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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? [Paperback]

James Shapiro
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Book Description

April 19 2011
For more than two hundred years after William Shakespeare's death, no one doubted that he had written his plays. Since then, however, dozens of candidates have been proposed for the authorship of what is generally agreed to be the finest body of work by a writer in the English language. In this remarkable book, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro explains when and why so many people began to question whether Shakespeare wrote his plays. Among the doubters have been such writers and thinkers as Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Mark Twain, and Helen Keller. It is a fascinating story, replete with forgeries, deception, false claimants, ciphers and codes, conspiracy theories—and a stunning failure to grasp the power of the imagination.

As Contested Will makes clear, much more than proper attribution of Shakespeare’s plays is at stake in this authorship controversy. Underlying the arguments over whether Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays are fundamental questions about literary genius, specifically about the relationship of life and art. Are the plays (and poems) of Shakespeare a sort of hidden autobiography? Do Hamlet, Macbeth, and the other great plays somehow reveal who wrote them?

Shapiro is the first Shakespeare scholar to examine the authorship controversy and its history in this way, explaining what it means, why it matters, and how it has persisted despite abundant evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays attributed to him. This is a brilliant historical investigation that will delight anyone interested in Shakespeare and the literary imagination.

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The New Yorker

"Shapiro is an engaging and elegant guide . . . a masterful work of literary history, an empathetic chronicle of eccentricity, and a calmly reasoned vindication of 'the Stratford man.'"
—Kevin O'Kelly, The Boston Globe

"James Shapiro is an erudite Shakespearean and a convincing one. . . . A bravura performance."
—Saul Rosenberg, The Wall Street Journal

"It is authoritative, lucid and devastatingly funny, and its brief concluding statement of the case for Shakespeare is masterly."
—John Carey, The Sunday Times (London)

About the Author

James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1985. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, he studied at Columbia and the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books, most recently A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. He has been awarded numerous fellowships and grants from institutions such as the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. He has written for The New York Times, the Financial Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. Mr. Shapiro lives in New York with his wife and son.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting if not overly academic. Aug. 13 2011
I used to be what I guess you could call a casual Baconian. Without having read into the authorship debate in the slightest it was quite easy to pick up on casual references in the media. It was also a good flight of fancy to imagine the man who essentially invented the scientific method could also be the genuine source of what is the jewel in England's cultural crown. However, thanks to James Shapiro's book I am now pretty firmly of the belief that the glovers' son from Stratford was the true author of the plays.

In the book Shapiro examines the arguments for two of the leading candidates in the authorship debate, Francis Bacon and Edward De Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Only when you study the arguments for these guys do you realise how nonsensical they are. Arguments that William Shakespeare didn't write the plays attributed to him (authorship which had not been challenged until the late Eighteenth Century) are based on the assumption that to have written the plays the author must have been a nobleman, familiar with the law and life in the Elizabethan court, with a university education, attributes, from what the documentary evidence indicates, that certainly cannot be applied to the glovers' son from Stratford. This would only be true if in the writing the plays the author was being autobiographical and wrote from experience never mind the fact that Elizabethan autobiography essential didn't exist outside ecclesiastical writings.

Finally Shapiro makes the argument for Shakespeare himself, detailing references to Shakespeare by contemporary authors such as Ben Jonson and recent textual studies into co-authorship, including five of Shakespeare's last ten plays, which strongly undermines the Oxfordian case.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sweep away this madness... Aug. 13 2013
By Kirk McElhearn - Published on
I'd always ignored the so-called Shakespeare authorship question, because I think it's irrelevant. I don't care who wrote Shakespeare's plays, because it's the plays that count, not the man. But I decided to read James Shapiro's Contested Will out of curiosity about how the theory that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare took hold.

It so happens that I'm familiar with a lot of the backstory - the rise of biblical criticism and the questioning of who Homer was - that serve as a foundation to the earliest anti-Stratfordian theories. It's easy to understand how, in the early 19th century, people who felt this approach so important could be convinced that another great author was not who he seemed. But as time went by, this became a story of lies, deceit and forgery, as well as convoluted conspiracy theories.

Deep down, it seems that there are two essential elements that come into play. The first is that, according to skeptics, there is no way the son of a glover could have written so eloquently about so many things. His limited education could not have enabled him to write such profound plays. As if in the nature vs. nurture argument, only nurture counts. This has been proven wrong with many artists, musicians and authors who came from humble beginnings, so it seems like a moot point, and surprises me that so many people bring up this point to deny Shakespeare's legitimacy.

The second element is the belief, which became prevalent in the romantic period, that all art is personal; that art reflects personal experiences. If this is the case, the skeptics say, then Shakespeare, who never visited Italy, could not have written about Italy. This argument seems childish to me; could a writer who has never visited Mars write about that planet? Could one who wasn't alive in the middle ages write a novel about the period? It's obvious that Shakespeare was a cosmopolitan man, in contact with people who traveled, and a few discussions in a pub would have given him enough information to write about Italy, or any other country.

Of the many possible alternate Shakespeares, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, has become the most accepted candidate. This has as much to do with books being published about him as it does with the oddity of the theories behind his authorship. Since he died in 1604, before Shakespeare wrote many of the plays, there is much massaging of evidence to prove that he was the one. He would have, the Oxfordians say, written the plays before his death, and had Shakespeare "write" them over time. Elaborate ciphers are used to find hidden messages in the texts of Shakespeare's plays, pointing to Oxford. Yet this would have required a massive conspiracy reaching as far as typesetters and printers...

Contested Will looks at the various anti-Stratfordian theories, but also their genesis, and shows how these theories developed, as well as how they are all wrong. Read it if you're interested in the history of ideas, and how a conspiracy theory of this type could take root.
37 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating book about the frailty of human beings who yearn to believe strange things. June 29 2010
By Robert S. Hanenberg - Published on
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There is something about Shakespeare scholarship which engenders greatness: Greenblatt, Kermode, Wells, Shapiro, Bate, Bloom--these are not dry scholars, but deep thinkers, writers of powerful prose, all with a profound sense of life in other times. None of them believes that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's works.

But there is a long tradition that Francis Bacon or Edward deVere (or many others) wrote Shakespeare's works, and that somehow generations of scholars have been fooled. Why anyone would think anything so preposterous on the face of it, has always interested me. I once put it down to snobbery, that the son of a glove-maker from Stratford could not have been smart enough to write such plays.

But it is more complicated than this. Shapiro's main idea is that many people want to believe that such great writing has to be based on experience, and Shakespeare could not have had the experiences which led to the poems and plays.

Shapiro is a scholar of Shakespeare, but in this book he had to treat many times and subjects, from 19th century positivism to Freud, and had to try to explain why such great thinkers as Mark Twain, Henry James and Sigmund Freud believed that someone else wrote Shakespeare. Surprisingly, Shapiro is respectful of what others would call lunacy. To explain one phase of the movement, which purported to find hidden codes in the plays, he explains how the development the telegraph and Morse code infused the culture of the times.

Shakespeare's poetry is of such extraordinary depth and beauty that it seems that it could only have been written by a man of letters, not an actor. But at the end of the book, Shapiro shows how Shakespeare was above all a man of the theater, and his plays are full of evidence which supports this. We know enough now about the business of operating an Elizabethan theater that we can describe in some detail how Shakespeare was an actor, playwright and businessman of his time. We can see how his plays changed in subject and style when his company moved to an indoor theater, how he wrote plays specifically to use the talents of certain actors, and how he collaborated with others to churn out copy when necessary.

A fascinating book about the frailty of human beings who yearn to believe strange things.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shake & Bake (& Oxford) Oct. 10 2013
By ReasonableGoatPerson - Published on
"Who wrote Shakespeare?" Good question, I thought. And so I read the book.

Shapiro believes Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. But not everyone does. Two of the loudest camps of naysayers are the Baconians and the Oxfordians, arguing pro-Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford respectively. In this book the reader learns the origins of how these two came to be suspected of being the "real" author, as well as learning about some (possibly) surprising people who have doubted; and then the reader learns how and why Shapiro firmly believes that we've always had the right man-- Will S did in fact write those plays and poems. I'll say this: the evidence pro-W.S. is pretty darn persuasive.

If you're hoping to get a good handle on the reasons for favoring the two alternative candidates, this isn't the book for that. It concentrates more on the people advancing the theories-- why these theories may have attracted them-- than the content of the theories. Of course various points in their arguments do come up, but it isn't the main thing. Still, well worth reading.
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A good idea, but disappointing in tone and scholarship Aug. 6 2013
By John D. Lavendoski - Published on
Note: I will explain those things which I did like about this book, as well as give some more background on exactly what I found to be lacking and why I was, ultimately, so disappointed with it.

I was very much looking forward to reading this book, as I expected that Mr. Shapiro would do a very credible job at analyzing the 150+ years of skepticism regarding the authorship of the Shakespearean canon. As a lover of the plays and poems, this is a topic in which I have been interested since seeing the PBS Frontline show "The Shakespeare Mystery" over 20 years ago. Sadly, and perhaps because I expected so much, the book was a major disappointment to me in both tone as well as serious scholarship. Firstly, I will list those things I liked about the book.

I find that Mr. Shapiro's prose style provides enjoyable light reading for both the academically minded and the layman, and his main approach to the topic as a sort of "Historical review of Authorship Skepticism and the Academic Response To It" to be, exactly the RIGHT approach for a mainstream scholar to take as a safeguard against personal bias. His thoughts on the antecedents of the Anti-Stratfordian movement, including comments regarding Malone, Collier and Schmucker are particularly noteworthy. There is a good story to tell here, and, from pre-publication "buzz", I believed that Mr. Shapiro was going to tell it. Mr Shapiro did quite a good job of "setting the table" in terms of describing the 19th century era in which the authorship controversy first burst forth...and then: A complete missed opportunity...

Rather than take a dispassionate view of the case for all major candidates, thereby potentially educating readers on the long and fascinating history of authorship skepticism or the strengths and weaknesses for each candidate, Mr. Shapiro focused on Francis Bacon and The Earl of Oxford and went into an extended psychoanalysis of why he considers all authorship skeptics (including people like Walt Whitman, Henry James, Helen Keller, Mark Twain, etc.) to be mentally deranged in one way or another. In one incredible section, he had the chutzpah to actually attempt to psychoanalyze Sigmund Freud himself (no I am NOT making that up) who was an extremely outspoken skeptic of the traditional authorship viewpoint and a proponent of the Earl of Oxford as the true author.

In another section, Mr. Shapiro makes a series of attacks on the recent work of fellow academic Dr. Roger Stritmatter, a skeptic of Stratfordian authorship, who has written on interlineations and marginalia in a copy of the Geneva Bible which was once owned by the Earl of Oxford. Stritmatter found numerous biblical passages marked therein to be directly echoed in the Shakespeare cannon.

It is universally acknowledged by all sides of this issue that the Geneva Bible was one of the key religious texts consulted by the author of the Shakespeare canon (irrespective of who this person was or was not). Thus, any surviving ANNOTATED copy of a Geneva bible from this era may rightly be viewed an object of intense interest to scholars...especially when the markings correlate to the material used by Shakespeare.

Mr. Shapiro apparently perceives Oxford's past ownership of the bible itself, or perhaps that it was a skeptic, who first conducted the research into the specific interlineations and marginalia in this particular copy, to be such a threat to the traditional Stratford authorship attribution, that he becomes quite heated in his personal attacks on Dr. Stritmatter. It is clear from Mr. Shapiro's writing that he believes that any research which may lead to support for ANY authorship alternatives should be censored by the academic community and completely shielded from the general public...which seems to me to be the exact opposite of what dispassionate scholarly inquiry is all about.

In short (and while the above are only two of many possible examples) I feel that, in terms of viewpoint, one can scarcely envision a more one-sided approach to this entire topic. In terms of tone, the sections of the book dealing with Bacon and Oxford (or anyone supporting those two as authorship candidates) include polemic of the worst sort...and beneath the dignity of the topic.

Last but not least, I would like to comment on the general methodology and scholarship of the book:

Firstly, the book is without detailed footnotes or references, and relies instead on a self styled "Bibliographical Essay". This will be a MAJOR disappointment to those who wish to know ALL the sources of claims by Mr. Shapiro made in a purportedly scholarly work such as this.

Secondly, Mr. Shapiro makes several errors of fact regarding the few period sources and citations revealed in the text itself, including one which is absolutely astounding involving the hyphenation of the name Shake-speare as found in many of the early quartos. This particular error of fact is so huge as to make one question how it is possible for a supposedly serious scholar to have blundered so fundamentally, especially as it forms the cornerstone of one of Mr. Shapiro's own original theories concerning the authorship.

In Conclusion:

If you are open-minded, slightly skeptical, or just curious about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon and decide to read this book, I highly recommend that you do so at your local library so as not to spend hard earned cash. If you already have a completely closed mind on the subject of the authorship, consider any hint of skepticism to be a sign of a neurological disorder and are looking for a cheerleader for that point of will doubtlessly enjoy the book, and will want to buy it at any price.
52 of 81 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Sloppy, Dishonest, and Prejudicial April 5 2013
By Roger A. Stritmatter - Published on
Surveying some of the top-rated reviews of this book the need for a more informed perspective is painfully apparent. James Shapiro's book is not what the five star reviews crack it up to be.

Shapiro is a skilled and persuasive writer, but he is neither a reliable intellectual historian nor a serious scholar of Shakespeare and his age. To my knowledge, the following critical points have not been mentioned by previous reviewers, but they do deserve attention for what they tell us about Shapiro's methodological sloppiness, disregard for factual accuracy, and willingness to participate in what candor can only characterize as a disinformation campaign.

If you don't believe me, read on.....

1) Shapiro erroneously states that the first instance of the hyphenated name "Shake-speare" is on the 1593 quarto of *Venus and Adonis*. It is in the pseudonymous 1594 publication, *Willowbie His Avisa*.

2)He invents (or rather, borrows without attribution) a bogus typographical explanation for the hyphen.

3)That Shapiro's pattern of misrepresentation and avoidance on the matter of the hyphenation of the name is a calculated confidence game is further indicated by the fact that he manages to write a 339 page book on the Shakespearean question without admitting that the title of the 1609 quarto text of the Sonnets is *Shake-speares Sonnets*, i.e. conspicuously spelled with a hyphen.

4)If Shapiro's only errors and misrepresentations concerned the hyphen in the bard's name we might be inclined to dismiss these points as much ado about punctuation. Sadly, there are many further instances of Shapiro's contempt for real scholarship, viz.

He confuses Terence and Seneca in his summary of Francis Meres' *Palladis Tamia,* claiming that "Meres likens modern English writers to ancient Roman ones...when it comes to finding a match for both Plautus and Terence, `the best for comedy and tragedy'" (236).

Needless to say, Meres does not say this; he says that Shakespeare matches Plautus and *Seneca* (one a writer of comedies the other a writer of tragedies). Meres was correct; Terence did not write tragedies.

If you thought that that a highly decorated Columbia literary historian would know this, you would, apparently, be wrong.

5) Shapiro's defense of the traditional view of the bard begins: "When asked how I can be so confident that Shakespeare was [the author of the plays], I point to several kinds of evidence: The first is what early printed texts reveal;' the second, what writers who knew about Shakespeare said about him."

Among the prime pieces of evidence Shapiro uses to support this claim is a 1598 poem by Richard Barnfield, which he reproduces as follows:

And Shakespeare thou, whose honey-flowing Vaine
(Pleasing the World) thy Praises doth obtaine.
Whose Venus, and whose Lucrece (sweet, and chaste)
Thy Name in fames immortal Book have plac't.

Shapiro then remarks: "The rhymes are a bit wooden, but the message is clear: Shakespeare was a writer to be reckoned with" (235).

There's just one problem; Shapiro had a slip of the pen here. Just as he confused Terence and Seneca in reviewing the testimony of Francis Meres, in the case of Richard Barnfield he has again erred, but this time the "error" is clearly one of intent.

Indeed Shapiro here commits a faux pas that, were he a member of a professional society of practicing historians, would have exposed him to professional jeopardy for violating widely shared canons of ethics [...], among which is "Honoring the historical record also means *leaving a clear trail for subsequent historians to follow.*"

Sadly, English professors apparently have less rigorous standards. The stanza he quotes from Barnfield is part of a longer poem, consisting of four stanzas (one each dedicated to Spenser, Daniel and Drayton, and one to Shakespeare) totaling 18 lines. Four consist of four lines each, but the stanza on Shakespeare - edited by Shapiro - is of six lines, four of which he chose to print and *two which he chose not* to:

And Shakespeare thou, whose honey-flowing Vaine
(Pleasing the World) thy Praises doth obtaine.
Whose Venus, and whose Lucrece (sweet, and chaste)
Thy Name in fames immortal Book have plac't.
Live ever you, at least in Fame live ever:
Well may the Bodye dye, but Fame dies never.

One hesitates to speculate on why Shapiro felt it necessary to misrepresent the historical record of Barnfield's testimony; but one thing is sure, he could never have written "the message is clear" if he had presented the stanza in its entirety.

It is difficult to trust a historian who mutilates his sources in this manner.

6) Chopping out the bits that might cause himself or his case to seem somewhat less glamorous is one of Shapiro's habits. His treatment of the Wilmot manuscript fails to mention in his narrative that he first learned of this document from publications recording the research of John Rollett and Dr. Daniel Wright, specifically *Shakespeare Matters* (SM 2:4 (Spring 2001): 1, 7, 33). Shapiro nods to Wright in his Bibliographical Essay in the book's conclusion, but conceals from his readers (except for those who comb the footnotes and know the real history behind the story) the pertinent fact that the Oxfordians were already questioning the legitimacy of this document long before he arrived on the scene, and he learned of it by reading their publications - the same ones he sneers at in his book. This is not the methodology of a scholar - it's the modus operandi of an ideological purist.

6) Shapiro's critique of the Oxfordians causes him to lionize Samuel Mosheim Schmucker, the theologian who vigorously defended Christian fundamentalism against Higher Criticism in his *Historic Doubts Respecting Shakespeare; Illustrating Infidel Objections Against the Bible* (1853). He also misrepresents Schmucker's opinion, as expressed in the actual words of his book, when he writes that Schmucker "never for a moment doubt[ed] that Shakespeare was Shakespeare." How Shapiro can know this he never explains. Apparently he could read Schmucker's mind. Schmucker's actual argument is better summarized by Hank Sanders: "It is easier to believe Jesus rose from the dead than to believe Shaksper wrote Shakespeare."

Most importantly, in relying on Schmucker as one of his favorite orthodox Shakespearean, Shapiro reveals the intellectual hollowness and vapidity of the orthodoxy he so ably represents. As Dr. Heward Wilkinson concludes, "without realizing what he has done, Shapiro, as an argument of convenience, repudiates the whole of trend of modern Higher Critical thought and methodology," painting himself into "a position as obscurantist as the most extreme American Evangelical Fundamentalist Creationist."

7) one of the most interesting and consequential of Shapiro's errors comes in his epilogue, where he grapples with all the problems he has strategically avoided mentioning until that point in time, perhaps in the hopes that the average reader will not actually read to the end of the book or that if he does, he will not be smart enough to realize what a con job the chapter perpetrates:

"Writers, including Shakespeare, were only beginning to speak of individuality in the modern sense....You can search in vain through the handful of Elizabethan works that even touch on the subject of anything that resembles modern notions of social or psychological development."

How does Shapiro illustrate the impoverished psychology of the age of Shakespeare?

"Henry Cuffe, writing about *The Differences in the Ages of Man's Life* in 1660, can't get much beyond choosing between Pythagoras' division of life into the four stages of "childhood, youth, manhood, old age" and Aristotle's tripartite division into childhood, flourishing man-age, and old-age." (272)

Now, this is really quite remarkable. Shapiro is writing about the age of Montaigne and Shakespeare, in which Plutarch and Ovid were bestsellers, and he illustrates the psychology of the age by means of an academic tome by a third-rate Aristotelian! This takes more than the usual chutzpah of the intellectually isolated ivy league specialist; it takes audacity (or foolishness) to act as if Henry Cuffe has any particular pertinence whatsoever to the subject allegedly under discussion, beyond the fact that he was writing during the same period as Shakespeare.

Shapiro is so focused on proving himself right that what he really proves is how badly academicians sometimes comprehend the reality in which they are swimming. One might as well try to prove, four hundred years from now, using Shapiro's own book, that people in the 21st century did not understand Edward de Vere very well. The methods are surprisingly similar. To Shapiro, if it wasn't written in a textbook (or in a book by one of his insider trading pals) it apparently doesn't exist.

It is of course quite true that academic psychology did not exist as a specialized subject in Shakespeare's day, any more than private journals did. University library books were also chained to the desk; the daughters of Mr. Shakspere were at best marginally literate (one could writer her own name, and the other was a "marksman"); and judging by the evidence, the most famous writer in the English language could barely sign his own name

When Montaigne wrote, circa 1581, "I am myself the matter of my book," he was being radical. But his mode of being is far closer to Shakespeare's own than Henry Cuffe's. Many intellectual historians credit Shakespeare with being Freud's greatest teacher; for his part Shakespeare studied psychology in Ovid, Plutarch, the Roman poets, and the Bible (among other sources). He learned about power from those around him, and hated the patriarchal system that robbed young people, girls especially, of the choice to make their own way in the world and seek love. His knowledge of human development, like his understanding of communication, sin, or hubris, is "for all time" - that is one reason he still speaks to us today. All indications are, he knew more about human development than Professor Shapiro does.

In summary, it would seem that James Shapiro has a problem not only with scholarly accuracy but also honesty. An honest book on the authorship question would have acknowledged the complexities and contradictions of early modern culture; it would have followed a methodology of checking sources to avoid making embarrassing mistakes; and above all it and would not have conspicuously deleted and avoided contrary evidence just because it seemed expedient to do so, even at the cost of defrauding readers of the larger truth. Maybe it even would have taught us something about Shakespeare we didn't already think we knew.

Shapiro, sadly, is more interested in reassuring his readers to move along because "there's nothing here to see" than he is in writing a book that honestly addresses the authorship question. And if there is something here to see, he'll be sure to try to make it disappear, just to reassure any readers who might be starting to have doubts.

It is sad to see Shapiro still being cited as an authority whose factual errors are to be ignored, whose ego is to be coddled, whose strategic omissions (Barnfield, etc.) are to be ignored, and whose interpretative misjudgments are placed on an ivy league pedestal.

Here is a history of the Shakespearean authorship question worth reading:

The Shakespeare Controversy: An Analysis of the Claimants to Authorship, and Their Champions and Detractors

If you want to know how the documentary evidence for Mr. Shakspere of Stratford looks compared to that for his contemporaries, this is good: Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem (Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies)

If you are reading for something a little more daring, I recommend:

Shakespeare Suppressed: The Uncensored Truth About Shakespeare and His Works

by K. Chiljan: Shakespeare Suppressed: The Uncensored Truth About Shakespeare and His Works

Shakespeare By Another Name

by Mark K. Anderson: Shakespeare By Another Name

I Come to Bury Shaksper

by Steve Steinburg (aka Steve McClarran): I Come to Bury Shaksper

The latest documentary on the authorship question, also very highly recommended, is

Last Will. & Testament Directed by Lisa and Laura Wilson Last Will. & Testament
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