Let's say you're at a party and you're introduced to a Shakespeare scholar. Please don't ask her or him if Shakespeare really wrote those plays. If you do, you'll get an icy glare, a weary frown, or some other expression that clearly says: Oh, God, not that again.
They've heard it all before, the scholars, and they're sick of it. For them, the matter's settled: William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote “Hamlet” and “The Tempest,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Love's Labour's Lost,” “Macbeth” and “All's Well Than Ends Well,” the two parts of “Henry IV,” the three parts of “Henry VI,” and at least 27 other plays, plus narrative poems, lyrics and sonnets.
But the question just won't go away. It doesn't just get asked of Shakespeare scholars at cocktail parties: In 1987, three United States Supreme Court justices participated in a mock trial to adjudicate the evidence for the authorship of either Shakespeare or Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare won that one, but in 1989 a TV program on the Public Broadcasting System again treated the question as if it were a serious one. The anti-Stratfordians have succeeded in making people think that there is real reason to doubt the authorship.
James Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, firmly believes that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, but his entertainingly combative “Contested Will” is not just a rebuttal to the doubters. It's a cultural history, an examination of why there were doubts in the first place, and why authorship candidates such as Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford attracted such otherwise sensible people as Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James and Sigmund Freud.
Blame it partly on the Germans, who developed the science of textual study. And particularly on Friedrich August Wolf, whose examination of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” challenged the idea that they were written by a single person named Homer. Today it's generally recognized that “Homer” is a legend – a figure who was attached to the oral tradition that handed down the Greek epics. And after Homer's existence was called into question there came the Higher Criticism, the textual analysis of the Bible which determined that the Pentateuch was probably not written by Moses himself, and then called into question the accuracy of the life of Jesus presented in the Gospels. The German scholar David Friedrich Strauss's The Life of Jesus was translated into English by George Eliot in 1846, and, as Shapiro puts it, skepticism about authorship “soon threatened that lesser deity Shakespeare, for his biography too rested precariously on the unstable foundation of posthumous reports and more than a fair share of myths.”
One problem is that the documentary record of Shakespeare's life is that of a man who was all business: We have lots of documents of his existence: legal papers, real estate records, and the will in which he leaves his estate to his daughter and the “second-best bed” to his wife. But the Shakespeare of the records is bourgeois, provincial and dull. Surely a man who wrote in magnificent language about kings and princes couldn't have come from such a commonplace background. Wouldn't it be more likely that the works were those of a philosopher-statesman like Bacon or a playwright, poet and courtier like the Earl of Oxford? The question has sent people on all sides of the authorship question to scour the plays and poems for evidence about their author's life.
Shapiro is eminently fair in his portrayals of both Baconians and Oxfordians. He even comments that although one of the first Oxfordians was a man unfortunately named John Thomas Looney, the name has been “the subject of much unwarranted abuse” and that it “rhymes with bony.” And he blames some of his colleagues, who agree that Shakespeare really was “the man from Stratford,” for encouraging the anti-Stratfordians by using the poems and plays as biographical material. Shapiro insists, “The more that Shakespeare scholars encourage autobiographical readings of the poems and plays, the more they legitimate assumptions that underlie the claims of all those who dismiss the idea that Shakespeare wrote the plays.”
Shapiro demonstrates that if you want to believe that that Bacon, Oxford, or anyone other than the man from Stratford wrote the plays you have to ignore copious evidence to the contrary and indulge in intellectual contortions. Moreover, you have to credit the entire Elizabethan and Jacobean cultural establishment with a conspiracy so elaborate and a cover-up so successful it makes Watergate look like hide-and-seek. But in a world in which even the fact of a birth announcement published in a Honolulu newspaper in 1961 won't convince some people that the president of the United States wasn't really born in Kenya, it's not surprising that the “Shakespeare conspiracy” won't disappear.