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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? [Paperback]

James Shapiro
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
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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: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 90,555 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

The case for Shakespeare is made cogently and convincingly. Shapiro cites contemporaries who identified him as the author of the plays, and show that the early printing history corroborates the attribution ... Shapiro weaves together various strands of recent scholarship to make a case which is about as watertight as it can be ... Shapiro illuminatingly assimilates the authorship controversy to radical theories about the non-existence of Homer as an individual author, and about the mythic nature of the Gospels ... Shapiro is a gifted storyteller. (LRB)

Authoritative, lucid and devastatingly funny, and its brief concluding statement of the case for Shakespearer is masterly. (John Carey The Sunday Times)

Shapiro sprinkles his text with glinting, steely facts ... Riveting ... Shapiro does not waste words on the preposterous, but he does uncover the mechanism of fantasy and projection that go to make up much of the case against Shakespeare. His books lays bare, too, assumptions about the writing life that come to us from the 18th-century romantics. those who make Shakespeare a demi-god have much to answer for. (Hilary Mantel Guardian, Book of the Week)

The application of Shapiro's detective skills to the piles of pseudo-scholarship from the past century and a half yields valuable results. Contested Will isn't just the most intelligent book on the topic for years, but a re-examination of the documentary evidence offered on all sides of the question ... Contested Will is a terrific read. (Financial Times)

A follow-up more original that his earlier success ... [Shapiro's] imaginative enquiry never the less joins the show shelf of essential books on the subject ... Contested Will is a serious, interesting an doriginal book about how shakespeare's genius can dominate the imagination ... Illuminating. (Daily Telegraph)

[Shapiro's] contribution to exposing those who still want to deny that Shakespeare was Shakespeare is deadly effective in another way: he helps us understand them better. (Evening Standard)

In Contested Will, James Shapiro cooly considers and then deftly dismantles the belief that Shakespeare did not write his own plays. This irresistable book hums with all the learning and panache that made Shapir's 1599 such a treat. No one has ever expalined so well the motives and reasons for the bit lie of the the "authorship controversy" ... As his book genially but forcefully proves, the "authorship controversy" is a ghost-train. (Independent)

Mr Shapiro teases our the cultural prejudices, the historical blind spots, and above all the anachronism inherent in these questions ... Contested Will is dense with lives and stories and argument. It is also entertaining ... A brilliant defence of the man from Stratford. Piece by piece, Mr Shapiro builds the case ... the Shakespeare that emerges is both simple and mysterious: a man of the theatre, who read, observed, listened and remembered. Beyond that is imagination. In essence, that's what the book is about. (Economist)

Entertaining. (Sunday Express)

Shapiro's approach is quite different. His interest is not so much in 'what people think' as in 'why they think it', and he often sheds powerful light on the social and religious contects in which scepticism about shakespeare has flourished. shapiro has a remarkable gift for empathy with his human subjects, and is curious and tenacious in exploring their life stories ... The study is book-ended with excellent resumes of Shakespeare scholarship. (Literary Review)

This wily, absorbing study ... It does matter who wrote Shakespeare, because the case Shapiro makes for him doubles as a defence of art. (Observer)

There is fascinating new research in Contested Will, whereby Shapiro aims his question - why did they believe this ridiculous conspiracy theory? - at a number of distinguished anti-Stratfordians. In every case, his answer is psychologically intriguing and entirely convincing. (Sunday Telegraph)

Fascinating book on people's obsessive need to identify the 'real' Shakespeare ... Shapiro has great tracing the intellectual and psychological impulses. (Mail on Sunday)

James Shapiro is too expert and too courteous a scholar to descend into a cantankerous cataloguing of the basic flaws in the anti-Stratfordian argument. He certainly thinks the argument is wrong, as his new study of the controversy makes clear, and he offers precise reasons why William Shakespeare of Stratford is really the only cogent candidate for authorship ... This is essentially a historiographical study of the controversy, looking at the cultural contexts of its emergence and evolution, and at the lives, circumstances, agendas and pathologies of those who have contributed to it. It is also unlike most other books on the subject because 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) ... With this inquisitive and open-minded account of the controversy, James Shapiro has done a service to both camps, and indeed to that mysteriously talented glover's son from the Midlands who is at the heart of it all. (Charles Nicholl TLS)

A scholarly work as riveting as a detective story. (Philip French Observer)

Book Description

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

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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
Format:Paperback
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
4.0 out of 5 stars 37 Plays in search of a (Worthy) Author
James Shapiro examines why some famous people (eg Freud, Mark Twain) and some not so famous people (eg Delia Bacon, JT Looney) came to believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Barry Gale
5.0 out of 5 stars Contoversial
This has been pondered about for decades. Very interesting arguments, but not conclusive either way. We will probably never know.
Published 2 months ago by J. C. CRONIN
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 5 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 7 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 7 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 11 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 13 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 14 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 16 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 20 months ago by Mr. P. Skeldon
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