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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Paperback – April 19, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Shapiro, author of the much admired A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, achieves another major success in the field of Shakespeare research by exploring why the Bard's authorship of his works has been so much challenged. Step-by step, Shapiro describes how criticism of Shakespeare frequently evolved into attacks on his literacy and character. Actual challenges to the authorship of the Shakespeare canon originated with an outright fraud perpetrated by William-Henry Ireland in the 1790s and continued through the years with an almost religious fervor. Shapiro exposes one such forgery: the earliest known document, dating from 1805, challenging Shakespeare's authorship and proposing instead Francis Bacon. Shapiro mines previously unexamined documents to probe why brilliant men and women denied Shakespeare's authorship. For Mark Twain, Shapiro finds that the notion resonated with his belief that John Milton, not John Bunyan, wrote The Pilgrim's Progress. Sigmund Freud's support of the earl of Oxford as the author of Shakespeare appears to have involved a challenge to his Oedipus theory, which was based partly on his reading of Hamlet. As Shapiro admirably demonstrates, William Shakespeare emerges with his name and reputation intact. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


The New Yorker

"Shapiro is an engaging and elegant guide . . . a masterful work of literary history, an empathetic chronicle of eccentricity, and a calmly reasoned vindication of 'the Stratford man.'"
—Kevin O'Kelly, The Boston Globe

"James Shapiro is an erudite Shakespearean and a convincing one. . . . A bravura performance."
—Saul Rosenberg, The Wall Street Journal

"It is authoritative, lucid and devastatingly funny, and its brief concluding statement of the case for Shakespeare is masterly."
—John Carey, The Sunday Times (London)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (April 19, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416541632
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416541639
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #31,540 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Kirk McElhearn VINE VOICE on August 13, 2013
Format: Paperback
I'd always ignored the so-called Shakespeare authorship question, because I think it's irrelevant. I don't care who wrote Shakespeare's plays, because it's the plays that count, not the man. But I decided to read James Shapiro's Contested Will out of curiosity about how the theory that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare took hold.

It so happens that I'm familiar with a lot of the backstory - the rise of biblical criticism and the questioning of who Homer was - that serve as a foundation to the earliest anti-Stratfordian theories. It's easy to understand how, in the early 19th century, people who felt this approach so important could be convinced that another great author was not who he seemed. But as time went by, this became a story of lies, deceit and forgery, as well as convoluted conspiracy theories.

Deep down, it seems that there are two essential elements that come into play. The first is that, according to skeptics, there is no way the son of a glover could have written so eloquently about so many things. His limited education could not have enabled him to write such profound plays. As if in the nature vs. nurture argument, only nurture counts. This has been proven wrong with many artists, musicians and authors who came from humble beginnings, so it seems like a moot point, and surprises me that so many people bring up this point to deny Shakespeare's legitimacy.

The second element is the belief, which became prevalent in the romantic period, that all art is personal; that art reflects personal experiences. If this is the case, the skeptics say, then Shakespeare, who never visited Italy, could not have written about Italy. This argument seems childish to me; could a writer who has never visited Mars write about that planet?
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
There is something about Shakespeare scholarship which engenders greatness: Greenblatt, Kermode, Wells, Shapiro, Bate, Bloom--these are not dry scholars, but deep thinkers, writers of powerful prose, all with a profound sense of life in other times. None of them believes that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's works.

But there is a long tradition that Francis Bacon or Edward deVere (or many others) wrote Shakespeare's works, and that somehow generations of scholars have been fooled. Why anyone would think anything so preposterous on the face of it, has always interested me. I once put it down to snobbery, that the son of a glove-maker from Stratford could not have been smart enough to write such plays.

But it is more complicated than this. Shapiro's main idea is that many people want to believe that such great writing has to be based on experience, and Shakespeare could not have had the experiences which led to the poems and plays.

Shapiro is a scholar of Shakespeare, but in this book he had to treat many times and subjects, from 19th century positivism to Freud, and had to try to explain why such great thinkers as Mark Twain, Henry James and Sigmund Freud believed that someone else wrote Shakespeare. Surprisingly, Shapiro is respectful of what others would call lunacy. To explain one phase of the movement, which purported to find hidden codes in the plays, he explains how the development the telegraph and Morse code infused the culture of the times.

Shakespeare's poetry is of such extraordinary depth and beauty that it seems that it could only have been written by a man of letters, not an actor.
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150 of 214 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I can't remember, but I think it was Woody Allen who wrote the joke: The plays of William Shakespeare were not written by Shakespeare himself, but by someone with the same name. The only reason the joke works is that for a couple of centuries there have been skeptics who have denied that Shakespeare's works were actually the works of Shakespeare. In _Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?_ (Simon and Schuster), it's not a surprise that James Shapiro answers the question in the subtitle the way he does: Shakespeare did. After all, Shapiro is a Shakespeare scholar whose most recent book was a look at one year (1599) in Shakespeare's life and how the plays he was writing were formed by the political and social environment of that time. So, yes, "He would say that, wouldn't he?" will be the response from the current skeptics, all of whom have their own candidate for the position of Bard. Shapiro's book, indeed, puts an unassailable case for Shakespeare of Stratford being the author, but that is only at the end. Everything that goes before is a history of the anti-Stratfordian movement. It is a wonderfully clear explanation of why skeptics started going wrong and have continued vehemently on their wrong paths. It is an entertaining and often hilarious tale, a path strewn, as Shapiro says, with "fabricated documents, embellished lives, concealed identity, pseudonymous authorship, contested evidence, bald-faced deception, and a failure to grasp what could not be imagined."

There is no evidence that anyone in Shakespeare's time thought that the plays came from anyone else. In fact, it was only a couple of centuries after his death that doubters started piping up.
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