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on 27 March 2017
Good book and service thank you
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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.
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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. (
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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."
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In this detailed and cohesive exploration of the 'authorship question' Shapiro takes the conspiracy theorists and sceptics seriously, and then meticulously exposes the fallacies, misapprehensions and sometimes sheer dogged refusals of common sense that support their theories that Shakespeare couldn't have written 'Shakespeare'. It goes without saying that this is properly researched and draws on a career spent writing on and teaching Shakespeare and early modern literature.

What Shapiro does so well is to contextualize the arguments themselves in their historical, social and cultural settings, drawing out the ways in which concepts such as authorship, literature, the imagination, and the self condition the ways in which Shakespeare (and all other literature) is read, received and given meaning. For example, the idea of fiction as a vehicle for personal revelation certainly didn't exist in the Renaissance period, comes to prominence with the Romantics in the nineteenth century and then gets contested and overturned again with the postmodern. There are, then, historical moments when the literature-as-autobiography theory that underpins the sceptical view of Shakespeare is itself either given some valence or its converse.

Most of all, Shapiro makes a plea for understanding Shakespeare's works as supreme exercises of the imagination: he might never indeed have travelled to Italy, had a legal education or dabbled in alchemy (all arguments used by the anti-Stratfordians) but are they also saying that an author needs to be a murderer to write a Macbeth, a cross-dresser to create a Rosalind, and a military General to portray a Coriolanus or Anthony? Pah!

For an erudite and eminently sensible approach to what authorship might mean historically and culturally, read this.
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on 27 October 2016
This is an excellent book by an academic who can actually write. Full credit to Prof Shapiro he has donned his boots, overalls and gloves held his nose and waded through acres of bilge for our benefit. It’s filthy work but someone’s got to do it. Would that other academics got stuck in. But is it important? After all it’s the plays that count and one thing everyone agrees on is that they are extraordinary works of art. Surely, can’t we all just get along? Well no of course it is important. It is; research vs supposition, scholarship vs fantasy, truth vs fiction, study vs make believe, enquiry vs prejudice.
At its centre the book is a history of the way Shakespeare has been read since his death (if that sounds dull don’t worry it isn’t) and consequently how Shakespeare was imagined and why some people came to doubt the idea that ‘the man from Stratford’ wrote the plays. The book examines the psychology, tastes and prejudices of the people who have studied the plays since they were written. It also examines the cultural fashions to which the plays, and their study, have been prey to over hundreds of years and the way our knowledge of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre has changed with time. It is a fascinating tour of loonies, forgers, psychotics, megalomaniacs, monomaniacs, snobs, poets, writers and fools, well worth the price of admission.
It is not a spoiler to say that there is no “killer blow”. Like the poor the Flat-earthers, Alienabductionists and Oxfordians will always be with us. For them it really doesn’t matter what Prof Shapiro writes since his position as an academic at a ‘reputable’ university means he is marked as part of the Conspiracy. But for the rest of us this is an illuminating ride.
In the end whose testimony would you believe? Ben Jonson’s, John Webster’s, Thomas Heywood's, Robert Greene’s, John Heminges’ etc etc, who worked with Shakespeare as writers, actors and managers for over twenty years in the Elizabethan and Jacobean London playhouses, or a tragic 19th century mentally ill American, Delia Bacon, who’s imagined image of what Shakespeare should have been could not be squared with the actualite, not posh enough. Or a 20th century South Shields school teacher, Looney, of repellent political outlook who also thought that Shakespeare just wasn’t the right pedigree to produce art and picked the flatulent Earl of Oxford as the right sort of nob for the job.

Gosh! It’s a toughie isn’t it!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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on 29 May 2016
I love it. I am an advocate of Occam's razor, or, as the Americans frame it - KISS...keep it simple stupid! Of course William Shakespeare the actor, poet and playwrite,(businessman too) is one and the same man from Stratford upon Avon.

His father was a businessman too and that was Williams model.

What I particularity liked was the highlighting how investigative literary criticism on the "holy books", particularly the bible gave rise to a tool that can be applied ( or mis-applied), in another field-here with the plays of Shakespeare.

What he doesn't say is that Ben Jonson appears to be the force or model behind the 1623 first folio after he produced his folio of ( suitably selected-to give posterity the right image), plays in 1616.

Shapiro is my favourite Shakespeare scholar.

A confession is in order. I have never read a Shakespeare play or poem...I am interested in the manin his time and place and his world and the necessary historical research that surrounds him.
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