In case readers tremble at this title,
thinking that yet another eccentric contender for the mantle of the
man from Stratford has come forward, let me reassure them at the outset:
James Shapiro, a professor at Columbia University, tells us early on
in this erudite and entertaining book that “I happen to believe that
William Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him”. In a further
startling display of common-sense, he adds that he doesn’t believe
that truth is relative “or that there are always two sides to every

What interests Shapiro then, is not
Shakespeare’s identity but why it has ever been challenged; why, during
the last 200 years, there has been so much ink spilled by literate and
scholarly persons trying to shoehorn highly improbable candidates into
Shakespeare’s Tudor slippers. Indeed, I myself know a clever and
man who actually re-named his home “De Vere House”, in honour of
a popular contender, the 17th Earl of Oxford, so I have a
personal interest in what Shapiro discovers.

He emphasises that for two centuries
after Shakespeare’s death his authorship of the plays and poems was
never in question. It was not until 1785 that the matter first arose,
gathering impetus during the Victorian period so that by 1850 there
were innumerable books and articles on the subject. Choosing Francis
Bacon and Aubrey de Vere as representative of this strange literary
activity, Shapiro reminds the reader that Shakespeare did not live in
an age of memoir and that the known facts of his life are very few.
No-one thought to interview his friends or his family after his death
until a generation had passed and it was too late. Shapiro speculates,
though he does not develop this idea – as Clare Asquith has done in
Shadowplay – that the playwright might have followed a suspect
faith (Catholicism) and therefore might have deliberately destroyed
much evidence. Certainly, the very few explicit references to
events in the plays suggest that Shakespeare chose not to employ them.

What is clear is that from the 18th
century Shakespeare scholar, Edmund Malone, onwards, the altered
and self-consciousness of the age caused investigators to assume that
the plays – and especially the Sonnets – must be autobiographical;
that their author “could only write about what he had felt or done,
rather than heard about, read about, borrowed…or imagined.” For
instance, it is known that Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son, died in 1596.
From there it was a short leap for scholars of the Romantic period and
later, to be convinced that the playwright must have alluded to this
event in certain poignant lines in King John. Shapiro’s comments
here demonstrate his method throughout: “Perhaps they were. Perhaps
the play had been written before Shakespeare learned of his son’s
death. Perhaps he waited until composing Hamlet to unpack his
heart. Or perhaps Shakespeare had been thinking of something
never know entirely.”

Today, living in an age when so much
fiction is disguised autobiography in one way or another, and when our
sensibilities, inherited from the Romantics and the Victorians, have
developed and refined a subjective and self-centred way of looking at
life and literature (think of all those modern biographies of authors,
automatically seeking and finding links between the life and the art),
it is inconceivable to allow such power to the imagination alone. And
of course, once it is decided that the plays must reflect actual events
that Shakespeare experienced first-hand, it is only a short step to
believing that the “man from Stratford” could not possibly have
experienced all the diverse knowledge displayed in the art: enter
travelled, courtly, Elizabethan men of letters, such as Bacon and

Coleridge set the tone, “reading
the trajectory of the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays as a story
of the poet’s psychological development.” Shapiro reminds us that
the word “psychological” entered the vocabulary with Coleridge himself,
an indication of the anachronistic ways in which later writers were
to misread life in Tudor times. This was an age of faith; childhood
was brief; households were wider than the nuclear family; death in
was the norm. It is we who lack the imagination to enter into

Research into the life of players and
playwrights of the period throws up other problems for those who have
invented an aristocratic genius, elaborately disguising his authorship
behind a Stratford player and revealing his life by constant coded
in his writings. Shakespeare, like his contemporaries, would have often
collaborated with other playwrights; the co-authorship of some plays
is very likely. Further, hundreds of people in the London theatrical
fraternity knew him; a great number of inexpensive quartos of his plays
were in circulation during his lifetime; and there is sufficient praise
and recognition from his contemporaries to make it sensible to assume
that the man who wrote the plays and poems both for money and for the
entertainment of playgoers (not for literary people in later ages,
in armchairs in libraries) was who his friends knew him to be: William
Shakespeare from Stratford.

Shapiro is enlightening on other
that challenged the authorship: 19th century German
criticism was dissecting the Bible and finding different authors at
work; classical scholars were disputing Homer’s   authorship
of the Greek epics. It was inevitable that Shakespeare’s canon should
be subject to the same methods. There are also the blind spots of great
writers: Mark Twain could not accept that imagination might have only
a loose connection with actual events; Henry James could not reconcile
the shrewd businessman with the poetic genius; Freud, who supported
de Vere’s candidacy, had, as Shapiro reminds us, “a tendency to
think counter-intuitively”.

The author concludes robustly that
it does matter who wrote Shakespeare: we can believe in the power of
the imagination or we can believe everything is disguised and needs
de-coding; you can’t have both. I agree with him about the authorship;
I also agree that Shakespeare did not have to commit murder to write
Macbeth; but since I also believe that he was probably a secret
Catholic in an age when you could die for attending Mass, I do not see
why there might not have been subtle and disguised allusions in the
plays for his co-religionists. But that is another book.

Francis Philips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.