Faber & Faber £20 (367pp) £18 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, By James Shapiro

One train may hide another, as the track-side signs at French country stations say. And one literary scandal or sensation may mask an altogether bigger deal. In Contested Will, James Shapiro cooly considers and then deftly dismantles the belief that Shakespeare did not write his own plays. This irresistible book hums with all the learning and panache that made Shapiro's 1599: a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare such a treat. No credible scholar has ever given such polite, even sympathetic scrutiny to the 150-year record of snobbery, fantasy and paranoia behind the claims that either Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, pulled off the scam of the ages as an undercover toff ran history's most tortuous conspiracy while "having his latest play delivered surreptitiously to the stage door of the Globe".

No one, moreover, has ever explained so well the motives and reasons for the big lie of the "authorship controversy". Shapiro cogently argues that both sceptics and old-style Bardolaters share similar post-Romantic assumptions about individual genius and literature as a coded confession. These tired fallacies bind them forever in a fatal embrace: "they have more in common than either side is willing to concede".

William Shakespeare of Stratford and London – for two decades "one of the most familiar faces in town and at court" and, from 1592 onwards, gossiped over, sniped at, lauded, envied and finally mourned more than any other playwright of his time - did write the works attributed to him. However, and especially at the start and end of his career, he wrote quite a few with someone else. Shakespeare "co-authored half of his last ten plays" (Timon of Athens, Pericles, Henry the Eighth, the lost Don Quixote adaptation Cardenio and The Two Noble Kinsmen) with George Wilkins, Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher. Shapiro steers clear of the likely multiple authorship of the early Henry VI trilogy. He passes over Edward III, of which Shakespeare wrote perhaps a third: now it contentiously features in the "New Cambridge Shakespeare" series. He never mentions the thesis proposed by Gary Taylor that even Macbeth, as we have it, is more or less a director's cut of Shakespeare's text by Thomas Middleton.

No matter. As he writes, the overwhelming evidence for Shakespeare as a busy and eager co-author – embodied in books by Brian Vickers and Stanley Wells as well as the more radical canon-splitter Taylor - amounts to a "revolution". It "profoundly... alters one's sense of how Shakespeare wrote". If it knocks for six the pipe-dream of some secretive aristo palming off his offspring as a coarse actor-manager's brood, equally it undermines the notion of a solitary superman.

Even before the modern attention to co-authorship, smart scholars knew that the hands-on dramatist, executive and impresario of the Lord Chamberlain's and King's Men companies was a consummate team-player. As early editions show, he sometimes wrote the names of individual actors beside speeches instead of their roles: John Sinklo for "skinny-man parts"; Will Kemp for clowns. Shapiro portrays the dramatist as "a long-term partner in an all-absorbing theatrical venture".

Neither of the noble pretenders could ever have done that. Imagine Lord Bacon or the 17th Earl of Oxford naming their workmates in that way. Equally - and here comes the reverse-thrust of Contested Will - imagine the unworldly soul-baring Shakespeare fabricated by the Romantics doing the same. Shapiro's double-edged sword cuts both dreamy teams down to size.

As his book genially but forcefully proves, the "authorship controversy" is a ghost-train. Since the 1850s it has carried both outright fantasists and misguided sceptics – Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and Henry James among them – down one stultifying sidetrack after another. Behind it races the absolutely solid high-speed express of modern research. It replaces Shakespeare the lofty demigod with a shrewd creative-industry entrepreneur. As Charles Nicholl's wonderful The Lodger also makes clear, he could - for the ethereal Pericles - happily co-operate with a volatile law-breaking innkeeper (George Wilkins) who may have also run a brothel. This is true.

As for the fanciful case advanced for Bacon or Oxford, it remains what it has always been: an ever-changing mish-mash of false premises, a priori prejudice, spurious scholarship, rampant speculation and sheer wishful thinking. And behind it always tolls the old cracked bell of social disdain.

From Delia Bacon of Connecticut in the 1850s to the Globe's Mark Rylance (of all otherwise sensible people) today, the doubters refuse to accept that a middle-English, grammar school-taught glove-maker's son turned London actor and theatrical businessman could have imagined and then written what he did. Doubt Shakespeare and you doubt the power of art, preferring instead (as Mark Twain did) the curious modern dogma that "great writing had to be drawn from life".

Always, to the fantasists, "pure motives, good breeding, foreign travel, the best of educations and the scent of the court were necessary criteria for an author of works of 'superhuman genius'". Records of routine behaviour for a middle-ranking Stratford family – stockpiling malt, for instance, just as his neighbours did – helped in the mid-Victorian era to create an "unbridgeable rift" between the hard evidence in boring documents of Shakespeare as a bourgeois citizen and the conduct expected of an artistic titan. Given this artificial chasm, opened by anachronism and misunderstanding, the claimants – mainly Bacon until the First World War, mainly Oxford thereafter – filled a vast emotional gap.

Real knowledge, which Shapiro supplies in abundance, can close it. Why, say, does Shakespeare's will cite no books among his possessions? They would by custom have been listed in a separate inventory, now lost, drawn up by the dramatist's fascinating son-in-law, the physician John Hall. Richard Hooker, the ultra-learned theologian who codifed Anglican doctrine, had no books in his will either. As for Will's peers, from Robert Greene sneering at the non-Oxbridge "upstart crow" in 1592 to Ben Jonson remembering the friend he honoured "on this side idolatry", they never stopped discussing the author (not just the actor) they knew and, sometimes, loved.

Ever the amiable scholar, Shapiro does not sound too angry with the vicious snobbery behind the "anti-Stratfordian" nonsense. He even takes care to defend the notorious "Oxfordian" JT Looney against jibes about his name (it rhymes with "bony"). Patiently, he fills in the tangled intellectual history behind the neo-feudal, aristocracy-adoring baloney of Looney's 1920 book 'Shakespeare' Revealed. Many readers might still conclude that the anti-Shakespeare camp has ever since its inception (just as mass education arrived) gained traction from an underlying horror that this Midlands tradesman's kid should come so far. What if all the others got ideas above their station?

These draining quarrels have not run their course. Far from it. Conspiracy-seeking, anti-expert trends have given the Earl of Oxford's suit a huge boost. Symptomatically, the zealous Oxfordian Charlton Ogburn in 1976 called the belief that Shakespeare wrote his plays "an intellectual Watergate". The "fairness doctrine" of modern media spawns documentaries which give equal billing to fact and fancy. Shapiro makes a link with evolution and "intelligent design". Wikipedia, inevitably, massively amplifies the fantasists online. The "authorship question" joins 9/ll and Diana's death as fodder for suspicious minds keen to unmask a four-century old "governmental cover-up". "Oh, that way madness lies," as King Lear fears. Shapiro shows us how, and why, to shun it.

Prince of doubters: Sigmund Freud

The most distinguished intellectual figure ever to sign up to the proposition that someone else wrote Shakespeare's plays is Sigmund Freud. The founder of psychoanalysis wrote brilliant essays on Shakespeare, and 'Hamlet' underpinned the ideas that led to the 'Oedipus complex'. For James Shapiro, Freud's conviction that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare is bound up with a search for Oedipal themes in Oxford's life - and a crisis of faith and identity following Freud's father's death in 1896.

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