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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? [Paperback]

James Shapiro
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
Price: 8.99 & FREE Delivery in the UK on orders over 10. Details
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Book Description

6 Jan 2011

For two hundred years after Shakespeare's death, no one thought to argue that somebody else had written his plays. Since then dozens of rival candidates - including Sir Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford - have been proposed as their true author. Contested Will unravels the mystery of when and why so many people began to question whether Shakespeare wrote the plays (among them such leading writers and artists as Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Orson Welles, and Sir Derek Jacobi).

Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro's fascinating search for the source of this controversy retraces a path strewn with fabricated documents, calls for trials, false claimants, concealed identity, bald-faced deception and a failure to grasp what could not be imagined. If Contested Will does not end the authorship question once and for all, it will nonetheless irrevocably change the nature of the debate by confronting what's really contested: are the plays and poems of Shakespeare autobiographical, and if so, do they hold the key to the question of who wrote them?

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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber (6 Jan 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571235778
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571235773
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 20.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 18,861 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'I devoured this book. Shapiro guides us through this strange history with a beguiling mixture of scepticism and sympathy. Packed with many fine pen-portraits, it's a timely contribution to a vexed debate.' --Simon Russell Beale

'Shapiro's book is… authoritative, lucid and devastatingly funny, and its brief concluding statement of the case for Shakespeare is masterly.' --Peter Carey, Sunday Times

'Unlike most other books on the subject ... it is a pleasure to read. Like its splendid predecessor, 1599: A year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), it is briskly paced, cleverly detailed, elegantly argued, and never forgets that for all the complexities and quiddities of the material, the writing of history is essentially the telling of a story (or in this case, the story of a story).' --Charles Nicoll, Times Literary Supplement

'A lucid, often funny examination.' --Sunday Times

'Unlike most other books on the subject ... it is a pleasure to read. Like its splendid predecessor, 1599: A year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), it is briskly paced, cleverly detailed, elegantly argued, and never forgets that for all the complexities and quiddities of the material, the writing of history is essentially the telling of a story (or in this case, the story of a story).' --Charles Nicoll, Times Literary Supplement

Book Description

From the bestselling author of 1599, an investigation into who wrote Shakespeare's plays

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Alarming Triumph for Obvious Common Sense 27 Jun 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
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63 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bard Deniers 18 April 2010
By Diacha
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Professor James Shapiro's "Contested Will" is an entertaining and scholarly romp through the history of the dispute about who wrote Shakespeare's plays.

Shapiro writes with commanding authority - his scholarship is evident throughout, down to the very minutiae of such things as Elizabethan typesetting practices - and with a storyteller's natural gift. And this is a great story to tell: full of cranks, skullduggery,large egos and big guns.

The debate over authorship began in earnest in the second half of the nineteenth century. The paucity of detailed knowledge of Shakespeare's life and the apparent irreconcilability of what little was known with the erudition and aristocratic voice of the plays led many to question whether this "third-rate play actor" could really have authored such works of genius. A cast of rather obsessive individuals stepped in to advocate a broad range of alternative authors. Shapiro focuses mainly on two: Francis Bacon, whose cause was espoused by the American teacher Delia (no relation) Bacon and the 17th Earl of Oxford, advanced by failed sect preacher, J.T. Looney. Many eminent people subscribed to the cause of one or other claimant: Twain, Helen Keller, Freud, James, Orson Welles, various U.S. Supreme Court justices, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance among them.

Shapiro himself is a convinced Stratfordian. In "Contested Will," he patiently and respectfully (for example, he pre-empts sniggers about nominative determinism by explaining that Looney's family name is pronounced to rhyme with "boney") unpicks the arguments for the main pretenders.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Play's the Thing 2 April 2011
By Steven
Shapiro's earlier book, 1599, was a work of genius. I approached Contested Will with a little more caution, however - the hook seemed less obvious, the trail and approach possibly a bit too scholarly, academic and dry for my tastes. Where 1599 was all about Shakespeare, his plays and that specific year, the whole point to Contested Will seemed to be that old Shakey might not even be there.

But the scheme of the book is logical and, after a slow start, quite compelling. Shapiro sets out his stall by examining how historians and critics first came to question the available evidence of Shakespeare's existence and the authenticity of the plays. After that he lays bare the history of the two most prominent counter-claimants - Bacon and Oxford - before weighing in with his own evidence for the Bard. While the arguments and beliefs of people such as Freud, Twain, Keller and the (unfortunately-named) Looney are fascinating in themselves, and Shapiro's own wry commentary on those beliefs is priceless, without Shakespeare's own presence in the narrative there does seem to be something lost from the core of the book.

What I do firmly agree with is Shapiro's rubbishing of the theory (developed most strongly by Keller and Twain) that an author can only "write what he knows" - that imagination is unimportant or irrelevant, and that Shakespeare, as an upstart from the shires rather than a court-educated nobleman, could not have possessed the breadth of knowledge to write on such a variety of subjects.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful
This is a wonderful book, thoroughly researched and beautifully written. I thought the author's last book, 1599, was a triumph and I enjoyed this book nearly as much. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Nimz
4.0 out of 5 stars Will
Interesting slant both on the issue of authorship and various times in history. prologue and epilogu are excellent summaries and introductions to greater detail.
Published 3 months ago by emeritus
5.0 out of 5 stars More arguments about poor Shakespeare
A very entertainingly written investigation of the possibility that Will Shakespeare didn't actually write his plays.It is almost convincing but only ..almost
Published 4 months ago by angela haworth
4.0 out of 5 stars Sweep away this madness...
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,... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Kirk McElhearn
5.0 out of 5 stars Persuasive
I confess that Shapiro's views on Shakespeare are an advanced and scholarly version of my own thoughts so his viewpoint was unlikely to disappoint. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Mr. G. Nurser
4.0 out of 5 stars Did he or didn't he?
...write the plays, this was a follow up from watching the film 'Anonymous' I was very interesting and plausible , gave you an insight into the life and times , possible to... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Ann Cunningham
5.0 out of 5 stars Will Power
I recall back in 1978, my English teacher noted the theories that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays,and said "Shakespeare's plays were written by Shakespeare". Read more
Published 13 months ago by Franz Bieberkopf
4.0 out of 5 stars so much for conspiracy theories
I got this after watching the film Anonymous, with the patently absurd theory that the plays were written by the Earl of Oxford. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Mr. P. Skeldon
4.0 out of 5 stars Will Justified
This is a detailed yet very readable review of the case against Shakespeare as the author of the plays and poetry attributed to him. Read more
Published 17 months ago by david bryan
4.0 out of 5 stars Much ado about nothing...
This is a book about the Shakespeare authorship controversy - but it's more about the history of that controversy, and how and why people came to believe that someone other than... Read more
Published 20 months ago by C. Ball
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