Contested Will, By James Shapiro<br />The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare, By Doug Stewart Da

Does it even matter who the 'real' Shakespeare was?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I've always tried to sidestep the authorship controversy. The astounding amount of energy put into trying to discover who wrote the plays and poems attributed to one William Shakespeare has resulted in a sort of academic tennis match between the followers of Francis Bacon and those of the Earl of Oxford, with supporters of the man Shakespeare umpiring. But when someone asks me, "So, who do you think wrote Shakespeare's plays?" my answer has largely been: "I don't much care." Or rather, I don't care enough to let it drag me away from working on understanding the plays themselves, instead of the mind (or minds) behind them.

So I was pleased to see, rather than the typically biased argument for one case and the cynical destruction of others, James Shapiro's Contested Will carefully unpicking the tangled web of exactly where the idea of alternative candidates came from. This is less a book about who wrote his great works and more a shrewd examination of why people think someone other than Shakespeare wrote them.

Shapiro describes how the lack of documentary evidence of Shakespeare's life, and a simple decision in 1790 to reorder the plays chronologically (rather than by genre, which had been the norm until then) led biographers to try to divine the writer from the varied characters in the works.

There's nothing we like better than a good mystery, and a clutch of dissatisfied Shakespeare fans with axes to grind, theories to prove and issues to vent (Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Helen Keller and Delia Bacon, among them) worked tirelessly to prove the obvious conclusion: as we have no substantial biographical details, and those we do have do not conform to the image of "our immortal Bard" Shakespeare, a close study of the works will reveal the "real" author. Naturally, they sculpted conflicting images. Perhaps in 400 years, we'll be analysing the Discworld novels to discover the "real" Pratchett.

Shapiro's meticulously researched book reads like a detective novel, first exploring the origins of the doubts over authorship and dusting the fingerprints of those who suggested the theories. He then looks at each of the main "Shakespeare" candidates in turn, and examines the underlying reasons why their leading sponsors were so vigorously supportive. It's a fascinating, lightly written and scalpel-like approach. Shapiro cuts away the academic bickering, ultimately making it clear that any attempts to identify the author from "personal experience" will only result in acts of projection, revealing more about the biographer than about Shakespeare himself. He ends with a call to his own colleagues to redirect literary criticism of Shakespeare's plays away from improvable biography, and back to the plays themselves.

For so long, I had not wanted to get drawn in to this unanswerable debate. No more. Now I'm out and proud. Shapiro's is an important book, which goes a long way towards putting an end to the authorship question once and for all. Bring on the conspiracy theorists, I have met their nemesis, and its name shall be Contested Will.

So it was with eagerness that I turned to Doug Stewart's The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare, keen to delve deeper into one of the stories that Shapiro thrillingly covers in a dozen pages: the story of the forger William Henry Ireland.

At the height of the Georgians' frustration at trying to write Shakespeare's biography, Ireland provided everyone with what they most keenly wanted: evidence. Initially forging a Shakespeare signature in an attempt to end his father's lifelong searches for one, he went on to provide a wealth of documents about the Bard's daily life as well as a couple of "lost" plays, which became one of the most successful literary hoaxes of all time.

The story of Ireland's output, and eventual confession (disbelieved by many as an attempt to save the reputation of his father, who was seen as the brains behind the operation) is epic. Unfortunately, Stewart only retells Ireland's life, ironically drawing mainly on Ireland's own 1805 Confessions. A combination of Stewart's imaginings of Ireland's emotions, and a collection of mights, maybes, likelys and probablys, leaves the reader in the infuriating and helpless position of not knowing what is fact, what is fact according to the forger's memoirs, and what is fact as interpreted and embellished by Stewart. It falls short of actually establishing whether Ireland did indeed write the forgeries alone or with his father's or another's help. Crucially, it fails to make us aware of the long-term result of Ireland's "prank": the very beginning of the authorship controversy.

Ben Crystal is an actor and the author of 'Shakespeare on Toast' (Icon)