The author of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (2005) chronicles the emergence of doubts about the playwright’s identity and speculates about the assumptions and motives of the principal doubters.
Shapiro (English/Columbia Univ.) is convinced that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays, but he waits until the penultimate chapter to summarize his evidence. The author’s generally dispassionate, scholarly treatment will convince few doubters, for as he notes, “[p]ositions are fixed and debate has proved to be futile or self-serving.” Shapiro begins with an account of a late-18th-century fraud perpetrated by William-Henry Ireland, who forged documents in Shakespeare’s hand, including the manuscript of King Lear, then charts the growth of the notion of Shakespeare-as-literary-deity. This led, he argues, to the belief that the playwright must have been someone who possessed a superior education, was intimate with aristocrats and royals, had traveled extensively and owned a vast library—all of which exclude the man from Stratford. Early candidates ranged widely, but it was Delia Bacon who advanced the cause of Francis Bacon, a choice who attracted support from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Helen Keller and other notables. John Thomas Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified (1920) proposed the current champion—Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford—whose legions have swollen, says Shapiro, because of sympathetic print and electronic journalists, the Internet and the recent accommodations of mainstream publishers. What has also propelled the surge is the Oxfordians’ belief that the works must have arisen from the playwright’s personal, firsthand experience. Shapiro sharply challenges this belief and convincingly demonstrates that it would have baffled Elizabethans and Jacobeans—not to mention that it would have ignored the power of a writer’s imagination. The author bases his own conviction on the documentary evidence that he summarizes near the end.
A thorough, engaging work whose arguments would prove more persuasive were we not living in an era of such fierce anti-intellectualism and pervasive conspiracy theory.