James Shapiro discusses his new book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Helen Keller, Mark Twain, Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens, and Sigmund Freud all doubted the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays as those of William Shakespeare, which led Columbia University’s James Shapiro to ask, “Why do smart people think dumb things?” In his new book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare, Shapiro is clear with the reader up front: Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The book then is not about positions or why differing theories on the authorship question are wrong; the book is about the whys. Why do people believe what they do? Why do certain moments in history create changes in perception? Why do people use Shakespeare to bolster their own politics?
The discussion was brimming with colorful characters—from the life of doubter Delia Bacon, who won a short-story contest in which Edgar Allen Poe was the loser, to the Detroit man who dredged a river because the “code” in the Shakespeare texts told him to. Mark Twain’s belief that one could not write about that which he did not personally experience informed his doubt of Shakespeare’s work—a theory that has only gained traction in the 21st century. “We live in an age of memoir,” said Shapiro. “We assume all writing is at least a little autobiographical.” Not only is that not the case for many novelists and playwrights today, it was definitely not the writing tradition popular in Elizabethan times, which prized imagination and creativity. Sigmund Freud on the other hand, doubted Shakespeare’s authenticity because it countered his oedipal theory, which rested in part on the idea that Shakespeare could only have written a masterwork like Hamlet as a reaction to his own father’s death. Inconveniently for Freud, Shakespeare’s father died well after Hamlet was written.
“So why does it matter who wrote Shakespeare?” asked Shapiro. “For one thing, I believe in truth—not truthiness.” But what really became important to Shapiro as he wrote Contested Will was the salience of the creative process itself. Learning about how Shakespeare approached writing (often collaboratively) and how he mined his own imagination, are valuable topics worth exploring. Questioning Shakespeare’s authenticity then diminishes that genius as well as our own capacity to learn from such a master.