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James Shapiro, continued

Q: What was the contested will that your title refers to and puns on, and why is it relevant to the debate?
A: The title works a couple of ways. First, it underscores that there’s ongoing disagreement about who Will—Will Shakespeare—really was. Second, it puns on Shakespeare’s "Last Will and Testament" in which he notoriously left his wife Anne Hathaway their "second best bed." We don’t know exactly what this means (the bed may have had sentimental value or been the one they slept in together for all we know), but it sounds stingy to modern ears. There’s yet one more play on words: the title signals I’m challenging the kind of popular biography of Shakespeare—one that reads his life through his works, accepting them as autobiographical documents—typified in Stephen Greenblatt’s recent book, Will in the World.

Q: Why do you say that this controversy tells us more about ourselves than it does about Shakespeare?
A: Each generation reinvents Shakespeare anew. And each claim about authorship reveals more about its proponent that it necessarily does about the writer who lived 400 years ago. That’s what my extended readings of Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, Mark Twain, and those whose theories they draw upon (Delia Bacon and J. T. Looney) try to show.

Q: Can this argument ever be resolved based strictly on objective evidence?
A: What constitutes evidence? Supreme Court Justice Stevens, who believes that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays, thinks that the circumstantial evidence is sufficient to make the case. Shakespeare scholars have a different view of evidence, and hold a comparatively dim view of what Justice Stevens and others think adequate. So that the controversy is in part about what constitutes evidence, especially when we are dealing with so few documents, and they, in turn, are subject to different kinds of interpretation. Some will find this exciting; others exasperating.

Q: Is that why you believe that it’s more interesting to look not at what people believe about Shakespeare’s authorship, but why they believe it?
A: Having spent the past 4 or 5 years investigating this controversy, I can say with some confidence that it doesn’t take long to learn what people are arguing—nor, after a while, do these arguments seem all that interesting, since positions are fixed and debate pointless. What I find fascinating, though, is when and why people think what they do, how cultural forces or values have shaped the debate and subtly altered over time our views of authorship.

Q: What does it really matter who wrote the plays, whether it’s Shakespeare or someone else? We know that they’re amazing works of literary genius, and isn’t that enough? What is at stake in this controversy regarding the way we value Shakespeare’s achievement?
A: When I began researching this book I was sympathetic to the idea that it didn’t really matter, what counts are the plays themselves, though I still sensed that a lot more was at stake. What I quickly learned was that the plays, once reattributed to others, were being reinterpreted in what to my mind were disturbing ways. If you follow Delia Bacon (the first Baconian) you end up arguing that the plays are left-wing revolutionary tracts; if you are a disciple of J. T. Looney (the first Oxfordian) you have to conclude the plays are deeply reactionary and that their author despised democracy. I’m not comfortable with either position and now think that anyone who asks ‘what difference does it make?’ hasn’t confronted just how much is contested here.

Q: What are you hoping the book will do?
A: I don’t expect to persuade ardent anti-Stratfordians that Shakespeare wrote the plays. They have thought hard about these questions and it’s not only my conclusion with which they will disagree, but also my underlying assumptions about authorship. I don’t think that we can mine the plays and poems for evidence about their author’s life; they do (and one of the points of my book is that nobody thought to do so until the late 18th century). But I hope to reach those whose minds are not yet resolved and provide those who find themselves arguing with skeptics the right counter-arguments. I have one last aim in mind in writing the book and that’s discouraging my fellow Shakespeareans from reading the plays autobiographically; unless and until they stop doing so, the controversy will never go away.
Delia Bacon, 1853. In Theodore Bacon, Delia Bacon. London, 1888

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