We are often told that Shakespeare’s genius and imagination supplied everything necessary to write all his works. “A man may write of love, and not be in love, as well of husbandry, and not go to plough, or of witches, and be none,” the Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro writes in his 2011 book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, quoting the Elizabethan poet Giles Fletcher. “It’s as apt a description of the author of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, As You Like It, and Macbeth as any I know.”
While Shapiro is surely right that Shakespeare’s rich poetic imagination supplied all sorts of details in his writings that need not have been based on direct experience, he lightly dismisses the fundamental mystery that underlies the authorship debate. Genius and imagination alone can’t explain Shakespeare. A vast array of specialized knowledge is also needed.
A man may write of gravediggers, as Shakespeare did in Hamlet, and be none. But when the gravediggers’ conversation became an extended lampoon of the 1561 legal case Hales v. Petit, held in London some four decades previously and documented only in Norman French, a technical language used exclusively by lawyers, Shakespeare is revealing that he has specialized knowledge of an ancient law case, not that he had a good imagination. Throughout Contested Will, Shapiro never once informs readers of the mystery posed by Hales v. Petit.
As another example, Shapiro is disingenuous in informing readers that “A curious Shakespeare could have learned everything he needed to know about the Italian settings of his plays from a few choice conversations.” Shapiro fails to mention that Shakespeare not only knew many obscure facts about Italian geography and customs, he also used some half-dozen Italian works of literature that had not yet been printed in English as essential play sources. The Italian language was not taught in the Elizabethan grammar schools, and it typically takes years of dedicated study to become sufficiently fluent in a language to read its literature with understanding and insight. The fact that Shakespeare drew heavily upon untranslated Italian sources is inherently interesting, and a small window into the author’s lived experience. Could a curious Shakespeare have picked up enough Italian in “a few choice conversations” to read original works of Italian literature? Of course not. The author was either fluent in Italian (a very surprising fact if he were William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon), or had extensive access to Italian translations from a friend’s collection, which for some reason were not published. Either way we have learned something illuminating...