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on 15 January 2016
This is a work of great and meticulous scholarship. It examines, in forensic detail, the Shakespeare Authorship Question. It provides a careful and fair minded history of the research by many people who have sought to answer the perplexing question in the title: who wrote the works of Shakespeare. Shapiro not only tells the stories but explores the motives of these researchers in fascinating and telling detail.
Shapiro acknowledges his own bias and finally explains why he accepts William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon as the true Bard. This bias unfortunately leads to some omissions and these damage the book. Near the start he states that the authorship question can be dated from the 18th and 19th Century. This is not the case: Joseph Hall in 1597 and 1598 published Satires (Virgidemarium) in which he cryptically referred to the author of Shakespeare’s works as “Labeo”. In 1598 John Marston also called Shakespeare “Labeo” (in both the Metamorphoses of Pygmalion’s Image and Certain Satires). In 1603 Henry Chettle named Shakespeare as “Melicert” in a poem following Queen Elizabeth I’s death. We presume Chettle was pointing to Shakespeare because of a reference to The Rape of Lucrece. Why use the pseudonym ‘Melicert’, unless the real identity of the poet was to be kept hidden? Daugherty (1) pointed out that in Greene’s Menaphon ‘Melicertus’ was the name assumed by a man in disguise, whose real name was Maximus. Chettle then was pointing to a figure hidden behind a pseudonym. In 1611 John Davies in his Scourge of Folly referred to “Mr. Will Shake-speare” as “our English Terence”. Terence was a Roman actor who passed off other people’s plays as his own (2). These are contemporary references which, being omitted by Shapiro, damage his claim to thorough objectivity.
Shapiro also indulges in the Stratfordian habit of using doubtful phrases to cover gaps in the orthodox narrative such as: “it’s likely that”…, “he might have”…, “must have been”…, “may have”…, “it may well be that”… These culminate in two statements which he tries to smuggle past the reader which have no factual basis: “A curious Shakespeare could have learned everything he needed to know about the Italian settings of his plays from a few choice conversations” and “Shakespeare visited royal palaces scores of times.” There is no evidence for either of these statements. They are guesses to cover gaps in the narrative. He then suggests that As You Like It was set in a “a version of Warwickshire’s Forest of Arden”. The play is clearly set in France (3), in the forest of Ardennes, and the spelling of this name was shortened to Arden for English readers. The play contains no hint of Warwickshire.
To explain the great gulf between the meager biography of William from Stratford and the transcendent, noble humanism of the works of Shakespeare, Shapiro offers two arguments:
1) We cannot expect any autobiographical material in the works as this would be a literary anachronism: Shakespeare and his contemporaries did not write autobiography.
2) Shakespeare wrote from the imagination and therefore did not need to have traveled or experienced what he wrote about.
In response to the first I note that Michel de Montaigne, whose writings did influence Shakespeare, wrote autobiographically and Philip Sidney advised: “Look in thy heart and write!”. Shapiro is however confusing two categories of autobiographical material: consciously written autobiography and projection (whether semi-conscious or unconscious). Shakespeare never wrote self-conscious autobiography. Any artist however projects into their work aspects of him/herself that are evidence of their experience. Let us take just two examples of this: Shakespeare’s knowledge of the law and falconry. I have benefited from an excellent education but I have no knowledge of the technical language Shakespeare uses in metaphors drawn from the privileged areas of law and falconry. I could not summon these from my imagination. This brings us to the second point which has been answered specifically by Roe’s research in Italy in which he showed how Shakespeare must have visited Italy for specific details we find in the plays which are not in the sources. So Shapiro’s project to definitively answer the Authorship Question fails at the end. His book was published in 2010. He mentioned Henry Neville just once ignoring the evidence that pointed to his authorship. Much more evidence has emerged in the last five years. Neville’s father was a keen falconer and Neville himself served on a Parliamentary committee on falconry. He travelled to Italy and served as a JP and MP so knew his law. Despite Shapiro’s attempt to close down the question more has still to be written on the authorship.
1 Daugherty, 2010, 45.
2 James & Rubinstein, 2005, 205.
3 Oliver states in the first scene that Orlando is “he stubbornest fellow in France” (1.1.133)