Shakespeare: Long Contested and Still Emerging

October 13, 2011

James Shapiro, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? London: Faber and Faber, 2010.

Darryl Chalk and Laurie Johnson (eds.), “Rapt in Secret Studies”: Emerging Shakespeares, Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? belongs to a rare category of academic book. It is rigorous, consistent, and fully in command both of its evidence and arguments. Contested Will is also fair-minded to opponents, self-critical in a highly partisan intellectual field, and beautifully written, with a powerful narrative drive. In fluent and accessible prose refreshingly free of jargon, Contested Will scrutinises a thesis largely ignored or wished away by other Shakespeare scholars: the claim that the glover’s son from Stratford did not write the poems and plays ascribed to Shakespeare. In the process of assessing and dismissing the rival claims to Shakespeare, Contested Will draws critical attention to the errors of Shakespeareans themselves, highlighting mistakes that opened the way for the misinterpretation, or outright denial, of Shakespeare.

Surveying the crowded field of rivals to the mantle of being the real Shakespeare that has accumulated over the past two hundred years, Shapiro notes the diverse and evolving list of candidates. This field has dramatically increased in the last century and is unlikely to abate now that pet theories have gone viral on the internet and Wikipedia trumpets the claims of alternatives to the man from Stratford. These candidates include Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, Fulke Greville, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Derby, and even Queen Elizabeth I. But the two favorites remain Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford. It is these two claims for Bacon and Oxford that Shapiro subjects to careful analysis in the two middle sections of Contested Will, with detailed evaluation of the respective claims for Bacon and Oxford bookended (or surrounded) by an introduction to Shakespeare and by a final summary and assessment of the evidence for Shakespeare.

Shapiro’s historical and literary research, his appreciation for context and change, and his clear and logical arguments, trace the rival authorship claims to their sources and expose their false assumptions, major factual errors, and minor flaws. He discusses the original proponents of these theories – people like Delia Bacon and J.T. Looney – and their leading supporters or adherents, including Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud. While systematically demolishing the arguments against Shakespeare, Shapiro also explains and criticises the ideological failings and methodological mistakes of many Shakespeareans from the late eighteenth century to the present day. He traces back to self-appointed Shakespeare experts like Edmond Malone in the 1790s and early 1800s many of the original missteps that facilitated or invited subsequent Shakespeare deniers. Shapiro also focuses acute critical attention on the currently widespread error of literary biographers – including Stephen Greenblatt, Michael Wood, René Weis, Jonathan Bate and Shapiro himself – who seek (or who have sought) to read the poems and plays of Shakespeare as thinly disguised autobiography or as social commentary on real people and actual events from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.

Shapiro makes strong and decisive judgments throughout. One is never left in doubt that the arguments in support of Bacon and Oxford (and all the other suggested alternatives) are simply and totally wrong. The rival claims have no supporting documentary evidence. They are cases built on supposition, false premises, tendentious arguments, secret codes, denial of facts and, at times, outright forgery. (Interestingly, Shapiro shows that even when forgeries were uncovered and admitted by the forger himself, as in the 1794-1805 case of the Shakespeare enthusiast William Henry Ireland, who forged letters from Shakespeare, Southampton and Queen Elizabeth I, as well as producing a manuscript for King Lear and concocting other documents including Shakespeare’s Protestant ‘Profession of Faith’ in an attempt to bolster the literary paper trail linking the texts of Shakespeare to the life of Shakespeare, and to enhance the establishment credentials of Ireland’s hero, many enthusiasts or adherents to a particular theory refused to accept that the forged documents were not genuine. Such is the power of hope and belief.)

By the early nineteenth century the rigours of philology and Higher Criticism had shaken two pillars of Western Civilisation. It had been proved that Homer was not a single, historically-identifiable author responsible for The Illiad and The Odyssey. The New Testament Gospels were also shown to be the product of many hands produced over decades, not written by individual disciples of Christ in the years immediately after the crucifixion. With the gods of the Classical world and Christianity shaken, it was not long before the more recently deified Shakespeare attracted critical scrutiny if not outright scepticism. Such critics, including Delia Bacon discussed further below, were right to see collaboration in the work of Shakespeare. Indeed collaboration was quite common in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, and Shakespeare’s work appeared in the seventeenth century intrinsically linked to the name of a co-author, for example with John Fletcher in the 1634 publication of The Two Noble Kinsmen. Romantics such as Coleridge and Keats may have seen Shakespeare as a solitary, sensitive genius expressing his personal emotions and revealing his psychological development in his poetry and plays, and here their romantic views were perhaps largely a projection of themselves, with Coleridge proclaiming “I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so.” But while the debunkers were correct in challenging deification of Shakespeare and focusing on collaboration, they went too far in denying the historical reality and literary talents of William Shakespeare.

Shapiro systematically demolishes the assertions that Shakespeare was not the author, and he explains the context and spread of the false theories, but he never makes cheap shots at those he criticises, even when the raw material of history places the opportunity for ridicule, satire or derision close to hand. Three examples will suffice to illustrate Shapiro’s approach: Delia Bacon, J. T. Looney, and Percy Allen.

Delia Bacon, a leading proponent of the Francis Bacon theory, died in an insane asylum two years after publishing her rambling book The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded in 1857. But Shapiro does not work back from her insanity to taint her theory; instead he works forward from her brilliant early career as a largely self-made woman and successful public lecturer in America in the 1830s and 1840s. Shapiro repeatedly emphasises her skills and abilities, admired by such contemporaries as Edgar Allen Poe, who she beat to first prize in a short story competition, and in some cases supporters such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But he also contextualises her difficulties and disappointments in love, religion, and literature, and traces her growing monomania, believing that she could break a code within the plays of Shakespeare that proved Francis Bacon was the true author. (Delia Bacon was a friend of Samuel Morse and became interested in codes and Francis Bacon’s ciphers.) This obsession took her to England, where to the surprise and dismay of Thomas Carlyle she promoted her Bacon theory and disparaged Shakespeare but did not conduct any research on Bacon documents to prove her case. Instead she pursued the hope of exhuming both Bacon and Shakespeare to uncover the documentary proof she believed was buried with them.

As for Mr J. T. Looney, an English Positivist and follower of the late French philosopher August Comte and his Church of Humanity, Looney was an opponent of individualism, modernism and democracy because they did not uphold traditional order and virtue. Looney saw this admirable type of authority embodied in Queen Elizabeth I and maintained by aristocratic leaders such as the Earl of Oxford. Looney was an influential advocate for Oxford, and believed that a writer who created the usurer Shylock could not himself be a money-grubber like the Shakespeare of Stratford appeared to be from extant documentation: a man who litigated over small debts, hoarded grain, lent money at interest, and gave up the life of the mind for a materialistic existence in New Place. (Somewhat inconveniently the Earl of Oxford died in 1604, and Shakespeare continued writing plays for more than a decade after this date, but the adherents for Oxford simply claim that he wrote many of the late plays before his death, or left them substantially finished and open to topical revision by other hands.)

  It was Looney’s 1920 book Shakespeare Identified that greatly influenced Sigmund Freud in denying Shakespeare. Looney’s work aided Freud in propagating among the psychoanalyst’s disciples and patients the belief that rustic Shakespeare was not the urbane and cultured author of the poems and plays that lent themselves so readily to psychoanalytic interpretation. Instead the true author was the Earl of Oxford, a man who, like Hamlet, had lost a father and seen a mother remarry and who, like Romeo, had romanced a teenage girl. Shapiro destroys the arguments of Freud and Looney, but he resists any nominative determinism. Instead of punning on Looney’s name (or calling Freud a fraud), Shapiro points out rather sportingly that the surname Looney rhymes with boney.

Even Percy Allen’s visit to a medium in 1946 to speak with Francis Bacon to confirm 320 years after the great man’s death who was the real author of the Sonnets and plays, elicits understanding and some sympathy from Shapiro. The erstwhile President of the Oxfordian Shakespeare Fellowship had become interested in spirituality years before, when he heard Arthur Conan Doyle speak on psychic matters. But Allen was devastated by the death of his twin in 1939 and sought the help of the medium Hester Dowden to contact his dead brother. It was the same medium, herself the daughter of a Shakespeare biographer, who placed Allen in contact with Bacon and Shakespeare in 1946. It was through Hester Dowden’s mediation that Bacon even dictated a new poem to Allen.

As Shapiro shows, the Oxfordian movement had lost momentum “if not its bearings” by the mid 1940s, but there was a striking reemergence in the late twentieth century when a number of factors coalesced to resurrect Bacon and Oxford. Watergate punctured belief in authority and gave credence to conspiracy theories; notions of fairness in the media encouraged the idea that there are always two sides to every story; mock trials of Shakespeare and Oxford in both the USA and the UK gave credence to the notion that there was something to be put on trial, and although both trials found in favour of Shakespeare these trials raised the spectre of reasonable doubt and valorised the opinion of lawyers over careful Shakespearean scholarship; the internet developed as a vehicle for rival claims; and the autobiographical impulse in literature, already strongly pronounced in authors such as Mark Twain, became the norm in Western literature, validating the search for a writer who embodied the characters and events depicted in the plays and Sonnets.

  Edmond Malone, the first to attempt in the late eighteenth century a strict chronology of Shakespeare’s plays that linked events in the texts directly to known and assumed events in Shakespeare’s personal life and to social and political actors and events in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, began the dangerous process of seeing the works as thinly disguised autobiography. René Weis is one scholar who continues this autobiographical tradition in his 2007 work Shakespeare Unbound: Decoding A Hidden Life, where Weis follows John Keats to claim “Shakespeare’s life and his plays and poems are inextricably linked in ways that are mutually reflective and illuminating. They merge to form a secret history, which this book sets out to decode.”

But after Malone, once Shakespeare’s fiction began to be read as “real,” it was not long before other decoders of secret histories began to search for and uncover the real man who embodied the extraordinary talents and experiences depicted in the literature: a real man with training as a lawyer, a courtier, a captive of pirates, the lover of a teenage girl, the father to three daughters, a poet with great rhetorical facility and an extensive library, a traveler to Italy, or a man who lost his father and saw his mother remarry.

More than one hundred years after Shakespeare’s death the first reading of the Sonnets as autobiography began a tradition that today ranges from depicting Shakespeare as lame, to homosexual, to impotent, to syphilitic, to infatuated with a mysterious “dark lady” who was not his wife. For Shapiro the modern curse of Shakespeare studies is the cult of autobiography, the assumption that writing comes from personal experience, that all great literature is a form of realism. Shapiro quotes Jonathan Bate who has himself been tempted to project life into the art, identifying the real “dark lady” (in The Genius of Shakespeare) and the true identity of the “rival poet” (in Soul of the Age). Bate now counsels supreme caution when reading the siren songs that are Shakespeare’s Sonnets: “Don’t be drawn into the trap of supposing that they are autobiographical.”  He goes on to explain his errors in The Genius of Shakespeare and Soul of the Age, admitting: “Each time, the poems had worked their magic: they had made me project a story of my own into their narrative. They work like love itself by making you want to join your story to that of another.”

Shapiro refutes the elitism and the anachronistic view that a glover’s son from Stratford who had no university education, did not travel in Europe, and was not himself an aristocratic insider to life at court could not possibly have written the poems and plays known as Shakespeare’s.

His impassioned and powerful conclusion to Contested Will is to appreciate imagination, for as Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

The lunatic, the lover and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

Shapiro concludes: “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.”

There are many stark and consequential choices made in the eighteen chapters that comprise ‘Rapt in Secret Studies’: Emerging Shakespeares, a volume representing the diverse interests and methodologies of scholars whose work was presented at, or developed subsequent to, a 2008 conference of the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association.

Despite a laboured introduction, with so much time spent defining the word “study” or thinking about Foucault and his 1981 theory of “power-knowledge” that the reader starts to wonder how new, innovative or interesting this collection of essays will prove to be, the volume begins with some very good and thought-provoking essays.

David McInnis looks at The Tempest not through the usual critical lense of power, but through knowledge, specifically the various uses of knowledge in the play. While using the language of the “Other” and sharing certain postcolonial concerns, McInnis does not limit himself to a postcolonial reading, although he does show the three courses available to European travel writers first responding to the New World: “dissonant New World facts could be embraced in their alterity; they could be moulded and distorted to fit pre-established expectations; or they could simply be ignored.” In the early part of the play Prospero expropriated Ariel’s knowledge of the island and then denied Ariel memory, while Caliban’s ability to find food and water was not valued by the Europeans as knowledge.

McInnis’s appraisal of the European encounter with the New World and his explanation of Prospero’s “otherwise inexplicable shift in…character from vengeful to stoical” focuses on forgiveness, mutual identification, and the decisive role of Ariel’s “native” discourse. In Act 5 Prospero experiences an epiphany, a sudden and transformative realisation that the “finer…use of knowledge is not the vengeful type, but the constructive and forward-looking variety.” This breakthrough comes, for McInnis, when for the first time in the play there is identification between indigenous and non-indigenous systems of knowledge. Empathising with Prospero’s captives, “Ariel imagines how he would react if he were Prospero, and Prospero takes his cue from Ariel’s hypothetical conjecture.”

Gayle Allan’s chapter on old and new theories of jealousy in Othello tackles an important and complex question that is central to the meaning and performance of the play. Working through the arguments of sixteenth and seventeenth century physicians, historians, poets and theologians, Allan presents a clear and convincing explanation of the old humoral and the emerging psychological theories of jealousy. “The early modern period…witnessed a shift in the theories of jealousy from the biological determinism of the classical humoral theories to more contextual, psychological theories. However, the emerging psychological theories did not displace or replace the old humoral theories, but coexisted alongside them, producing a peculiar hybridity in the theories of jealousy. This hybridity is evident in Othello…Shakespeare’s supreme representation of male sexual jealousy.”

  Allan addresses racist stereotypes among the play’s characters and in the wider society (where hot climates and dark skins equalled hot-bloodedness, violence and jealousy), but she recognises, along with Iago, that “it is in Othello’s psychology, not his biology, that the destructive power of his jealousy will be conceived.” As for Iago himself, Allan argues that this duplicitous and dishonest man who scoffs at love “appears to make a conscious decision to embrace jealousy as a means to achieve his revenge. He desires the passion of humoral jealousy that Othello exhibits, but needs his own knowledge of the psychological to achieve it.” Iago manipulates himself as well as manipulating everyone else in the play.

Daniel Timbrell’s study of gaming metaphors and sexual conquest in Love’s Labour’s Lost argues that the whole play is one big game of “Fast-and-Loose” in which “the characters must either dominate their opponents or be dominated by them.” He argues that the men make oaths they cannot keep, and are not fully “masculine enough to conquer and control a woman.” This helps explain why there are no marriages at the end of the play. The men have clearly shown lust, which has “effeminising effects,” but in the value structures of the time they lack “specifically masculine qualities, such as rational judgment, constancy and aggressive strength.” The men must therefore do penance and prove themselves. (With any resolutions, and any marriages, presumably postponed to Love’s Labour’s Won.)

Ben Kooyman provides one of a number of chapters in this book that make use of Stephen Greenblatt’s concept of “self-fashioning.” But Kooyman’s contribution is unique both in its content and style, being the only work that focuses on cinematic representations of Shakespeare, and providing the most colloquial and at times offhand language in his intentionally provocative and opinionated argument. It is true that Kooyman shares with some other contributors in this volume the tendency to use academic jargon (I think he is the only one here who uses “Deleuzoguattarian”), but he is definitely the only one to write about “Hollywood mainstream waste produce.” While we can agree that Shakespeare is a “culturally constructed product,” some phrases are dull or tiresome even when used ironically, such as the statement that Shakespeare is “a dead, white European male of renown.” Nonetheless, Kooyman’s chapter looks critically and intelligently at a range of Shakespeares on screen, from Olivier and Branagh to Luhrmann and Shakespeare in porn. And Kooyman makes a number of insightful comments, including his observation that: “audiences read texts rhizomatically, drawing connections and correlations between various textual artifacts with and without precedence.” (Just ask yourself: does Mel Gibson as Hamlet spark thoughts in your head of a road warrior, Catholic activist, drunkard, NIDA-patron, crazed cop with a black buddy, or anti-Semite?)

In his conclusion Kooyman argues that the Shakespeare film trend is over but not dead, which is a statement comprising equal parts prediction and provocation.

Huw Griffith uses the theories of Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Derrida to trace the “seemingly inescapable exposure of the subject to sovereign violence.” Working through 3 Henry VI and King Lear, Griffith shows us that: “sovereign power always operates on the brink of disaster, and that it always reserves the possibility of future violence.” If this sounds too bleak and pessimistic, Griffith finds in King Lear a way forward for a “politics beyond sovereignty.” This is, in the words of Edgar, to “Speak what we feel.” But in speaking what we feel we must not claim the last word, for that claim in itself is an act of violence. Instead, we can choose with Derrida “the irreducible modality of the perhaps” for that makes “every instance of the last word tremble.” We are encouraged by the potential to speak “from the position of the exile, rather than from that of the subject.”

Fiona Martin deals with a speech from the scaffold. In Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII (All Is True), Edward Stafford, third Earl of Buckingham, “envisions himself as a political martyr and consciously, consummately, inhabits the role as he performs it publicly,” providing another example of Stephen Greenblatt’s self-fashioning.

Alison V. Scott analyses Cymbeline to show how Imogen embodies the virtue of good faith, and the way in which Shakespeare constructs Britain as the natural successor to Rome.

Christine Couche bases her whole reading of Macbeth on her belief that the Macbeths recently lost a baby, an argument “inferred from a few scattered lines.” The baby’s death explains the play’s reference to “things forgotten” and Lady Macbeth’s “rooted sorrow.” For Couche, what the Macbeths conceal “Shakespeare brings to light in the grief of others, the baby references, and most powerfully, in the murder of Macduff’s son on stage and the bloody spirit child rising from the witches’ cauldron.” She goes on to argue that the Macbeths’ grief “also makes sense of the puzzling fact that, despite their undeniable evil and apparent lack of fundamental humanity, we are gripped by Macbeth’s despair, and haunted by Lady Macbeth’s pathetic end. Shakespeare elicits our sympathy for the Macbeths because buried in the text is a moving study in grief which helps to explain, if not excuse, this tragic pair.” While I am generally wary of inferring major arguments from a few scattered lines, or from things buried in the text, at least Couche makes an interesting and dramatic argument.

  Darryl Chalk also makes a powerful argument in his chapter on antitheatricality, scrutinising the writings of Puritans and others who found the theatre polluting, immoral and sinful (especially all that cross dressing). His chapter is also strong on the matter of medical knowledge of the time, noticeably regarding plague and contagion, and the belief that lovesickness was caught through the eye. Chalk’s best antitheatre quotes are either from before Shakespeare’s career or particularly after his death, with William Prynne in 1633 the leading source in this chapter. So while Chalk makes the claim that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was “responding to the accusations of the anti-stage writers” there is no direct evidence of this claim in Chalk’s chapter. The Shakespeare references seem a little forced in what is a more general, and very good, discussion of contagion theories and anti-stage polemics.

Some other authors in this volume also seem to tack on references to Shakespeare, or add sections on theory to the end of their chapters, which seem gratuitous or out of place. Emily Ross gives a detailed and interesting list of ambassadors, spies, gossips, eavesdroppers and letter writers in her study of Lip Service in Jacobean England and in Shakespeare, but at the very end of her chapter she seems to throw in gendered distinctions, with intelligence defined as important and masculine, but gossip conceived of as trivial and feminine. This distinction is introduced despite her own work showing how ambassadors included a great deal of gossip in their communications. As Ross shows, the court was full of tongues, of eyes and ears. And these were not restricted to professional spies. Intriguingly this chapter includes only one fleeting reference to Christopher Marlowe, who was “rumoured” to have worked for Walsingham. Rather than the long list of communicators and a broad range of plays lightly touched upon in this chapter, this important topic could perhaps have benefitted from a more restricted but detailed exploration of lip service, with a focus on something like intelligence gathering in Macbeth.

Victoria Bladen and Susan Penberthy both provide close analysis of metaphors and imagery in Shakespeare, with Bladen focusing on tree imagery in Cymbeline and Penberthy exploring canine imagery in Henry V. Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawer uncovers Shakespeare’s secret debt to Ovid in the production of his Sonnets, while JaY Zysk quotes Horace in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus as an example of Shakespeare’s familiarity with Latin and spends a good deal of time examining the textbooks in grammar, rhetoric and style that Shakespeare would have studied at grammar school. This background in Ovid, Horace and especially Erasmus – with close to two hundred ways of writing in Latin “Your letter pleased me mightily” – highlights the combination of discipline and rhetorical dexterity so important to Shakespeare, and of such great interest to scholars such as JaY Zysk and Jonathan Bate in his biography Soul of the Age, which also looks closely at the school textbooks.

Edmund King provides a study of New Bibliography and ‘Disintegration,’ assessing narratives of Shakespeare as a collaborative author. King’s chapter includes a good discussion of the assumptions, speculations and intellectual contortions that have gone into either ruling Shakespeare in or ruling Shakespeare out of authorship. Many of the judgments have been based on moral grounds, with critics such as W.W.Greg in the early twentieth century arguing that Shakespeare could not have had much of a hand in Titus Andronicus because of “the crude and revolting series of horrors which make up the play.” By contrast, New Critics in the middle of the twentieth century, who stressed the unity of the text, generated “a new fashion for asserting Shakespeare’s sole authorship,” with “unified” plays bearing, in the words of Andrew Caincross, “the stamp of a single mind” (even when co-authors were identified on the title page in the first publication, as with Fletcher and The Two Noble Kinsmen). Finally, some critics like John Dover Wilson judged the jointly-authored works on aesthetic grounds, with anything “forced or prosaic,” or “hazy, muddled or tawdry” attributed to non-Shakespeare, and anything free flowing and with the “evident pulse of a powerful mind behind it” attributed to Shakespeare.

The volume includes some bold statements, specifically Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawer’s claim that Shakespeare’s Sonnets “betray the presence of a novelistic impulse” and Lucy Potter’s argument that Marlowe’s Dido “teaches its audience how to respond to tragedy.” Other authors make less grand or sweeping claims, but I was particularly taken by the humility and sense of proportion shown by Mark Houlahan in his piece that argues that Shakespeare “sampled” Heliodorus in Twelfth Night. In a careful reconstruction that traces Shakespeare’s reference to the “Egyptian thief” back to Heliodorus’s Aethiopian History and the tale of the beautiful Chariclea and the pirate Thyamis, Houlahan acknowledges that it is impossible to tell exactly what Shakespeare read (or what books he owned) and he points out that many scholars and commentators have made greatly exaggerated claims over the years. Nonetheless, he feels justified in tracing Shakespeare’s specific reference back to Heliodorus. Having done this in a clear and readable way, Houlahan goes on to make no outlandish claim. He is fully aware that for a twenty-first century audience the Duke of Orsino’s reference to the Egyptian thief could go by in performance without even registering, and without making a great deal of difference to the audience’s reception, understanding or enjoyment of the play.

  Johnson concludes the volume with a sarcastic reassessment of Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) in the light of Greenblatt’s later work, specifically Hamlet in Purgatory (2002) and Will in the World (2004). Johnson depicts Greenblatt in the 2004 book as retreating from the austerity of New Historicism by writing a conventional literary biography that sees Shakespeare in and through his texts. Johnson argues that Shakespeare was close to anonymous in Greenblatt’s 1980 book, except for the fact that the name Shakespeare had to appear in the book’s subtitle alongside that of the egotistical Greenblatt. Despite the anonymity of Shakespeare in the 1980 book, Johnson argues that the return of Shakespeare was inevitable in Greenblatt’s writing.

As an editor of ‘Rapt in Secret Studies’: Emerging Shakespeares, Johnson’s argument for new scholarship is not helped by his chapter’s reliance on old and in some cases stale or limiting theories, including the work of Althusser, Lacan, Foucault and Freud. (It is an irony when Shakespeareans defer to Freud given that the Austrian master denied Shakespeare’s authorship; and rather than a few brief references to Clifford Geertz, this chapter could have benefitted from sustained “thick description” in place of jargon and snide commentary.) And stylistically Johnson’s work, which unlike Shapiro’s new book and a few of the chapters in ‘Rapt in Secret Studies’ is not a pleasure to read, is further hampered by consistent errors in its references. (I think Greenblatt 1980a should be 1980b, and 1978 is really 1980a.)

Nonetheless, in eighteen chapters of diverse arguments showcasing the work of postgraduate students, early career academics, and a few older scholars returning to the field of Shakespeare studies, Chalk and Johnson’s volume presents sound evidence for emerging Shakespeares. But even long established and world-famous Shakespeare scholars such as Jonathan Bate and James Shapiro are still emerging, with acknowledged errors from their past work, revised thoughts, and new insights. There can be little doubt that some of the certainties stated, or arguments pursued, in Chalk and Johnson’s book will be revised, updated or even discarded by their authors in years to come. But that is as it should be. Readers can hopefully look forward to their future work, in happy expectation of rigorous, sustained, fluently written and exciting books that rival such exemplars as Bate’s Soul of the Age and Shapiro’s Contested Will.

6 Responses to “Shakespeare: Long Contested and Still Emerging”

  1. […] scholar and biographer James Shapiro (see Glen Jennings review of Shapiro’s “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?” in  Steep Stairs, Vol.5 Oct 2011), argues that Anonymous is in fact a film of, and […]

  2. […] reviews: Vulpes Libris Steep Stairs Review California Literary Review Any others I should link to? Share this with friends:ShareLike […]

  3. Laurie Johnson said

    Thanks for the extensive write up, Glen. As the author of the final chapter, and co-editor, I do dispute two claims: the Yale Review item from Greenblatt was published in 1978, and the Selected Papers issue was collected in 1978 but published in 1980, so the referencing is correct. Please check these before writing “I think” and claiming that there are consistent errors. On my use of theory, the chapter discusses Greenblatt’s use of these theorists in strategic fashion in RSF; I do not draw on them myself. In general, I appreciate the detailed review. Cheers, LJ.

  4. Glen Jennings said

    Hi Laurie, I’m very pleased that you appreciated the review and I look forward to reading more Shakespeare volumes from you and your colleagues. Unfortunately, despite your disputing what I wrote about consistent referencing errors in the final essay of “Rapt in Secret Studies”, my original comment stands. But to be helpful I should have given specific examples of these errors in my original review. On p. 342 of your book you refer four times to Greenblatt 1980a, with quotes supposedly drawn from pages 235, 236, 238 and 255. But Greenblatt 1980a is an essay from Edward Said’s edited volume Literature and Society: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1978. This book has only 202 pages, and Greenblatt’s essay in the Said book runs from pages 57 to 99. With such referencing errors corrected, “Rapt” would be an even better book. All the best, Glen

    • Laurie Johnson said

      Hi Glen, yes, I see what you’re saying now. Not sure how that one happened. In fact, yes, throughout, my references to 1980a and 1980b are incorrect because it seems the items must have been reversed in the Works Cited late in the manuscript preparation. I fully accept that this is an error consistently present throughout the essay and a frustrating one from the editorial perspective. All the best, Laurie.

  5. The best thing about “Contested Will” is that it is readable. I am enjoying reading the book while on holiday, which is saying something(If only about me). If you are interested in the current crop of books about Shakespeare you should go to Elaine Charles’ archived radio shows on
    On March 17 she did a whole show on new Shakespeare books. It is well worth a visit.

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