Interview with James Shapiro

28 May 2011

Copyright: Philippe Cheng

James Shapiro is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and author of the award-winning 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. His most recent book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? explores the origins and various incarnations of the authorship controversy surrounding Shakespeare’s plays. The Literateur was fortunate enough to meet James in London, and emailed off some questions regarding his latest work.

Questions by Zoia Alexanian and Dan Eltringham

The Literateur: It seems like the biggest problem plaguing Shakespearean biography is scholars’ projections of current world-views and beliefs onto literary works from a vastly different era. All the same, as you point out, there are definite similarities between Edmond Malone’s annotations to The Plays and Poems of WilliamShakespeare (1790) and Stephen Greenblatt’s speculations in Will in the World (2004). What do you think accounts for the radical break in how people wrote (and read) between the 17th and 18th centuries, when not much seems to have changed (in terms of approach) between 1790 and 2004?

James Shapiro: Everyone who writes about Shakespeare’s life and works runs the risk of anachronism and projection. I don’t see any way around this. It’s especially the case for those who write ‘cradle to grave’ biographies that try to account for the so-called ‘Lost Years’ (from the early 1580s when we know that Shakespeare left Stratford and his wife and three children to the time he resurfaces in London in 1593). The past decade or so has seen a good deal of speculation—that Shakespeare experienced a crisis of faith, or of sexuality, or a familial crisis (or all three). That may well say more about our own views of maturation or artistic development than anything about Shakespeare. I’m one of those scholars who believes that there are very real differences between early modern and modern worlds. That complex shift—and it didn’t happen overnight—seems to have occurred by the closing decades of the 18th century, and explains why Malone has more in common with the assumptions of Stephen Greenblatt, writing 200 years later, than he does with, say, Ben Jonson, writing 200 years earlier. But there remains a lot that we don’t know, and that social and cultural historians are continuing to discover, about that sea change from early modern to modern.

TL: Do you think that what makes ‘autobiographical’ readings of Shakespeare’s work so tempting to critics on every side of the debate is largely external to the plays themselves – changing assumptions about the creative process, for instance – or are there internal factors involved as well? Of course, internal factors will always be interpreted according to external structures, but would Freud have been as adamant about equating Shakespeare with Hamlet if it hadn’t been for all the soliloquies?

JS: When we hear Shakespeare’s soliloquies, it’s often hard not to believe the poet is speaking as himself. Of course, you soon run into the problem of which soliloquies are confessional on Shakespeare’s part: Edmund’s about being a bastard in King Lear? Shylock’s, in which he wants to take a knife to Christians? Timon’s, in which he says he despises mankind? Juliet’s, while she is awaiting her lover? I’d say none of the above—though I recognize that one of the defining qualities of Shakespeare’s writing—and something that sets him apart from the best of his contemporary playwrights—is the extent to which we find ourselves in his works, feel that he is speaking directly to us through them, and, by extension, seem the genuine and authentic voice of the author, rather than of a character.

TL: ‘Autobiographical’ readings of Shakespeare’s works appear implicitly paradoxical. The usual impetus behind these readings, which you highlight in your section on Mark Twain, is the assumption that one can only write about what one has personally experienced—so that, for instance, only someone who had actually been to Italy could have written The Merchant of Venice. But doesn’t this standard make all biographical writing impossible? No one from the 18th century onward had personal experience with the man from Stratford, or Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford. How do the Oxfordians reconcile the fact that they can put together a history of Oxford-as-Shakespeare just by looking at books and records, but that Shakespeare couldn’t do the same to construct his plays?

JS: You make a very good point. That’s why the great 19th century biographer Halliwell-Phillipps called his massive work on Shakespeare an ‘Outlines’ rather than a traditional biography. And why the greatest Shakespearean of the 20th century, E. K. Chambers, chose to publish William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems rather than a conventional biography. Like them, I think it’s next to impossible to write a ‘cradle-to-grave’ biography of Shakespeare. The closest we can get—and what I tried to do in 1599—is to fill in the professional and cultural contexts that defined Shakespeare’s career at a certain moment—what was going on at a particular time, what he was reading, where was he living, what was he writing, and so on. It’s partial biography, and Shakespeare’s interior life remains largely unknown, but that’s the closest I think we can come. That book took me fifteen years to research; I’m working on another year at the moment, 1606, the year of Lear and Macbeth, and I think it will be even harder to glimpse Shakespeare the man in that year, though I’ll do my best to at least bring him out of the shadows.

As for the question you ask about Oxfordians—you’d have to ask them. Even after immersing myself in their work, I have a very hard time understanding how they justify their anachronistic biographical assumptions.

TL: While I was always taught to be extremely careful about confusing poets with the speakers of their poems, it seems like Shakespeare invites such confusion in the Sonnets by including puns on his first name (most explicitly in Sonnet 135—‘Whoever hath thy wish, thou hast thy Will’). How is this different from when Shakespeare invokes himself in the alternate epilogue to The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, which you argue is ‘the closest we ever get in his plays to hearing Shakespeare speak for and as himself’?

JS: Epilogues in Shakespeare—and I’m thinking here especially of those like the ones that end The Tempest and As You Like It—are typically liminal, mid-way between play world and real world. Those that follow The Second Part of Henry the Fourth—for there are two, written for separate occasions but since stitched together by editors—are even more rooted in the actual world of the playgoers. The one delivered at court, in which Shakespeare speaks ‘as himself’—by which I mean as the author of the play, which is still a role—is, to my mind, the closest we get to him speak for and as himself, insofar as he was the person who wrote that play, and says he accepts responsibility for it at this performance before the Queen. But it is still a role and not the man, though you could say that in all our public interactions, especially professional ones, we are playing a role.

You are welcome, like many others, to feel, even believe, that Shakespeare is unpacking his heart in the Sonnets. He may even be punning on his wife’s name in Sonnet 145, and seems to pun repeatedly on his own in 135 and elsewhere (though proponents of William Stanley’s candidacy think that Stanley is the true author of the Sonnets and punning on his first name here). The effect of the Sonnets depends in part on the fiction of their confessional nature. The danger in collapsing speaker and poet is: how do you distinguish such punning from reading the rest of what goes on in the Sonnet sequence as autobiography? Since I don’t know when or where or if Shakespeare is speaking as himself, I steer clear of reading these extraordinary poems as autobiographical. I’m not denying that are elements of Shakespeare’s personal experience woven into the fabric of these remarkable poems. But I am insisting that it is impossible to know how or when such personal elements appear. And I don’t know how anyone, based on the limited information that has come down to us about Shakespeare’s personal life, can tell us where he is writing in a confessional way. It seems rather circular to me to construct the life out of the works and then read his other works as autobiographical.

TL: Do you think that part of what makes Shakespeare’s plays so appealing to this day is that we don’t know how he ‘really’ felt about his characters or how he ‘really’ meant certain scenes to be understood? Is there an upside to the largely absent authorial presence that has caused Shakespeare so much posthumous grief, a freedom of interpretation that doesn’t have to be reconciled with authorial intent?

JS: I don’t see the freedom of interpretation as causing posthumous grief—though I have read and seen some pretty bad interpretations. Another defining feature of Shakespeare’s plays is their capacity to speak so clearly in different lands, different languages, and across the centuries. That allows critics and directors who deeply feel the relevance of a play to help us see the play that way. If we really knew what Shakespeare felt about Hamlet or what he meant by him, for example, and chose not to stray from his interpretation of his own creation, the history of literary criticism would be greatly impoverished.

TL: In the Epilogue you mention attending an Oxfordian reading of the Sonnets by Hank Whittemore. Did you have an occasion to speak to any Oxfordians directly about their views? Did any of your research ever lead you to doubt, even for a moment, that someone other than Shakespeare could be the ‘real’ author of the plays?

JS: No, in the course of my research I never had the slightest doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. I think that I would have to be someone attracted to conspiracy theories of all kinds to experience that sort of doubt. And I’d also have to have a different relationship to evidence and to truth, rather than, say, truthiness. After watching the experience of mainstream Shakespeareans who engaged directly with anti-Stratfordians—and I’m thinking in particular here of David Kathman and Alan Nelson—I saw that dialogue was pointless and self-serving, so chose to focus on what people have written. I think, in retrospect, that this was a wise decision.

As it happens, Hank Whittemore showed up a week or two ago at a talk I was giving in New York City, asked a question from the floor, and spoke with me after. Lovely guy. He even bought a book and asked a friend of his to take a photograph of the two of us together. I wondered if my talk—or even my answer to his question–had any impact on his thinking (he is one of those who believes that Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Oxford had a child together, the Earl of Southampton, and that the Sonnets are historical documents detailing Oxford’s attempts to save his son’s life in the aftermath of the Essex Rebellion). A day later I saw that he had written about our encounter on his blog and that if anything, it had only strengthened his resolve and commitment to Oxford’s authorship of the plays. The experience only confirmed the pointlessness of engaging in dialogue with someone who has radically different views of evidence, authorship, and history.

TL: At the heart of the authorial debate is a desire to understand the nature and origin of imaginative genius. Shakespeare isn’t the only author that critics have spent decades trying to explain (Emily Brontë is another famous case). Where do you think this desire to unravel the products of imagination, sometimes to the point of banality, comes from?

JS: Who wouldn’t want to understand the nature of genius—whether it is Newton’s or Mozart’s or Shakespeare’s? I’d say that we struggle to do so, not to the point of banality, but to the point of increasing frustration: we simply don’t know what makes someone an artistic genius. I don’t presume to have any answer to that in my book, other than to say that those who believe that a genius of Shakespeare’s order had to be from a higher social station, or have a university degree, and so on, reveal more about their prejudices than they do about the nature of genius.

TL: Can you think of a way in which literary criticism might benefit from setting out to find its subject ‘guilty’? Or, put differently, what kind of pleasure do you envisage there is to be had in a reading motivated by the desire to unearth conspiracy, and how does it relate to the more traditional pleasures of reading and studying literature?

JS: Most books about the authorship controversy take the form of detective fiction: there is a mystery, a few clues that previous investigators have overlooked, and a solution (and, of course, the gifted amateur who is able to solve the problem, see things in a fresh and original way, invariably in contrast to those bumblers with false or undeserved authority). The pleasures of being that detective are obviously great. There’s a reason why bookstore shelves groan under the weight of mystery and detective books—and it is not surprising to me that the authorship controversy emerged at the same historical moment as the ‘who-dunnit.’

TL: In your recent talk on Contested Will at the London Review Bookshop (22.04.10), you said that your title, besides being a treble pun on Shakespeare’s first name, the crucial documentary evidence of his will, and the issue of willed intentionality, is also a ‘sharp elbow at’ Stephen Greenblatt’s ‘fanciful biography’ of Shakespeare, Will in the World. In what ways is it fanciful and deserving of elbowing? How does his biographical method compare to your own in 1599?

JS: I admire Stephen Greenblatt—the best American critic of Shakespeare—this side idolatry (the best living reader of Shakespeare anywhere, hands down, is Frank Kermode). Like every other student of early modern culture, my work has been profoundly influenced by Greenblatt’s scholarship. In gently elbowing him, I’m acknowledging both indebtedness and disappointment. Stephen Greenblatt speculates in ways that seem wrongheaded to me, and dangerously so, because in reading Shakespeare’s life out of the works he uses—and thereby legitimates—the same method employed by those who believe another writer wrote the plays. I align myself with those, like Charles Nicholl in his wonderful The Lodger (about Shakespeare’s Jacobean years under the roof of a Huguenot family, the Mountjoys, when he lived on Silver Street), who are trying to write partial biographies, relying more on archival evidence. That’s not to say that in 1599 I didn’t at times speculate; it’s impossible to write about anything that happened 400 years ago without speculating. But I do my best, and will continue to do my best, to steer clear of speculating about things we know nothing about, such as Shakespeare’s inner life.

TL: Is there a sense in which you consider writing Contested Will a form of martyrdom, to save other scholars from having to endlessly refute the conspiracy theorists?

JS: No, the thought never crossed my mind. I would put it quite differently. There are two ways of going about writing a book on Shakespeare. One is to address the kinds of questions that have long obsessed you; the other is to write a book about questions that obsess others. I’ve written both kinds of books (Shakespeare and the Jews is a good example of the former; Contested Will of the latter). Over time, I’ve become increasingly convinced that scholars, and not just Shakespeareans, need to write books about problems that preoccupy others. I read last week that the majority of Americans don’t believe in the theory of evolution—which tells me that scientists are not doing a good enough job of writing books that explain their case more effectively. One of the most rewarding things about writing this book has been hearing from teachers—especially in the UK—who are grateful that I have given them the material to respond to students who are curious or confused about who wrote the plays, or who read on Wikipedia that there are major doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship.

TL: Lastly, what sort of proof do you think it would take to put the controversy to rest once and for all?

JS: The beauty of conspiracy theories is that there is no ‘proof’ that would put matters to rest. Despite overwhelming evidence, there are still people who maintain that the U.S. government, or the Mossad, was really behind the destruction of the Twin Towers. And that men never landed on the moon (it was all filmed in Morocco). In these cases we are dealing with some of the best documented events in recent history. What chance do we have of satisfying those who are convinced that there was a conspiracy to suppress the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, and who will read any newly discovered document confirming Shakespeare’s authorship as something planted to mislead those not savvy enough to see through this sort of thing? I look at the matter differently: the controversy over Shakespeare’s authorship tells us nothing about Shakespeare. It does, however, tell us a good deal about the way we read now and how we evaluate evidence. And much of this is discouraging. One of the most deeply depressing discoveries I made while writing this book was that two current U. S. Supreme Court Justices—Scalia and Stevens—believe that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays long attributed to Shakespeare. If that’s not sobering enough, there is the more recent news that filmmaker Roland Emmerich is shooting a movie, called Anonymous, that maintains not only that Oxford wrote the plays, but also that he was son and lover to Queen Elizabeth.

TL: James Shapiro, thank you.

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