The Hidden God
In London in the 1940s a man named Percy Allen, overwhelmed by grief at the death of his brother, sought out the renowned psychic of the day, Hester Dowden. Through Dowden’s primary connection to the dead—an ancient Athenian named Johannes—Allen spoke at length to his recently deceased brother. Astounded by Dowden’s occult talents, Allen decided that she could assist him professionally as well: Allen, president of the Shakespeare Fellowship—a group that believed the Earl of Oxford was the author of Shakespeare’s plays—returned to Dowden and asked her to summon the spirit of the Earl of Oxford, or Shakespeare, or Francis Bacon. Dowden—fortuitously enough the daughter of a Shakespeare scholar—managed to summon all three, and they confirmed that Oxford was indeed the man. Oxford was even generous enough to relay a few unpublished verses. Allen ecstatically published his discussions and findings in Talks With Elizabethans in 1947. This was not the first time Dowden had precipitated a book’s publication: Alfred Dodd’s The Immortal Master, in which the ghost of Francis Bacon assures Dodd of his own claim to Shakespeare’s oeuvre, was released in 1943.
The history of the travails of Shakespeare skeptics is fantastic: psychics, ciphers, dredged rivers, illicit affairs, brilliant forgeries, and famous tombs all swirl through James Shapiro’s entertaining and insightful recounting of the Shakespeare authorship controversy. These mystery-novel elements can be traced back to one single—and irreparable—heartbreak: Shakespeare’s contemporaries missed the opportunity to record the details of his life or the impressions of his friends. By the late eighteenth century, when a ravenous desire to know the man behind the plays emerged, it was simply too late. Adding insult to injury, the sparse details that did remain of Shakespeare’s life painted a far too churlish portrait: a will in which he bequeaths his wife the “second best” bed, a legal document suing a neighbor for a paltry sum. There are many examples in Shapiro’s book of what people over the centuries have found unthinkable—but the first was the hardening reality that the life of the man from Stratford, already a “literary deity” by the 1730s, would really never be known.