For two centuries, people have argued passionately over the vexed question: who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? James Shapiro writes a fascinating intellectual history of the authorship question, ranging from early hopes that the plays could be traced to Francis Bacon, thence to wishes that Christopher Marlowe survived his murder, and finally to those who have long argued that Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the plays. Much has been made of various biographical similarities between Oxford and Shakespearean characters – Oxford had three daughters and was once abducted by pirates — but Shapiro observes this entire line of argument has always assumed that fiction is essentially autobiographical, and that this Romantic notion was deeply alien to Elizabethan and Jacobean thought.

The Oxfordian cause has attracted a strange crew of followers – Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Antonin Scalia – many of whom have come to doubt that a common man with common experiences could write these plays. Shapiro suggests what these proponent have held in common, too often, has been a longing for a vanished world in which the authority of fathers held sway.