Shapiro's Contested Will - Whalen's review

Fri, 19/03/2010 - 22:22 -- Heward Wilkinson

There is a superb review of James Shapiro's book on the Shakespeare Authorship question - in many ways the first by a Stratfordian that takes the issue at all seriously - 'Contested Will' on the Shakespeare-Oxford Society blog site:

Here also is a fairly standard type review - in the Sunday Times:

I wrote the following comment on it - which also connects with the Movement of Civilisation in the West thread:

What a splendid and judicious review, in its tone and in its strategy!

I want to comment on one dimension of it, which is the one I pursue in the chapter in my own book which addresses the authorship question

This is the role of biography in relation to the works. I am not a scholar of any period but I do know some things fairly well, and I want to relate Malone's focus on the biographical element in his editorship of Shakespeare to his other major role, which was that of assisting James Boswell (whose son was also a Shakespeare editor) to put together and complete The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D . Along with Rousseau's Confessions, which Johnson actually read, Boswell's great Life is one of the major elements in the emergence of the Romantic period's focus on the subjective, and upon what we would now call personal psychology. Of course nowadays this has gone quite mad and I can understand the revulsion from it in many ways.

Nevertheless it has and had been an emergent trend for too long to be dismissed and as literary critics we Oxfordians need to be emphasising this. Soon after Boswell's Life came Wordsworth and Coleridge, Wordsworth's Prelude is written in its first form by 1805, and in Germany Hegel's amazing introduction, which paved the way to psychoanalysis, in The Phenomenology of Spirit, of a systematic account of how the structure of consciousness is intrinsically affected by our internalised relation to the 'other', the human other, and not merely by the epistemology of the relation to the physical world of perception and causality. In Mozart and Beethoven the psychologisation of music is proceeding apace. And so on and on. Malone had sight of Boswell's amazing autobiographical journals the extraordinary genius of which only became available to us in the 20th century. And Boswell was bringing his biographical genius to bear on probably the greatest English literary mind of the 18th century, Johnson, via Johnson's conversation, which he had himself 'internalised' beyond any subsequent recorder of conversation, apart from the great novelists. Malone therefore had an unparalleled insight at the closest quarters of and into the working of genius, two geniuses, (because Boswell was a genius), only comparable to Coleridge's insight into the creation of The Prelude, Cosima Wagner's commentary on Wagner's creative life in her Diaries, and Proust's account of his own creativity in A la Recherche.

But this did not come out of the blue. It was at work in the 18th century and before. Johnson's own account of Shakespeare is utterly realistic - Shakespeare as realist novelist in effect.

"Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species."


"Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion: Even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue is level with life. Other writers disguise the most natural passions and most frequent incidents: so that he who contemplates them in the book will not know them in the world: Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were possible, its effects would be probably such as he has assigned; and it may be said, that he has not only shewn human nature as it acts in real exigences, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed. This therefore is the praise of Shakespeare, that his drama is the mirrour of life; that he who has mazed his imagination, in following the phantoms which other writers raise up before him, may here be cured of his delirious extasies, by reading human sentiments in human language; by scenes from which a hermit may estimate the transactions of the world, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions."

But Johnson in turn is avowedly building on his awareness of the growth of consciousness in the 150 years from Shakespeare. And Shakespeare, like Montaigne, Descartes, and Donne, is part of that growth of human reflective consciousness, he CREATES it. Hence the title of the great work of that staunch Stratfordian Harold Bloom:

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

which points to Hamlet and Falstaff in particular in this regard.

In other words, though it may well be true that Homer and the author of The Book of Job are not doing anything straightforwardly biographical, Shakespeare is. This does not mean a simplistic one-to-one relation between life and work, or that we can ignore ALL the post-modern insights as to the complexity of the authorial identity - a fortiori with a pseudonymous author! The relationship is hugely complex. But there is one - and we know it when we find it. And to imagine we can simply by-pass this is to try to override four centuries of the development of consciousness (though many many do try to do this - and the 'art for arts sake' type movement is the inverted version of Gradgrind positivism, both of which are in the background of the Stratfordian position)!