40 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Alarming Triumph for Obvious Common Sense
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...
Published on 27 Jun 2010 by Terrace Ghost
22 of 65 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Poor Scholarship but Very Funny
Shapiro's book is mostly devoted to the amusing, and it has to be said, crazy history of those who have supported two alternatives to Shakespeare---the Earl of Oxford and Sir Francis Bacon. There was Delia Bacon whose supporters constructed a cipher machine, a sort of random word generator that led one of them to trawl the River Severn looking for lead boxes containing...
Published on 9 April 2010 by John Hudson
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40 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Alarming Triumph for Obvious Common Sense,
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.
60 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bard Deniers,
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."
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Play's the Thing,
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.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No Contest?,
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.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No contest!,
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The case for Shakespeare...case closed?,
However, something strange happened to Shakespeare at the end of the eighteenth century, something akin to deification. David Garrick, as Shapiro notes played a big part in this, taking his love of the Bard into the realms of idolatory. Alongside some genuine artefacts fraudulent Shakespeare material began to emerge including 'Vortigern' a fake Shakespeare play by William Henry Ireland. Shapiro details all of this information merely as a prelude to the main thrust of the book which begins with the introduction of one of the key figures in the alternative Shakespeare story-an appropriately named American, Delia Bacon.
According to Shapiro Bacon was the first person to champion the case for her Elizabethan namesake. She was a remarkable woman in personal contact with both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thomas Carlyle. Even Shapiro concedes that 'very few Americans could rival her knowledge of Shakespeare's works.' Shapiro also reminds us of the then current influence of so-called 'Higher Criticism' and the revolutionary theology of Strauss which effectively undermined the historicity of the New Testament-and by implication-that of Jesus himself. If Jesus' historicity could be questioned; why not Shakespeare's?
Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James and Freud all put in appearances as does Ignatious Donnelly and his Baconian cyphers and here the theories become really outlandish, including a cypher based theory that Bacon (and Essex!) were both Elizabeth's secret offspring! The next big figure-according to Shapiro is the South Shields born school teacher JT Looney, the first proponent of the case for de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, a case based on the familiar premise that only an aristocrat could have written 'aristocratic' plays.
What I shall really take away from this book is not that various people (for a variety of reasons) have sought alternatives to Shakespeare but rather the extraordinary lengths that they went to to try and prove their conjectures: fortunes were squandered, oceans crossed, tombs exhumed, even the River Wye gets dredged at one point!
Following a humourous episode involving spirit mediums Shapiro documents the precipitous decline of the de Vere cause in the mid twentieth century...and then the internet happens! Shapiro is excellent on Shakespeare and the internet and how this new medium has almost levelled the debate where in Shapiro's words 'Persistence and the ability to get the last word, rather than expertise, are rewarded'
Given the challenging nature of the subject matter, the book is nowhere as immediate as 1599 but the final chapter, simply called 'Shakespeare' sees James Shapiro going into bat for the Stratford man...needless to say he does him proud. Not quite Q.E.D but a very convincing performance regarding Shakespeare's collaboration with other writers, his stylistic evolution over time and most importantly of all, the fact that Shakespeare produced his plays for specific actors knowing their individual talents and abilities; Will Kemp, for example. I think some people will perhaps find this book a little dry but it is probably worth reading if you enjoyed 1599. Shapiro certainly knows his stuff.
5.0 out of 5 stars More arguments about poor Shakespeare,
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shakespeare,
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Much ado about nothing...,
Whilst there are quite literally dozens of potential claimants this book focuses on the two main contenders, Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Without going into all the details, Shapiro's argument is that no-one really thought to question the authorship of the Shakespeare plays until the rise of autobiography in the eighteenth century. That was the point when critics and scholars started believing that all fiction, all poetry and novels and plays, necessarily drew on the author's own experiences, that you could understand an author's mind and life by reading between the lines of his work. And using that argument, how could Shakespeare, a rural glover's son with a grammar school education, possibly write about kings and queens, about shipwrecks and far away countries, about love and heartbreak and murder and betrayal? The facts of his life, the argument goes, don't fit. How could someone from Shakespeare's background display such knowledge of falconry, the Court, the law, geography, languages? Only someone from a more exalted background, someone who mixed with the very finest in the land, with all the resources and experiences money could buy, could possibly have known such things intimately enough to write about them. Someone like Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere, for example.
I, like Shapiro, don't buy it. It smacks of elitism, to me, this idea that because Shakespeare wasn't rich or noble, because he didn't travel or live in a fine house or hunt or joust, that he couldn't write about such things as if he knew them. To me it seems to reject the power of imagination, of genius. Authors don't have to have experienced something to write about it. That's what the imagination is for, to so powerfully evoke things unseen and unknown. That's why Shakespeare is such a genius. The arguments against Shakespeare seem so strained to me and so tenuous. Just because we don't have all the facts about Shakespeare that we would wish is not evidence that he wasn't who we believe him to be. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
And at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. As the man himself, whoever he may have been, once said, 'the play's the thing'. The plays are what is important, that we have them, that they've lasted, that they have as much impact today as they did 400 years ago. It would be wonderful to know about the man who wrote them, but we shouldn't let that obscure the really important thing, the legacy of his genius.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sensible and eloquent,
Where Shapiro really struck a chord with me, though, was in his epilogue, where he passionately argues that to assume that Shakespeare could only have written about what he knew (and therefore had to have been a much-travelled aristocrat) is to diminish his stature profoundly, for it fails to allow him any imagination. I can relate to this because I write historical fiction (not, I hasten to add, in any way worthy to be compared with Shakespeare), and I too draw on my imagination for my novels. After all, I've never donned a suit of armour, or played host to a wild bunch of roistering Cavaliers, or taken a steam bath in 18th century London. Nor are my characters, with a very few exceptions, directly based on people I know, but seem to grow and take on a life of their own. Shakespeare may never have been to Italy, or walked the streets of ancient Rome, or fought in a battle, but what he couldn't get from books, or from people he knew, he could summon up from an imagination that must, in its breadth and scope, be one of the most fertile in literary history, and a deep knowledge of what makes human beings tick.
Well done, Mr. Shapiro - this is a book that needed to be written, and deserves to be read.
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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro (Audio CD - 6 April 2010)