Skip to comments.Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Posted on 06/07/2010 4:46:40 PM PDT by nickcarraway
MARK COLVIN: William Shakespeare is one of the most significant figures in history about whose actual life we know the least. Very little survives in his handwriting and the records of him are scanty but mostly concerned with money and lawsuits.
This absence has proved the breeding ground for all sorts of conspiracy theories, mostly suggesting that someone much more aristocratic wrote the works of the man we call Shakespeare. Some have said it was Francis Bacon, others the Earl of Oxford.
There's even a school that believes Christopher Marlowe wrote Shakespeare even though he was stabbed to death years before the greatest of the plays were even written.
James Shapiro is a Shakespeare scholar whose latest book Contested Will looks at many of the Shakespeare conspiracies and the people who espoused them, from Mark Twain to Sigmund Freud.
On the line from New York, I asked him why such a genius had left so few biographical traces.
JAMES SHAPIRO: Almost nothing of that kind of adoration or even the concept of genius that you and I are familiar with and using right now didn't really take hold in those days.
It's kind of shocking but one of the things that I realised in writing the book Contested Will is that a lot of the ways we think about the past and about creativity and about the relationship between a writer's work and his, and his life are really 21st century conceptions - or 2Oth century conceptions - imposed upon a culture that didn't think the way we do.
MARK COLVIN: But nobody's ever doubted that Michelangelo existed or Leonardo, for example.
JAMES SHAPIRO: No and you know luckily we had Vasari writing the lives of the great Italian Renaissance painters. And you know there was one of those books by one of Shakespeare's contemporaries - a man named Haywood who planned and perhaps even wrote the lives of modern poets and including Shakespeare who he would have known quite well.
But either the book doesn't survive or it wasn't finished and it's lost and we would not be having this conversation now about who Shakespeare really was had Haywood gotten around to finishing that book.
MARK COLVIN: But it's not, for instance, that individual authorship wasn't prized then in the way it is today.
JAMES SHAPIRO: Individual authorship was absolutely not prized in the way it is today. One of the things that I have the hardest time explaining to my students is that Shakespeare may have written plays but he did not own those plays.
He turned them over to his company. They published them at their whim or will and he didn't make any money from the sale of his plays. So even modern notions of copyright or authorial control are radically, radically different than what we might expect.
MARK COLVIN: Just run us quickly through the things that we do know; the references to him in his lifetime.
JAMES SHAPIRO: Sure.
MARK COLVIN: The upstart crow and things like that.
JAMES SHAPIRO: Yeah, you know, I'm often asked, How do you know its Shakespeare?. And your lovely phrase that kind of silhouette that I provide in 1599 with trying to fill enough of the background so that Shakespeare emerges from the shadows.
And I thought when I wrote that book that I'd done two things really well. One, silence those who thought somebody else wrote Shakespeare; and two, stop people who are writing cradle-to-grave biographies of Shakespeare from making stuff up and filling in the blanks in ways that I found wrong or anachronistic.
And of course I had accomplished neither of those. That's one of the reasons why I went back and wrote Contested Will and the last 50, 60 pages or so of Contested Will set out why I'm convinced or I've never had my conviction shaken that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.
First of all there were 50,000 books with his name circulating in his lifetime in Elizabethan London and Jacobean London - a population of 200,000 or so.
MARK COLVIN: 50,000 copies of his plays essentially and poems?
JAMES SHAPIRO: Plays and poems, absolutely. With his name on them. There were others that were published with his company's name on them and didn't have his name. So, for one thing, his name is everywhere and people also saw him acting on a daily basis at the theatre.
So he was one of the most visible individuals in the period and if there had been some doubt about who he was or somebody else assuming his role.
What else do we know? There were a score of fellow writers who acknowledge him, pay tribute to him, young poets especially in the 1590s who really admire his literary style, fellow dramatists who grudgingly acknowledge how good he is. Ben Johnson writes that he loved this side idolatry.
So example after example of individuals who knew him and worked with him and paid tribute to him are there.
And then there are the official records - payment at court for performances in the 1590s, payment for or acknowledgement that he was part of the group building the Globe in 1599 when King James came to the throne appointing him and a half dozen other men as the King's men, the official company of King James himself. So there's plenty of documentary evidence.
MARK COLVIN: The book is called Contested Will and the will is- Shakespeare's will is one of the most controversial things, one of the things that starts the conspiracy theories. For instance, the fact that he left no books. How do you explain that?
JAMES SHAPIRO: We don't know that he left no- any books. What we do know is he left the will and there were two parts to that will. The three pages that survive that make no mention other than the "second best bed" which we don't really understand well enough what that means that he left his wife Anne Hathaway, a sword and a few other items.
But the other more detailed effects that Shakespeare left behind - and I write about this a bit - were in an inventory that his son-in-law took to the Archbishop of Canterbury's offices in London to have approved after Shakespeare's death in 1616.
That document is lost and with that document the evidence that we might have had about papers, letters or whatever else was in that inventory.
So one of the myths - and there are many myths that stick like barnacles to this question of who wrote Shakespeare - is the myth that he left no books behind.
The Earl of Oxford left no books behind, Christopher Marlow left no books behind. What does it mean to leave books behind? Shakespeare's family succeeded him. When I die my family's going to get my library. I'm sure I'm not going to mention my books in any kind of legal document. So that's a fantasy.
MARK COLVIN: James Shapiro, author of Contested Will. Just scratching the surface there. There's a much longer version of that interview which you can hear on our website from this evening.
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Because he stays thirsty...my friend! :}
I followed the arguments for each of the contestants and entertained , in turn, the possibilities that each must be the real Shakespeare but there was always some flaw to be glossed over by the proponents that left me skeptical. The simplest argument for Copernicus before scientific proof, applies here, too. The simplest explanation that takes care of all the variables is most likely the real one.
Ordinarily I don’t go for history-mystery stuff, but the Oxfordians make a great case.
Barry Obama, who had it all written by William Ayers.
So simple even a caveman can see it.
It is fascinating to consider but even more interesting is the great Leo Tolstoy’s belief that Shakespeare is less than relevant ...and worse anyway...highly recommended.
If that is your best argument I find it unresearched and unpersuasive.
He was born and baptized with that name, long before he was ever involved in the theater.
Poems were important to authors back then. Plays...not so much.
Tolstoy was unquestionably a great writer, but he could also be a grade A nutball on a lot of issues. Also, he was nowhere near as good as Dostoevsky.
By any aesthetic metric Tolstoy was a far greater artist than Dostoevsky who had a weakness for melodrama and thin characters not to mention a severe lack of descriptive prose. That said, at the end of his life, Tolstoy was a religious kook who dismissed most Western Art.
Well, we'll never really know for certain.
A man hearing a theory knows the answer. A man hearing many theories is never sure.
“How many other stereotypes have you developed during your life?”
I know you didn’t ask me that question, but it’s an interesting one so I’ma gonna answer it too.
I’ve got 3 basic stereotypes, no particular order below:
2. Late sipping liberal.
3. USMC Infantryman.
How many you got?
Why does the most interesting man in the world look and sound like a Mexican illegal alien?
They need you in Arizona, big time. You can tell the legal status of an immigrant by look and sound.
How do you do it?
It’s a gift.
Author James Shapiro (CC77) is the Larry Miller Professorof English and has been teaching the core curriculum course on Shakespeare for many years.
You might want to send a Columbia ping.
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