Review: Contested WillEditorial Review - Kirkus Reviews
The author of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (2005) chronicles the emergence of doubts about the playwright's identity and speculates about the assumptions and motives of the principal doubters. Shapiro (English/Columbia Univ.) is convinced that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays, but he waits until the penultimate chapter to summarize his evidence. The author's generally dispassionate, scholarly treatment will convince few doubters, for as he notes, "[p]ositions are fixed and debate has proved to be futile or self-serving." Shapiro begins with an account of a late-18th-century fraud perpetrated by William-Henry Ireland, who forged documents in Shakespeare's hand, including the manuscript of King Lear, then charts the growth of the notion of Shakespeare-as-literary-deity. This led, he argues, to the belief that the playwright must have been someone who possessed a superior education, was intimate with aristocrats and royals, had traveled extensively and owned a vast library—all of which exclude the man from Stratford. Early candidates ranged widely, but it was Delia Bacon who advanced the cause of Francis Bacon, a choice who attracted support from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Helen Keller and other notables. John Thomas Looney's "Shakespeare" Identified (1920) proposed the current champion—Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford—whose legions have swollen, says Shapiro, because of sympathetic print and electronic journalists, the Internet and the recent accommodations of mainstream publishers. What has also propelled the surge is the Oxfordians' belief that the works must have arisen from the playwright's personal, firsthand experience. Shapiro sharply challenges this belief and convincingly demonstrates that it would have baffled Elizabethans and Jacobeans—not to mention that it would have ignored the power of a writer's imagination. The author bases his own conviction on the documentary evidence that he summarizes near the end. A thorough, engaging work whose arguments would prove more persuasive were we not living in an era of such fierce anti-intellectualism and pervasive conspiracy theory.
Review: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?Editorial Review - Bookreporter.com - Robert Finn
For many years, a gentle joke has circulated in academic circles. The plays of William Shakespeare, it says, were not written by Shakespeare, but by another man of the same name. Not a very good joke, for sure, but a reminder that the controversy over authorship of those immortal plays and sonnets still thrives today. Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro tells us that some 50 different candidates ... Read full review
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In Contested Will (nice pun), Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro, author of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, takes us through the fantasy land of the conspiracy theorists who think Shakespeare was written by someone “more qualified” to write the plays but who, for various conspiratorial reasons, could not take credit for them. Shapiro steers us carefully through the quagmire of reasons that underlie the theories that Sir Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe, and even Queen Elizabeth I herself were the real authors of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. Reason (1): We don’t have a lot of facts about Shakespeare’s life. Shakespeare was only a common actor-writer who left his rural home and moved to London. How could he write about royal courts? About Egypt and Rome and Verona and Venice and Bohemia? The will he left at his death contains no mention of books or manuscripts. That obviously means he was illiterate, or at least unread. (2) By the time the First Folio was published in 1623, the author of Hamlet and Lear had already been unyoked from the other great Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists and elevated to genius. Only a literary divinity could write the plays. Within a century, he was deified. This is called bardolatry.
(3) After the 19th century Higher Criticism “proved” that Homer wasn’t really the old blind poet we think composed the Iliad and the Odyssey, it next “proved” that Jesus was probably not a historical figure but a myth. Who was the Higher Criticism’s next subject? But of course—William Shakespeare. See (1) and (2), above. And then (4), toward the end of the 19th century, the idea arose that literature had to be autobiographical. A writer writes about himself and the events in his life, though he may disguise them in his work. Critics find autobiography all over Shakespeare’s work. His sonnets, for example, are addressed to and about two people he loved. He wrote Hamlet, which is named after his son, after the death of his own father. We saw the idea of literature as autobiography in Shakespeare in Love.
Shapiro next introduces us to the proponents of the major theories that Shakespeare didn’t write his works. Delia Bacon, an American Puritan scholar of the early to mid-19th century, came to believe that the real author was Sir Francis Bacon. She and her followers—among them Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Ignatius Donnelly (the famous catastrophist and “discoverer” of Atlantis), and Henry James—became certain that Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare, had hidden ciphers in the plays that pointed to himself as the true author. Fortunately, the Baconians didn’t find any ciphers that really worked. Like the Marlovians, they’ve largely faded into obscurity.
It’s the Oxfordians who are the champions of flim-flam. Those who have believed that the Earl of Oxford is the true author include Sigmund Freud (who also found his Oedipus complex in the plays) and the Positivist John Thomas Looney (not “loony,” but pronounced to rhyme with “boney”), plus Dir Derek Jacobi, the famed actor who appears at the beginning and the end of Anonymous. The Oxfordians are the hippest of the anti-Stratfordians. They’re really good at PR and have used the fairness doctrine to promote their idea. In 1987, they enticed three Supreme Court justices to participate in a mock trial—"In re. Shakespeare: The Authorship of Shakespeare on Trial"—that was even reported by the New York Times. Shakespeare won. The Oxfordians have also persuaded TV and film producers to present their case. And they’re all over Google and Wikipedia.
Shapiro’s final chapter makes the case for Shakespeare. His arguments include the fact that while much of modern literature is indeed autobiographical, that was not the case in the 16th and 17th centuries. He also explains what we know about how dramatists worked in Shakespeare’s day, and concludes with the most cogent argument for Shakespeare—he used his imagination to create the Athenian woods, the
Review: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?User Review - Nikki - Goodreads
I am not the greatest fan of Shakespeare -- or at least, of how rarely someone can discover his work for themselves, at their own pace. Of how he might well be the only literary figure people can ... Read full review
Review: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?User Review - Brunhilde - Goodreads
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 ... Read full review
Review: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?User Review - Emily Sours - Goodreads
Well, I did spend 30 minutes writing a review of this book, but goodreads didn't save it. Let me try again (though it won't be as succinct or in depth). First, let me start by saying I believe ... Read full review
Review: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?User Review - VeeDawn - Goodreads
"For more than two hundred years after William Shakespeare's death, no one doubted that he had written his plays. Since then, however, dozens of candidates have been proposed for the authorship of ... Read full review
Review: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?User Review - Caroline - Goodreads
This is a book about the Shakespeare authorship controversy - but it's more about the history of that controversy, and how and why people came to believe that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the ... Read full review
Review: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?User Review - Katherine - Goodreads
(I probably would have given this 3.5 stars, if I could have.) There were a couple things about this book that I found disappointing. For one thing, it is not at all an objective account of the ... Read full review
Review: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?User Review - Ray Campbell - Goodreads
Shakespeare was so brilliant that it is not surprising there have been many who doubt he worked alone and have questioned whether he was involved at all. Since the historical Shakespeare had a limited ... Read full review
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All reviews - 34