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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? [Paperback]

James Shapiro
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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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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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? + A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare: 1599
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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
By Paolo TOP 1000 REVIEWER
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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15 of 17 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.
39 of 53 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.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An innoculation for anti-Stratford fever Oct. 11 2013
By Jax - Published on
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I have had an interest--not intense, but ongoing--in the "Shakespeare didn't write it" controversy since I was in college, learning that I would probably not make a good English teacher, after all. Similarly, I have had an occasional interest in the question of Homer's authorship. I ran across a book, "North of Shakespeare,", by Dennis McCarthy, which put forward a candidate I had not seen mentioned previously, to wit, Thomas North, the translator of Plutarch. McCarthy's thesis was a sort of hybrid, in much the same way as Tycho Brahe's attempt to save a geocentric universe was a hybrid. Tycho Brahe suggested that the planets did revolve around the Sun, just as Copernicus had theorized, but the Sun revolved around the Earth, as Ptolemy had said. It was not a popular theory. So, turning back to Shakespeare, Dennis McCarthy suggests that Shakespeare really did write, in some sense of that term, the plays credited to him in his lifetime--i.e., the "bad" quartos, the plays that are considered spurious, etc.,--but he was just an adapter for the stage of the real plays, the works of literary genius, which were written by Thomas North. Now, "North of Shakespeare" was published after "Contested Will" so one might think that the earlier book couldn't refute the arguments of the later one. But one would be wrong. The value of "Contested Will" is that it shows that the anti-Stratfordians--the ones who deny that Shakespeare was a literary genius--all tend to make the same kind of dubious assumptions, such as the necessity of a strong auto-biographical element in any composition of fiction; and all tend to underrate the extent to which plays back then were crafted by more than one author. The crafting of the plays with co-authors shouldn't diminish one's respect for Shakespeare's literary genius, but it should diminish or eliminate bardolatry, the tendency to treat the author of Shakespeare's plays as a god, or at least a demi-god, whoever you think wrote them. As it turns out, "North of Shakespeare" follows the same script that is used by prior authors to show that the Earl of Oxford, or Bacon, or whoever, wrote Shakespeare. "Contested Will" doesn't settle every controversy; it doesn't answer every question; it won't specifically refute every allegation: but anybody who wants to argue that William Shakespeare of Stratford wasn't the author of his plays really needs to come up with a novel line of argument.
4 of 5 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.
20 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great scholarly book on the authorship of Shakespeare's plays May 30 2011
By Elvin Ortiz - Published on
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In America, the debate is about who killed JFK. This argument was preceded about two hundred years ago by who wrote Shakespeare's plays. Shapiro offers an exhaustive account on why people began to question Shakespeare as the author of plays. He starts off with an American named Delia Bacon, continues on with Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, and the list goes on. It's quite interesting to see how important names in literary history fall in the trap of believing things that are supported by pseudo research. From revealing secret codes, to communicating with ghosts of Shakespeare's era, to concocting stories of incestuous relationships between Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Oxford (who was supposed to be the queen's son and lover) that dwarfs JFK and Marilyn Monroe's scandalous relationship considerably. None of the supporters of Oxford or Bacon have ever completed a true research that merits to call these men the true authors. Part of the problem is modernity, explains Shapiro. There is misunderstanding about the world in which Shakespeare lived. Modern readers try to understand Shakespeare's world through our modern perspectives. Hence, Shapiro illustrates how Samuel Morse's invention of the Morse code strongly influenced Delia Bacon and Mark Twain's theories about the Shakespeare controversy. He also dedicates much of the text in explaining the influence of literary theory and popular culture, which strongly believed that autobiographical material always has to be found in works of art. Shapiro examines the culture of Shakespeare's days through serious research to contrast the publishing and theatrical world of those days with ours. There is no doubt that this text is groundbreaking in this controversy. It's based on hard work and it is thoroughly researched. Highly recommended!
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