If his supporters are correct, the 17th Earl of Oxford would not have been surprised to have been contacted over 300 years after his death and asked how he managed to write the Complete Works of Shakespeare without anybody finding out. In fact, as of course befits the aristocracy, the Earl was most accommodating and even invited the spirit of William Shakespeare along to help explain how they did it. Even better, Oxford produced some new verse in the same style to demonstrate. At this point Shapiro notes, sadly, that the Earl's posthumous compositions weren't really up to Shakespearian standards.
He takes a similar approach throughout this excellent book. To take on the conspiracy theorists (I refuse to call them Anti-Stratfordians), James Shapiro gives them what they ask for and takes them seriously, explaining not just their viewpoint but the underlying assumptions that got them there. Knowing all the while, of course, that by doing so he will be allowing them to start holding séances with deceased noblemen, claiming that the Earl of Oxford was the son and incestuous lover of Queen Elizabeth on whom he fathered the Earl of Southampton or indulging in spectacular feats of circular logic:
"Why is there no mention of the plays being written by someone else?"
"It was such common knowledge that no one ever mentioned it"
"How can you tell?"
"By the fact that nobody ever mentioned it"
The only thing that rattles him at all is the increasingly prevalent belief in our culture that "balance" and "impartiality" bestow the right of equal coverage on any theorist who shouts loud enough regardless of the sanity of their theory.
Fortunately, this is not a book which wastes its time examining the detailed claims of Oxfordians and others. It's about this thought: wasn't it fortunate that that the aristocrat who condescended to deliver us their uncredited genius ended up writing Shakespeare's plays, not somebody else's? Imagine going to all that trouble and ending up writing Ralph Roister Doister or the works of Thomas Dekker. That for Shapiro is the point; the reason Shakespeare suffers from this nonsense is because we decided that simply being an exceptionally talented writer of some brilliant dramas wasn't enough and we (and David Garrick especially) spent the 18th century setting him up as the "Divine Poet of the English Nation". Of course where men create gods, agnostics will surely follow and Shapiro draws clear historical parallels between the growth of religious scepticism and the questioning of Shakespeare's authorship in the early 19th century.
Why does it persist? For Shapiro it's because our prevalent culture has bought into the myth that that it is only possible to write about what you have yourself personally experienced - therefore, if William Shakespeare hadn't been to Italy, he couldn't have written plays set there. On that logic, of course he would have had to have been to Ancient Rome as well, but Shapiro notes that insistence on autobiography is always combined with careful cherry picking the plots - as far as we know, there were no well known Elizabethan aristocrats who were separated from their twin brother in the company of a similarly separated pair of twin servant brothers and who later...
Of course, the idea that autobiography is the only true literature would have been incomprehensible to writers at the turn of the 17th Century, and it's in the final section when Shapiro strips away the centuries and puts Shakespeare back into his own world, the London theatre of the twenty years from 1590 to 1610 that he truly ends the debate. When he talks about the techniques of printing and publishing at the time, the ownership rules of the plays, the way Shakespeare's writing evolved with the theatres he worked in, how he clearly wrote with specific actors in mind (to the point of naming them in the texts instead of the characters) and - above all - how he worked with other writers, not just topping and tailing each others' scripts, but clearly writing scenes together, then you understand completely that the professional actor and theatre manager from Stratford is not just a perfectly plausible candidate for the authorship, he's the only plausible candidate.
Shapiro knows his history and knows his Shakespeare and, as he says himself, for many that in itself makes him part of the conspiracy (pinpointing as of course the exact moment where circular logic tips into Orwellian double-think). For that reason, this book will make little difference to those who are committed to the only conspiracy ever perpetrated against a nobleman on behalf an ordinary man in the history of the English nation. But for anyone who's tempted to buy into such nonsense, be they psychologists, documentary makers and, above all, ageing classical actors who really should know better, it's absolutely essential.