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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.
Published: Simon & Schuster on
ISBN: 9781439170229
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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 think of on short notice. But I am a Stratfordian: I do believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote at least the plays firmly attributed to him and probably more, now orphaned or lost to us. So I wasn't sure about this book. It's not immediately clear, at a glance, what theory Shapiro subscribes to.

He seems fairly even-handed, though as I quickly discovered, he is a Stratfordian. His narration of the various 'discoveries' and 'proofs' is always sympathetic, and he refrains from too much commentary thereupon. It's a very readable book, made more so by the respect with which he treats all parties.

I actually ended up reading this in one go, and taking it rather to heart, too. The story of the Shakespeare authorship question felt like a warning, a reminder of all the pitfalls of academia. Clever ideas are no good without extensive research to back then up.more
There’s quite an art to making scholarly material this accessible. Shapiro writes eloquently and with great expertise about the Shakespeare authorship debate that has raged now for centuries. I’ve been fascinated in it ever since I came across an Atlantic article written in 1991, ‘Looking for Shakespeare’, in which two Shakespeareans present opposing cases; one for Shakespeare as the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, and the other for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Around the same time I sat in on a lecture in a Californian university by Charles Beauclerk, a visiting Englishman and descendant of de Vere, who presented a compelling range of challenges to the orthodox Strafordian position. A truly intriguing literary detective story. I was hooked.

I’m not sure I could even begin to do justice, in a short précis, to the depth and sophistication of Shapiro’s handling of the vexing (and unending) debate about authorship, so I will leave that to others more schooled in the apocryphal minutiae. There are thousands of intricate details, debated back and forth between Shakespeareans of all persuasions, and Shapiro does a fine job of condensing the most salient points of the camps of the two strongest contenders, Frances Bacon, and Oxford.

One of the central disputes concerns the author’s intimate knowledge of distant lands, and the Royal Court. It is well agreed that the man from Stratford was untraveled, a ‘commoner’, and lived a life documented in relation to his business dealings, rather than literary pursuits. This is considered a mismatch, a chasm between the life, and the works, and it has set an entire range of great thinkers in search of ‘the truth’ – among them was Freud, Henry James, and Mark Twain (and more recently, the Shakespearean actors, Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh).

I should say that Shapiro makes it known by page 8 that he believes it was Shakespeare of Stratford that authored the plays. I appreciated knowing this right up front, and buckled in to find out why. Shapiro contends that our belief in literature as fundamentally underpinned by autobiography, and thinly-disguised self-revelation, is a modernist concept, and cannot be appropriately applied to the literature and authors of that time period. The epilogue is an impassioned set of counter-claims to doubters, and Shapiro goes to great lengths to convince the reader that: ‘the evidence strongly suggests that imaginative literature in general and plays in particular in Shakespeare’s day were rarely if ever a vehicle for self-revelation.’ My gut feeling, as a writer, although admittedly hampered by being a product of this age, is that I’m not so sure. Is it possible that writers of that time wrote - as he claims, virtually exclusively – from the imaginative rather than the personal? It’s an intriguing idea and I’d certainly like to read more about the evidence for this.

Shapiro is, in the end, incredibly convincing, and a fabulously readable scholar, who manages to come across as fair and unbiased throughout most of the book. The book ends with a comprehensive bibliographic essay for those who wish to follow, first-hand, Shapiro's research, and perhaps draw their own conclusions. This is a superb addition to the authorship debate and has definitely wet my appetite for more reading in this vein.
more
A tour de force which examines why the authorship controversies arose, demolishes the alternative cases by being devastatingly fair minded, then demonstrates why Shakespeare had to be the author (or co-author) of the plays credited to him. Shapiro finds advocates of the alternative authors guilty of imposing modern readings, inventing conspiracies, misunderstanding Elizabethan/Jacobean life and, most seriously of all, not giving any credit to the power of the human imagination.more
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.more
Good book, lacks the obvious argument: on the list of authors of Great Books, almost 100% of them were born into the upper-middle-class. Certainly from the Renaissance on, this is the case. What this amounts to is saying that the Baconian and Oxfordian theses are wrong from their very premises--that, as they say, Shakespeare could not have written it because he was poor, or grew up so. Other than in Greece (where there wasn't really a strong upper-middle-class) and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (one a slave and the other the Roman Emperor), all of them are of a kind. They were the sons of merchants (Chaucer, Spinoza, Thomas Browne), lawyers (Rabelais, Thomas More, Locke, Hume), scriveners (Milton), small landholders (Rabelais, Montaigne, Hume, Locke, Newton, Gibbon), government officials (Machiavelli, Montaigne, Bacon, William Gilbert, William Harvey, Descartes), and tax collectors (Pascal, Adam Smith). Galileo and John Stuart Mill were sons of famous intellectuals. So over a five hundred year period virtually every last one of the authors of Great Books, across every subject, was from the upper-middle-class--not the lower-middle-class, not the poor, not the rich. The reason is pretty basic: the poor don't have access to the rich, and the rich don't let the poor near them, so some (large) segment of humanity is out of their respective purviews. The richer the family, the less the chances of the son becoming a great writer; even the higher end of the upper-middle-classes produced fewer great writers than the mid-and-low-range-upper-middle-class. Those in the upper-middle-class, however, have access to everyone, and therefore can access a greater range of insights and feelings and can use it to leverage an already superb imagination. The exceptions to this rule are those who were brought up by poor nurses at the insistence of their fathers--Montesquieu, Montaigne--and not those who were brought up as ward's of the Queen--de Vere. Shakespeare's father, a burgess of the Stratford corporation, a bailiff who filled other municipal officers, and an entrepreneur, fits squarely in these categories. Oxford does not, and while Bacon does, it is obvious to the naked eye and half-functioning brain that Bacon's style could not be reconciled with that of the plays in question.more
This was quite enjoyable, although it made me wonder if there's some special reason there seem to be a lot of non-academic Shakespeare books out in the past year or two, or if there always are and it just happened that I picked up a bunch in a row, or what ...This is a look at the authorship issue - the idea that Dude from Stratford didn't have it in him to write the works of Shakespeare, and that the real author is someone else, usually someone famous. The focus is not so much on the specific arguments for the typical candidates put forward, but more of a look at the social and academic historical context when the various theories arose. There is a lot of fun Shakespeare trivia and information about famous forgeries and scams as well as the serious advocacies for Bacon and Oxford. (Also, best pun for a title I have seen in quite a while.)One thing I learned from this book is that Mark Twain was a supporter of the Bacon theory, and it cracks me up to think of what would happen if the ghost of Mark Twain observed a whole bunch of people doubting that he wrote the works of Mark Twain. I was ... a young teenager, maybe, when GAMES Magazine did a piece on Shakespeare's authorship and the various "clues" that can be used to bolster a claim for Oxford, and man, that was a good read and has stuck in my head for YEARS. It is SUCH a much more interesting and satisfying story than boring old William Shakespeare writing Shakespeare, that much is for certain. If life were a book, that is definitely how it would turn out.more
I used to be what I guess you could call a casual Baconian. Without having read into the authorship debate in the slightest it was quite easy to pick up on casual references in the media. It was also a good flight of fancy to imagine the man who essentially invented the scientific method could also be the genuine source of what is the jewel in England's cultural crown. However, thanks to James Shapiro's book I am now pretty firmly of the belief that the glovers' son from Stratford was the true author of the plays.In the book Shapiro examines the arguments for two of the leading candidates in the authorship debate, Francis Bacon and Edward De Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Only when you study the arguments for these guys do you realise how nonsensical they are. Arguments that William Shakespeare didn't write the plays attributed to him (authorship which had not been challenged until the late Eighteenth Century) are based on the assumption that to have written the plays the author must have been a nobleman, familiar with the law and life in the Elizabethan court, with a university education, attributes, from what the documentary evidence indicates, that certainly cannot be applied to the glovers' son from Stratford. This would only be true if in the writing the plays the author was being autobiographical and wrote from experience never mind the fact that Elizabethan autobiography essential didn't exist outside ecclesiastical writings.Finally Shapiro makes the argument for Shakespeare himself, detailing references to Shakespeare by contemporary authors such as Ben Jonson and recent textual studies into co-authorship, including five of Shakespeare's last ten plays, which strongly undermines the Oxfordian case. When asked why the authorship question is important, because no matter who wrote them we still have the plays Shapiro makes the interesting point that it does matter because by searching for a more suitable author we do great injustice to Shakespeare's most powerful tool, his imagination.This is the second book by Shapiro I've read, the first was the Samuel Johnson award winning '1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare' and as with this book the concept was really interesting but the execution was just a little bit too academic for popular appeal and it took me quite a while to get through this rather slim book. That said, the subject matter really is interesting and if you've every wondered about the Shakespeare authorship question then this is probably as balanced and even-handed a take on it as you'll ever find especially now that the Oxfordian movement goes from strength to strength.more
This is a book about the various attempts to unseat William Shakespeare as the author of Shakespeare’s plays, by a serious Shakespeare scholar. Shapiro argues that people—other authors—started expressing uncertainty at the historical point at which autobiography became ascendant, and when writing became understood as predominantly the expression of the artist’s own experiences. It’s the alleged poverty of Shakespeare’s experiences and education that made it hard for skeptics to accept that he could have written the plays. Shapiro suggests that Francis Bacon was first proposed as the bearer of sufficient erudition and nobility, while the Earl of Oxford became popular as psychological accounts of meaning became more popular than political ones. In the end, Shapiro argues, though Shakespeare often collaborated, the contemporary evidence is quite convincing that he wrote the plays attributed to him, and those who argue otherwise ignore the power of the imagination: Shakespeare didn’t have to be a king or a wizard or a murderer or anyone else in his plays to conceive of what they would be like. Side note: the Amazon reviews of the book are hilarious, because so many of the reviewers are arguing about who wrote Shakespeare rather than about Shapiro’s argument about the meaning of contesting authorship.more
A reasoned take-down of the authorship controversies, incidentally tackling the problems with their being a conspiracy at all, but mostly illuminating why and how people felt the need to deny Shakespeare authorship.more
An outstanding book. A joy to read from beginning to end, learned an enormous amount, all processed through the lens of the history of Shakespeare authorship controversies. In particular, the book asks why so many people have come to believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford did not write the plays attributed to him but that someone else, like Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere of Oxford, did. This view was held by people from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Mark Twain to Sigmund Freud to several Supreme Court justices today and even the New York Times has written agnostically on the subject of who wrote Shakespeare.Shapiro traces the history of Shakespeare studies from his death through the early 19th Century, documenting the twists and turns of how little fragments of evidence about Shakespeare's life emerged, dotted with several episodes of forgery, and culminating in a number of prominent Shakespeare scholars starting in the 1700s who viewed his works through the prism of psychology, autobiography, and other similar perspectives.Shapiro argues that it was these well meaning attempts to fill in the gaps with other disciplines that also opened up the belief that the same person who was a moneylender and a grain merchant could not have written about courts and kings and the other aspects of Shakespeare. The first set of theories focused on Bacon, and comical ideas about elaborate ciphers in Shakespeare's work. This was followed by the view that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare's works, a theory undeterred by de Vere's death in 1604, a decade before the final Shakespeare play.Shapiro explains why these theories appealed to so many people (e.g., Twain was writing his autobiography, believed that all of his works were written directly from his own experience, and could not imagine someone else doing otherwise). And he also gives a compelling case for Shakespeare's authorship, although not one that would persuade any die-hard conspiracy theorists.Ultimately, Shapiro writes a testament to Shakespeare's imagination and range, something that is the ultimate rebuttal of the attempt to reduce the plays to simple roman a clef's about court figures or simple ciphers.What makes the book so interesting is not that it is worth devoting much mental evidence to the anti-Stratfordians but how much about Shakespeare's life, work, subsequent reception, and evolution of literature, is illuminated by looking at how this movement emerged and gained an increasing amount of strength.more
As a 30 year veteran of teaching Shakespeare, I find Shapiro's book in the top ten written about Shakespeare during my career. It is fair, even sympathetic, to those who believe Sir Francis Bacon or Lord Oxford wrote the plays but Shapiro refutes each--plus many other contenders--directly and throughly. I only wish I had had this book while I was teaching so I could say "read this" when the inevitable question would come "Who wrote Shakespeare?" The glover's son, of course.more
Read all 14 reviews

Reviews

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 think of on short notice. But I am a Stratfordian: I do believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote at least the plays firmly attributed to him and probably more, now orphaned or lost to us. So I wasn't sure about this book. It's not immediately clear, at a glance, what theory Shapiro subscribes to.

He seems fairly even-handed, though as I quickly discovered, he is a Stratfordian. His narration of the various 'discoveries' and 'proofs' is always sympathetic, and he refrains from too much commentary thereupon. It's a very readable book, made more so by the respect with which he treats all parties.

I actually ended up reading this in one go, and taking it rather to heart, too. The story of the Shakespeare authorship question felt like a warning, a reminder of all the pitfalls of academia. Clever ideas are no good without extensive research to back then up.more
There’s quite an art to making scholarly material this accessible. Shapiro writes eloquently and with great expertise about the Shakespeare authorship debate that has raged now for centuries. I’ve been fascinated in it ever since I came across an Atlantic article written in 1991, ‘Looking for Shakespeare’, in which two Shakespeareans present opposing cases; one for Shakespeare as the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, and the other for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Around the same time I sat in on a lecture in a Californian university by Charles Beauclerk, a visiting Englishman and descendant of de Vere, who presented a compelling range of challenges to the orthodox Strafordian position. A truly intriguing literary detective story. I was hooked.

I’m not sure I could even begin to do justice, in a short précis, to the depth and sophistication of Shapiro’s handling of the vexing (and unending) debate about authorship, so I will leave that to others more schooled in the apocryphal minutiae. There are thousands of intricate details, debated back and forth between Shakespeareans of all persuasions, and Shapiro does a fine job of condensing the most salient points of the camps of the two strongest contenders, Frances Bacon, and Oxford.

One of the central disputes concerns the author’s intimate knowledge of distant lands, and the Royal Court. It is well agreed that the man from Stratford was untraveled, a ‘commoner’, and lived a life documented in relation to his business dealings, rather than literary pursuits. This is considered a mismatch, a chasm between the life, and the works, and it has set an entire range of great thinkers in search of ‘the truth’ – among them was Freud, Henry James, and Mark Twain (and more recently, the Shakespearean actors, Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh).

I should say that Shapiro makes it known by page 8 that he believes it was Shakespeare of Stratford that authored the plays. I appreciated knowing this right up front, and buckled in to find out why. Shapiro contends that our belief in literature as fundamentally underpinned by autobiography, and thinly-disguised self-revelation, is a modernist concept, and cannot be appropriately applied to the literature and authors of that time period. The epilogue is an impassioned set of counter-claims to doubters, and Shapiro goes to great lengths to convince the reader that: ‘the evidence strongly suggests that imaginative literature in general and plays in particular in Shakespeare’s day were rarely if ever a vehicle for self-revelation.’ My gut feeling, as a writer, although admittedly hampered by being a product of this age, is that I’m not so sure. Is it possible that writers of that time wrote - as he claims, virtually exclusively – from the imaginative rather than the personal? It’s an intriguing idea and I’d certainly like to read more about the evidence for this.

Shapiro is, in the end, incredibly convincing, and a fabulously readable scholar, who manages to come across as fair and unbiased throughout most of the book. The book ends with a comprehensive bibliographic essay for those who wish to follow, first-hand, Shapiro's research, and perhaps draw their own conclusions. This is a superb addition to the authorship debate and has definitely wet my appetite for more reading in this vein.
more
A tour de force which examines why the authorship controversies arose, demolishes the alternative cases by being devastatingly fair minded, then demonstrates why Shakespeare had to be the author (or co-author) of the plays credited to him. Shapiro finds advocates of the alternative authors guilty of imposing modern readings, inventing conspiracies, misunderstanding Elizabethan/Jacobean life and, most seriously of all, not giving any credit to the power of the human imagination.more
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.more
Good book, lacks the obvious argument: on the list of authors of Great Books, almost 100% of them were born into the upper-middle-class. Certainly from the Renaissance on, this is the case. What this amounts to is saying that the Baconian and Oxfordian theses are wrong from their very premises--that, as they say, Shakespeare could not have written it because he was poor, or grew up so. Other than in Greece (where there wasn't really a strong upper-middle-class) and Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (one a slave and the other the Roman Emperor), all of them are of a kind. They were the sons of merchants (Chaucer, Spinoza, Thomas Browne), lawyers (Rabelais, Thomas More, Locke, Hume), scriveners (Milton), small landholders (Rabelais, Montaigne, Hume, Locke, Newton, Gibbon), government officials (Machiavelli, Montaigne, Bacon, William Gilbert, William Harvey, Descartes), and tax collectors (Pascal, Adam Smith). Galileo and John Stuart Mill were sons of famous intellectuals. So over a five hundred year period virtually every last one of the authors of Great Books, across every subject, was from the upper-middle-class--not the lower-middle-class, not the poor, not the rich. The reason is pretty basic: the poor don't have access to the rich, and the rich don't let the poor near them, so some (large) segment of humanity is out of their respective purviews. The richer the family, the less the chances of the son becoming a great writer; even the higher end of the upper-middle-classes produced fewer great writers than the mid-and-low-range-upper-middle-class. Those in the upper-middle-class, however, have access to everyone, and therefore can access a greater range of insights and feelings and can use it to leverage an already superb imagination. The exceptions to this rule are those who were brought up by poor nurses at the insistence of their fathers--Montesquieu, Montaigne--and not those who were brought up as ward's of the Queen--de Vere. Shakespeare's father, a burgess of the Stratford corporation, a bailiff who filled other municipal officers, and an entrepreneur, fits squarely in these categories. Oxford does not, and while Bacon does, it is obvious to the naked eye and half-functioning brain that Bacon's style could not be reconciled with that of the plays in question.more
This was quite enjoyable, although it made me wonder if there's some special reason there seem to be a lot of non-academic Shakespeare books out in the past year or two, or if there always are and it just happened that I picked up a bunch in a row, or what ...This is a look at the authorship issue - the idea that Dude from Stratford didn't have it in him to write the works of Shakespeare, and that the real author is someone else, usually someone famous. The focus is not so much on the specific arguments for the typical candidates put forward, but more of a look at the social and academic historical context when the various theories arose. There is a lot of fun Shakespeare trivia and information about famous forgeries and scams as well as the serious advocacies for Bacon and Oxford. (Also, best pun for a title I have seen in quite a while.)One thing I learned from this book is that Mark Twain was a supporter of the Bacon theory, and it cracks me up to think of what would happen if the ghost of Mark Twain observed a whole bunch of people doubting that he wrote the works of Mark Twain. I was ... a young teenager, maybe, when GAMES Magazine did a piece on Shakespeare's authorship and the various "clues" that can be used to bolster a claim for Oxford, and man, that was a good read and has stuck in my head for YEARS. It is SUCH a much more interesting and satisfying story than boring old William Shakespeare writing Shakespeare, that much is for certain. If life were a book, that is definitely how it would turn out.more
I used to be what I guess you could call a casual Baconian. Without having read into the authorship debate in the slightest it was quite easy to pick up on casual references in the media. It was also a good flight of fancy to imagine the man who essentially invented the scientific method could also be the genuine source of what is the jewel in England's cultural crown. However, thanks to James Shapiro's book I am now pretty firmly of the belief that the glovers' son from Stratford was the true author of the plays.In the book Shapiro examines the arguments for two of the leading candidates in the authorship debate, Francis Bacon and Edward De Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Only when you study the arguments for these guys do you realise how nonsensical they are. Arguments that William Shakespeare didn't write the plays attributed to him (authorship which had not been challenged until the late Eighteenth Century) are based on the assumption that to have written the plays the author must have been a nobleman, familiar with the law and life in the Elizabethan court, with a university education, attributes, from what the documentary evidence indicates, that certainly cannot be applied to the glovers' son from Stratford. This would only be true if in the writing the plays the author was being autobiographical and wrote from experience never mind the fact that Elizabethan autobiography essential didn't exist outside ecclesiastical writings.Finally Shapiro makes the argument for Shakespeare himself, detailing references to Shakespeare by contemporary authors such as Ben Jonson and recent textual studies into co-authorship, including five of Shakespeare's last ten plays, which strongly undermines the Oxfordian case. When asked why the authorship question is important, because no matter who wrote them we still have the plays Shapiro makes the interesting point that it does matter because by searching for a more suitable author we do great injustice to Shakespeare's most powerful tool, his imagination.This is the second book by Shapiro I've read, the first was the Samuel Johnson award winning '1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare' and as with this book the concept was really interesting but the execution was just a little bit too academic for popular appeal and it took me quite a while to get through this rather slim book. That said, the subject matter really is interesting and if you've every wondered about the Shakespeare authorship question then this is probably as balanced and even-handed a take on it as you'll ever find especially now that the Oxfordian movement goes from strength to strength.more
This is a book about the various attempts to unseat William Shakespeare as the author of Shakespeare’s plays, by a serious Shakespeare scholar. Shapiro argues that people—other authors—started expressing uncertainty at the historical point at which autobiography became ascendant, and when writing became understood as predominantly the expression of the artist’s own experiences. It’s the alleged poverty of Shakespeare’s experiences and education that made it hard for skeptics to accept that he could have written the plays. Shapiro suggests that Francis Bacon was first proposed as the bearer of sufficient erudition and nobility, while the Earl of Oxford became popular as psychological accounts of meaning became more popular than political ones. In the end, Shapiro argues, though Shakespeare often collaborated, the contemporary evidence is quite convincing that he wrote the plays attributed to him, and those who argue otherwise ignore the power of the imagination: Shakespeare didn’t have to be a king or a wizard or a murderer or anyone else in his plays to conceive of what they would be like. Side note: the Amazon reviews of the book are hilarious, because so many of the reviewers are arguing about who wrote Shakespeare rather than about Shapiro’s argument about the meaning of contesting authorship.more
A reasoned take-down of the authorship controversies, incidentally tackling the problems with their being a conspiracy at all, but mostly illuminating why and how people felt the need to deny Shakespeare authorship.more
An outstanding book. A joy to read from beginning to end, learned an enormous amount, all processed through the lens of the history of Shakespeare authorship controversies. In particular, the book asks why so many people have come to believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford did not write the plays attributed to him but that someone else, like Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere of Oxford, did. This view was held by people from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Mark Twain to Sigmund Freud to several Supreme Court justices today and even the New York Times has written agnostically on the subject of who wrote Shakespeare.Shapiro traces the history of Shakespeare studies from his death through the early 19th Century, documenting the twists and turns of how little fragments of evidence about Shakespeare's life emerged, dotted with several episodes of forgery, and culminating in a number of prominent Shakespeare scholars starting in the 1700s who viewed his works through the prism of psychology, autobiography, and other similar perspectives.Shapiro argues that it was these well meaning attempts to fill in the gaps with other disciplines that also opened up the belief that the same person who was a moneylender and a grain merchant could not have written about courts and kings and the other aspects of Shakespeare. The first set of theories focused on Bacon, and comical ideas about elaborate ciphers in Shakespeare's work. This was followed by the view that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare's works, a theory undeterred by de Vere's death in 1604, a decade before the final Shakespeare play.Shapiro explains why these theories appealed to so many people (e.g., Twain was writing his autobiography, believed that all of his works were written directly from his own experience, and could not imagine someone else doing otherwise). And he also gives a compelling case for Shakespeare's authorship, although not one that would persuade any die-hard conspiracy theorists.Ultimately, Shapiro writes a testament to Shakespeare's imagination and range, something that is the ultimate rebuttal of the attempt to reduce the plays to simple roman a clef's about court figures or simple ciphers.What makes the book so interesting is not that it is worth devoting much mental evidence to the anti-Stratfordians but how much about Shakespeare's life, work, subsequent reception, and evolution of literature, is illuminated by looking at how this movement emerged and gained an increasing amount of strength.more
As a 30 year veteran of teaching Shakespeare, I find Shapiro's book in the top ten written about Shakespeare during my career. It is fair, even sympathetic, to those who believe Sir Francis Bacon or Lord Oxford wrote the plays but Shapiro refutes each--plus many other contenders--directly and throughly. I only wish I had had this book while I was teaching so I could say "read this" when the inevitable question would come "Who wrote Shakespeare?" The glover's son, of course.more
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