Tuesday, April 20, 2010

LA Times: Tit for Tat, Bard for Bard

Contested Will author James Shapiro recently wrote an editorial for the Los Angeles Times bemoaning the filming of the Edward de Vere biopic Anonymous.

Yesterday, Anonymous's screenwriter retorted in the Times that Shapiro wrongly portrayed positions of U.S. Supreme Court justices who held a famous 1987 authorship moot court.

Screenwriter John Orloff said:

[Retiring justice John Paul] Stevens went even further, saying: "I have lingering concerns. . . . You can't help but have these gnawing doubts that this great author may perhaps have been someone else. . . . I would tend to draw the inference that the author of these plays was a nobleman. . . . There is a high probability that it was Edward de Vere [the Earl of Oxford]."

I would hardly characterize these as opinions "unanimously for Shakespeare and against the Earl of Oxford."

This is only the first salvo of the fights that Anonymous will undoubtedly inspire.

Pop some popcorn, please. The previews have apparently already begun.

(Creative Commons photo by Pascal Vuylsteker)

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Contested Wont

James Shapiro (1599) has a new book out. Called Contested Will, it's about the Shakespeare authorship question. Reviews have appeared in a number of (predominantly British) publications you've heard about.

However, the best newspaper or magazine review yet published on this book comes from The Brooklyn Rail, penned by William Niederkorn (a former editor at the New York Times, who in the interest of full disclosure I've known for five or so years). Niederkorn's an independent thinker who remains agnostic on the authorship issue -- a fact that, since Niederkorn wrote a number of Shakespeare authorship-related articles for the Times, Shapiro takes pains to single Niederkorn out for attack in his book.

Well, the riposte is in.

A few excerpts after the jump.

Everything went wrong, Shapiro writes, when scholars started trying to read topical allusions into Shakespeare’s works, and he blames Edmond Malone (1741-1812), the lawyer whose work is generally acknowledged as the cornerstone of modern Shakespeare scholarship. The only way out for Shapiro, it seems, is to ban all topical interpretation: Shakespeare never alluded to anything, or if he did we don’t know enough to be able to say what he was alluding to.


If Shapiro has a bible on the Earl of Oxford it is Alan Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary, a life of de Vere that is one of the most bilious biographies ever written. Riddled with errors, which Oxfordians have pointed out since its publication in 2003, Nelson’s book is an embarrassment to scholarship. Contested Will, whose title is cast in the same syntactical form as Nelson’s and which revels in the same spirit, is almost as bad.

Though both books assemble a great deal of interesting information, they are patently biased and need to be read skeptically. While it is hard to find one page of Nelson’s book that is free of unfair statement, though, Shapiro can occasionally sound seductively considerate. He characterizes Nelson’s book as “harsh,” but also “authoritative,” and recycles Nelson’s opinions.


Perhaps he even contributed to the hatchet job that appeared on the front page of the New York Observer a month later, aimed at silencing my coverage of the authorship issue in the Times. In his bibliographical essay, he recommends it “for a helpful analysis of Niederkorn on Shakespeare.” And he repeats the same derisive remark used in the Observer article, another trademark Stratfordian analogy, saying that my “rhetoric smacked of that employed by Creationists eager to see intelligent design taught in the schools alongside evolution.”

That was for my suggesting that authorship studies be made part of the standard Shakespeare curriculum. If another reason for open-minded discussion of the authorship issue in Shakespeare studies were needed, Contested Will provides it, because it shows just what students are now having to swallow.