In London in the 1940s a man named Percy Allen, overwhelmed by grief at the death of his brother, sought out the renowned psychic of the day, Hester Dowden. Through Dowden’s primary connection to the dead—an ancient Athenian named Johannes—Allen spoke at length to his recently deceased brother. Astounded by Dowden’s occult talents, Allen decided that she could assist him professionally as well: Allen, president of the Shakespeare Fellowship—a group that believed the Earl of Oxford was the author of Shakespeare’s plays—returned to Dowden and asked her to summon the spirit of the Earl of Oxford, or Shakespeare, or Francis Bacon. Dowden—fortuitously enough the daughter of a Shakespeare scholar—managed to summon all three, and they confirmed that Oxford was indeed the man. Oxford was even generous enough to relay a few unpublished verses. Allen ecstatically published his discussions and findings in Talks With Elizabethans in 1947. This was not the first time Dowden had precipitated a book’s publication: Alfred Dodd’s The Immortal Master, in which the ghost of Francis Bacon assures Dodd of his own claim to Shakespeare’s oeuvre, was released in 1943.
The history of the travails of Shakespeare skeptics is fantastic: psychics, ciphers, dredged rivers, illicit affairs, brilliant forgeries, and famous tombs all swirl through James Shapiro’s entertaining and insightful recounting of the Shakespeare authorship controversy. These mystery-novel elements can be traced back to one single—and irreparable—heartbreak: Shakespeare’s contemporaries missed the opportunity to record the details of his life or the impressions of his friends. By the late eighteenth century, when a ravenous desire to know the man behind the plays emerged, it was simply too late. Adding insult to injury, the sparse details that did remain of Shakespeare’s life painted a far too churlish portrait: a will in which he bequeaths his wife the “second best” bed, a legal document suing a neighbor for a paltry sum. There are many examples in Shapiro’s book of what people over the centuries have found unthinkable—but the first was the hardening reality that the life of the man from Stratford, already a “literary deity” by the 1730s, would really never be known.
Unfortunately, the unthinkable is always a great ally of the gullible. And so in 1795 William-Henry Ireland knew exactly what he was up to when he announced he had discovered (in addition to two new Shakespeare plays and books with Shakespeare’s own notations) a “brief account of [Shakespeare’s] life in his own hand.” One of the plays, called Vortigern—a doomed love story between a Briton king and a Saxon lady, set in the fifth century—was even staged in London before Edmond Malone, a contemporary Shakespeare scholar, damningly proved every single Ireland document to be a forgery. Ireland’s plays in no way resembled the Elizabethan style or vocabulary. But Ireland was one of the first to grasp that it is not hard to dupe a crowd that wants to be duped.
Malone is the hero of this episode in its classic telling, but Shapiro turns on Malone, castigating him for opening the Pandora’s Box that would eventually release Baconians, Oxfordians, and every Shakespeare skeptic in between. Malone was the first to try to put the plays in chronological order, publishing Attempt to Ascertain the Order in Which the Plays of Shakespeare were Written in 1778. The book made it conceivable, for the first time, to try to patch together a biography through the plays themselves. Malone did so with gusto. But by crediting this method, Shapiro argues, Malone unwittingly codified an assumption that became the first principle of the skeptics: that the author of Shakespeare’s plays must have had a life directly correlated to the events and the ideas of his plays. Amid grumbling about the coarseness of Shakespeare, a rough taxonomy of the characteristics for a more suitable candidate coalesced: “pure motives, good breeding, foreign travel, the best of educations, and the scent of the court.” And, as Delia Bacon would argue, Francis Bacon fit the bill to a tee.
For much of the nineteenth century the public viewed Prospero—powerful, political and philosophical, personally “aloof, bookish, a bit cold”—as the Shakespearean character who most resembled its author. Starting from this rough outline, Delia Bacon made her case for Francis Bacon (already regarded as a genius of Shakespeare’s day) based solely on her particular reading of the plays. (The two, however, were not related.) Born in 1811 to a New Haven minister, Delia Bacon was an impressive and rabidly smart woman. But the more elusive the proof for Francis Bacon proved to be, the more obvious the case seemed to Delia Bacon, and the more maniacally she argued for it. (She even considered opening Shakespeare’s grave, to determine if evidence lay inside.)
It is hard to comprehend why skeptics such as Bacon would continue so fervently in the face of such a crucial lack of evidence. But Shapiro’s history gracefully elucidates the answer: Delia Bacon, like those who followed after her, toiled on the line between obscurity and fame to bring justice to someone whose true deserts were similarly obscured. The more Delia Bacon persevered, the more she was fighting ostensibly for Francis Bacon’s legacy but just as much for her own. Her mental health deteriorated, and she was later dismissed as a mad woman. But the case for Francis Bacon thrived without her. Bacon was known to have written masterful ciphers, and with the invention of Morse code in the 1830s, the idea that Bacon might have coded his attribution in Shakespeare’s plays gained traction. (The approach was given a serious boost in the 1890s with the discovery that an acrostic in a narrative long attributed to Chaucer revealed it to be the work of Thomas Usk.)
Mark Twain, generally considered an enemy of frauds and charlatans, certainly bought it: in 1888, Twain helped to publish The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays by Ignatius Donnelly, a congressman from Minnesota. Twain could not believe a low-life like Shakespeare had written the most transcendent plays in the English language. It mattered deeply to Twain that Shakespeare’s work be autobiographical—because his was: when Twain felt he had exhausted his own life and wanted to write a book about mining diamonds in South Africa, he hired a young journalist to go in his stead and return with minute first-hand notes. (Unfortunately the man died on his return voyage and the project was abandoned.) Twain later wrote that “To write with powerful effect, a [sic] must write out the life he has led—as did Bacon when he wrote Shakespeare.” The idea that Shakespeare had written his works on the basis of reading and imagination alone was impossible, for it undermined Twain’s very conception of literature and his own stature within it.
By the twentieth century the cipher tactic had been exhausted, and so too was Prospero as the authorial figure. A more publicly introspective era had dawned. “Philosophy and politics were out,” Shapiro remarks. “Oedipal desires and mourning for dead fathers in.” J.T. Looney—a former member of the Church of Humanity, which worshipped literary deities instead of God—was playing to the zeitgeist when he published “Shakespeare” Identified in 1920, which offered a new man with a new profile: Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, “a talented poet, a man who was also mysterious, eccentric, and well educated.” There were remarkable confluences between de Vere’s life and Shakespeare’s plays. “Like Hamlet,” Shapiro writes, “Oxford’s father died young and his mother remarried. Like Lear, he had three daughters—and his first wife was the same age as Juliet when they married.” Freud was an Oxfordian: long dissatisfied with Shakespeare, Freud latched on to Looney’s book, pushing it, and the case for Oxford, on friends and patients alike. Shapiro makes a fairly persuasive case that Freud’s fidelity to the cause was, like Twain’s, self-serving: unlike Shakespeare, Oxford’s authorship would mean that Hamlet had been written after the death of the author’s father, bolstering Freud’s interpretation of the play as the archetypal Oedipal text.
In Shapiro’s book, the histories of the cases for Bacon and Oxford seem transparently flimsy, and the extra-textual motivations that spawned them (with Shapiro’s able guidance) too obvious in hindsight—which makes it a jolt to read about the current resurgence of Oxfordianism. By the outbreak of World War II, interest in Oxford as Shakespeare had dropped precipitously. But in the 1980s the Oxfordian cause was fanned back into life. After the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War and Watergate, conspiracy stories struck much of the public as believable. And in a strange by-product of the fairness doctrine, the media’s habit of airing two sides to any story (no matter the relative merits) has meant sympathetic coverage of Oxford’s case on NPR, in The New York Times, Harper’s, and the Atlantic.
Contested Will is detailed and well-researched (Shapiro even exposes a previously undetected forgery), but its thesis finally encircles casual readers, professors, and skeptics alike: contingency in genius is an upsetting pill for all of us to swallow. We prefer that the sustaining figures and words of our civilization be inevitable and that their identities and origins be known. Since their origins are in some sense our origins, obscurity or inconclusiveness about them is a little unbearable. Certainly Henry James couldn’t bring himself to live with it: the idea that Shakespeare could retire at age forty-eight to a backwater town, ostensibly giving up his artistic life and perhaps signaling that he had no recognition of his own significance, was too hard to comprehend. James never publicly supported another candidate, but this particular man from Stratford would not do.
When Shapiro comes to making his own case that it was Shakespeare who was Shakespeare—although his account of the cases for the other candidates is proof enough—he simply inserts him back into his world. People knew the man, and worked with him. Shakespeare often collaborated with other playwrights. As was the custom, his plays were published anonymously, with only the name of the playing company listed—nearly unthinkable in our era of copyright. Shakespeare’s name was added in 1598, when it seemed commercially profitable to do so. Why would someone, even if they could, force a publisher to attribute plays to a false name, Shapiro reasonably asks, if doing nothing would result in complete anonymity too?
Stephen Greenblatt explained the root irony of the controversy in his Shakespearean Negotiations: Shakespeare’s plays brim with such intensity that it is difficult not to conflate their vitality with traces of the author’s vitality. But of course, as works of art, the plays were written “in full awareness of the absence of the life they contrive to represent.” That is, the plays are imbued with their own life precisely because a playwright knows their life will surpass his own. Even the retreat to “the text itself”—the rallying cry of all undergraduate English classes—is a similar fallacy: “The great attraction of [the text itself],” Greenblatt writes, “is that it appears to bind and fix the energies we prize, to identify a stable and permanent source of literary power, to offer an escape from shared contingency. This project, endlessly repeated, repeatedly fails for one reason: there is no escape from contingency.” Even for Shakespeare.
Sophia Lear is the assistant literary editor of The New Republic.