Friday, April 13, 2012

Contested Will

While I normally avoid the authorship debate like the plague, I recently listened to James Shapiro's Contested Will on CD while working on graphics projects. Since it was recorded and I was doing other things while I listened, I can't give as deep and thorough a review as I would like to. But I did learn some fascinating things along the way.

Instead of looking at each claimant and his case, Shapiro looks at the history of the authorship question, which began in 1785, but didn't really take off until the mid-1800's. What I discovered is that the history of the authorship debate is really more of a history of philosophy and our approach to all literature for the last 250 years.

We tend to forget (or at least I do) that people haven't always looked at things the way we do now. We take our assumptions and filters and philosophies so much for granted that, even when we do acknowledge their existence, we still assume that they have always been there, and that everyone has the same ones.

Contested Will has challenged me to think about the assumptions I make about all literature. Much of the debate grew out of the idea that fiction is, at heart, autobiographical -- that the author can't help but write about what he knows personally, what he has experienced first-hand, and what he has felt himself. The fact that the man from Stratford doesn't seem to have had the life-experience to have done everything in the plays attributed to him is the main argument of anti-Stratfordians.

As a writer, I have always been a little uncomfortable by this mining-the-story-for-the-author's-life-and-feelings approach to literature. When friends ask which character in my novel is "me," I'm not sure what to say. Certainly, one character may be more like me... but they are my characters, my creation. 

But how often am I guilty of doing this very thing to Shakespeare? How many times have I looked at Hamlet and seen the connection to the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet? How often do I nod in approval when someone points out that in Shakespeare's later plays, he writes about the relationships between older fathers and their daughters (King Lear, The Tempest, etc.), obviously mirroring his thoughts about his own daughters? And how many times have I put down my copy of the Sonnets, my brain spinning because of what I assume are the implications of what I see there? I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to making assumptions about the author's life from his fiction.

Assumptions are at the heart of the debate. What Shapiro does so well is highlight these assumptions and show us their sources. Anyone genuinely interested in the history of how we study literature ought to read this book. Anyone even remotely interested in the anti-Stratfordian position (and I use that term not in a derisive way, but simply to group together the Oxfordians, Baconians, and all the others who believe that Shakespeare wasn't the author of the plays that bear his name) would do well to look at the history of the movement. All of us ought to be aware of the assumptions we make and recognize how they color our world.

I have some other thoughts bouncing around in my head after listening to this book... but I think those may find their way into another post. More on that later...

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