Who wrote Shakespeare? Hilary Mantel and James Shapiro say it was Will
The question of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays has always seemed to me akin to the question of who’s buried in Grant’s tomb, except so much more irritating. So it’s gratifying in the extreme to find no less a brainiac novelist than Hilary Mantel agrees with me on all counts–and marshals not only emotion but also evidence.
In an elegant and witty column in the Guardian, Mantel uses a review of James Shapiro’s new book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare, to demolish the idiotic theories that Shakespeare himself, being an undereducated country bumpkin too focused on the grubby business of making money, could not possibly have written the sublime plays.
So it must have been Francis Bacon. Or Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford. Or perhaps Will’s friend Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, the alleged bisexual, alleged pro-Catholic spy, who was not murdered in that sordid drinking house but survived to conduct further espionage, all the while slipping the plays he wrote into Shakespeare’s hand.
Of course, we know very little about the details of Shakespeare’s life. And yet it doesn’t take Occam’s Razor to see the simplest explanation for the authorship of the plays is Will. What gets me so hot about those who say Shakespeare could not have written these dramas is their elitism, or, as Mantel says, “snobbery,” which is downright anti-democratic.
Plus, the notion that the plays’ author must have been refined and highly educated absurdly overlooks the matter of genius. All manner of highly educated men (and women) live in every age. Almost none of them write on the level of Shakespeare.
Let’s see what Mantel, winner of the current Man Booker Prize for her brilliant historical novel, Wolf Hall, has to say on this point.
“It’s a tale of snobbery and ignorance, of unhistorical assumptions, of myths about the writing life sometimes fuelled by bestselling authors who ought to know better. The trail is strewn, Shapiro says, with ‘fabricated documents, embellished lives, concealed identity, calls for trial, pseudonymous authorship, contested evidence, bald-faced deception, and a failure to grasp what could not be imagined.”‘
In the end, Mantel argues persuasively, the anti-Will faction takes on the psychological trappings of conspiracy theory, resembling nothing so much as those who believe George Bush authorized the 9-11 attack, or the CIA killed John F. Kennedy. “Once you stop believing in Shakespeare,” she says, “you’ll believe in anything.”
An English professor and scholar at Columbia University, Shapiro is the author of several previous books, including the much-praised 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. The new book comes out in April.
In the meantime, I wonder why, whenever the authorship question comes up, Peter Ackroyd’s 2005 book, Shakespeare: A Biography, is so seldom mentioned. Highly readable, redolent of 16th century life, it tells a credible and surprisingly detailed biography of the man about whom so little is supposedly known.
Perhaps Ackroyd indulges in too much speculation for some, I don’t know — although the Independent, in its initial review, said, “You will not find a better book on Shakespeare.”
But I digress in my enthusiasm for Ackroyd. Mantel’s essay/review contains more delights than I’ve been able to report here, and I recommend it to your reading pleasure.
Meanwhile, who do you think wrote the plays of Shakespeare? Are there any closeted Baconians, Oxfordians, or Marlovians out there? If so, speak up!