Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

July 23, 2010 at 2:00 pm (Book review, books, Shakespeare)

Thus did a female character idly wonder in a play from the year 1759 called High Life Below Stairs. When told that the real author was Ben Jonson,  she disagrees vigorously:

“‘Oh no! Shakespeare was written by one Mr. Finis, for I saw his name at the end of the book.’

This delightful bit of drollery is recounted by James Shapiro in the endlessly fascinating and eminently readable Contested Will.

author James Shapiro

The subject is a serious one, though. The Shakespeare plays reign supreme among the great works of Western literature. Who, then, is the true author of these masterpieces? And why has this question arisen in the first place?

A little more than a century after the Bard’s death, scholars and others began searching for documents that would illuminate his life. What did they find? First of all, his will, in 1737, where he famously left his wife his “second best bed.”  Sixteen years later, a mortgage deed for a London property was unearthed. A letter to Shakespeare from Richard Quiney, his neighbor in Stratford, was found in 1793 by the leading Shakespeare biographer and scholar of the day, Edmond Malone.

And that was about it.

And that’s where the trouble started.

Where were the manuscripts in Shakespeare’s own hand? Where was the information about the books he must surely have owned? Where were the letters, which might provide some key to the sources of his inspiration?

Nowhere to be found…

Edmond Malone was the first person to attempt to formulate an accurate chronology of the plays. This scholarly exercise was quickly followed by efforts to deduce biographical or topical (meaning contemporary) meaning from those same plays:

‘Malone’s argument presupposed that in writing his plays, Shakespeare mined his own emotional life in transparent ways and, for that matter, that Shakespeare responded to life’s surprises much as Malone and people in his own immediate circle would have.

And what’s wrong this this approach? Plenty:

‘…there was no effort to consider that even as literary culture had changed radically since early modern times, so too had a myriad of social customs, religious life, childhood, marriage, family dynamics, and, cumulatively, the experience of inwardness. The greatest anachronism of all was in assuming that people have always experienced the world the same way we ourselves do, that Shakespeare’s internal, emotional life was modern.

Shapiro points out that, at least in England, people were not in the habit of writing memoirs, no matter their fame or station in life. It simply wasn’t done. The keeping of diaries or journals was equally rare. The word “biography” did not even enter the language until the 1660s.

The sonnets were subjected to the same sort of scrutiny. Malone was nothing if not persistent. In his efforts to write a definitive biography of Shakespeare, he held to the conviction that a commonplace book, diaries, and/or letters would at some point surface. They never did. And the biography was never completed. After Malone’s death in 1812, James Boswell the Younger was given  the task of finishing the work. But upon examining the material, Boswell realized that he was not merely in need of some material to fill in the lacunae; rather, he was faced with what a called a “chasm.”


Shapiro goes on to explain the way in which questions about Homer’s authorship of The Iliad and The Odyssey fueled the questions then arising about Shakespeare’s authorship. Likewise the explosion of Biblical scholarship. As the nineteenth century got under way, fresh intellectual inquiries were calling old verities into question. One of those verities had to do with the Shakespeare plays. Among the major reasons for the questioning in regard to Shakespeare are his lack of a university education and the lack of evidence that he ever traveled outside of England. Shapiro then focuses on two of the chief contenders for the crown of authorship: Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

One of Bacon’s most ardent proponents was Delia Bacon, an American. No relation to Sir Francis, although she probably entertained the fantasy. (Actually she entertained many fantasies, as, in the course of her short life, her state of mind became increasingly precarious.) Hers is an interesting, if poignant, story.

I had never heard of Delia Bacon, but I was surprised to encounter, in the course of this narrative, some quite famous personalities. None other than Henry James weighed in as a doubter. Along with Delia Bacon and others, he fervently believed that The Tempest is Shakespeare’s most autobiographical play, where he sets the stage for the leave-taking of his creative life. In an introduction to a new edition of that masterwork, James set forth the issues that bothered him:

“…how could the genius who wrote [The Tempest] renounce his art at the age of forty-eight and retire to rural Stratford to ‘spend what remained to him of life in walking about a small, squalid country-town with his hand in his pockets and ear for no music but the chink of the coin they might turn over there?’

Mark Twain weighed in on the controversy with Is Shakespeare Dead? (rather oddly subtitled, From My Autobiography). Is Shakespeare Dead? was published in 1909. In that year, Twain received a visit from his friend and correspondent, Helen Keller. Keller herself was also skeptical of the claims of the Bard.


Digression alert: I was talking to my friend Evelyn, a children’s librarian, about the fact that Helen Keller seems not to be as well known today as she was at mid-century. We agreed that when we were growing up, we all knew about her and her achievements. And we had all of us seen the film version of William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker. Its climax, when Annie Sullivan finally breaks through to the young Helen, is one of the great moments of stage and film:

A foundation for research into the prevention of blindness and hearing loss is named in honor of this remarkable woman.

Mark Twain and Helen Keller, circa 1899


By the time Twain published his book, the Bacon faction was on the wane. And a different candidate was gaining in credibility. This is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Shapiro’s chapter on Oxford begins with Sigmund Freud. I know – I had the same reaction – “Sigmund, what are you doing here?” But it behooves us to recall Freud’s famous analysis of Hamlet; namely, that the Prince of Denmark was afflicted by an unresolved Oedipal fixation on – who else – his mother. The theory, and the play, made much more sense if the author were a man of breeding, education, and mystery. Oxford, a well placed aristocrat, was a good fit – certainly a better one than the man from Stratford.

This section is complex and fascinating and pretty much takes us into the present era of authorship study. It is followed by an even more absorbing section, the final section, in which Shapiro presents “The Evidence for Shakespeare.”  I don’t want to give away the  nature of that evidence, except to say that in my opinion, he makes an extremely persuasive case for Shakespeare as the author of the Shakespeare plays. (Only not Shakespeare alone – but you’ll just have to read the book to discern my meaning! Hint – the word “collaboration” is very key….)


When I was telling her about this book, Evelyn remarked that it would be terrible if it turned out that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays and poetry. She said she would feel betrayed by such a revelation. I think she need not worry. Certainly de Vere still has his adherents, and there are other candidates as well. Among these is Christopher Marlowe, who, according to certain conjectures, was not killed in that altercation in a tavern but was secretly spirited away to a hiding place, where, among other things, he could write plays and poetry in relative peace and quiet.

(This puts me in mind of a scene in the film Shakespeare in Love. Viola is grief-stricken, thinking that her beloved Will has been killed. But she has misunderstood – it is Marlowe who has been murdered. When she and Will are at length together again, he declares to her that Christopher Marlowe was England’s greatest playwright. She says that she has not heard him utter such praise of Marlowe before. He responds ruefully, “He was not dead before.”)


At any rate, surely the greatest cause for wonder is how these plays could be so profoundly beautiful, so eternally relevant. I think back on what a reviewer said of Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: that the real mystery is not how little we know for certain about William Shakespeare some four hundred years after he lived but how, all those many years ago, he knew so much about us.


Contested Will has an extremely lengthy and comprehensive bibliography. For Shakespeare resources on the internet, I like Shakespeare online. Click here for more posts on various aspects of Shakespeare. The majority are reviews of productions I’ve been privileged to attend at  the Folger Shakespeare Theatre.


The Chandos portrait of Shakespeare. It hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery.


  1. william sutton said,

    Absolutely one of the best blog posts reviewing Shapiro’s book. Thanks!

    I’ll be linking to it from my group page on FB:!/group.php?gid=119899154688265

    here if you want to a member.

    i’ll be back to look around some more especially Shakey stuff.

    But then I think I may have been here before?!

    yours in the name of WIll,


    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thank you, William, for your gracious words and the Facebook link.

      I very much like your blog and have added it to my blogroll.

      It’s always a pleasure to make the acquaintance of another person who is devoted to the works of Shakespeare.

  2. williamjosephray said,

    I adhere to the authorship of the Shakespeare canon by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford and, contrary to your implication to Mr. Sutton, emphatically am devoted to the works of Shakespeare. It is only just to respect an author, and if the case is clouded, to inquire further as to who wrote such arresting and foundational works. I would recommend that you yourself take some time to so inquire. Platitudes about how wonderful the author was and “is”, and mistaking a pseudonym for a moneylender, will not do. There is a diverting history associated with this central figure in English literary and political life. Responsible readers and viewers will not be satisfied until it is examined. Perhaps the review of ‘Shakespeare by Another Name’ by Mark Anderson or ‘Shakespeare Suppressed’ by Katherine Chiljan would enlighten you that this is not a bizarre subject matter. Cultures err in matters where their State figures stood to lose face. And Oxford’s family (the noble paire of brethren who produced the First Folio) opted to publish the works to save them, even though they had to mask the author’s identity through an already long-used pseudonym.

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