Customer Review

15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Play's the Thing, 2 April 2011
This review is from: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (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. 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.
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Initial post: 20 Feb 2012 20:50:51 GMT
Last edited by the author on 20 Feb 2012 20:57:12 GMT
Here is an example of how a writer can know something without any personal experience or university education in the subject matter:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/science/yeast-genetics-in-the-marriage-plot-scientist-was-fiction-but-not-his-work.html?sq=book%20%20%20yeast%20%20princeton&st=cse&scp=1&pagewanted=all

The Scientist Was a Figment, but His Work Was Real

By GINA KOLATA - New York Times Book Review, Sunday, February 12, 2012.

" It was 1982, and Leonard, a young research fellow, was telling his girlfriend's mother and sister about his work on yeast genetics. He carefully explained the basics, noting that mating yeast cells have a crucial gene that comes in two versions.

Then he told them his research goal: "We're trying to figure out why the progeny of a given cell division can acquire different developmental fates." To find out, his lab was removing a gene from yeast and putting it in backward to see if the offspring developed differently.

The scene is fictional; it appears in a best-selling new novel, "The Marriage Plot," by Jeffrey Eugenides. But when the geneticist Amar J. S. Klar read it, he said in an interview, he was flooded with 20-year-old memories.

The detailed description was of his own work. The yeast studies were ones that had made his scientific reputation. The fictional laboratory sounded just like his old lab at Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island.

Dr. Klar, now at the National Institutes of Health, was not upset. He was astounded. Somehow a popular novelist had read and absorbed his work, describing it in detail and acknowledging his paper in the preface.

All the more surprising is that Mr. Eugenides is far from being an expert in genetics. He did not study science and does not even know many scientists, he said in an interview; his friends are mainly writers and actors. When he wrote those descriptions of Leonard's research, he had never been in a yeast genetics lab, had never spoken to a yeast genetics researcher. He had never been to Cold Spring Harbor.

Mr. Eugenides's feat - creating an accurate world of science and scientists - raises questions about how much research fiction writers must do to write about science and whether, somehow, they can figure out this most esoteric world without going near it. ...
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