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

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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? + A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 + Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
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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: 8.4 x 5.5 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #477,267 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


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)

About the Author

James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1985. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, he studied at Columbia and the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books, most recently A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. He has been awarded numerous fellowships and grants from institutions such as the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. He has written for The New York Times, the Financial Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. Mr. Shapiro lives in New York with his wife and son.

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Customer Reviews

James Shapiro's "Contested Will" rises to the task.
Peter Baklava
Chopping out the bits that might cause himself or his case to seem somewhat less glamorous is one of Shapiro's habits.
Roger A. Stritmatter
A fascinating book about the frailty of human beings who yearn to believe strange things.
Robert S. Hanenberg

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 12 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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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By ReasonableGoatPerson on October 10, 2013
Format: Paperback
"Who wrote Shakespeare?" Good question, I thought. And so I read the book.

Shapiro believes Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. But not everyone does. Two of the loudest camps of naysayers are the Baconians and the Oxfordians, arguing pro-Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford respectively. In this book the reader learns the origins of how these two came to be suspected of being the "real" author, as well as learning about some (possibly) surprising people who have doubted; and then the reader learns how and why Shapiro firmly believes that we've always had the right man-- Will S did in fact write those plays and poems. I'll say this: the evidence pro-W.S. is pretty darn persuasive.

If you're hoping to get a good handle on the reasons for favoring the two alternative candidates, this isn't the book for that. It concentrates more on the people advancing the theories-- why these theories may have attracted them-- than the content of the theories. Of course various points in their arguments do come up, but it isn't the main thing. Still, well worth reading.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful By John D. Lavendoski on August 6, 2013
Format: Paperback
Note: I will explain those things which I did like about this book, as well as give some more background on exactly what I found to be lacking and why I was, ultimately, so disappointed with it.

I was very much looking forward to reading this book, as I expected that Mr. Shapiro would do a very credible job at analyzing the 150+ years of skepticism regarding the authorship of the Shakespearean canon. As a lover of the plays and poems, this is a topic in which I have been interested since seeing the PBS Frontline show "The Shakespeare Mystery" over 20 years ago. Sadly, and perhaps because I expected so much, the book was a major disappointment to me in both tone as well as serious scholarship. Firstly, I will list those things I liked about the book.

I find that Mr. Shapiro's prose style provides enjoyable light reading for both the academically minded and the layman, and his main approach to the topic as a sort of "Historical review of Authorship Skepticism and the Academic Response To It" to be, exactly the RIGHT approach for a mainstream scholar to take as a safeguard against personal bias. His thoughts on the antecedents of the Anti-Stratfordian movement, including comments regarding Malone, Collier and Schmucker are particularly noteworthy. There is a good story to tell here, and, from pre-publication "buzz", I believed that Mr. Shapiro was going to tell it. Mr Shapiro did quite a good job of "setting the table" in terms of describing the 19th century era in which the authorship controversy first burst forth...and then: A complete missed opportunity...
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