47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on 27 June 2010
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.
63 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on 18 April 2010
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. He links the history of the authorship debate to contemporary fashions such as Homeric studies, the Higher Criticism of the scriptures, cryptography, spiritualism, psychopathology, Vietnam -era conspiracy theoriedom and the rise of Wiki parallel scholarship in our own time.
Perhaps the most compelling argument which Shapiro advances in support of Shakespeare the Actor comes from the plays themselves. There is now irrefutable scholarship that shows that five of Shakespeare's last plays (as well as the earlier "Titus Andronicus") were written in tight collaboration with other dramatists such as George Wilkins and John Fletcher. This was standard operating practice in the Jacobean theater as it is in TV script writing today. It is impossible to imagine that either Bacon or Oxford could have engaged in this communal writing process (especially Oxford - he had died before the late plays were written) never mind maintained their anonymity if they had.
Behind the quest for a more suitable author for Shakespeare's oeuvre is the overwhelming tendency - which Shapiro shows to be wholly anachronistic - to believe that art is essentially autobiographical, that the man is to be found in the work and that the work can only be rooted in the experiences of the man. Yet, here demonstrably was an inspired craftsman who could sit down with the workmanlike prose of Holinshed's Chronicles or North's Translation of Plutarch and transmute them virtually line by line into timeless poetry. The worst crime of the Shakespeare skeptics, Shapiro wistfully concludes, is to diminish "the very thing which makes him exceptional - his imagination."
This book will not be the last word on this matter. Only the improbable discovery of irrefutably genuine and game-changing documentary evidence might resolve the argument. Otherwise, the authorship debate stands with climate change, creationism and Death-of-Diana conspiracy theories as one of the exacerbating, "unprovable" controversies of our time. Fortunately, we have the plays, or at least all but two of them. As for the author, perhaps the late A.L. Rowse- who once muttered in a television debate that the best plays were written by "clever grammar school boys" - should have the last word: "it was either William Shakespeare or a man calling himself William Shakespeare."
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 2 April 2011
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. This, for me, is the same duff theory that places so-called "literary fiction" on such an undeserved pedestal (see page 309 for Shapiro's example, using Mark Lawson's horror at a novelist using remote research and imagination to construct a realistic setting) and sneers at works of imaginative and speculative fiction. "Genre fiction", to use the snobbish terminology. Fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, romances - that's what we call them. The stuff that people really buy. And that's exactly what Shakespeare was doing, back in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. If you believe that Shakespeare did not write his own plays (and I'm taking it as read that he collaborated with other playwrights), then you are denying the force of wit and imagination that lies at the heart of these plays.
Yes, there's a lot to digest here. Yes, the contemporary sources from which Shapiro draws can be dry and dour to the point of irritation, but it's worth taking your time over this book, especially if you don't believe in the conspiracy theorists who gravitate towards Bacon and Oxford. There's precious little Shakespeare in these pages - because he left little else but the plays themselves - until you reach the last few chapters, but a decent affirmation of the Bard after that more than makes up for it.
I'd recommend 1599 as a purchase before reading Contested Will - but if you are interested in why people even doubt Shakey ever existed, this is a very good summing up of that history.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 23 March 2015
So, this book has been waiting on my shelves a long while for the receptive reading moment (you know how it is when you really, really know you are going to enjoy a book but the time has to be right). I have been growing increasingly fascinated by the idea of biography (see The Stranger’s Child and any early biography of Rupert Brooke), plus the ever-shifting emphasis on interpretation of works based on lives.
I was very impressed by Shapiro’s 1599 and this book, though tangential to the plays, is just as fascinating (he should stick to academia and book-writing though; he’s an unimpressive t.v. presenter with a headache-inducing voice). From the clever play on words of the title onwards, Shapiro writes refreshingly jargon-free readable prose as he presents the case for Shakespeare as the author of his plays, and describes the history of the various opposing theories and candidates. We see the growing need to identify the life with the work, to give to the Tudors modern sensibilities. Most of all, we see a refusal to accept that a glovemaker’s son could have the imagination to piece out his imperfections with his thought; a snobbish, patronising attitude that belittles the fine grammar-school education of the time and the passionate curiosity that continues lifelong self-education (indeed, one is led to think that Sir Derek et al. have had their brains abducted by aliens...and sadly, I have to include my beloved Henry James here). Shapiro describes how the Baconians and Oxfordians etc. had practically given up their ghosts in the late 50s, when, astonishingly, the anti-Wills suddenly gained academic credence and are apparently being taught in degree courses. It has also become acceptable in academic circles to read the life from the work, and i am now questioning my unquestioning acceptance of Greenblatt’s Will in the World and wonderful Michael Wood’s Shakespeare t.v. series, both of which interpreted Shakespeare in this way. Another point raised which I find uncomfortably close to home is that the obsession with literary lives stops us reading the actual works, or as Shapiro more elegantly – and topically in this year of the 50th anniversary of The Bell Jar -- puts it: ‘many literary biographies are supplanting the fictional works they are meant to illuminate, to the point where Ariel and The Bell Jar struggle to find a readership that books about Sylvia Plath’s marriage and suicide now command’. Later in the same chapter he makes another important point: ‘In the end, attempts to identify personal experiences will result only in acts of projection, revealing more about the biographer than about Shakespeare himself’. Shapiro makes telling points about our general growing scepticism and the belief in conspiracy theories leading to a readiness to imagine all sorts of bizarre ideas about various secret children of Elizabeth (if only the dates could be manipulated, as so many have been in the course of fitting Oxford and others to the playwright’s role, so that Shakespeare could have been one, farmed out to the glovemakers’ family!). An excellent, thoroughly-researched and absorbing piece of literary detective work. (
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 7 April 2015
This is an important book. As anyone with an interest in Shakespeare will be aware, there is a small but vocal group who don't believe that 'Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare'. Who actually did is not something that has been definitively determined by the nay-sayers, but these days the Earl of Oxford has supplanted Francis Bacon as the favourite, backed by a vociferous group of Oxfordians who rarely miss an opportunity to press their man's case. This book is unlikely to convince the doubters (who are beyond hope at this stage) but provides a useful resume of the main arguments (plus refutation) for anyone who has been neutral on the subject and wanted to learn more. Anti-Stratfordians usually reject with indignation the charge of snobbery (that a mere actor on the make, without a university education, could have written the plays) but, reading this, it is hard to come away without the feeling that the whole theory is founded on the childish belief that a poet has to look and act like a poet - and the rival candidates are figures who fit that rather cliched picture.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 18 March 2011
I'll start right now by saying that I'm not an academic scholar of Shakespeare (or literature in general for that matter) but I do read it, and over the years I've always been fascinated by the constant theories put forward, that everyone and their dog - except for Shakespeare - wrote the plays that bear his name.
Whereas the creation of anything clever with occluded but possible late Mediaeval origins is often lazily claimed to be the work of Da Vinci or Bacon, the poor old feller from Stratford has long been subject of a trend that seems to say he's the only person that couldn't have made something that's actually attributed to him.
Shapiro's work first introduces Shakespeare and what (admittedly little) we know about him, and some of the problems, frauds and controversies that have beset researchers. He then looks at the cases for the contestants - Mary Sidney, the Earl of Rutland, Fulke Greville, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon and the Earl of Southampton. He focuses on the Earl of Oxford and Francis Bacon, these being the two most hotly and passionately supported potential author theories, investigating when where and how the theories came about, the interests of those who put them forward, and the evidence by which the theories are supported. Finally he looks at Shakespeare himself, his life and his work at the Globe Theatre, and the personages who were his contemporaries and what they had to say about him.
Common accusations against Shakespeare that he was somehow "illiterate because he couldn't spell, including his own name" are smartly dismissed by discussing the fact that the modern concept of spelling simply didn't exist in the 1500s - at the time of writing many of his plays, there wasn't even such a thing as a dictionary, words were spelled phonetically and inconsistently. As for his own name "Shakspear", it was a near-impossibility for a 1500s printing press as the Italic "k" and the huge "s" of an Elizabethan typesetter's font would collide and break, resulting in them sometimes having to hyphenate the name to Shak-speare, or alternatively adding an e - "Shakespeare". Clear evidence is also given of the same spelling anomalies applying to the works of the contesters. It was simply a well-known 1500s typesetting problem.
Shapiro concludes that Shakespeare did write his plays in corroboration with others at the Globe - a standard practice then, as with modern scriptwriters - so they are unlikely to be "purely" his work. Accusations that he didn't have the education to write about far flung places may be partially true, given the bad geography and factual errors in some of his works, but it by no means proves that a poor boy can't make good. Clearly well known in his day, he was referenced by his contemporaries who sought his advice and remembered him and his achievements, even if some modern scholars aren't as keen. The suggestion of this man not being Shakespeare and being another well-known public figure either in disguise or using a Globe actor's name, is shown to be wholly implausible.
Thoroughly proving Shakespeare would seem to be the most important project here, as having to thoroughly disprove any and every other potential candidate that might pop up is a task that will ensure a conspiracy goes on for ever - one can't disprove a negative and all that. I always like to keep an open mind, but Shapiro's conclusion that Shakespeare himself wrote Shakespeare has convinced me that the cases for Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are extremely unlikely, and much stronger for the man from Stratford himself.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 7 February 2014
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. Finally a patient and intelligent response to the half baked conspiracy theorists who think Shakespeare was himself some kind of fictional character. Thoroughly recommend.
on 13 June 2014
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 upon Avon could not have written the plays which bear his name. This personal approach to the issues and arguments makes the book highly readable, and shows how easily even the most gifted intellectuals can become the victims of their own obsessions. The book brings out the changing historical view of the author as a frustrated genius (Prospero) or a neurotic cosmopolitan (Hamlet), and the changing view of authorship as detached creativity or autobiographical imperative.
Rather than consider the relative claims of the many contenders pictured on the cover, Mr Shapiro concentrates on only two - Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. He examines why each of these came to be considered more likely than the Stratford man. A final chapter and epilogue demonstrate why the unlikeliest contender remains the most likely author.
I have two minor criticisms with the book. The first is a tendency to over-indulge in irrelevant biographical detail about the people whose views were under examination. My interest waned in several places, and I was tempted to skip to the next section. In place of this, extra detail about the broader social context in which those views were developed, or about the society in which the plays were first performed, would have been helpful. The second criticism is an occasional tendency to adopt the same turgid, verbose style as the people whose views Mr Shapiro was examining. Henry James and JT Looney in particular often did not explain themselves clearly or concisely. Instead of tersely bringing clarity Mr Shapiro sometimes continued expounding in similar terms.
Overall, the book is an enjoyable read despite the academic content and unnecessary length. It is highly informative, with clear messages and an ending which resolves the mystery - except perhaps in one respect : why a successful writer and producer of plays retired, apparently at the height of his fame, remains unexplained.
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.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 19 May 2010
Comprehensive, witty, authoritative and convincing. The "Who wrote Shakespeare?" debate could be (and usually is) so densely detailed and obscure that the "ordinary" reader loses heart and interest quite quickly. Shapiro manages to be thorough but also very readable. His underlying humour is one factor in this achievement, suggesting that, despite his serious intent, Shapiro can see the funny side of much of the debates of the past. Ultimately, the arguments for Bacon or Oxford or some other supposed writer seem to come down to an inability to accept that genius can surface anywhere and can transcend its social milieu, to produce the kind of quality that Shakespeare's own contemporaries saw in his work. It will now no longer be necessary for me to plough through any more dull conspiracy theories - no contest!