Daniel Mytens, James I of England, 1621, National Portrait Gallery, London

James Shapiro believes, and so do I, that Shakespeare’s plays and poems were written, on the whole, by one William Shakespeare, “a young man of ill condition, a lout from Stratford,” as Henry James, in conversation with Percy Lubbock, quaintly called him. In Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010), Professor Shapiro examined the evidence in favor of other Elizabethans for whom a claim of authorship of the plays and poems had been made, notably Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford. He conceded that “literature in support of alternative candidates—both print and digital—dwarfs that defending Shakespeare’s claim.” No matter: he ended with a strong chapter in favor of Shakespeare. Many readers have found that chapter decisive, and have thanked Shapiro for closing a not-endlessly-exciting debate.

I am one of the grateful. I demur only at one point, where Shapiro lists Henry James among the Baconians. He was never a paid-up member. Shapiro quotes a sentence from James’s letter of August 26, 1903 to Violet Hunt which goes as far as he was prepared to go. I take the point of the italicized almost.

I can only express my general sense by saying that I find it almost as impossible to conceive that Bacon wrote the plays as to conceive that the man from Stratford, as we know the man from Stratford, did.

Shapiro comments: “Bacon was an unlikely candidate, but Shakespeare unlikelier still.” But the qualification, “as we know the man from Stratford,” is ambiguous.

Shakespeare saw enough of princes by walking the picture galleries of the Queen’s palaces in which his theater company often played, and observing the “who’s in, who’s out” of her Court.

Besides, when James was a theater critic, he knew Shakespeare when he heard him. In Act I of Richard III, Gloucester says to Anne:

No, when my father York and Edward wept,
To hear the piteous moan that Rutland made
When black-fac’d Clifford shook his sword at him.

The bravado of that phrase, “black-faced Clifford,” convinced James that he was attending a play by the Master, the lout from Stratford. Further: three years after his letter to Violet Hunt, he wrote an “Introduction to The Tempest” for Vol. XVI of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, edited by Sir Sidney Lee. He took the date of “its first recorded performance” as February 1613. Modern scholarship, including Shapiro’s, has settled for November 1, 1611 as the likelier date. James talks himself into a mystery, where there is not even a problem. How could Shakespeare, he asks, at the height of his powers, having written such a transcendent play as The Tempest, give up the theater, and “spend what remained to him of life in walking about a small, squalid country-town with his hands in his pockets and an ear for no music now but the clink of the coin they might turn over there”? Like many other readers, James takes Prospero’s speech in Act IV—“Our revels now are ended”—as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage and to London, “his own self-despoilment, his considered purpose, at this date, of future silence.” He finds that silence incomprehensible. In the end, he says, Shakespeare the man is not to be found anywhere, he sinks into the artist, and the artist sinks further into “the lucid stillness of his style.” “The subject to be treated” in The Tempest “was the simple fact (if one may call anything in the matter simple) that refinement, selection, economy, the economy not of poverty, but of wealth a little weary of congestion—the very air of the lone island and the very law of the Court celebration—were here implied and imperative things.” The congestion, I assume, is the crowdedness of the histories and tragedies, and the density of the language that answered those demanding occasions. James’s sentences in the essay on The Tempest coil around the shadow of Shakespeare until it begins to recede and in the end to disappear. But it is Shakespeare who disappears. There has never been a sign of Bacon or Oxford. Nor is there a mystery. After The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote, or partly wrote, at least three plays: King Henry VIII (a collaboration with John Fletcher, performed on June 29, 1613), The Two Noble Kinsmen (again with Fletcher, performed some time in 1613), and a lost play, still with Fletcher, The History o f Cardenio (1612–1613). He did not give up. He retired to Stratford in proper course to put his domestic and commercial life in order. Meanwhile, if Shapiro is right, Shakespeare is “a man who mingles easily with princes and paupers but who deep down is fundamentally private and inscrutable.” He saw enough of princes by walking the picture galleries of the Queen’s palaces in which his theater company often played, and observing the “who’s in, who’s out” of her Court. He saw enough of paupers by walking, eyes open, the streets of London.

In Shakespeare and the Jews (1996), Shapiro calls himself “a cultural historian.” That seems right. He does not present himself as a literary critic, though he has a pretty good hand with that discipline, too. When a hard question of language or close reading arises, he directs readers to Frank Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language. Shapiro does not offer to lead his readers through the plays, as Harley Granville-Barker did with his Prefaces. He assumes that we know the plays well enough to follow his references. Mostly, he mentions a scene or a speech without analyzing it: that mention, he thinks, is enough. But I wish he would do more close work. I still recall the thrill of reading William Empson’s commentary, in Seven Types of Ambiguity, on Macbeth’s speech:

Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day;
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale.

Shapiro has other commitments. He understands that the duty of an historian is to propose a master narrative to enable us to understand an era. A cultural historian brings forward relations among several contemporary or near-contemporary episodes, as if to say that readers of the play will have a keener sense of it if they are aware of these episodes and of the relations proposed among them. Sometimes the items brought into relation are ideas, sometimes political acts, sometimes violences of weather—a summer plague, and its deaths. For instance, these three: In 1599 Queen Elizabeth dispatched a ragamuffin army under the Earl of Essex to put down a revolt in Ireland led by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. On Ash Wednesday of that year, Lancelot Andrewes delivered a sermon in the royal chapel of Richmond Castle on Deuteronomy 23:9: “When the host goeth forth against thine enemies, then keep thee from every wicked thing.” And at the same time, Shakespeare was finishing Henry V in which Henry, addressing Westmoreland at Agincourt, recites, as Shapiro says, “the two strands of Andrewes’s argument in this sermon: the theological justification for an aggressive offensive war and the need for those who go off to war to purge themselves of sin.” Shapiro brings forward these three events which we are urged to hold in our minds: he doesn’t prescribe the orders of their magnitude, or say whether or not one of them might be allowed to stay at the back of one’s mind.

For Shapiro, the play’s eventually the thing. But before that, the other plays in its vicinity. In A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (2005) he studied the plays of that year, Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It,and a draft of Hamlet. In The Year of Lear the plays are King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.1In no particular order thereafter Shapiro recognizes the playwright, the other playwrights with whom Shakespeare workedin immediate or remembered rivalry—mainly Marlowe and Jonson, according to Shapiro’s Rival Playwrights (1991)—or worked in cooperation, as in the several plays that issued from many hands, Shakespeare’s but also those of Peele, Middleton, Wilkins, and Fletcher, the hands also inspected in Brian Vickers’s Shakespeare, Co-Author (2002). Shapiro then turns to the theaters, the actors, the audiences, the local conditions, and finally—but not always finally—the social and political events, inescapable, in “early modern England,” as he calls it. After these—perhaps too long after them—there is Shakespeare’s imagination, which is respected but gets only a walk-on part.

He is both a Jew and an alien; he does not cease to be the one by being called the other. He remains differently vulnerable in each designation.

Shapiro likes to give himself some space. Sometimes a word—but not any word—is enough to set his researches astir. Shakespeare and the Jews is a study of those two entities and of the relations between them, but it is also a history of Jews as presences in England between the fifteenth century and the eighteenth. Shapiro does not confine himself to Shakespeare’s vital dates, 1564 to 1616. He asks: What is a Jew? Are there several versions of being a Jew? What is an Englishman? What about a mixed marriage, Jew and Gentile, and a child of such? What did English citizens think of Jews? What about the anti-Semitic riots in England in 1595? What did Shakespeare feel about Jews? (Impossible to say.) What did it mean to claim, as some Jews did in March 1656 after the outbreak of war with Spain and the declaration that all Spanish goods and shipping were lawful prize, that their legal status was that of “the Hebrew nation and religion”? Shapiro examines these questions, and a hundred more. But it is typical of his concerns that he concentrates on the word “alien” as Portia, disguised as the doctor of laws Balthasar, uses it in IV.1 of The Merchant of Venice when Shylock tries to leave the court:

Tarry, Jew:
The law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be prov’d against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party ’gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;
And the offender’s life lies in the mercy
Of the duke only, ’gainst all other voice.


Shapiro reports that “many readers, and I count myself among them, have found something troubling about this speech.” I wonder why. This is a play, a work of fiction, not a sermon or an essay. Portia as Balthasar is presented as a brilliant defense counsel, indeed a trickster. She has already defeated Shylock with the tricks of the “pound of flesh,” “nothing but the penalty,” and “thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate.” “The law hath yet another hold on you” is the final blow. That is the force of the laconic “Tarry, Jew.” It is the Venetian equivalent of punitive damages in a modern court. Shapiro comments:

Venetian society cannot punish Shylock because he is a Jew. But in the terms of the play it can convict him as a threatening alien. In order to accomplish this delicate maneuver in the space of these dozen lines, the nature of Shylock’s difference is reconstituted: a Jew at the start of the speech, three lines later he is an alien. Yet once Shylock is convicted as an alien, he can be punished, not as an alien, but as a Jew, who must “presently become a Christian.”

Of the nouns in Balthasar’s speech, the crucial ones are “Jew,” “alien,” and “citizen,” each prominent at the end of its verse line. Antonio is a citizen, Shylock is not. He is both a Jew and an alien; he does not cease to be the one by being called the other. He remains differently vulnerable in each designation. Besides, it is Antonio, not the Duke or Balthasar, who demands that Shylock become a Christian; and he makes this demand as one part of a bargain. The other part is that Shylock will have the use of half his wealth for the rest of his life. When Balthasar asks him, “Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?,” he says: “I am content.”

Shapiro notes that the conversion of the Jews was at least a talking point in the later years of Elizabeth’s reign. In Chapter XI of his Epistle, Paul said to the Romans: “And so all Israel shall be saved.” That promise could not be voided, but if you asked when the salvation would be effected, the distancing answer might come: immediately before the Last Judgment. And Andrew Marvell could laugh, in “To His Coy Mistress,” at Paul’s promise, telling the lady, “And you should, if you please, refuse/ Till the conversion of the Jews,” a convenient rhyme. Coercion of Jews into Christianity was pointless: they could not have enriched the social mixture. If it was faith, it was bad faith. It seems right that in The Merchant of Venice the conversion should be demanded by the wretched Antonio.

AYear in the Life is Shapiro’s study of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan dramatist. The Year of Lear studies him as a Jacobean. Queen Elizabeth died childless on March 24, 1603, and King James VI of Scots acceded to the throne of England as James I, without fuss, in the same month. Not that the English loved him: on the contrary, they disliked him as a Scot. But he was the only feasible candidate. Philip II’s daughter, the Infanta Isabella, did not come into serious consideration. James hoped to persuade Parliament that he was the embodiment of the Union of England and Scotland. In his first speech in England, he said: “What God hath conjoined let no man separate. I am the husband and the whole isle is my lawful wife.” But he misjudged the mood of the English; Parliament kept putting legal and other obstacles in his way, commissions set up to discuss problems kept the problems on the agenda forever. When James died in 1625, he had still not brought Union about. Great Britain did not come into existence till 1707.

King James, preserved by God, as he claimed, kept the Plot fresh by having it remembered in sermons by William Barlow and other preachers. The fact that it failed was not allowed to matter.

The main event in The Year of Lear is the Gunpowder Plot—that is, if you take it seriously. Historians of the seventeenth century are divided on the issue. The Plot, discovered on November 5, 1605, was either an immense political crime with acute consequences or an absurd adventure engaged in by thirteen recusant Catholics, which could not have been kept secret. If the Plot had any aim at all, it was not to persuade James to treat Catholics decently but to make England Catholic again, as if his successor could be forced to undo the Reformation, completing the work that James’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, failed to do. The idea may be preposterous, but it had a long minor life. The poet Hopkins expressed it again in the last stanza of “The Wreck of the Deutschland”: “Our King back, oh, upon English souls! . . . ” “More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls. . . . ” King James, preserved by God, as he claimed, kept the Plot fresh by having it remembered in sermons by William Barlow and other preachers. The fact that it failed was not allowed to matter. Shapiro calls the legal event “a show trial,” but he has no doubt that the Plot was a monstrous plan to set on fire sixty barrels of gunpowder at a time when King, Lords, and Commoners were known to be one floor above. He narrates the Plot, crime and punishment, with the skill of a good historical novelist. I hesitate only when he claims, of Guy Fawkes and his associates, that “along with Shakespeare’s late plays and the King James Bible, the story commemorated every Fifth of November is the only cultural artifact created during the first decade of King James’s reign that still matters four hundred years later.” The folk verses, dating from about 1870, begin—

Remember, remember the fifth of November
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Perhaps not, but to whom does it matter? The date is—or was—a holiday, a day off, a bit of a romp.

Shapiro’s chapters on Macbeth in The Year of Lear are the most convincing display of his method. The word he brings forward is “equivocation.” Before the Gunpowder Plot it was an esoteric word, available mostly to theologians and logicians. But on December 5, 1605, a month after the Plot was discovered, Sir Edward Coke, doing detective work in a chamber of the Inner Temple “wherein Sir Thomas Tresham used to lie,” came upon a manuscript of sixty-one pages, a treatise on equivocation, essentially a manual to teach Catholics how to lie under oath. Four methods were described, the fourth being the most insidious, a form of “mental reservation” by which your words and your thoughts are at odds, though as Shapiro explains, “the person with whom you were speaking could have no idea that this was the case.” I was not taught by Jesuits, but if I were put under oath, drastic interrogation, and the certainty of torture, I would have no problem in lying, since I believe that my truth is known to God, who understands and forgives. Coke made equivocation public at the trial of the eight surviving plotters on January 27, 1606, explaining what mental reservation meant, the plotters “reserving a secret and private sense inwardly to themselves, whereby they are, by their ghostly fathers, persuaded, that they may safely and lawfully elude any questions, whatsoever.” Within no time, the word “equivocation” and its variants were in everyone’s mouth, as if a new sin or a new desire had been discovered. So the porter in Macbeth, running to open the gate as if it were the gate of Hell, shouts—

Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator.

The equivocator could not equivocate to heaven, because God already knows the truth. Macbeth, in the last Act, when a messenger tells him that Birnam Wood is coming toward Dunsinane, exclaims,

I pull in resolution, and begin
To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth

“Pull” is textually doubtful, but the oed gives it for “pull” 26d: to check or bring oneself to a stop in any course, as in reining in a horse. “Resolution” is conviction, settled judgment. “Equivocation” is ambiguity, a statement that you could take either way. Macbeth has taken the weird sisters the way he liked, but now he is beginning to take them the hard way. Shapiro gives an elaborate account of the lives and deaths of the Jesuits Robert Southwell, who did not get a chance to equivocate, and Henry Garnet, who did, but to no avail.

Shapiro takes as an event, an intervention in the world, whatever he pays attention to: the three great plays, the social conditions, the theaters, the audience, most of all the Gunpowder Plot. His mind, generous without a fault, moves strongly among these events and their consequences. His books gratify to the extent of their plenitude. Reading them, I have been sure that I was listening to a complete scholar of his subject, a stylist at his choice work.

1The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, by James Shapiro; Simon & Schuster, 356 pages, $30.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 8, on page 4
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
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