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Shakespeare on Theatre, edited by Nick de Somogyi

Title: Shakespeare on TheatreShakespeareonTheatre
Author: Nick de Somogyi
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 213 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? new (review reposted from the ASC Education blog)
Rating: 3.25 stars

Shakespeare on Theatre is a good entry-level exploration of how Shakespeare’s plays comment on the conditions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world. From company structure to architecture, from prompters to casting, from prologues to epilogues, de Somogyi provides a compendium of Shakespeare’s commentaries on the theatre. What’s best about this, I think, is that de Somogyi shows that those references don’t only turn up in the expected places — the plays-within-plays in Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, the self-aware prologues of Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, the masque of The Tempest. Rather, the book also explores the subtler and smaller intra-theatrical instances. He reminds us of Cleopatra’s horror of watching a child actor “boy” her greatness on a rudimentary stage, of Macbeth’s metaphor of death as the ultimate exeunt omnes, of Margaret costuming the Duke of York with a paper crown.

De Somogyi also does well to expand his explorations and include  examples from other playwrights, many of them more overt in their self-referential moments, such as Ben Jonson’s various admonishments to the audience, or the appearance of actors Burbage, Condell, and Lowin as themselves at the top of Marston’s The Malcontent. The book includes snippets of poetry and of polemics both pro- and anti-theatrical, giving a broader view of the role of playhouse culture in 16th- and 17th-century London. Throughout, de Somogyi connects the conventions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world to examples of how those conditions have changed — or stayed similar — through to the modern age. It’s also pleasing that he typically off-sets terms like “metatheatrical” or “fourth wall” with quotation marks in recognition of the fact that those concepts, while common to theatre today, would have been alien to Shakespeare’s company and their audience.

Curiously, he seems less interested in that interplay when it comes to characters who “perform,” unless they do so explicitly. In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, he devotes considerable attention to the frame story involving Sly and the Players, but none at all to Petruchio’s various performances within the text. Nor does he consider the theatricality inherent in kings speaking to royal courts or to the commons. The deposition scene in Richard II, the fraught peacemaking of King John and King Philip, Richard III’s pretended reluctance to assume authority — these would all seem to be fruitful for what they have to say about the intertwining and overlapping of performing on the stage and performing in life (and about the blending and manipulation of on-stage and off-stage audiences), yet de Somogyi does not plumb them for their potential.

The overall effect of the book is to remind the audience that, as de Somogyi points out explicitly more than once, a playwriting was “a functional craft”. Shakespeare on Theatre goes a long way towards de-mystifying the idea of theatre as sacrosanct art. Modern culture tends to designate it as an emotional enterprise, but the early modern reality was much different. The book peels back the romantic notions and exposes the business of theatre — and demonstrates clearly that Shakespeare was a man who knew the practical aspects both on the production and the financial sides.

The book’s main flaw, in my opinion, is its freedom of conjecture. De Somogyi does not often enough qualify his pronouncements on Shakespeare’s life with the necessary disclaimers. I worry that someone approaching this book with a less solid grounding in the subject matter might take his narrative constructions as true biography. It’s even more concerning that this trend begins on the very first page of the introduction to the book. De Somogyi begins with the admirable opening statement that Shakespeare “was a working man of the theatre to his core,” but from there slides effortlessly into an imagined sequence of events — a lovely fantasy, of a “stage-struck boy” eventually “talent-spotted by a later touring troupe” who grew from an actor with “precociously impressive skills as a textual fixer” into the greatest playwright of the age. There are perhaps even some probabilities mixed in with the inventions, but they are still only conjectures, not evidenced facts. De Somogyi seems to assert things as truth that we cannot know for sure. More imaginative declarations of this type take place throughout the book, along with other generalizations about early modern theatre that I feel could have used some end-noted explanations.

With that caveat, however, I can generally recommend this book as a solid introduction to the interwoven dialogue between play, playing, and playhouses. Devoted scholars aren’t likely to find anything new here, but the book is accessibly written and a comfortable first step for someone who might then move on to deeper examinations like Gurr, Stern, or McDonald. It also might serve as an interesting source of monologue material for auditioning actors. Many of de Somogyi’s selections are the appropriate length, but a different variety than typical guides provide.

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Interred with Their Bones, by Jennifer Lee Carrell

Title: Interred with Their Bones
Author: Jennifer Lee Carrell
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 416 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 2.5 stars

Interred with Their Bones is a Shakespearean twist on The Da Vinci Code, and if you approach the book with that firmly in mind, you’ll probably find some enjoyment in it. It is, however, one of those books where you can only apply but so much logic to it before the entire structure collapses under the weight of sensibility.

The book’s plot structure follows a little too neatly in the Da Vinci path, involving many of the same character tropes and narrative devices. We open, after a brief and vague historical flashback, with Kate Stanley, director of the Globe’s Hamlet, meeting for the first time in years with her estranged and eccentric mentor, Roz Howard. (If you’re enough of an early modern history geek to be quirking an eyebrow at those names, rest assured: yes, everyone in the book labors under similarly referential nomenclature). Roz has some terrible secret to impart and a quest to set Kate on, but before she can reveal the details of either, she is found dead in the aftermath of a fire (not, as the book jacket would have you believe, at the Globe itself, but in an auxiliary building). Kate feels obligated to pick up Roz’s trail of bread crumbs. As she follows them, more dead bodies start piling up around her, and she ends up fleeing with the police on her trail, a device which feels even more strange in this book than it does in The Da Vinci Code. Kate has no real reason to distrust the police, no reason not to clear herself from culpability before embarking on her quest, and so her actions just seem bizarre and inexplicable. It gives the drama of the plotline a false echo, and it’s just one of the threads that a reader has to avoid plucking at in order to avoid a total collapse of the narrative. Still, with thrillers, you do sometimes have to make plausibility allowances, so this element may not prove troublesome to all readers.

Part of what hindered my enjoyment of this book, which I could otherwise have consumed as mere Da Vinci Code-esque fluff, is that I resent, as a scholar, how much this book not only entertains anti-Stratfordian opinions, but implies that very serious people in the Shakespearean world would hold those opinions. (Hint: They don’t. Some actors and directors, shamefully, but no scholar worth his or her salt gives the authorship “controversy” any credence because it doesn’t deserve any). I started to recoil as soon as Carrell broached the topic, and eventually, that aversion colored my reading of the text pretty strongly. I now know how art historians and theologians alike must feel about Dan Brown.

Despite the pitfalls of the exploration of the “controversy,” the book is actually at its best when traipsing through historical possibilities — the inventions linking Cardenio to Catholic plots via Cervantes and Jesuits are reasonably entertaining and provide some profitable fodder for exploration. I could cheerfully entertain all of that, if not for the editorial commentary suggesting that any of it might be true. The jet-setting aspect of the book, volleying from London to Harvard to the Southwest to Spain (and ricocheting back and forth between some of those a few times) is a fun diversion, and Carrell does an admirable job of painting her landscapes.

One of the critical failings in this book, unfortunately, lies in its protagonist and narrator. Carrell presents Kate as though she is some big up-and-comer in the Shakespearean field, a director that a Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellan type would refer to as “that brilliant American child.” Kate, of course, demurs from this description in , but the whole thing smacks of Informed Ability. Kate is a brilliant scholar and director because Carrell tells us that she is. This trait in of itself wouldn’t be so bad, except that, for such a prodigy, Kate has some pretty glaring gaps in her knowledge — and one of them is the fundamental underpinning of the mystery, the fact that Shakespeare wrote a lost play entitled Cardenio. The first-person narrative also hampers the book, partially because Kate’s head is not quite an interesting enough place to spend four hundred pages in, partially because it accentuates that gulf between her reputation and what she actually knows. First-person narration creates a trap for a writer: if the audience needs to know something, either the narrator knows it and tells it, which can come off as preachy, or the narrator doesn’t know and has to find out in order for the audience to find out, even if it’s something the narrator should already know — or shouldn’t need quite as much hand-holding to figure out. Interred with Their Bones manages to fall into both pits multiple times at different points in the story.

Interred with Their Bones was adequate entertainment for lying on a beach. If you’re in a place where your mind can let go and indulge freely in a suspense romp, then by all means, pick this up. The pace clips along well enough to keep a reader engaged, and if the plot turns are occasionally too predictable, sometimes that’s what you’re looking for out of light summer reading. If you’re looking for heavier fare or superlative writing, though, you may want to look elsewhere, as this book doesn’t hold up well under even light scrutiny. Apparently there’s a sequel. Might I read it? Sure, if someone handed it to me free of charge, and I had some time to kill. Unfortunately, that level of engagement and investment is all that Carrell’s writing warrants.

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I, Iago, by Nicole Galland

Title: I, Iago
Author: Nicole Galland
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 370 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

I, Iago skillfully retells Shakespeare’s Othello as the Tragedy of Iago, following the famous villain through the course of his career and explaining just how he came to be the mastermind orchestrating the downfall of a proud general and all those connected to him. In doing so, Galland fills in some of the gaps of Shakespeare’s narrative, showing us how Iago came to be who he is and chronicling the circumstances that change him from a loyal friend and subordinate to a scheming, vindictive meddler.

The book divides into “Before” and “After,” meaning before and after the point where the play Othello begins, and each half is quite interesting in its own way. In “Before,” we get the development of Iago as a person. Galland’s research serves her well here — early modern Venice springs to life in vivid detail, particularly with regards to its military and political matters. We meet Iago as a young man, and he explains that he has always been known as “honest Iago” — not a compliment in Venice, where the ability to quibble, to flatter, and to evade has far more value than blunt truth. Iago lacks subtlety, always speaking his mind, and taking decisive action rather than weighing the consequences beforehand. He is boyhood friends with Roderigo, though he disdain’s the other boy’s weakness and lack of gumption; they grow apart as they grow older, with Roderigo following his family’s mercantile endeavors. Though Iago has scholarly leanings, his family’s prerogative forces him into the military, where he excels, first in the artillery, then in the army. Along the way, he woos and wins Emilia, the only woman he’s ever met with whom he can tolerate much conversation, and their marriage is a blissfully happy one. When Iago meets Othello, there is instant camaraderie; they meet at a masked ball during Carnival, and the circumstances echo their characters. Neither man can hide what he is, though Othello more obviously, thanks to his skin tone. Iago, on the other hand, suffers that inability in his character. Throughout the book, we see him incapable of wearing a mask, both literally and figuratively — in every Carnival scene, he ends up discarding his vizor, and his ungoverned tongue and open expression display his blunt opinions at every turn. The two men sense a commonality between them, a lack of patience with the artifice and genteel dishonesty of Venice. Iago comes to think so highly of Othello that there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for him, including helping to conceal his epileptic fits from the Venetian Senate. He follows Othello to war, to disastrous ruin on Rhodes, and to the altogether different battleground of patrician dinner tables and courtly galas. There, in the household of Brabantio, Othello meets his undoing: a girl named Desdemona, enraptured with the idea of him. Iago counsels him against the courtship, explaining that no Venetian patrician would ever let his daughter marry outside of that narrow caste; Othello pretends to give up the infatuation, but in fact corresponds with Desdemona in secret and eventually planning an elopement — and since Othello has little more talent for deceit than Iago, Iago has little trouble uncovering the scheme.

In the “After” section, we watch this character, whom Galland has rendered quite likeable, fall. Othello betrays Iago’s trust, giving a coveted lieutenancy to the less-qualified Michele Cassio as a reward for assisting in his covert courtship of Desdemona. Emilia is, to Iago’s eyes, inexplicably supportive of the deceitful romance, and therefore complicit. Feeling wounded and discarded by those he most loved and trusted, Iago’s bitter hurt prompts his plans for revenge.

I call this book the Tragedy of Iago because it tracks his rise and at least partially self-constructed fall in a way that renders him both likeable and pitiable. Galland makes a wise choice, spending the first half of the book on events we never see in the play, because it gives the character a more solid background, particularly in regard to his relationship with Othello. In Shakespeare’s play, the audience hears of their association and implied friendship, but we never truly get to see it; we know from the start that Iago is working to ill ends, because he tells the audience so in barest terms. In I, Iago, the friendship is palpable, heart-warming — and so Othello’s betrayal of Iago has a real emotional effect. When Othello begins to shut Iago out in favor of Cassio, the reader is privilege to Iago’s pain and bewilderment. We also get new motivation for Iago’s actions — jealousy and revenge play their parts, and no mistake, and Iago freely admits that he wants to hurt his friend for hurting him, to disgrace the usurper Cassio, and to remove Desdemona from the picture (though he does not intend to do so through her death). That isn’t the total of what’s going on in Iago’s head, however; when he sees how easily Othello can be roused to dangerous passions, he starts to harbour deep concerns about the general’s ability to serve in the position of honour and responsibility with which the Venetian Senate has placed him. He worries, too, about Othello’s judgment; a man who will pass over more qualified men in order to hand positions to panderers, after all, demonstrates an ethical lapse. Iago never claims to be operating only for the common good, in removing a potentially dangerous commander from his post — but since that lines up neatly with his desire for revenge, why not work for both?

The dual nature of the tragedy is most obvious in the moment when things spin past Iago’s ability to control them. His words have an effect far greater than he expected, as Othello proves so easily inflamed where his wife is concerned.  The subtler tragedy is that turning Iago from honesty to deceit. He has to learn that trait, a talent foreign to him from birth, and it’s terrible to see him do so — to see a good man corrupted by an unfair world. Iago becomes almost drunk on it, overindulging, swept up by his newfound power, pushing limits to see how far he can take his lies before they become too improbable — and astonished when that barrier never seems to impede him. He learns deceit from those who deceived him, and since we have the juxtaposition of his stalwart honesty in the “Before” section, the transformation is all the more calamitous.

The book is best when it’s not trying to out-clever itself. The moments where I grimaced were when Galland was cramming in bits from other Shakespeare plays that didn’t quite belong — having Iago banter with whores and his military comrades by using lines from Measure for Measure and As You Like It, much of his courtship with Emilia coming straight out of Much Ado about Nothing— because they were jarring, discordant. The tenor was so different from the story she’d been telling that it seemed an odd digression. Initially, this made me nervous for the second half of the book, which covers the plot of Othello, but Galland actually handled the dialogue there quite smoothly. We hit the major points and get the biggest quotes without much interference, but most of the conversations are taken out of verse and into more natural prose in a way that doesn’t seem forced or awkward. The story does rather hurtle itself through the climax and denouement, however, and while that is perhaps appropriate, given how circumstances spiral out of Iago’s control, I could have done with a little more fulfillment, since we had so much build-up to the crucial moments.

This book leaves me wanting the story from yet more angles — Emilia’s, for instance. We only ever see her through Iago’s eyes, and though it’s clear she’s an intelligent and independent woman, she remains only an object throughout this novel. Because everything is first-person narrative, we lose her in the moments when Iago’s not there — which are some of her finest moments in the play. We never really get to know what she’s thinking, and as Iago begins on his plot of vengeance, he distances himself from her, both because he wants to protect her and because he no longer quite trusts her — which has the effect of removing her from the reader as well as from himself. This book is definitely the story of men; Emilia and Desdemona are intriguing, but peripheral, and since Iago never understands either of them, the reader doesn’t get that opportunity, either.

Overall, I, Iago is an entertaining and thoughtful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. The prose is well-constructed, the historical research thorough, and the characters well-drawn. Galland explores the story from an intriguing angle and creates a more three-dimensional world, situating Venice and its characters in the larger world. Whereas Shakespeare narrows in, focusing his scope tighter and tighter until it fits in a single bedroom, Galland allows us to see how this tragedy ripples outward. I think most Shakespeare enthusiasts will find a lot to like about this book, and if there are also some points to criticize — well, most of us enjoy that, too. Galland deserves commendation for getting me interested in this story when Othello is definitely among my least-favourite of Shakespeare’s plays; she tells a compelling tale, and it’s definitely worth a read.

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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, by James Shapiro

Title: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Author: James Shapiro
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 338 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 5 stars

One of the greatest challenges for a modern historian is to remove the filter of Romanticism and Victoriana when we look backwards through time. Modern society has inherited a lot of inaccurate notions about the pre-Industrial world from our more immediate forebears, creating an assumption that the medieval and early modern worlds shared the same values, the same culture, the same societal structures, the same goals as the Victorian world – an assumption that is, in many ways, far off the mark. To achieve greater understanding of anything early modern, a historian – professional or recreational – must first clear her eyes of the haze which the nineteenth century imposed on them.

Lifting this veil is, to my reading of it, the major triumph of James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. Both history and historiography, this book examines the case both for and against Shakespeare as the author of the works attributed to his name – and comes down, quite definitively, on the side of Shakespeare. Shapiro notes, in the opening pages of the book, his interest, which lies “not in what people think – which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms – so much as why thy think it. No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world in which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story.” Noting the prevalence of opposing viewpoints in modern society – such as those on creationism vs evolution, whether or not man walked on the moon, and “more disturbingly,” those who deny the Holocaust deniers – Shapiro states, “I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story. At the same time, I don’t want to draw a naïve comparison between the Shakespeare controversy and any of these other issues. I think it’s a mistake to do so, except insofar as it too turns on underlying assumptions and notions of evidence that cannot be reconciled. Yet unlike some of these other controversies, I think it’s possible to get at why people have come to believe what they believe about Shakespeare’s authorship, and it is partly in the hope of doing so that I have written this book.”

Shapiro begins with the first attempts, in the eighteenth century, to expand knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and works, with George Steevens and Edmund Malone arguing their various perspectives. This idea of construction, of needing to find reasons in Shakespeare’s life for the events and viewpoints in his plays, led to a somewhat desperate search on the parts of Samuel Ireland and his son, William-Henry, for new evidence about Shakespeare’s life. Unfortunately, these gentlemen came to the idea several decades too late; any evidence not already preserved was long gone. William-Henry, motivated in Shapiro’s depiction as somewhat pathetically frantic to bolster his father’s deflated confidence, embarked on an orgy of forgery, creating numerous documents in “Shakespeare’s hand”: deeds, letters, inscriptions, even entire plays. Briefly celebrated, then proved false under William-Henry’s own confession of fraud, these documents nonetheless opened the door to the search for biography in Shakespeare’s plays. Even Malone, who vigorously attacked the Irelands for the fraud, still entertained:

the presumption that Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers, or imagined. The floodgates were now open and others would soon urge, based on their own slanted reading of the plays, that Shakespeare must have been a mariner, a soldier, a courtier a countess, and so on. By assuming that Shakespeare had to have experienced something to write about it with such accuracy and force, Malone also, unwittingly, allowed for the opposite to be true: expertise in the self-revealing works that the scant biographical record couldn’t support – his knowledge of falconry, for example, or of seamanship, foreign lands, or the ways that the ruling class behaved – should disqualify Shakespeare as the author of the plays.

Delia Bacon, c. 1853Shapiro also positions these early days of the search for authorship evidence in light of the early attribution studies for the Bible and the works of Homer; for the first time, literary monoliths were subject to question and interrogation. Shapiro then moves through the first seeds of the anti-Stratfordian argument to its full-blown manifestations in the propositions of first Francis Bacon and then Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as alternate candidates. The Baconian theory, for instance, began with Delia Bacon (no relation) in the mid-19th century. Shapiro explains how Delia’s ideas about Francis Bacon connected to the notion of a grand conspiracy, focused on the polymath English courtier as the center of a radical proto-republican political movement. The evidence for these claims, she determined, was present in a close reading of the plays as biographical in nature. Shapiro demonstrates how the logic of such an association is inherently flawed, thanks to the limited scope both of Delia’s historical awareness and of the plays which she examined:

The framework within which [Delia Bacon] imagined the world of the English Renaissance, also typical of her day, was limited to monarchs, courtiers, and writers. The rest were written off as ignorant masses. […] It was history from the top down and limited geographically to London and the court. Her Shakespeare canon was no less restricted and also typical of nineteenth-century readers: at the center of it were Hamlet and The Tempest, and it extended to the plays meatiest in philosophical and political content – Othello, Julius Caesar, Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Richard the Second, and, unusually, Coriolanus – but not much further. While she had surely read the other thirty or so plays, as well as the poetry, they didn’t serve her purpose, and for the most part she passed over them in silence.

Delia Bacon published, to moderate success, though most people who supported her initially came to regret it, because of the mental instability she developed following a very public jilting. Shortly after the release of her book, she was institutionalized, and spent the last two years of her life in an asylum. Despite this tragic end, her ideas caught fire in the decades following her death, earning the attention, if not always the outright endorsement, of celebrities including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Henry James. Delia Bacon also introduced the notion of a secret cipher embedded in the texts of the plays, an idea picked up and popularized by Ignatius Donnelley – and an idea risible under even the lightest scrutiny for several reasons, not least of which is that a tweak of the cipher could yield any result the seeker wanted, but also because, as Shapiro points out, “Donnelly didn’t have a clue about how compositors worked in Elizabethan printing houses, where such a scheme would have been unimaginable and the layout he describes impossible to reproduce.”

By the 1920s, however, Shapiro points out that “Philosophy and politics were out, Oedipal desires and mourning for dead fathers in,” giving rise to the new Oxfordian theory. Psychoanalysis imagined a link between the writer of Hamlet and the character of Hamlet, based on repressed sexual urges and dysfunctional family relationships. Sigmund Freud questioned Shakespeare’s identity but did not embrace Bacon as the alternative; John Thomas Looney (pronounced “loany”, despite temptations to the contrary) picked up the psychoanalytic thread and proposed Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare’s life did not mirror the required narrative; the Earl of Oxford’s could, especially if you layered on other theories about de Vere being Queen Elizabeth’s lover and/or son. From a secret political group under Bacon’s direction, the anti-Shakespearean case now rested on a more lurid narrative: a conspiracy tinged with sexual misconduct, succession anxiety, and disrupted inheritance.

For decades, the Oxfordians plagued themselves with divisive conclusions about this reading, however: nobody knew about the conspiracy; everyone knew and didn’t think it worth mentioning; everyone knew but was kept silent by Queen Elizabeth’s totalitarian state; a select group knew and kept it quiet to protect the Queen; and so on. Never mind that Oxford died in 1604, before many of Shakespeare’s plays were written; in the scope of such an all-encompassing conspiracy, Oxfordians find that small matter to explain away. They were written earlier, and released after his death, as a way of perpetuating the myth of William Shakespeare as the front man. Shapiro details how, in more recent years, the Oxfordian theory has gained traction due to the public’s increasing fascination with conspiracy theories of all sorts. From moon landings to who shot JFK to the vast circulation of conceptions about secret government involvement in nearly every act of tragedy or terrorism of the past three decades, modern culture has propagated a pervasive suspicion of authority. “In such a climate,” Shapiro says, “a minor act of conspiratorial suppression on the part of Tudor authorities made perfect sense.”

Overall, the impression this book leaves a reader with is that the anti-Shakespearean case is one stuffed with tragic figures and ulterior motives. Its very earliest characters are among the saddest: poor William-Henry Ireland, desperately seeking a father’s approval, and jilted Delia Bacon, who clung to her theories as a way of reclaiming agency over her life, but with a paranoid mania that drove her to madness and death. These are the figures often left out of the Baconian and Oxfordian narratives; they prefer, naturally, to tout the support of such grand figures as Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud. As Shapiro demonstrates, however, the rationale of the great figures is not untainted, either. They all require vast constructs, additions and suppositions to the historical record. Freud’s support of the Oxfordian case is deeply tied to his own theories about Oedipal desire; he had to read Hamlet in terms of Oxford’s own familial-sexual-philosophical entanglements, because to suppose that the story came from any other origin was a strike against the psychological theories on which he made his living and his fame.

Mark Twain's book questioning Shakespeare's identityIt’s Twain’s rationale, and Shapiro’s dissection thereof, that I find most interesting and most telling. Twain echoes Malone in supposing it impossible for a writer to draw from anything but experience; “For Twain, the notion that great writing had to be drawn from life – rather than from what an author heard, read, or simply imagined – was an article of faith, at the heart of his conception of how serious writers worked.” It is, in many ways, a very strange idea, taking imagination so entirely out of the equation, but it was a product of its time; in the 19th and early 20th centuries, more and more writers were publishing memoirs, and biography was a popular genre. The close association between fiction and experience was deeply embedded in the culture, providing fertile ground in which the anti-Shakespearean attitudes could take root. This is one of the more difficult veils to penetrate when looking back at the early modern period through modern eyes – the idea that the early modern writers simply did not view their craft in the same way that the Victorian tradition has convinced us all writers must.

Shapiro asserts that this legacy lives on in writing today, that modern readers retain assumptions that “novels necessarily reveal something about a writer’s life.” I would argue that this is more true in so-called “literary” fiction than it is of genre fiction. Readers of science fiction and fantasy novels (or viewers of those movies) — and to an extent, of mysteries, thrillers, and romances as well — have no more expectation of a creator’s personal experience with the subject matter than Shakespeare’s original audiences had. We need no more assume that Shakespeare had first-hand knowledge of Italy than that George Lucas had of Tatooine, J. R. R. Tolkien of Middle-Earth, or J. K. Rowling of Hogwarts. While “serious” fiction often retains a more autobiographical bent, I think it is in genre fiction that writers operate more like Shakespeare did: indulging freely in the realm of imagination, drawing off of previous stories, history and mythology, and timeless tropes for their inspiration. There you find writers more interested in telling a good story than in talking about themselves – which is not to say that glimpses of a writer’s viewpoint won’t peep through from time to time, but they don’t dominate in the way that post-Romantic assumptions would indicate. (It is in many ways ironic that the very people who disdain the use of imagination in writing are so wonderfully and copiously imaginative themselves, at least when it comes to creating the fantasy narratives necessarily to support alternate authorship candidates).

The final chapter of the book is a tour de force in defense of Shakespeare – though Shapiro acknowledges the absurdity that Shakespeareans should even be on the defensive, that the burden of proof has somehow shifted to us to prove there is no conspiracy, rather than on the Oxfordians to prove that there is. After entertaining the anti-Stratfordians and exposing their flaws, Shapiro comes down unquestionably (and refreshingly unapologetically) on the side of Shakespeare of Stratford:

When asked how I can be so confident that Shakespeare was [the plays’] author, I point to several kinds of evidence. The first is what early printed texts reveal; the second, what writers who knew Shakespeare said about him. Either of these, to my mind, suffices to confirm his authorship – and the stories they tell corroborate each other. All this is reinforced by additional evidence from the closing years of his career, when he began writing for a new kind of playhouse, in a different style, in active collaboration with other writers.

Shapiro then defends Shakespeare with a barrage of real, concrete evidence – text-based evidence including examples of speech prefixes, the process of printing plays, the relationship of typesetting to the variant spellings of Shakespeare’s name, his demonstrated familiarity with actors, and so forth. The proof of such deep association with the playing companies, the theatre building, and the workings of the shareholders effectively eradicates any validity to the presumption that the plays could have been written by someone who did not inhabit that world.

From Ben Jonson's epitaph to Shakespeare, in the preface of the 1623 First FolioShapiro also engages with the testimonies of so many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, identifying the man from Stratford as the man who wrote the plays: George Buc, Master of the Revels; Robert Greene, vitriolic pamphleteer; Francis Meers, whose Palladis Tamia lists all of Shakespeare’s plays which had been acted by 1598; Gabriel Harvey, poetry critic; William Camden, historian; playwrights John Webster, Francis Beaumont, and Thomas Heywood — the list goes on and on, but the trump card is fellow playwright, rival, and friend, Ben Jonson, who “left the most personal and extensive tributes to Shakespeare. For many, his testimony alone resolves any doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays.” Consider me one of them. Even if we did not have the voluminous other evidence that we do have, Jonson alone would convince me. He comments both so prolifically and so personally on Shakespeare’s writing that I find it a violation of Occam’s Razor to imagine that he was either ignorant or part of a vast conspiracy – and knowing what I know about Jonson, I really can’t believe he could have kept a secret of that magnitude.

Finally, Shapiro draws a connection between Shakespeare’s plays and the playing spaces he wrote for, discussing how the space affected what kind of story Shakespeare could tell and how he could tell it, particularly thanks to a distinct change towards the end of his career:

We have also had drummed into us that he was Shakespeare of the Globe – though that playhouse was built only in the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign. Long forgotten are the other playing spaces in and around London in which he had built his reputation over the previous decade: the Theatre, the Curtain, Newington Butts, the Rose, Richmond, Whitehall, perhaps a brief stint at the Swan. … But had you asked anyone on the streets of London in the winter of 1610 where you could go to see Shakespeare’s latest play, there would have been only one answer: ‘Blackfriars.’ The Blackfriars Theatre means little today to most admirers of Shakespeare; so far as I know, only a single replica of it has ever been erected, in rural Virginia, which attracts both spectators and scholars. The story of the Blackfriars Theatre is also the story of the Jacobean Shakespeare, and of the particular challenges he faced toward the end of his playwriting career. And that, in turn, helps explain why only Shakespeare could have written his late plays that were staged there.

Shapiro’s recognition is apt and accurate, and that close relationship between writer and playing space is one we frequently refer to in our educational materials and workshops. A different kind of theatre demanded a different kind of plays, and Shakespeare’s latest works reflect that shift, making a reconstruction of the plays’ timeline to fit a 1604 death date absurd. I hope this spatial connection becomes a stronger part of the narrative of the “controversy” – perhaps it will help the Blackfriars Theatre and its descendent, our Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, earn greater recognition as one of Shakespeare’s prominent theatrical homes.

The final chapter of Contested Will ought to hammer home, once and for all, that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, setting the matter entirely to rest. Except, as Shapiro ably points out, there is no arguing with a conspiracy theorist. Any evidence just gets twisted to support the idea of a vast cover-up. Nonetheless, Shapiro’s book is a veritable armory of weapons, both offensive and defensive, for the Shakespearean set. What’s more, he delivers all of his information with felicity and wit; the book is a wonderful read as well as an intellectual triumph. I highly recommend it to anyone with a dog in this fight, as it were, but also to anyone who is simply interested in writing and in how ideas about it have evolved over time. Shapiro provides us not only with a rousing defense of Shakespeare, but also a valuable peek through the veils of time, rolling back our assumptions and laying bare the reality, insofar as it is knowable.

(Originally posted at the American Shakespeare Center Education Blog).

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