Contesting “Contested Will” – Part One

James Shapiro reaches the climax of his new book Contested Will in the epilogue, where – lo! – he recounts attending my performance of Shake-speare’s Treason (based on The Monument) in November of 2008 at the Globe playhouse in London.

His point, by page 267, is that it’s simply wrong to try to learn anything of substance about the man who was William Shakespeare, either from the documents about his life in Stratford and London or from his poems, plays and sonnets.  All is speculation, virtually all of it off the mark.

The first and foremost culprits are not those who dare to doubt that Will of Stratford was “Shakespeare,” but, rather, traditional Stratfordians, who have attempted to fashion flesh-and-blood portraits of the Bard by linking aspects of his recorded life to elements of his work and vice versa.

This practice has resulted in puffed-up fictions posing as biographies; these scholars should stop doing it, not only because they keep serving up baloney but also because they encourage anti-Stratfordians to keep doing the same thing for their own candidates, such as Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

And since the Oxfordians have so much more biographical evidence from which to pick and choose, they will keep on winning.  Even now, with the coming of Roland Emmerich’s feature film Anonymous about Oxford as Shakespeare (with Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth), due out in 2011, the tide of public acceptance may even turn in their favor!

Queen Elizabeth I and Vanessa Redgrave

Shapiro’s solution is extraordinary and courageous and perhaps, in the long run, even foolish:  Let us have no more biographies of Shakespeare!  No more attempts to look in the plays and poems and sonnets to find any reflections of his real life!   Let us stop thinking entirely of Shakespeare the man, before it’s too late!

Such is the problem when you start with the wrong man in the first place!

He criticizes Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard for giving his “seal of approval” for the autobiographical approach with his bestselling Will in the World. Others have erred this way as well, he goes on, admitting that even “I flinch when I think of my own trespasses in classrooms and in print, despite my best efforts to steer clear of biographical speculation.”

Shapiro writes:

“The more that Shakespeare scholars encourage autobiographical readings of the plays and poems, the more they legitimate assumptions that underlie the claims of all those who dismiss the idea that Shakespeare wrote the plays.  And every step scholars have taken toward embracing such readings has encouraged their adversaries to make even more speculative claims.  The recent publication of Hank Whittemore’s Oxfordian reading of the Sonnets, The Monument, offers a glimpse of where things may be heading…

“In November 2008, I joined ninety or so people gathered at London’s Globe Theatre to hear Whittemore share his work.  It turned out to be an elegant revival of the Prince Tudor theory….”

Here he offers a concise (and accurate) summary of the story of the Sonnets as set forth in The Monument and dramatized in Shake-speare’s Treason, which I performed at the Globe at the invitation of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust led by the brilliant actor Mark Rylance, who had been the Globe’s artistic director for a decade.

“It was a spellbinding performance,” Shapiro writes, “as perfect a marriage of conspiratorial history and autobiographical analysis as one could imagine.”

Conspiratorial?  You mean the way President Kennedy privately hosted Marilyn Monroe in the swimming pool of the White House and no agent, no aide, no one at all, ever told about it?  Hmmm, just think of all the people who had to be “in on it” and who had to “agree to be silent.”  Hmmm.

In both the book and the show (co-written with director Ted Story), I simply put together the heretofore separate tracks of the literature and the history.  I show how the central 100-verse sequence of the Sonnets fits within the context of the Essex Rebellion of 1601 and its aftermath, that is, with the ordeal of the Earl of Southampton in the Tower until the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of James.  There’s no need to alter either the sonnets or the recorded events of contemporary history; instead, they are brought together in this framework for the first time, where they fit without any trouble, yielding a third dimension – the true story of why Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford agreed to the obliteration of his identity as Shakespeare even after his death, as he states:

My name be buried where my body is – Sonnet 72

I, once gone, to all the world must die – Sonnet 81

What bothers Shapiro most may be that Oxfordians – in this case, specifically The Monument & Shake-speare’s Treason – unfold a better story than even the most fantasy-driven biographies of the Stratfordians:

“If the enthusiastic response of the audience that evening was any indication, Oxfordian concerns about the riskiness of Whittemore’s approach were misplaced.  I looked around the room and saw the same kind of people – middle-aged, sensibly dressed, middle-class – who regularly attend lectures about Shakespeare, nodding their heads in agreement and laughing aloud at the funny parts.  I found it all both impressive and demoralizing…”

Does he sound a tad defeated here?  Well, not yet.  At this stopping point, I’ll let him have the last word:

“I found it all both impressive and demoralizing, a vision of a world in which a collective comfort with conspiracy theory, spurious history, and construing fiction as autobiographical fact had passed a new threshold.”

Well, that’s one way to put it!

In Part Two we dig a little deeper…

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://hankwhittemore.com/2010/04/20/contesting-contested-will-part-one/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent. Please read the intro to the 1970 edition of Looney’s 1920 masterpiece. It’s by a Judge Miller of Louisiana. Miller goes through the reasons for the cover-up which are even stronger 40 years later.

    • Yes, I agree. I have it and maybe will find time to post up some of it on the blog. Thanks from Hank

  2. […] Per Contesting “Contested Will” – Part One: […]

  3. […] Per Contesting “Contested Will” – Part One: […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: