De-Imagining Imagination: An Essay on ‘Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?’ by James Shapiro

Sun, 04/04/2010 - 13:34 -- Heward Wilkinson

De-Imagining Imagination?

An Essay on ‘Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?’ by James Shapiro

Curiosity killed the cat

James Shapiro’s book on the Shakespeare authorship question got me on to the internet to order it; it was frustrating to read about it in reviews so often, e.g:

Richard Whalen’s very respectful Oxfordian review:

various reviews in the press (there are several more, some touched on on this blog)

without being able to be absolutely sure of what it says, in a proper chapter and verse sense. I have now read it once through, and no doubt will read it again. It is a very entertaining ‘read it through once’ read; whether it will stand up to further readings I am not sure, for reasons which will become clear.

No doubt writing this essay will take me further in getting an idea of that.

I write from an Oxfordian position (ie, that Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford is the author of the plays), and will concentrate on the relationship between that and the Stratfordian position (ie, that William of Stratford is the author of the plays). I shall return to the question of other authorship sceptical positions later.

Beginnings of civilised interchange – prediction of an unlikely rapprochement

The first thing I want to say is that, even though I believe it is an unequivocal defence, a decidedly subtle defence, of the Stratfordian position, whilst at no point do I get the sense that Shapiro is actually willing even to entertain the possibility that the Stratfordian position might be wrong, and whilst it is even subtly malicious in a number of ways, yet it is a highly civilised work, and an Oxfordian can read it with pleasure, as I am sure many Stratfordians can, without wincing at attitude and language as if someone were scraping a piece of chalk across a blackboard!

I am an open-minded Oxfordian, one who, recognising the uncertainties which beset us all, faced with the huge lack of information about this period, is, as it were, a Stratfordian one day out of seven, an Oxfordian only six days out of seven, and who would be prepared, in the Popperian sense, to accept a refutation of Oxfordism, if one could be made conclusive. From my point of view, then, I want to say that this is a book where the integrity of the Stratfordian position is genuinely sustained. This does not mean I have no criticisms, nor that I believe Shapiro is entirely free from cooking the books (I imagine  no one is), but I can understand the man who wrote this book truly feeling a sincere belief in what he upholds.  And I would feel able to be in the same room with Shapiro, and feel him genuinely to be a fellow enquirer into the Shakespearean saga, a scholar seeking consensus.

I deplore the tendency in the Oxfordian camp to treat the Stratfordian position as if it were sheer imbecility, regardless of how little respect is reciprocated on the other side. In that sense, Richard Whalen’s respectful review is a model of good practice. And, if it remains the case that Shapiro is in no sense an authorship sceptic, no potential subscriber to the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt

- not even one day a week! - and if it remains the case that he ultimately in the last resort regards authorship sceptics as illusionists and fantasists, to be diagnosed and understood reductively, he is nevertheless able to map the background of the evolution of beliefs in scepticism about the authorship with considerable thoroughness, with substantial freedom from personal hostility, and an evident capacity to engage imaginatively quite a long way, with those with whom he fundamentally disagrees.

If there remains a touch of the animus Pope attributes to Addison (Epistle to Arbuthnot);

'Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike;
Alike reserv'd to blame, or to commend,
A tim'rous foe, and a suspicious friend;'

and if, therefore, there remains, however graciously in style, a war going on here, yet it is a war genuinely conducted more graciously than before, - in fact it is, in my view, by light years an improvement, from our point of view, and everyone’s point of view.

There is something more than the beginnings here of a genuinely sympathetic mutual portrayal of positions and perspectives. And we owe it to both ourselves, and to Shapiro, to reciprocate. The beginnings of a peace process can never involve a complete open-mindedness to the others’ position; at best there is the beginning of a conversation. I think that here there is the beginnings of a conversation. Someone may be able to conduct themselves with respect, even if they are not entertaining ‘reasonable doubt’. It is another possibility, a pluralistic one (MacIntyre, 1990 ), and it is one I believe Shapiro occupies.

This is a very great deal. If it was the beginning of a journey which led eventually to acceptance of joint engagement in the reconstructive enterprise, alongside of the acceptance of insoluble differences, that would be something as difficult to imagine – as difficult as, perhaps, Shapiro’s construction of an imagined Oxfordian letter (pp. 230-1), written in the early 1980s! including:

Universities offering advanced degrees in authorship studies;

Supporters like Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance and others from the theater world;

Books by independent scholars and books for young adults from mainstream publishers;

High school students competing to write the best Oxfordian essay;

major articles in the Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New York Times and programs on NPR;

Moot court debates before justices from the highest courts in America and England;

Peer-reviewed Oxfordian journals;

International conferences;

Oxfordian editions of the plays for teachers of Shakespeare;

Impressive Wikipedia entries and Internet web sites that are more professional and impressive than Stratfordian sites;

And multiple discussion groups on the Internet.

His introduction of this list of elements, in a way, indeed, actually gives a kind of criterion for the seriousness of an authorship position. The Oxfordian movement is currently in the process of achieving this. There are some hints of it also in the Marlovian movement. The drive towards accurate academic scholarship, and a repeatedly disturbing irony in Shapiro’s own work, is illustrated by the fact that the discovery of the inauthenticity of the saga of Cowell’s address to the Ipswich Philosophical Society in 1805, for which Shapiro takes credit at the start of this book, was anticipated by John Rollett, the Oxfordian:

and Shapiro has not recognised this, though he mentions the role of Daniel Wright in his Bibliographical Essay, which is effectively an appendix.

So when he is busy dramatising the duplicity in the ostensible inauguration of the authorship questioning tradition, he himself is lax in giving academic credit to his opponents. In achieving overview, the development of university departments of authorship studies is a major way forward in this, as is the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition.

Oxfordians must be in dialogue with other authorship positions, who adhere to serious rational academic criteria, including with open-minded Stratfordians.

And this is actually a conversation which begins to bring into view the fundamental differences in position and perspective. This too is a gain. And then we might imagine we could go straight away to address differences, appeal to evidence, and so on.

Emergence of the differences and different fundamental assumptions

But this is where we come to a halt! This is where the divergences between us become pronounced, because they are based upon different fundamental assumptions. And at this point I must declare my own bias.

There is, to be sure, not ONE Oxfordian position, any more than there is a single Stratfordian position, but tactically, the requirement for unity in the challenger is greater than that upon the incumbant. It is a measure of the Oxfordian success at the present time that part of the purpose and rationale of Shapiro’s book is an implicit demand or appeal in it for unity of assumption, and the discipline of unity, on the part of Stratfordians! But therefore I can only argue the case as I myself see it; other Oxfordians may well see it differently.

My bias, my view of the case, is that it is not just about disagreements about evidence, but that disagreements based on evidence are inextricably entangled with differences about world view and attitude, which result in differences in how we see the Shakespeare problem. Latent in this argument is the argument between something like a default empiricism or positivism, and an articulation of the sense of the organic unity in experience and the use of language (c.f., also, Linda Theil,, which in England we first associate with the name of Coleridge, and which Shapiro misunderstands as mere individualism.

And I believe that there is nothing neat or symmetrical about how this maps on to how we address evidence.

Shapiro against the biographical assumption

And my sense of it is that Shapiro is caught in a basic contradiction, as follows. He sets out to diagnose the assumption that both many Stratfordians, and Oxfordians, are caught in, the fundamental theme of his book, namely the biographical assumption that Shakespeare’s works reflect his life. And he does this on the presumption that his own position is neutral, is correct, is ‘how it is’, and is not an assumption, and so that he can then ‘diagnose’ the creators and supporters of alternative authorship narratives.

But, in reality, it is an assumption, also, one which mirrors the one he rejects, and which he oversimplifies to something two-dimensional. It does not seem to cross his mind that the relation between the position he espouses, and the oversimplified one which he opposes, may be dialectical, that, in JL Austin’s words, the positions take in each others’ washing, that his position also, inevitably, is caught in the great movement of consciousness to which he appeals, and is in fact an expression of the parallel and corollary developments of empiricism and utilitarianism, as I shall suggest below(c.f., Leavis and Mill, 1950, ).

The result is that, despite his great intelligence and common sense, he ends up with a too extreme version of the anti-biographical position, which, then, he has, in the end, to water down:

'Even if Shakespeare occasionally drew in his poems and plays on personal experiences, and I don’t doubt that he did, I don’t see how anyone can know with any confidence if or when or where he does so. Surely he was too accomplished a writer to recycle them in the often clumsy and undigested way that critics in search of autobiographical traces – advocates and sceptics of his authorship alike – would have us believe. Because of that, and because we know almost nothing about his personal experiences, those moments in his work which build on what he may have felt remain invisible to us, and were probably only slightly more visible to those who knew him well. (p. 305)'

This rests on the contingent fact that we know so little about William of Stratford; if we knew more about whoever is the author it would be different, as with numerous writers where we can delicately and skilfully and non-reductively relate life to work. This is conceded implicitly in the words: ‘recycle them in the often clumsy and undigested way that critics in search of autobiographical traces….would have us believe’, This holds out the possibility that it could be done in a non ‘clumsy and undigested way’. And to assume that this lack of knowledge has to be the case with Shakespeare, is of course to argue in a circle.

Or else it rests on the assumption that such a model simply does not apply in Elizabethan times, something to which I shall come.

So, he attacks a version of the biographical assumption which, though certainly held in its crude form by some Oxfordians, is a caricature of the potential of the position, so that he has not articulated and attacked the strongest version of his opponents’ position, which is what it is always advisable to do.

And the more extreme version of his own position – Shakespeare as Soap Opera Team-Writer – brings in a political-historical dimension, which opens up the tacit political-historical assumption of his position, despite its nod to post-modernism (p. 79). It is perhaps a version of a ‘democratic people’s history’ type of collectivism, which would be the modern version of the old Whig Interpretation of History, which is today, following the demise of Marxism as a major world-interpretation, alive and well, and resurrected (e.g., Fukayama, The End of History and the Last Man, 1992 ).

The Team-Player argument is an extreme social model opposed to an extreme individualist model. Not just the latter, as he argues; both are post-Romantic positions. Indeed, it is very hard to imagine a position which will not be post-Romantic. How can any of us get behind or underneath our own world views? At best we can explore comparisons between our different stereotypes, and it is likely that some version of all the elements we can project into the past will be found here and there, even if embryonically. But the individualism he attacks is really a straw man and a dumbing down of the core insight of Romanticism, as we shall see.

‘Even if Shakespeare occasionally drew in his poems and plays on personal experiences ….I don’t see how anyone can know with any confidence if or when or where he does so.’ Well, how do we know this in any great writer? Sometimes we do, and not only when they tell us (they can always lie), but by cross-correlation between life and work, drawing upon a general knowledge of human nature.

This becomes more tenuous the further any writer is from us, and the less we know of their life. But it is not ruled out a priori, whilst the hint here offered that Shakespeare actually concealed the autobiographical elements is intriguingly similar to the Oxfordian claim, (It also parallels TS Eliot’s remarks about himself, which Shapiro quotes approvingly, p. 305.)  Concealment of linkages is not absence of linkages. Here there is (one of several inadvertent allusions in which an Oxfordian finds a further meaning) an ironic hint of concealments, to which an Oxfordian will be profoundly attuned and alert (c.f., my The Muse as Therapist, chapter 4 ).

Communal collaborative activity: Shakespeare’s relation to the people

We have models of communal activity from many cultures, and the nearest to the development of writers’ collaboration in the Elizabethan theatre is a Guild conception, which of course is the presence in Elizabethan and Jacobean times of the, (by Shapiro denounced in the case of JT Looney), powerful Feudal element, going back to the Mystery Plays of the Middle Ages (c.f., EK Chambers, English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, 1945). We have residual glimpses of something similar in the remaining traditional monastic orders, such as the Tibetan, or in the training of the Geishas, or of the performers of Japanese Noh Drama.

And, to be sure, there is not a great deal of respect for the ‘collaborative life’ of the itinerant actor troup in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is blatantly viewed from ‘Court Side’, even in its private activities. Bottom, to be sure, leaps out into a natural aristocracy of his own! I shall return to Shapiro’s problematic reading of that episode shortly. But the ‘common people in the plays’ Shapiro appeals to (p. 197) against Looney’s Feudal concept,

the Fool in King Lear, Feste, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Adam in As You Like It, even Falstaff’s followers, are all people who would have been known, and are presented, in profoundly Feudal relationships.

It seems to me, then, that Shapiro’s stance, with its simplistic individual/social antithesis, which is the standard post-Utilitarianism concept (c.f., Leavis and Mill, 1950 ), embodies a simply 20/21st Century shallowness, and a loss of the sense of what was in the world in the 16/17th Century world experience, a profound‘dissociation of sensibility’, indeed, in Eliot’s now maligned concept (c.f., e.g., Kermode, 1957 ). I shall gradually develop this point, which is a literary critical point, in what follows.

Blinkered Stratfordian reading

To begin with, the loss of a capacity for fine grain, historically informed, reading seems to go with this. Examples which are clear cut bode ill for his implicit view of instances he does not explore. Thus, he alludes to the famous verse letter from FB (Francis Beaumont) to BJ (Ben Jonson):

'In it Beaumont alludes to several playwrights, including in passing their mutual rival Shakespeare. The letter was only discovered in 1921 and is less well known than it ought to be:

Here I would let slip

(If I had any in me) scholarship,

And from all learning keep these lines as clear

As Shakespeare’s best are, which our heirs shall hear

Preachers apt to their auditors to show

How far sometimes a mortal man may go

By the dim light of Nature.

Beaumont flatters both Jonson and himself by introducing Shakespeare as the great anomaly: an exemplary poet of Nature, one who exemplifies how far a writer can go, lacking sufficient learning and scholarship. (p. 271)'

But, as Ogburn points out when discussing this passage of Beaumont’s, this is the standard Stratfordian misreading of the passage, (paralleling that of the reference to the ‘Upstart Crowe’ in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit), a misreading which, here, in fact, is itself predicted in just this passage in question. It says that Shakespeare’s best lines, the ones where he reaches that perfect simplicity that so moves us, not Shakespeare’s lines as such, - which are, notoriously, often tangled, and full of classical and other allusion, - are the ones which are free of all learning, and that our heirs shall hear, purely in their own terms and expectations (‘preachers apt to their auditors’), that which they are designed and set up to hear, and only capable of hearing, namely, in Shapiro’s words, ‘one who exemplifies how far a writer can go, lacking sufficient learning and scholarship’. But Shakespeare’s lines as such are not clear of learning.

The deceptive feint of ‘pure nature’ here correlates precisely with the deceptive conditional (misread from Samuel Johnson onwards) of Ben Jonson’s First Folio panegyric poem

'Though thou hadst small Latin and lesse Greek…'

which is parallel to the Kipling Road to Mandalay passage:

'I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,
An' the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but wot do they understand?'

Kipling does not mean I DO walk with fifty housemaids!

And then Jonson most emphatically and deliberately offsets it later with:

'Yet must I not give Nature all: thy art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
For though the poet's matter nature be,
His art doth give the fashion; and, that he
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses' anvil; turn the same
(And himself with it) that he thinks to frame,
Or, for the laurel, he may gain a scorn;
For a good poet's made, as well as born;
And such wert thou. Look how the father's face
Lives in his issue, even so the race
Of Shakespeare's mind and manners brightly shines
In his well-turned, and true-filed lines;
In each of which he seems to shake a lance,
As brandish'd at the eyes of ignorance.'

When William Empson wrote Seven Types of Ambiguity , and when Eliot coined the concept of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’,

in the review of Grierson’s edition of The Metaphysical Poets, it was massively and pre-eminently the Elizabethan/Jacobean epoch, and Shakespearean poetry, they had in mind! Sometimes one forgets it is not only Oxfordians who have seen the massive ambiguities and multiplicity of cross-referencing in the writings of this epoch!

Another lack of nuance is found when Shapiro is discussing his bête noire, Edmund Malone’s, failure to envisage a teamwork approach, in refusing to acknowledge the significance of Henslowe’s diary, which Malone concealed:

'A great opportunity was lost. Malone should have known better about collaboration. In fact, he was actively engaged at just this time in an intense collaborative writing project, helping Boswell write and revise his Life of Johnson, busily refining the prose, altering the tone, eliminating Scotticisms and so on, going back and forth on a daily basis, in close company with his needy friend. Yet he somehow couldn’t imagine Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton working closely like this on Timon of Athens or Shakespeare actively collaborating with Fletcher on Henry the Eighth and The Two Noble Kinsmen. (p. 68)'

Here Shapiro’s democratic egalitarian bias is highly apparent. What in fact we know about the Boswell/Malone collaboration is that Boswell was the wayward genius, and Malone the sub-editor, and man manager, the midwife who brought this wayward genius charge to the point of delivery. Vast tracts of Boswell’s Journals,

with their creative-dramatic recording of Johnson’s and others’s conversation, are taken over in the Life of Johnson almost unaltered; Malone’s work was very much cutting and pasting, and a degree of cautious censorship, plus keeping the increasingly alcoholic Boswell going, humanly speaking.

So this Malone/Boswell collaboration in reality reflects what we would conjecture of Shakespeare’s, where Shakespearean passages in the mature plays are unmistakable, as Shapiro in fact admits. And Boswell worked over with Malone already drafted work, mostly drafted long before, when he wrote his journals, which would certainly parallel the envisaged situation on the assumption of Oxford as the author.

What this communalist model achieves for Stratfordians

The actual core purpose of this model of collaboration is, of course, to convince us that Shakespeare the dramatist was alive and working after 1604, when Oxford died. If the team player model can be established, it dishes the idea that Shakespeare himself fell silent in 1604.

Curiously enough, Shapiro has Shakespeare ceasing to act after 1605, another of the places where Oxfordians will, deconstructively, see the veiled contours of the Oxfordian narrative through his inferences, a key concession concerning the one annotated in Richard Hunt’s copy of Camden’s Brittania as ‘our Roscius’ (Shapiro, pp. 275-6, Roscius being an actor, not a writer). And in the same passage he acknowledges that we know very little about this Elizabethan/Jacobean team player concept, which is, in the Ben Jonson allusion, fairly clearly a Guild concept:

'One of the great challenges, then, to anyone interested in the subject is that we know so little about how dramatists at the time worked together. We just know – primarily from Philip Henslowe’s accounts of theatrical productions from 1591 to 1604 – that they did, and that in the companies that performed in his playhouses, it was the norm, not the exception. But it is risky to extrapolate too much from that evidence how Shakespeare himself worked [my italics]. And it seems obvious that collaborations during his early years were significantly different from those after 1605 or so, when he seemed to have resumed the practice after a long hiatus (perhaps best explained by the fact that he was no longer acting, so had both mornings and afternoons now free to engage in more sustained collaborations). We don’t even have an adequate language to describe co-authorship (‘collaboration’ still carries a whiff of co-operating with the enemy). Writers at the time aren’t much help either, even Ben Jonson, a veteran collaborator, who boasts in the Preface of his Volpone how he wrote the play by himself in only five weeks:

..fully penned it

From his own hand, without a coadjutor,

Novice, journeyman, or tutor.

While we don’t know precisely what each of these terms means, it seems pretty clear that there was a pecking order, based on experience, among writers who worked together. (pp. 291-2)'

But the team player model has no bearing whatsoever on the individuality of Shakespeare’s style and way of writing, other than in respect of his grasp of acting, because Shapiro has already conceded Shakespeare’s unique style – otherwise of course the very proofs themselves, stylistically, of collaboration would go nowhere.

So the only question left is, whether there are recognisable autobiographical elements, and whether this was a question which can legitimately be raised about an Elizabethan/Jacobean playwright?

Limitations of Shapiro’s concept of ‘biographical’ art

And this then brings us to the whole question of anachronism of biographical/autobiographical inference, which is the heart of Shapiro’s case, since he concedes all down the line, and in fact makes a virtue of, the lack of match between life and work, and he says this alone releases us to appreciate Shakespeare’s power of imagination.

In this way he rules out, for the most part, a dialectical conception of imagination, one like that which enables us to envisage the enormous creativity, and artistic shaping power, of, for instance, Wagner’s Ring as forged out of transformations of his life experiences and life preoccupations, but not merely autobiographical.

Now Shapiro is telling us – with the apparently minor, but in fact crucial, reservation in the above quoted passage from p. 305 – that this is an anachronism.

We Oxfordians must concede that here Shapiro has got at the heart of the problem, and of the real reason (not snobbery) for the Oxfordian attribution.

But his conception of the implicit basis of this is predicated on the simplistic individual/social antithesis which is the outcome of the secular shift towards empiricism and utilitarianism (on the basis of which he interprets Romantic individualism). With this goes the loss of the organic conception of literature implicit in the Shakespearean development of language (Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’), and first articulated by Romanticism, especially Coleridge and Keats. This is the complexity which he has inadvertently air-brushed out of the picture.

‘Contested Will’ gives us a feeling of having encountered a ghost. Just occasionally, behind his ‘Team Shakespeare’ concept, and his dismissals of the post-Romantic ‘individual psychology’ Shakespeare, there is a glimpse of the great Shakespeare, the Shakespeare who is the faultline, in his works, of the conflicts of the Tudor and Jacobean periods, the mighty Shakespeare (Keats’s ‘miserable and Mighty poet of the human heart’, Letters, Ed. Forman, p. 347), about whom G Wilson Knight, in The Wheel of Fire, and DH Lawrence in the Chapter The Theatre, in Twilight in Italy

and John Middleton Murry, in Keats and Shakespeare, Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, and Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, - themselves the successors of Johnson, Coleridge, and Keats, - are writing. Ironically, we get the  strongest sense, in Shapiro, of that Shakespeare, when he is writing about JT Looney’s introduction of the Oxfordian hypothesis in ‘Shakespeare’ Identified in 1920, despite his going to town on Looney’s Comtean Positivism Church of Humanity lineage, with its insinuation that Looney was not politically correct, with his Feudalist leanings, maybe even a touch sympathetic to Hitler (pp. 205-6).

There is a rather touching and haunting passage, though characteristically ambivalently located where he is writing about Percy Allen’s endeavours, quite common at the time (William James and Freud were members of the Society for Psychical Research), but embarrassing now for Oxfordians, to ascertain who wrote the plays by consulting the medium Hester Dowden, and so to have conversations with Oxford, Bacon, and Shakespeare in this way (it was indeed revealed as a ‘team effort’!):

'It’s easy to mock Allen’s approach, but in truth, communicating with the dead is what we all do, or try to do, every time we pick up a volume of Milton or Virgil or Dickens – all of whom achieve a kind of immortality by speaking to us from beyond the grave. Every literature professor is in the business of speaking with the dead – though few have been as honest about it as Stephen Greenblatt, whose influential Shakespearean Negotiations opens with the famous confession: ‘I began with the desire to speak with the dead,’ then argues for the universality of this desire, ‘a familiar, if unvoiced, motive in literary studies, buried beneath thick layers of bureaucratic decorum: literature professors are salaried, middle class, shamans’. While brilliantly anatomising this desire to speak with the dead, Greenblatt acknowledges that the conversation is necessarily one way (as he puts it, ‘all I could hear was my own voice’).

But when Percy Allen spoke with the dead, the dead spoke back.'

But if the dead do not speak to Greenblatt and Shapiro, or any of us, we are out of a job, if we are professors. Are Greenblatt and Shapiro perchance fringing over into the post-modern ‘death of the author’ position, misunderstood as that may be?

Shapiro’s Shakespeare is mostly as silent and ordinary as the homely living room chairs and tables the morning after a séance!

His is a Shakespeare seen, analogously to how, Nietzsche argues, in The Birth of Tragedy, Greek Tragedy was seen subsequent to the rationalism of Socrates, through Enlightenment, Utilitarian, and Whig Interpretation eyes. Looney was endeavouring, in relation to Shakespeare, what Nietzsche, Gilbert Murray, and TS Eliot attempted in relation to Greek Tragedy, the restoration of the sense of the pre-bourgeois dimension, of which also Marx had so fine a sense, in his comments on Shakespeare here and there:

Who is taking out of context?

Shapiro accuses Looney of taking Ulysses’ speech on degree, in Troilus and Cressida, out of context:

'O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?'

Shapiro says:

'Lifting these words out of context, and italicising the lines that highlight his hierarchical views, Looney ignores how wily Ulysses mouths these pieties to manipulate his superior, the buffoonish Agamemnon, who has ample reason to hear degree and ‘due of birth’ defended so aggressively.'

Yet statesmen often say what they believe – and nevertheless pitch it to a context where it is used for Machiavellian purposes! It is hard for me to imagine how anyone could fail to take seriously the Feudal-Heirarchical element in Shakespeare. This is the background against which Shakespeare explores the failures, precisely, of that world and its arrogance, yet even more vehemently opposes the upstart values, as he sees it, of the emerging bourgeois capitalist dispensation.

'Get thee glass eyes, and, like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not.' (King Lear, Act 4, sc. vi)

The faultline is that Shakespeare is both Feudal – AND a modern even post-modern man, as modern as Montaigne and Descartes, and is torn apart by it, as Lawrence evokes in the Theatre chapter in Twilight in Italy (see above). The plays are the incessant dramatisation, from a thousand mercurial perspectives, of those titanic conflicts. “I am Richard II, know ye not that?” said Queen Elizabeth of the playing of Richard II, in the lead up to the Essex Rebellion, Richard II, in which the ‘divine right’ of Kings is emphasised in spades (as also it is mulled over again and again by Bolingbroke and Henry V, in the plays which follow). And of course the three greatest tragedies, Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear are all about the murder or abdication of monarchs. This playwright is totally obsessed with this issue, visits it again and again and again, in play after play after play. And it is embodied with the greatest vividness, in incomparable language, by characters like Claudius, who have themselves violated it, or failed it. This is not a private nuance of biographical interpretion. It is in the public realm, in play after play.

It does not suit Shapiro to recognise it, or to treat it as a theme the playwright identifies with personally.

Yet, when it does suit him, he is inconsistent with his own principles of interpretation, when he is writing about imagination, right at the end of the final chapter of his book. This whole passage unveils the central confusion of Shapiro’s book, and I shall explore its substance, to end my essay.

Here there is definitely no problem in reading universal, and personally Shakespearean, insight into a character whose appeal to it in context is merely sceptical and personal:

'Fittingly, it’s the character most sceptical about the power of imagination, Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to whom Shakespeare assigned its most memorable definition:

I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear! (5, i, 2-20)

One of the great pleasures of this speech is that Theseus is himself an ‘antique fable’. Along with lovers and lunatics, writers share a heightened capacity to imagine the ‘forms of things unknown’. But only writers can turn them ‘to shapes’ and give ‘to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name’. Its hard to imagine a better definition of the mystery of literary creation. Not long after delivering this speech, Theseus watches a play performed by Bottom and the other rude mechanicals and finds himself transformed by the experience. His reaction to their play ranks among the most wonderful speeches in Shakespeare: ‘The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.’ His captive bride-to-be Hyppolyta is quick to remind him, as well as us: ‘It must be your imagination then, and not theirs.’ (5.i.210-12)'

Riding blithely over the context of these speeches, which run alongside an incessant courtly ridiculing and mockery of the actors (‘This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard’, is Hyppolyta’s remark which leads to the ‘wonderful speech’ of Theseus Shapiro quotes), who have been chosen, among other less specific options, instead of Spenser’s Teares of the Muses (1591), which is teased as something obviously familiar to the audience

' 'The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
Of Learning, late deceased in beggary.'
That is some satire, keen and critical,
Not sorting with a nuptial ceremony.'

The Teares of the Muses

which includes the lament by Thalia of:

‘And, he, the man whom Nature self had made

To mock herself and truth to imitate

With kindly counter under mimic shade

Our pleasant Willy ah! is dead of late…'

Shapiro goes on:

When I first explored the idea of writing this book some years ago, a friend unnerved me by asking: ‘What difference does it make who wrote the plays?’ The reflexive answer I offered in response is now much clearer to me: ‘A lot.’ It makes a difference as to how we imagine the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote. It makes an even greater difference as to how we understand how much has changed from early modern to modern times. But the greatest difference of all concerns how we read the plays. We can believe that Shakespeare himself thought that poets could give to ‘airy nothing’ a ‘local habitation and a name’. Or we can conclude that this ‘airy nothing’ turns out to be a disguised something that needs to be decoded, and that Shakespeare couldn’t imagine ‘the forms of things unknown’ without having experienced them first hand. It’s a stark and consequential choice.'

The wider context of all this is the Dream as a whole. Once more, Shapiro’s neglect of contextual reading is astonishing. Bottom interprets what has actually happened to him (which is arguably a parody of Venus and Adonis) as a dream (end of Act 4, sc. i. ). The lovers cannot account for what has happened to them, but we know it is due to the machinations of some decidedly incompetent, and very wilful, fairies. Theseus, therefore, is reacting to the context with a firmly reductive explanation, one that we, the plays watchers, know to be false. Of course, it remains true that something very profound about the genesis of creation in its relation to inchoate formlessness is being said, even so, in the lines:

'And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.'

But now mark the marvellous irony of the twist this takes! Shapiro himself, at the very culmination of his book, is taking these lines to mean that we cannot infer anything about the author from the works, artistic creation does not work like that, artistic creation is, in Susanne Langer’s masterly exposition of the most developed version of this concept, a ‘primary illusion’, which she develops in the context of poetry as follows:

'Since every poem that is successful enough to merit the name of ‘poetry’ – regardless of style or category – is a non-discursive symbolic form, it stands to reason that the laws which govern the making of poetry are not those of discursive logic. They are ‘laws of thought’ as truly as the principles of reasoning are; but they never apply to scientific or pseudo-scientific (practical) reasoning. They are, in fact, the laws of imagination. As such they extend over all the arts, but literature is the field where their differences from discursive logic become most sharply apparent, because the artist who uses them is using linguistic forms, and thereby the laws of discourse, at the same time, on another semantic level. This has led critics to treat poetry indiscriminately as both art and discourse. The fact that something seems to be asserted leads them astray into a curious study of ‘what the poet says’, or, if only a fragment of assertion is used or the semblance of propositional thought is not even quite complete, into speculations on ‘what the poet is trying to say’. The fact is, I think, that they do not recognize the real process of poetic creation because the laws of imagination, little known anyway, are obscured for them by the laws of discourse. Verbal statement is obvious, and hides the characteristic forms of verbal figment. So, while they speak of poetry as ‘creation’, they treat, it by turns, as report, exclamation, and purely phonetic arabesque.' (Langer, Feeling and Form, 1953, p. 234)

But Shapiro is reporting this denial of the factuality of artistic utterance as itself a belief of the author’s, embodied in a character, despite, furthermore, the fact that the character’s own temperament and context of utterance, his own being given ‘a local habitation and a name’, in the imaginative realm of the play, is admitted by Shapiro himself to be one which is sceptical and reductive.

Shapiro here completely violates his own criterion, without noticing he does. There is here a double self-undermining of his own claim. Furthermore, none of the rest of us would quibble with his extracting something to the purpose from this context in this way, since we do not operate with the neat antithesis of life and work which Shapiro is postulating, but which he is most emphatically simultaneously disregarding here!

The contradiction Shapiro is caught in, here, is the consequence of his failure to grasp the wonderful organic reflexivity, and characteristically multilayered Shakespearean loop within loop, in which dissolves the dichotomy between individual and social, author and work, and many other similar dualistic dichotomies, which only become named and articulated, when the organically interrelated world, with all its faultlines co-existing in parallel, from which they emerged, has become incurably broken up into parts, of which romantic individualism, and empiricist social positivism, are two of the most prominent, and which emerged into explicitness together.

In so interpreting, he is disregarding his own ostensible thesis, and the foundation of his repudiation of a pseudonymous authorship,

If we do not operate with his own, disregarded by himself, Draconian model, can anything of his position be salvaged?

Clearly, in a literary work, the author cannot be considered as absent from the very meanings of the sentences he writes, whether or not they are his own beliefs life events or whatever, or lies, character differentiations, or fictions, etc. So when Shakespeare writes a sonnet (129) about sexuality:

'The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.'

Then, assuming that the text is accurate (line 10 is significantly edited and revised from the original: ), we assume at the least that the poet knew what he meant, again, not necessarily in toto, (since further implications of a piece of writing may be hidden from the author themself), but prima facie. He knew he was here writing about sexuality! And, of course, here the either/or between ‘personal’ and ‘universal’ rather evaporates; because of the potential universality and transcendence of context of writing, of which Derrida has written so much (e.g., Limited Inc, 1988, ), it hardly makes sense to ask whether here there is an either or between the author’s own sexuality and his understanding of sexuality in general.

This would also include contemporary references; thus Shapiro refers to the claimed reference to Essex’s Ireland expedition in the Prologue to Act 5 of Henry V. Clearly it will also, on occasion, as here in Shapiro’s exposition, include beliefs or conceptions of the author’s. And it will include the general historical context; no one would question that the historical context of Shakespeare, in respect of royal succession, included the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, included the well-known behaviour of Henry VIII, included the Spanish Armada, and so on. And of course Stratfordians take it as read that there are allusions to the Gunpowder Plot in Macbeth, and to voyages after 1604 in The Tempest. This whole dimension is what Linda Theil is alluding to when she writes of the organic basis of a writer’s understanding of their own meaning in their own individual life moment ( ).

Or, as Hamlet says:

'Good my lord, will you see the players well bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used; for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time: after your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.'


'Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

Note the ‘as ‘twere’, the repudiation of a one-to-one relationship, something which would not have needed to be said at all were there simply no relationship, as Shapiro would wish.

What then is left to be excluded? It seems that Shapiro and those who think like him will here have to focus primarily on specific events and characters in an author’s own life.  And here we can happily concede that neat one-to-one makings of connections are very crude and often crass. But this does not rule out, nor can it, complex and profound relationships.

For instance, we may accept, with Shapiro, that sometimes Freud’s formulations about Oedipal issues in the author Hamlet are oversimplified, and that he normally himself, because of certain gaps in his self-analysis, misses the wider Oedipal context in his analyses, including Oedipus' own abandonment and maiming, but clearly also something very Oedipal, in Freud’s sense, is going on in Hamlet, and it would appear, even, to be as much around his relationship with the Ghost, as apparition of his father, whose injunctions he cannot fully escape, as with the much more fully discussed relationship with his uncle, upon which indeed Freud himself fastens. Here, again, Shapiro himself deals in crude either/ors, enabling him glibly to psychoanalyse the father of psychoanalysis, instead of recognising, rather, a situation of complex dialogue, and complex non-reductive deconstruction of his opponents’ positions.

Once more, this is doubly ironic, - given his repudiation of all relevance of life to work, at least in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period - that he, of all people, should simply have dealt with this whole issue in terms of reductive ad hominem psychological interpretations of the motivations of those with whom he disagrees. Here we see again, the degree to which Shapiro’s own position, and those he repudiates, as formulated by him, simply mirror one another, take in one anothers’ washing, and readily reverse, flip over, and mutate into one another.  

I think that we can take it for granted, that, if there had been the sort of systematic congruence and reciprocal (not simple one-to-one) relationship between the author’s life and the writings, which there clearly is in the cases of, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lord Byron, and Joseph Conrad, in the case of William of Stratford, this problem and this line of argument would simply not have arisen. Indeed, I think there is a case to be made, that the whole potency of the ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ (Pater, Wilde) and ‘Significant Form’ (Clive Bell), and ‘Verbal Icon’ (Wimsatt and Beardsley) movement, would never have arisen at all in Britain and America, if there had not been the huge and embarrassing discrepancy between life and work in the case of William of Stratford, putative author of Shakespeare’s works.

Shapiro’s position, in the end, taken in the context of Shakespeare’s mind and use of language, is as crude and simplistic as that of the Arden Editor of Antony and Cleopatra whom Leavis mocks;

' "Antony

Her tongue will not obey her heart, nor can

Her heart inform her tongue – the swan’s down-feather

That stands upon the swell at full of tide,

And neither way inclines."

The Arden footnote…… runs:

It is not clear whether Octavia’s heart is the swan’s down-feather, swayed neither way on the full tide of emotion at parting with her brother to accompany her husband, or whether it is the inaction of heart and tongue, on the same occasion, which is elliptically compared to that of the feather.

‘It is not clear’ – it ought to be clear; that is the implication.  The implied criterion, ‘clarity’, entails an ‘either/or’; does the image mean this or that? The reductive absurdity of the conception of language behind the criterion thus brought up is surely plain.' (Leavis, FR, The Living Principle, 1975, p. 102)

In embodying an, in many ways, ‘standard’ Oxfordian response in this essay, I too cannot ‘escape calumny’. What is the significance of this? Can I step outside myself? Can any of us? Keats writes:

'Even here though I myself am pursueing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of-I am however young writing at random-straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness-without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion. Yet may I not in this be free from sin? May there not be superior beings amused with any graceful, though instinctive attitude my mind may fall into, as I am entertained with the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer? Though a quarrel in the Streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest Man shows a grace in his quarrel-By a superior being our reasonings may take the same tone-though erroneous they may be fine-This is the very thing in which consists poetry; and if so it is not so fine a thing as philosophy-For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a truth.' (Keats, Letter to George and Georgiana Keats Feb to May 1819, op. cit., my italics)

What is significant for us Oxfordians is that Shapiro has written this book at all, regardless of specific criticisms one may make. That was an act of great courage and huge importance. As I argued earlier, Shapiro does not have to agree with us or come over to our camp, to be in dialogue. Nor do other Stratfordians. But this is a major step towards the field of literary criticism and literary history taking the authorship question seriously as a whole – whatever ones own conclusions.


Submitted by poet ape on

Have you seen the new book - The De Vere Code - by Globe actor, Jonathan Bond? It deals with the authorship of the sonnets and its brilliant. It will be very interesting to hear what Shapiro says about it. It demolishes the Stratfordian case for the sonnets using Stratfordian scholarship, and it's completely sane. Those who say that there isnt any evidence that connects Oxford to the works of Shakespeare should definitely read this book.

Mark Rylance, actor and former Artistic Director, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, says of it: “wonderfully articulate and engaging... His discoveries and conclusions regarding the authorship question are compelling... a pleasure to read”
Mark Rylance, actor and former Artistic Director, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

and Charles Beauclerk, Earl of Burford, heir of the family of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, says: “Hats off to Jonathan Bond! This is an absorbing, beautifully crafted work, which provides what no other book on Shakespeare has provided: proof of the authorship of that most mysterious volume, Shake-speares Sonnets”

You can find it at

Dear Poet-Ape
Whether or not Bond's book escapes the usual problems of cryptography, any use of cryptography in authorship is now irretrievably tainted by the Baconian use of it. This is not to say that the Elizabethans did not use all manner of codes and ambiguities. But it does mean that anyone appealing to it must be absolutely forced by the facts, because it is the least attractive form of argument today. So currently it is not a help but a hindrance to Oxfordian arguments. And to put out your same advertising message in every possible context, with the mere assertion that it's completely sane, itself potentially discredits it in my own eyes. And the idea that Shapiro will have anything to say about it borders on fantasy.

Submitted by poet ape on

Hi Howard, the use of cryptography in the Authorship debate is only discredited amongst Baconians because the arguments used have been shown to be nonsense - and by a much greater authority than Shapiro (William and Elizabeth Friedman). That isn't to discredit any other analysis of wordplay or puzzling in the works of any writers of the period if it is valid. Genuine evidence is just that, evidence, regardless of the form it takes. As someone who professes an interest, I thought you might like to know about the book as it presents new evidence, that's all.

Dear Poet-Ape
We do not just live in a glass bead world of absolute truth and evidence, but in a world of media caricaturing, which is that in which the Oxfordian case will swim or sink, quite aside from the epistemological problems of the idea of 'genuine evidence [which] is just that....regardless of the form it takes', forsooth.

Personally, if I had discovered a code I would tactically be extremely apologetic about it, diffident, as John Rollett was about his arguments, not flash it blithely round every section of the media connected with Shakespeare as if there were no problem. Charles Beauclerk's espousal of the Prince Tudor theory is an additional difficulty.

Submitted by Lynne Giles on

Heward , having read your dense critique of Shapiro's book ,which I have not read, I feel that I personally need to distance myself further from Shakespear (whoever he may be). The reason for this is because I feel he has now become a symbol for intelectual boxing, to which I find myself simply distrustful of. Lynne.

Lynne thank you for your comment, yes alas this is a very difficult matter. The least we can do is to maintain courtesy, which is why I advocate dialogue with Shapiro, even if we have criticisms, on either side. But the trouble is that Shakespeare, like Dostoievsky, though in a very different way, takes us straight into the problems of sense of identity and scapegoating, which are the faultlines at the heart of the human condition, and these matters evoke very strong reactions. I think at root the authorship conflict has become a symbol, an emblem, of those identity agonies at the heart of Shakespeare the creator:
Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o'er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp'd of justice: hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjured, and thou simular man of virtue
That art incestuous: caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practised on man's life: close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man
More sinn'd against than sinning.
Alack, bare-headed!
Gracious my lord, hard by here is a hovel;
Some friendship will it lend you 'gainst the tempest:
Repose you there; while I to this hard house--
More harder than the stones whereof 'tis raised;
Which even but now, demanding after you,
Denied me to come in--return, and force
Their scanted courtesy.
My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold?
I am cold myself. Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
That can make vile things precious. Come,
your hovel.
Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That's sorry yet for thee.'

Maybe worth a look...

Dear Poet-Ape
I'll have one more try.

Your appeal would be so much more compelling if it were not so arrogant in tone. The recognition that 'evidence' is profoundly determined by context, including the 'public realm' media context (McLuhan e.g.), is not sixth form epistemology, unless you are willing to dismiss the whole European hermeneutic tradition in philosophy (and a good deal of linguistic analysis as well), which dismissal would seem to place you in the positivist camp.

I do not dismiss code and cryptographic considerations out of hand, but given their history, and the arrogance with which they are usually presented, they are tainted, and one would be impressed if someone who works this vein were to display some real awareness of the taint. I would see that as a real effort towards dialogue; I have not yet seen any sign of it in how you have responded to my questions. On the contrary, alas.


Submitted by poet ape on

We're not talking about philosophy, though, Heward. We're talking about biography. If I asked a sixth-from student to read a work on Abraham Lincoln, and they refused on grounds relating to the epistemological issues surrounding what counted as evidence, I would guess that they were just trying to get out of their homework. I would expect them to read it first and then we could discuss epistemology. If they called me a positivist, I would give them double homework.

"I do not dismiss code and cryptographic considerations out of hand".

Yes you do, Heward. You have just done it in three posts, and the cock hasn't even crowed yet. And not because of anything other than your own prejudice against a form of evidence, and a dislike of what you consider to be "arrogance" in suggesting that you and others might be interested in a book I found convincing and interesting.

Those qualities do not commend humility in you, either, Heward. On the other hand, it is clear that you ought definitely not to read The De Vere Code. You will not enjoy it. Apologies for troubling you.

Dear Poet-Ape
You puzzle me. You seem to want to advertise Bond's book and it does get sent everywhere - Oliver Kamm said it had certainly turned up at the Times offices.

I respond with a comment indicating my doubts about your strategy. So I am obviously willing to engage in some sort of dialogue with you, and since then I have written three more posts to you. I am someone with a bit of credit in Oxfordian and some other circles. I know a good deal about literature and philosophy, and I am heard as a voice worth listening to in several contexts and spheres of discourse.*...

I know something about 'wider context', and its bearing on texts, which was the point I was making, and which you have dismissed as irrelevant, with contempt.

For your language to me is that of a schoolteacher rebuking an impertinent student. Additionally you, without evidence, interpret my beliefs about cryptography. Why do you do this? Do you actually actively want to alienate anyone who might read the book? But, in that case, why is it advertised far and wide?

I can only view this, then, as not being a serious attempt to persuade, or to reason, but simply to treat anyone who does not agree with you as not worth your attention. Why so, its for you to explain.

I repeat, I have given serious consideration to getting this book (I cannot afford many books, or so to buy books which are not of substance), if I read enough about it from people whose judgement I respect to persuade me that it is serious, and not the usual blind alley of bad cryptographical argument which is so familiar in this field. So far, I have not found such material, and your tactics have been so dogmatic, and dismissive, that I am heading in the other direction. They are a kind of test case for it.

Which may possibly be unfair to the book, but your graceless responses are not a good advertisement for it.