Saturday, May 29, 2010

Shapiro's Contested Will by Samuel Blumenfeld

One must thank James Shapiro for having written a book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010), that will serve as a great source of support for the assertion that Christopher Marlowe wrote the poems and the thirty-six plays in the First Folio attributed to Shakespeare. His defense of the orthodox Stratfordian position is so feeble as to invite even more claimants to the authorship of these immortal works.

Shapiro virtually eliminates Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford as possible authors of the Shakespeare canon. For that we can indeed be grateful. But because he decided not to stage a full attack on the Marlovian position, he has encouraged Marlovians to press forward to find the smoking gun that will finally establish Marlowe as the greatest literary genius in human history.

The most important task for Marlovians is to come up with irrefutable evidence that Marlowe survived his supposed death at Deptford on May 30, 1593. As for this writer, proof that Marlowe lived beyond May 30, 1593, is simply the existence of those 36 plays in the First Folio, which only he could have written. He is the only one of all of the contenders who had the proven literary genius to write those works. Of course, I recognize that this reasoning doesn't suffice for many. But until we find that document showing Marlowe lived, I'd encourage everyone interested in the subject to read all the works of Marlowe and all the works attributed to Shakespeare and to study the excellent resources provided by the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society. The Marlovian theory of authorship will then make a heck of a lot of sense (and it will certainly be an amazing intellectual journey at the very least!).

James Shapiro writes very sympathetically about Delia Bacon–no relation to Francis Bacon–whose obsession with the authorship question drove her finally to an untimely death in an insane asylum in 1859. But she is credited with having started the modern authorship controversy. However, it was the attempt by Baconians to find hidden codes and ciphers in the works of Francis Bacon and Shakespeare which led to that movement’s demise. It was more than the average reader could contend with.

As for the Oxford theory, Shapiro does an excellent job of revealing Thomas Looney’s positivist views and membership in the Church of Humanity, which apparently led to his interest in the Shakespeare authorship problem. He attempted to solve the problem by finding the one Elizabethan who measured up to his criteria for authorship: Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

For Looney, Shapiro explains, “The true author had to be a man whose aristocratic lineage made him a natural leader, one who–if he had been properly recognized in his time–could have changed his world. Like Comte’s great teachings, ‘Shakespeare’s’ collected works were a textbook for social and political reform: ‘How differently might the whole course of European history have unfolded,’ Looney laments, ‘if the policy of “Shakespeare” had prevailed instead of that of the politicians of his time’” (176).

As for why Oxford hid his identity as author, Shapiro writes: “There had to be a better explanation for why the greatest of poets suppressed his identity. The answer was soon found: Oxford was Queen Elizabeth’s secret lover and their union produced an illegitimate son, the Earl of Southampton. That argument, first advanced by Percy Allen in 1933, came to be known in Oxfordian circles as the Prince Tudor theory and proved deeply appealing to skeptics already convinced that conspiracy and concealment had defined Oxford’s literary life[....]To this day it has deeply divided Oxfordians" (196).

But some Oxfordians even went further in advancing the Prince Tudor theory. Shapiro elaborates: “According to its proponents, Oxford was not only Elizabeth’s lover but her son as well. The man who impregnated the fourteen-year-old future Queen was probably her own stepfather, Thomas Seymour. So it was incest, and incest upon incest when Oxford later slept with his royal mother and conceived Southampton” (196).

Many Oxfordians reject these stories. But Hank Whittemore, a New York novelist, wrote a fascinating script based on the Prince Tudor story, which he performs with much gusto at Oxfordian meetings to the delight of the attendees. I witnessed such a riveting performance in 2009 and came away with the notion that fiction, indeed, is often stranger than truth. And strange as it may seem, Shapiro himself attended one of Whittemore’s performances in November 2008 at the Globe playhouse in London.

The professor also analyzes famous men like Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, and Henry James who rejected Shakespeare as the author. Freud saw in Oxford and Hamlet his Oedipus complex acted out; Twain took apart Shakespeare’s will and biographical data. He wrote: “All I want is to convince some people that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare. Who did, is a question which does not greatly interest me” (141).

But from a Marlovian point of view, Henry James comes closest to our perception of the truth. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “Still, all the same, take my word for it, as a dabbler in fable and fiction, that the plays and the sonnets were never written but by a Personal Poet, a Poet and Nothing Else, a Poet, who, being Nothing Else, could never be a Bacon" (144). (Or for that matter an Earl of Oxford!)

James further wrote: “The difficulty with the divine William is that he isn’t, wasn’t the Personal Poet with the calibre and the conditions, any more than the learned, the ever so much too learned, Francis” (144).

And so Henry James agrees with the Marlovian view that the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare could have only been written by a professional poet with the poetic genius that none of the other contenders had.

On the subject of Calvin Hoffman, Shapiro writes: “Oxfordians looked on jealously when the self-promoting Calvin Hoffman generated far more attention than they could muster with his claims for Christopher Marlowe’s authorship of the plays–first with the publication in 1955 of The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare, then with his success in securing permission to open the grave of Elizabethan spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham in a failed attempt to unearth Marlowe’s long-hidden manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays" (201).

Shapiro got it wrong. It was Sir Thomas Walsingham’s tomb that Hoffman gained permission to open, not the grave of Elizabeth’s spymaster.

On page 211, Shapiro relates: “On July 11, 2002 in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, a memorial window was unveiled in Christopher Marlowe’s honor. His date of birth and death are given as ‘1564?-1593.’” Another bit of sloppy editing. The window actually reads: “1564 Christopher Marlowe ?1593.” The question mark relates to the date of death, not birth.

These lapses of accuracy are inexcusable for a scholar of Shapiro’s reputation and caliber. Obviously, the fact checkers and proofreaders at Simon & Schuster were not up to the job.

Nevertheless, the book is very much worth reading as the Columbia professor provides a good deal of historical background to the authorship question as well as an amusing account of the trials staged by Oxfordians before several Supreme Court justices.

But he definitely presages the decline of the Oxford movement when he writes:
For there is always a risk that new media will reorient attention to a rival and more attractive candidate–and indeed, the recent proliferation of sites on Christopher Marlowe, no doubt energized by interest in the government conspiracy at the heart of the case for Marlowe’s faked death, may be a sign that the dominance of the Oxfordian camp may not extend much longer than the Baconian one, roughly seventy years or so. Just as the Oxfordians could attract their share of celebrities, so too could rival camps. Marlovians were please to announce a new recruit when film director Jim Jarmusch told the New York Times “I think it was Christopher Marlowe” who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. (217)
As for his defense of Shakespeare, Shapiro believes that Stratfordians play into the hands of the doubters by digging for questionable autobiographical data in the sonnets and plays. Also, he believes that attempts to conceal the true authorship would have failed, for Shakespeare was simply too well known.

He comments: “The sheer number of inexpensive copies of Shakespeare’s works that filled London’s bookshops after 1594 was staggering and unprecedented. No other poet or playwright came close to seeing seventy or so editions in print–that’s counting only what was published in Shakespeare’s lifetime” (223).

He also believes that the Bard worked closely with the other members of the theater company, creating characters for specific actors who fit the parts. The professor writes:
Take, for example, the stage directions in the First Folio edition of that early history play, The Third Part of Henry the Sixth, which reads: “Enter Sincklo and Humfrey.” John Sinklo was a regular hired man for whom Shakespeare wrote lots of skinny-man parts. Shakespeare would slip again and start thinking of Sinklo rather than the character he was playing in the draft that was used to produce the Quarto edition of The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, where his stage direction reads: “Enter Sincklo and three or four officers.” (229)
But that still doesn’t explain why, according to Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s manuscripts were so clean and devoid of blots. If Marlowe had written them, they were apparently copied by a scribe minus blots and cross-outs and delivered to Shakespeare in pristine condition. The names of actors were obviously added later on when casting decisions were made.

Shapiro also relies much too heavily on the notion that Shakespeare’s imagination was the main source of his greatness. But what he fails to address is the incredible linguistic genius of the author. Plenty of writers have imagination. But no writer has equaled “Shakespeare” in his mere command and use of the language. Marlowe had already demonstrated that literary genius in the plays written before Deptford.

Contested Will is a nice but futile attempt by Shapiro to end the authorship controversy. But with Marlowe on the ascendance, as Shapiro acknowledges in his book and in recent interviews, this is only the beginning of a whole new phase in this fascinating story. I am optimistic that evidence will eventually surface proving that Marlowe lived beyond the dubiously reported events at Deptford–lest we forget, to cite one of many questions surrounding Marlowe's alleged demise, “most of the evidence in the Coroner's Inquisition, based as it is entirely upon the word of three skilful liars, must be taken with a pinch of salt,” as Peter Farey rightly argues. When that smoking gun is found, English literature will never be the same. It would also be the Stratfordians’ worst nightmare, for scholars throughout the 20th century (many of them Statfordians) have already made the case regarding the similarities in style between Marlowe and Shakespeare, or at the very least, Marlowe’s significant “influence” on Shakespeare.

Samuel Blumenfeld

© Samuel Blumenfeld, May 2010

Samuel Blumenfeld, a regular contibutor to MSC, has authored more than ten books. His latest, The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection: A New Study of the Authorship Question, was published by McFarland. He is a former editor in the New York book publishing industry (he edited the 1960 paperback edition of Calvin Hoffman's The Murder of the Man Who Was "Shakespeare"), and he has lectured in all 50 U.S. states. His writings have appeared in such diverse publications as Esquire, Reason, Education Digest, Vital Speeches of the Day, Boston, and many others.

See Sam on YouTube addressing the Shakespeare authorship controversy.

Click here for the blog's home page and recent content.


SBWilliamson said...

Mr. Blumenfeld,

My wife and I are great admirers or your writings on education. We came across your interest in Marlowe "by mistake," surfing the web. We look forward to reading your book.

Bob and Susan Williamson

DonnaS said...

Ditto, Sam. Saw you speak in St. Louis many years back on the ADD epidemic.

RRaymo said...

Shapiro's book underwhelmed me, and I really sense Shapiro doesn't want to confront Shakespeare's "limitations" head-on. I found his research rather superficial.

ChristineA67 said...

Haven't read the book, but it's interesting that he didn't really go after Marlovians, as Sam says. Why not?

Rambler said...

Blumenthal credits Shapiro with dismantling the case for Bacon and Vere. Shapiro ignores Marlowe because the argument for Marlowe is non-existent. And if Shapiro is so dumb as to accept the Stratfordian nonsense, of what value is his opinion on anything?

Ros Barber said...

What Shapiro actually says is that ‘an exhaustive account of all the candidates ... would be both tedious and futile, and for reasons that will soon become clear, Bacon and Oxford can be taken as representative.’(p.3) This is because he believes all anti-Stratfordian cases are built on the same (mistaken) premise - that the plays have an autobiographical basis and that the author's life can be read from them - thus "Lear had 3 daughters"... "Oxford had 3 daughters" becomes an argument for Oxford.

The case for Marlowe is non-existent only if you can be certain of his death in 1593. However, the long-running arguments between orthodox scholars demonstrate that what happened at Deptford is not clear-cut - and the argument continues for the simple reason that neither the "accidental killing" nor the "assassination" theories tally satisfactorily with all the evidence. Indeed, the only theory that does is the unacceptable "third way", the faked death. It is worth reading Peter Farey's argument that the faked death is in fact the only logical reason for this particular group of people to meet at this particular time and place. And ludicrous as a faked death might seem at face value, ask yourself this: if you were facing charges that were almost certain to lead to your execution, and were so connected that you were able to effect the sort of escape in which you would not be pursued, would you really sit there and wait to be hauled in?

Conveniently timed "death" aside - and the timing is yet another reason to question it - Marlowe's case is the strongest of any candidate in that he had already proved he could write "like Shakespeare". None of the other claimants have his writing pedigree. Shapiro's assumption is wrong: the foundations of Marlowe's case are a) the similarity of the writing styles and b)an inquest document that many orthodox scholars have argued is a cover-up for something else.

Peter Farey said...


Many thanks for the recommendation! If people are interested in reading my argument for the faked death, however, may I suggest that they go to rather than the one your post is linked to? That (much earlier) one had rather more to do with the background than to the killing itself.

Peter Farey

EllenRichards said...


Your Alpha-Phonics taught my three kids to read.

Dave Herber said...

The talk of Bacon and the Prince Tudor theory conjurs up Alfred Dodd's rather bizarre work 'The Marriage of Elizabeth Tudor'.

As Ros points out, Bacon and Oxford are representatives of the anti-Stratfordian case in shapiro's work. He had to pick these two as they are the easiest to dismiss and the most extreme. By pointing his finger at these as examples of the anti-Stratfordian 'movement' he is childishly trying to lump all who oppose the Stratfordian claim in the same 'nut-job' basket.

Looking at people like Alfred Dodd alas only bolsters his falacious claim.

Marlowe cannot be casually brushed aside like Oxford or Bacon and unfortunately Shapiro does not have the courage to attempt to discredit the Marlovian theory, rather he continues the academic trend to categorize all anti-Stratfordians in the same basket and pick the most dubious to refute.

Anonymous said...

Shapiro's book is quite lame and the good professor strikes me as confused and conflicted.