But high schoolers aren't the only ones susceptible to Shakespeare conspiracies. As Shapiro notes in his prologue, "I can think of little else that unites Henry James and Malcolm X, Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller and Orson Welles, or Mark Twain and Sir Derek Jacobi." Contested Will is a history of Shakespeare conspiracy theories, focusing on the two most popular historical candidates: Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. These are not the only candidates, of course, and if you go see the new Jim Jarmusch film Only Lovers Left Alive you'll find a centuries-old vampire Christopher Marlowe who claims to have written Shakespeare's plays. But most of the critical energy of anti-Stratfordians, as they're known, has focused on these candidates, with de Vere only surpassing Bacon as the preferred candidate in the middle of the 20th century.
An anti-Stratfordian might disagree, but for the most part, Shapiro's book is incredibly even-handed. He treats his subjects with deference and respect (for the most part), detailing the personal and critical histories that spurred these movements. One of the things he points out is that Shakespeare did not live in an "age of memoir," as we do; this is one reason that an author like Mark Twain, who claimed that everything he wrote was autobiographical in one way or another, found it difficult to believe that the plays could have been written by a relatively impoverished glover's son from the English backwaters. But the book is best when it can't resist taking a swipe at the anti-Stratfordians, as when Shapiro discusses the attempts of Orville Ward Owen and Elizabeth Wells Gallup's attempt to uncover a hidden code attributing the plays to Bacon:
Prescott's account of Gallup piecing together names from a string of letters recalls nothing so much as the scene in Twelfth Night in which Malvolio is spied on as he decodes an unsigned letter with its cryptic message "M.O.A.I. doth sway my heart." Malvolio gets off to a promising start--"'M.' Malvolio. 'M'--why that begins my name." But he runs into trouble when he sees that "there is no consonancy in the sequel," since "'A' should follow, but 'O' does." Malvolio, the patron siant of hopeful decipherers, resolves the matter in his ow nfavor by fiddlign with the anagram: "yet to crush this a little, it would bow to me," for "every one of these letters are in my name." The first decoder of Shakespeare's words, Malvolio would not be the last to crush an anagram to fit the name he so badly wanted to find.
Shapiro saves a final chapter for outlining the case for Shakespeare's authorship of the plays. The clearest evidence, he notes, is "first what early printed texts reveal; the second, what writers who knew Shakespeare said about him." In other words, Shakespeare's plays were attributed to Shakespeare when they came out, and no one thought to claim otherwise until the 19th century. He also makes an argument I hadn't thought of before, describing the progression of his writing career, which was radically different in its final years, challenging the kind of creative dating required to make the events of the plays fit into the schematics of Baconians and Oxfordians. (de Vere, for one, died twelve years before Shakespeare, so that one takes some work.)
Shapiro is committed to making a rational case, and so avoids from too much invective, but I'll add what I see beneath his history: the case for noble authorship rests on a kind of half-subtle classism that rejects the idea that a man from humble beginnings could be a literary genius. The subtext of Baconianism and Oxfordianism is that the breadth and imagination of Shakespeare's plays could only be achieved by someone with status and money. As such, I think those who doubt Shakespeare's authenticity often say more about themselves than they do about Shakespeare.
There are a couple final points that Contested Will makes that I had never considered: First, that Shakespeare scholars, with their recent obsession over the playwright's life and how it affected his work plays into the hands of the conspiratorially minded: "[R]efusing to acknowledge that they have been doing similar things in their own books--even if their topical readings are far less fanciful and the author whose life they read out of the works is the one named on the title pages--rightly infuriates those who don't believe that Shakespeare of Stratford had the life experiences to write the plays. I was left wondering whether Shakespare scholars ignore their adversaries (when not vilifying them) because they share with them more unspoken assumptions about the intersection of life and literature than they care to admit--and, indeed, were the first to profess." Et tu, Stephen Greenblatt.
The second I'll leave quoted by itself, since I think it's the most persuasive and prudent reaction to the conspiracy theorists:
What I find most disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes hims so exceptional: his imagination. As an aspiring actor, Shakespeare must have displayed a talent for imagining himself as any number of characters onstage. When he turned to writing, he demonstrated an even more powerful imaginative capacity, one that allowed him to create roles of such depth and complexity--Rosalind, Hamlet, Lear, Juliet, Timon, Brutus, Leontes, and Cleopatra, along with hundreds of others, great and small--that even the least of them, four centuries later, seem fully human and distinctive.