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

3.9 out of 5 stars 83 customer reviews

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Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal
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The bestselling author of "Encyclopedia an Ordinary Life" returns with a literary experience that is unprecedented, unforgettable, and explosively human. Hardcover | Kindle book
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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.

Review

"Fascinating."
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 0.8 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (83 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #170,152 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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The author takes us through why people have believed that Shakespeare did not write his plays through the last several hundred years. His penetrating prose makes for fine reading as he skewers (accurately!) all those who would deny the genius of one of the world's great playwrights. From start to finish, I completely enjoyed this book. By turns funny, silly and always well researched, this is a must read for all those who love Shakespeare's plays.
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An excellent book, and a needed one, because the non-Shakespeare crowd are, alas, always with us. I don't know if it's snobbishness--how could that actor have written Shakespeare? he didn't go to college!--or conspiracy nuttiness--e.g., men never walked on the moon, the CIA killed Marilyn Monroe. But they're there, and I'm sure Donald Frump is the man of the hour for ninety percent of them. Continue on, James Shapiro, you are good!!!
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Brilliant and thorough analysis of the history of "Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare" arguments written in an engaging and easy-to-read style. A great way to get a better sense for the life and times of Shakespeare and how his works have been interpreted over the centuries since his death.
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This should be the final word on a ridiculous controversy. It has been fueled by notions of class and educational superiority, and a grave lack of understanding of Elizabethan and especiall Elizabethan London society and stage operation. None of the candidates to replace Shakespeare would have had anything to do with actual actors and directors in a theater. Yet there are ample examples of stage directions, rewriting and other functions of cooperative development of a play. Francis Bacon in the Globe at 9 AM to work with the players on Comedy of Errors? To say it is to mock it. Only Johnson and Marlow of the hypothetical candidates would have done that, and Marlow died before most of the plays were written and Johnson's style is definitely not Shakespeare's. Johnson's praise of Shakespeare in the First Folio would have been hypocrisy of the first order had he been the actual author - and the whole theater community would have known it. No, if some nobleman like Oxford had written the plays (he, too, died inconveniently, before some of the greatest plays were performed), the portion of London interested in theater, including the court and the nobility, would have known about it that afternoon.
A fine book. Read it!
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