Five years ago, James Shapiro, an American academic teaching at Columbia university in New York took the international world of Shakespeare by storm with a brilliant idea, an intimate history of the playwright through the prism of a single year. 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare was one of those books that seems so obvious it's amazing no one had thought of it before.
Shapiro's chosen date was inspired: the annus mirabilis in which Shakespeare wrote Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar and As You Like It, back to back, and probably completed a first draft of Hamlet, not to mention revising several sonnets. When I reviewed the book I called it "an unforgettable illumination of a crucial moment in the life of our greatest writer".
Then came the curse of the sequel. Word filtered back from the publishers that Shapiro's next book would pull the same trick with 1605/06, the year of Macbeth and King Lear. Seasons passed. Shakespeare's life continued to pop up on the bestseller lists, David Tennant's Hamlet came and went. Finally, in January, along came the first proof of Shapiro's new book. But no, it was not about 1605 or 1606. Entitled Contested Will, it bore a fatal subtitle, "Who Wrote Shakespeare?". Apparently, Professor Shapiro had gone over to the dark side, the blasted heath of the authorship question.
Even in his own time, Shakespeare drove people mad with his modest Stratford origins. In 1592, rival dramatist Robert Greene made a deathbed attack on the "conceit" of the "upstart crow" from the provinces who considered himself "the onely Shake-scene". For Greene, and every subsequent Shakespeare conspiracy theorist, there was something enraging about the poet's genius. The explanation must be that Shakespeare was not original but an impostor "beautified with our feathers".
Later generations went further. There was such an unbridgeable chasm between the complex brilliance of the plays and what they reveal about their author's education and experience, on the one hand, and the bare facts of Shakespeare's life, on the other, that a better explanation than "genius" had to be found. Unquestionably, said the "anti-Stratfordians", as they came to be known, the recorded life of the man called Shakespeare could not possibly yield the astonishing universality and dazzling invention of the canon.
They had a point. All we know for certain is that Shaxpere, Shaxberd, or Shakespear, was born in Stratford in 1564, that he was an actor whose name is printed, with the names of his fellow actors, in the collected edition of his plays in 1623. We know that he married Anne Hathaway, and died in 1616, according to legend, on his birthday, St George's Day. The so-called "Stratfordian" case for Shakespeare rests on these, and a few other facts, but basically, that's it.
Into this vacuum, a bizarre fraternity, including Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Sigmund Freud, have projected a "Shakespeare" written by a more obviously accomplished writer: Edward de Vere (the 17th earl of Oxford), Sir Francis Bacon and the playwright Christopher Marlowe, to name the leading contenders in a field that also includes Sir Walter Raleigh, John Donne and even Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen herself.
This is the delusional world that Shapiro has chosen to explore in Contested Will. He justifies his investigation with an assertion of scholarly daring – "this subject remains virtually taboo in academic circles" – and claims that his interest is less in what people think about the authorship question, more why they think it. "My attitude", he goes on, "derives from living in a world in which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story."
In fairness to "mainstream media", even the most half-baked investigative journalism would swiftly dismiss the main contenders. Starting with Shakespeare's great rival, Christopher Marlowe, who happens to have been born in the same year, 1564.
The case for Marlowe is a largely American farrago of wishful thinking and speculative fantasy that is typically paranoid and often downright phoney. The maddest of all the anti-Stratfordian plots, the idea was wittily sent up in Tom Stoppard's screenplay for Shakespeare in Love. For the hierophants of the Marlowe Society, however, their playwright was not murdered in a Deptford tavern after a row about "the reckoning" (the bill) but spirited away to France through court connections (Marlowe was a spy). There, for the next 20-odd years, he wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare, smuggling them back to London through diplomatic channels.
Only slightly less loopy is the theory that Francis Bacon is the true and secret hand behind the plays. The Baconians owe their ideas to the first of several conspiracy-minded Americans, a charismatic 19th-century bluestocking named Delia Bacon.
Sir Francis Bacon had long been recognised as a Renaissance great: scientist, courtier, philosopher, jurist – and writer. On a conventional analysis, as Shapiro makes clear, just about the only thing at which he did not try his hand were plays or poems. That was no problem for Delia Bacon. A close reading of Julius Caesar, King Lear and Coriolanus, she declared, revealed the collective effort of a "little clique of disappointed and defeated politicians" fighting a desperate covert battle against the "despotism" of Elizabeth and James I.
Delia Bacon was a formidable advocate for her namesake. Of course no one individual could possibly have written the plays attributed to Shakespeare. He was little better than a "pet horse-boy at Blackfriars", "an old showman and hawker of plays", an out-and-out "stupid, illiterate, third-rate play actor". The catchy vehemence of her arguments eventually got debated by two riverboat pilots on the Mississippi, one of whom, Samuel Clemens, would become the most famous writer in the United States, Mark Twain. But it was not until the very end of his career that the author of Huckleberry Finn returned to Bacon's theories. At a dinner at his house in January 1909, Twain's circle decided that it was possible to find the coded signature FRANCISCO BACONO in a sequence of letters from the First Folio.
Those who are devoted to the belief that Edward de Vere is the real author of the canon have to swallow almost as much hocus pocus. Despite his inconveniently early death in 1604 – before Macbeth, King Lear, Coriolanus, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest were written and/or staged – de Vere continues to fascinate the anti-Stratfordians for whom the plays are the surrogate autobiography of a secretive literary earl. This Oxford caucus derives a good deal of its confidence from the advocacy of Sigmund Freud. Possibly more embarrassing to the father of psychoanalysis, Freud's views are based on one book, "Shakespeare" Identified by John Thomas Looney, another American.
Looney would probably have been forgotten but for the appearance in 1984 of Charlton Ogburn's The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality. As well as marshalling the best evidence for Oxford, Ogburn arranged for his "case" to be formally tried by three US Supreme Court justices in September 1987. This stunt, which awkwardly went against Ogburn, persuaded the New York Times to ventilate the question, "Who wrote William Shakespeare?"
By the turn of the millennium, the anti-Stratfordian case was flying so high that Jim Jarmusch, director of Mystery Train was reported to have said: "I think it was Christopher Marlowe" who wrote Shakespeare's plays, a conclusion that no sensible person can sustain for a moment, as Shapiro amply demonstrates.
So what possessed Shapiro to undertake this wild goose chase? The Observer decided to put "Who wrote Shakespeare?" to a cross-section of our greatest contemporary Shakespeare actors and directors to see if there was any support for Shapiro's quest.
First, I wanted to know if the "anti-Stratfordian" case had any artistic credibility. As a corollary, I asked: did my interlocutors have a sense of an individual author? Who, from their experience, was Shakespeare? And finally, based on their intimate knowledge of the plays in performance, was there any particular passage in which, intuitively, they felt that Shakespeare, the famously invisible author, revealed himself? I concede, in advance of this investigation, that I have never seriously questioned Shakespeare's authorship of the plays attributed to his name. I go to Shakespeare in performance almost every month, and the authentic singularity of his vision rarely fails to move and impress. Still, that's an amateur view. What would the professionals say?
My first meeting was with the former director of the Globe theatre, Mark Rylance, an actor who was once described by Al Pacino as playing Shakespeare "like Shakespeare wrote it for him the night before".
Rylance, who wears two hats, actor and director, with Elizabethan ease, is a celebrated refusenik. He believes that the person he insists on calling "the Stratford man" was little more than a front for a powerful literary cabal that almost certainly included Bacon. "There is a genius at work in here somewhere", he says when we meet, "but it's not William Shakespeare. A lot of other people were gathered around those plays." Rylance finds a compelling logic in the Shakespeare conspiracy theories: "The nature of authorship was different then," he argues.
Rylance is a fascinating case, a fine stage actor currently starring in Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem. On closer examination, his belief in the Bacon theory is an assertion of the value of theatrical collaboration, against the tyranny of a single artistic source. Rylance, who has the ideas and demeanour of a countercultural guru from the 70s, finds "the idea of the single genius at work here very damaging to the confidence of younger playwrights".
Rylance says he wants "the Stratford man" to be admired as a theatrical wrangler, a kind of super producer. He is publicly supported by Sir Derek Jacobi, and even Vanessa Redgrave who, in her recent Bafta speech hinted at a sympathy with the "anti-Stratfordian" position.
Generally, when you approach the Shakespeare question with most contemporary directors the American conspiracies melt into thin air. Adrian Noble, who ran the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1991 to 2002, declares that he is "a Stratfordian". Noble has recently published How To Do Shakespeare (Routledge, 2009), an insider's account based on his own intimate experience of Shakespeare in production.
For Noble, there's no doubt about the single authorship of the plays. Shakespeare "creates a universe, inhabits it imaginatively, and it's unique", he says, sitting front of house at the Bankside Globe. "His lines always stand out; they have a distinct authenticity." Shakespeare, adds Noble, "has this remarkable ear for the cadence of ordinary speech, for example in a character like the shepherd Corin in As You Like It, and you can always hear his mind working in the lines."
Does he recognise the character of the author? "I have an overwhelming sense of the man," he says. "And I believe he was a drinker." More seriously, A Midsummer Night's Dream "tells us he was stage-struck with wonder at the make-believe of the theatre". There's also "his humanity" – a word that crops up a lot in conversations about Shakespeare. Talking about the man, Noble struggles momentarily and then comes up with a formula for an explanation of the mystery that will recur in my later conversations. "It's like Mozart," he says, citing the other most celebrated example of inexplicable, even divine, genius. Confronted with the mystery of Shakespeare's extraordinary gifts, Noble has no time for the anti-Stratfordians. The idea that Bacon or some cabal wrote the plays is, on the basis of his experience, "utter nonsense. We know more than we think about Shakespeare. The more I work on him, the clearer his work becomes."
Deborah Warner also derives her sense of Shakespeare the man from the texts. She has directed Shakespeare's valedictory play The Tempest three times, and always finds "an overwhelming sense of an author". She goes on: "It becomes very hard to imagine the plays were not written by one man." She detects in the Duke's harsh treatment of Lucio in Measure for Measure a glimpse of Shakespeare's loathing for treacherous duplicity and backstabbing.
Summarising the playwright's genius, Warner quotes Laurence Olivier that with Shakespeare we touch "the face of God". For her, there is no other playwright to rival him. Not Euripides; not Chekhov. "With Shakespeare you get a benign and tolerant celebration of the human. And he's universal. His plays flow through the world's imagination on a daily basis." Warner adds: "I feel myself changed by every reacquaintance with his work." Like her colleagues, she speaks warmly and personally about the man. " He is like a great associate director. You feel as though you are being shadowed." The ecstasy with which Warner expresses her love for the man and the work (she's certain he was bisexual) is echoed in her concluding thought: "What Shakespeare does – whoever he was – is make you proud to be human."
Simon Russell Beale expresses his obsession – the word is hardly too strong – in a slightly different way. Sitting in a cluttered cubby hole at the National theatre, he is talking about his life and work as a Shakespearean actor, his experience of the great roles (Hamlet, Malvolio, Iago), and the playwright's fascination with masks and deception – Russell Beale has a strong sense of the writer behind the plays – when he breaks into an aside. "You know, it's rather embarrassing to admit this, but I was watching a documentary about the effect of global warming and the imminent destruction of the planet, and my first thought was: 'What will happen to Shakespeare?'"
Shapiro would doubtless have some psychological explanation for this. He is primarily an academic for whom the "anti-Stratfordian" conspiracy theories have an abstract, theoretical appeal. But that's not an approach that finds much sympathy among acclaimed directors such as Peter Hall or Trevor Nunn, who both believe that it's impossible to overlook how deeply the playwright was a native of Warwickshire who never completely forgot his origins.
Even the anti-Stratfordians must concede this point. Warwickshire words are scattered through his lines, like poppies in a wheat field. When, in Macbeth, Banquo is described as "blood bolter'd" (having his hair matted with blood), it is not difficult to imagine Shakespeare remembering that in Warwickshire snow is sometimes said to balter on horses' feet.
Peter Hall, who founded and directed the RSC from 1960 to 1968, finds the playwright's Stratford roots essential to our understanding of the man. For Hall, there are two parts to any rebuttal of the anti-Stratfordians. First, the facts. "There's a surprising amount of evidence for the existence of Shakespeare the playwright." Second, there's what he calls "the aesthetic proof".
Take any play, not just A Midsummer Night's Dream with its pastoral "bank, where the wild thyme grows", and you find it braided with country scenes, characters and imagery straight from Warwickshire. You cannot, says Hall, mistake "the sheer bloody Englishness of the whole thing". Here Hall cites the humanity, tolerance and nonjudgmental temper of Shakespeare's work.
When we meet at the Rose theatre in Kingston-on-Thames, Hall who is pushing 80 but impressively vigorous, is basking in rave reviews for his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, starring Judi Dench, and is happy to acknowledge that he has directed "I think 32" plays from the canon.
When I ask him, "Who wrote William Shakespeare?" he exclaims, "Oh please, come on! Francis Bacon could no more have written Shakespeare than he could fly." What was Shakespeare like? "I think he was very charming and quite withdrawn. He wouldn't offer much until he knew who he was dealing with. I'd say he was guarded." (In Shakespeare folklore, the poet is described as "not a company-keeper".)
In Hall's mind, there is no question that Shakespeare is the greatest writer who ever lived. "He is so flexible, so ambiguous, and so consistently funny. And just when you think you've got him, he slips through your fingers. His sympathy for, and understanding of, the basic passions of mankind is extraordinary."
Hall observes that critics go on about Shakespeare's dazzling wordplay but points out that he also instinctively understood when he couldn't use words. "There's a stage direction in Coriolanus, 'He holds her by the hand, silent' – which, by the way, is pure Pinter – which says it all." Summarising the attempt to pin the canon on a different donkey, he concludes with exasperation: "I'm afraid this speculation is just a terrible waste of time."
Trevor Nunn, who also directed the fortunes of the RSC for many years, similarly compares Shakespeare conspiracy theories to "bonkers" American speculations about the Apollo moonshot, CIA involvement in 9/11 and the landing of aliens at Roswell, Texas.
He launches into a passionate rebuttal, with reference to the First Folio of 1623, a volume compiled by actors who had actually performed with Shakespeare, containing a foreword by Ben Jonson.
"Who is Ben Jonson?" challenges Nunn. "He is Shakespeare's great rival and a real talent. Garrulous, argumentative, jealous, proud, and deeply committed to exposing hypocrisy and corruption. Not a man to kowtow to nobility or privilege. What does he do? It's Jonson who coins "the Swan of Avon" (ie the declaration that the author of the First Folio is from Stratford), and it's Jonson who declares that he is "for all time" and then claims him as "MY Shakespeare".
"Why on earth," Nunn continues, "would Jonson, who owes nothing to anyone, and who had competed with Shakespeare throughout his professional life, take part in a cover-up to help the Earl of Oxford from admitting that he had anything to do with the theatre?" This, says Nunn, is "game, set and match to Shakespeare".
As an example of how impossible it is to imagine Bacon or Oxford writing the plays, he alludes to the brilliant detail, from the history plays, of the nuisance problem of fleas breeding in the corners of taverns where men have been pissing. Thus the conversation has come back to Shakespeare's provincial origins. Nunn repeats the story of the RSC actor who encountered two Warwickshire rustics trimming stakes in a hedge. "I rough hews them," said the first, "and he shapes their ends."
So why the impulse to explain Shakespeare with heterodox fantasies? This, says Nunn, is a longstanding English problem: "To accept that someone from the lower orders, not formally educated at Oxford or Cambridge, could be a genius is very hard for us." And, of course, concedes Nunn, "there is a human appetite for mystery ... For myself, I don't feel the need to see him as a character, but I do feel the need to have a sense of him in the room, and I do have that.
He adds: "Shakespeare– and this is his genius – always says: 'This is who we are'. He is the greatest humanist who ever lived. No one understands forgiveness like Shakespeare." There is no question for Nunn that he is "the greatest playwright the world has ever seen".