were not published until much later, in 1609, suggesting that they were an expression of something personal rather than an attempt to cash in on a literary trend; second, the break with the tradition of addressing sequences to fictitious romantic lovers (such as Sir Philip Sidney’s Stella) by naming the protagonist after himself; and finally the unintelligibility of the events that are recorded in the poems, which suggests Shakespeare was purposefully being elusive and concealing details from his readers.

This groundwork laid, Wells goes a step further to ask, “If we read the sonnets in autobiographical terms, what do they tell us? One, they show us that he [Shakespeare] was indeed, and probably frequently, unfaithful to his wife.” (When reading this, it might be possible to hear the muffled thud of Shapiro banging his head on his desk in frustration.) Wells takes a step back from the debate in his conclusion, where he admits to the impossibility of sifting “the imagined from the real”, but his delight in projecting a vision of Shakespeare through the prism of his poetry shows the enduring appeal of the authorship debate.

Elsewhere, Shakespeare, Sex and Love is a breezy jaunt through the sexual highs and lows of the Renaissance. As is required for such a subject, Wells is an unflinching guide, as happy to discuss pederasty as Polonius. His early chapters on what was considered acceptable sexual behaviour (just about everything, it seems) are a riot, and he avoids the all too common pitfall of putting Shakespeare on a moral pedestal. Wells is not na√Øve enough to suggest that Shakespeare must have participated in all of the sexual practices that appear in his plays, but he is gossipy enough to reprint several enjoyable rumours about the Bard’s virility. This is probably the greatest contrast in the authors’ approaches: Shapiro’s prose is taut and rhetorical, Wells’s flabbier and more divergent.

Where Wells and Shapiro are united is the belief that declarations of love and desire in Shakespeare can be literary devices, rather than personal confessions. Wells quotes one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Thomas Nashe, who suggests that the sonnet was used as a form of verbal jousting, while Shapiro cites the example of Giles Fletcher, a middle-aged courtier who wrote in the rather different voice of a love-struck youth. This shows the difficulty faced by any scholar in trying to disprove Shakespeare’s authorship through his texts. Even if the Bard’s own voice could be detected, it would be impossible to prove that he was speaking of his own feelings. This points to the ultimate futility of centuries of autobiographical readings of Shakespeare. The frustrating disconnection between his humdrum, demonstrable life of christenings, taxes, and courts and the extraordinary imagination that is evident on the page will remain. Despite the best efforts of future generations of literary grave-diggers, Shakespeare will continue to be more ghost than man.

Mike Jakeman graduated in 2006 with a BA in English from Keble College, Oxford. He now works for the Economist Intelligence Unit.