The result is an absolutely fascinating book about changing ideas of art, authorship, and genius; more than anything, it's about the risks of ahistorical thinking, and of looking at people in the distant past as if they were our contemporaries, their thoughts, emotions, and actions as clearly understandable and interpretable as our own.
The book is full of interesting figures and incidents, some of the best having to do with the Baconian camp and their search for coded evidence of Francis Bacon's authorship. Key for the Baconians was The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in the so-Called Shakespeare Plays (1888)--a book whose title could hold its own with those of any of today's sensationalist pop histories--by Ignatius Donnelly. Donnelly's explanation of how a laborious application of Bacon's cipher to Shakespeare's works revealed hidden messages caught the eye of such luminaries as Mark Twain and Helen Keller, despite the fact that, Shapiro explains, his use of the cipher was a complete mess:
Even with his complex arithmetical scheme, Donnelly had to fudge his word cipher, which was based on the numerical distance between his arbitrarily chosen key words. Worse still, he constantly miscounted in order to arrive at satisfying results. Cryptologists who have examined his method have concluded that he "described Bacon's own cipher without understanding it" and "showed a fatal inclination to sieze on whole words which happen to be in both the vehicle and the message to be deciphered." It also turned out that his cipher could produce virtually any message one wanted to find.As I read, I kept thinking of one of the funniest moments in all of P. G. Wodehouse's work: when, in "The Reverent Wooing of Archibald," a young Mulliner nephew gets buttonholed by a Baconian:
The aunt inflated her lungs.Shapiro is sensitive enough to human foibles and the turns of history that his portrayals evoke not murderous rage but, most often, sympathy, and even pity for hours and years and lives wasted in fruitless search of a chimera. Sure, there are forgers and charlatans aplenty, but they're outweighed by the number of genuine seekers who latched onto this idea out of misguided feelings of affinity with the author of such great works, and a misplaced certainty that genius could never have had so humble a human home as that suggested by the meager facts of Shakespeare's biography.
“These figure totals,” she said, “are always taken out in the Plain Cipher, A equalling one to Z equals twenty-four. The names are counted in the same way. A capital letter with the figures indicates an occasional variation in the Name Count. For instance, A equals twenty-seven, B twenty-eight, until K equals ten is reached, when K, instead of ten, becomes one, and T instead of nineteen, is one, and R or Reverse, and so on, until A equals twenty-four is reached. The short or single Digit is not used here. Reading the Epitaph in the light of the Cipher, it becomes: ‘What need Verulam for Shakespeare? Francis Bacon England’s King be hid under a W. Shakespeare? William Shakespeare. Fame, what needst Francis Tudor, King of England? Francis. Francis W. Shakespeare. For Francis thy William Shakespeare hath England’s King took W. Shakespeare. Then thou our W. Shakespeare Francis Tudor bereaving Francis Bacon Francis Tudor such a tomb William Shakespeare.’”
The speech to which he had been listening was unusually lucid and simple for a Baconian, yet Archibald, his eye catching a battle-axe that hung on the wall, could not but stifle a wistful sigh. How simple it would have been, had he not been a Mulliner and a gentleman, to remove the weapon from its hook, spit on his hands, and haul off and dot this doddering old ruin one just above the imitation necklace.