Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

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Simon and Schuster, Apr 6, 2010 - Biography & Autobiography - 352 pages
3 Reviews
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 what is generally agreed to be the finest body of work by a writer in the English language. In this remarkable book, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro explains when and why so many people began to question whether Shakespeare wrote his plays. Among the doubters have been such writers and thinkers as Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Mark Twain, and Helen Keller. It is a fascinating story, replete with forgeries, deception, false claimants, ciphers and codes, conspiracy theories—and a stunning failure to grasp the power of the imagination.

As Contested Will makes clear, much more than proper attribution of Shakespeare’s plays is at stake in this authorship controversy. Underlying the arguments over whether Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays are fundamental questions about literary genius, specifically about the relationship of life and art. Are the plays (and poems) of Shakespeare a sort of hidden autobiography? Do Hamlet, Macbeth, and the other great plays somehow reveal who wrote them?

Shapiro is the first Shakespeare scholar to examine the authorship controversy and its history in this way, explaining what it means, why it matters, and how it has persisted despite abundant evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays attributed to him. This is a brilliant historical investigation that will delight anyone interested in Shakespeare and the literary imagination.

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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

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I'm reading Contested Will: I'm about half way through. The issue of who authored Shakespeare has always interested me. I'm a believer that the man from Stratford wrote the plays and poems. I liked ... Read full review

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About the author (2010)

James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1985. He is the author of several books, including 1599 and Contested Will, and is the recipient of many awards and fellowships. Shapiro is a Governor of the Folger Shakespeare Library. He lives in New York with his wife and son.

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