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Interview with James Shapiro

The author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? discusses the Shakespeare authorship question.


Q: When and why did the controversy over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays arise?
A: Until I began researching my book the answer I would have given (based on the standard authorities, who agree on this) was 1785, when James Wilmot first claimed that Francis Bacon was the true author of the plays.  But I eventually discovered that the document on which this claim was based is a forgery—so can say with some confidence that the controversy is more recent than that, dating back no further than the 1840s.


Q: How has the Internet given this longstanding controversy new life?
A: By the 1970s the authorship controversy was on life-support—and the anti-Stratfordians admitted as much.  But the Internet, a breeding ground for all sorts of theories, including conspiracy theories, has breathed new life into the movement.  Wikipedia provides a level playing field (and, more recently, a bitter battleground for opposing sides).  If you look into the controversy online you’ll discover that anti-Stratfordians are way ahead of mainstream scholars in promoting their cause.


Q: Who are some of the very famous proponents of the notion that Shakespeare is not the author of the plays attributed to him?
A: The controversy has attracted some leading thinkers and artists. Among the most prominent have been Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, Henry James, and Mark Twain.  Among more recent advocates are Supreme Court Justices Scalia and Stevens, leading actors Mark Rylance and Sir Derek Jacobi, and film director Roland Emmerich.


Q: Who are the leading candidates proposed as the true authors of Shakespeare’s work?
A: For the first 70 years of the controversy the leading candidate was Sir Francis Bacon.  Since the 1920s the Earl of Oxford has had the most support, though Christopher Marlowe is currently rising in popularity.  But there are over 50 others, all with avid supporters, many with websites promoting their cause.  And a new candidate surfaces every year or so.


Q: What are the major arguments against Shakespeare being the author of the plays?
A: First, that there’s not a lot of evidence about Shakespeare’s life, education, and learning, and even less evidence linking him directly to the plays.  If you look at all this from a modern perspective, it certainly looks suspicious. Which leads to the second major argument, also grounded in a modern perspective: that there must have been some kind of conspiracy to cover-up the true authorship of the plays.  There’s a third argument, and, not surprisingly, this too is grounded in how we think about writing today: if we assume that the plays are autobiographical (and even leading Shakespeare professors concede as much) then the life we find in the works corresponds a lot more closely to those of rival candidates than it does to the life of Shakespeare of Stratford.


Q: How do you and other defenders of Shakespeare’s authorship answer these arguments?
A: I spend the last quarter of the book setting out the evidence, and to my mind it’s pretty conclusive.  There’s plenty of evidence that can be found in the printed texts of his plays, small details that confirm that only a man of the theater could have written these plays.  And then there’s further confirmation, overwhelming really, provided by other Elizabethan poets, dramatists, and historians—all of whom of whom knew Shakespeare and whose recollections indicate that the man from Stratford did indeed write the plays.


James Shapiro

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Shapiro at the Folger on April 16

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