This week I had the good fortune of interviewing James Shapiro author of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare and the newly published Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Both are superb works of scholarship and I have deeply appreciated Shapiro’s sensitive and analytic approach to complex matters of authorship and literary construction.
I have already written about the Shakespeare authorship debate in my piece Good William Hunting. But I was particularly taken by the author’s answer to a question I asked about the reason behind such a venomous campaign against the man known as William Shakespeare and the deep doubts shared by so many about the origins of the works ascribed to him. The argument that Shakespeare, the son of an illiterate tradesman in a provincial English village could not possibly have had access to the knowledge that informs his work, is a condescending trope that has developed feathers and flight for nearly 230 years.
But as to the question of the impact of the campaign to strip Shakespeare of his author’s mantle ( a new film titled Anonymous, directed by Roland Emerick which supports the candidacy of Edward de Vere as the true Shakespeare, will be released in the Fall), Shapiro argues that it has devalued the quality that makes the plays so valuable – human imagination. The deniers’ contention that a glover’s son could not have written the plays performs as a direct assault on the idea that the human mind has vast resources to transport itself to places and times it has never experienced. The deniers cannot deal with the notion that Shakespeare’s plays were almost certainly not autobiographical and reject any belief that authors of fiction do not need to live something in order to write about it.
In addition, today we seem to accept that all writing to be valid, must , in some way, be confessional. But back in the 16th Century, this was a relatively unknown concept. The insistence that Shakespeare wrote from experience, as it is alleged the true Shakespearean authors such as either Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere did, assaults the very structure of literary creativity.
The assumptions we bring to literature are therefore fast changing. Shakespeare forms a fundamental building block of our intellectual heritage – yet fewer and fewer schools are demanding that he be read and analyzed as he is increasingly cast him off to the pile of dead white males who have little to say about our life and times. To humanize him, to make him relevant, the Shakespeare of Stratford-upon- Avon, about whom we know so little, is therefore being replaced by an aristocrat whose biography and confessional style is far more recognizable in today’s Oprah Book Club world.
Yet if we can deny the reality of the author, what does that say about the quality and the necessity of the plays themselves? The debate may inevitably followed by one in which the literary quality of Shakespeare’s plays themselves will be impugned.
The Shakespeare authorship debate therefore plays a very important role in the rapid growth of moral and cultural relativism in our society. As Shapiro says, we are witnessing a degradation of culture in the rise of “truthiness” as opposed to truth. In other words we settle for something close enough to be truth, but not truth itself.
This is not a sign of health for Western civilization. Ripping to shreds the reputation and character of a man responsible for some of the English language’s greatest litrary works will, in the end, only assist in the deconstruction and despoliation of a culture centuries in the making.