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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Hardcover – Bargain Price, April 6, 2010

3.1 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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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.)
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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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (April 6, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416541624
  • ASIN: B0048ELD4G
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.9 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #334,168 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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I bought this book sight unseen, hoping to find nothing more or less than a simple presentation of the merits of each candidate's claim for authorship. "Contested Will" is not that; however, having read it through, I suspect that Shapiro felt that he would better serve the issue by calling attention to the long-entrenched biases in each camp than by attempting to present "the facts" -- any given fact being, of course, a matter of dispute or irrelevant to the other camp. Perhaps a truly fair, unbiased account of the Authorship Question could only be written if Stratfordians and Oxfordians worked together to produce it, and as Jim Broadbent once chortled in 'Gangs of New York' -- "that will only happen in the reign of Queen Dick! (That means it will never happen.)"

As a relative newcomer to the Authorship Question, I find Shapiro's detailings of the grounds on which the Baconian and Oxfordian views developed to be fascinating stuff; how else could you connect the likes of Mark Twain to Hellen Keller, Freud to Derek Jacobi? Now, I will admit my own bias: I agreed with Shapiro's view -- that the author was indeed the Man from Stratford -- before I came to this book, and the case he makes in the chapter devoted to the Stratford Man's authorship vibes with what I had already begun to articulate for myself: it just makes sense. The alternative theories, from Oxford to Bacon and onward, always eventually creak and collapse because they're not built on anything substantial (hundreds of uses of the word "ever" throughout the Canon do not make a convincing case for the mastermind 'E. Vere' repeatedly punning on his name.)

Ah, but HOW could the country bumpkin have done it?
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Format: Hardcover
Shapiro does it all here. In a debate that can quickly become shrill, he gets to the bottom of a fascinating detective story about how the authorship "controversy" got started in the first place, and then gained so much popular steam at different times in the 1840s, 1910s and then 1980s after nearly dying out for lack of proof over and over. Not only that, but the book itself reads like a thrilling Whodunnit, and then most of all, Shapiro saves the best for last. He packs in compelling answers to every so-called objection to Shakespeare's being the true author of the plays that bear his name, and far more: he explains why the whole debate matters. He gives the answer only a passionate life-long scholar and lover of Shakespeare's magnificent work can give to the question "Why do we read these plays in the first place, now 400 years after they were written?" Shapiro unpacks this manufactured "controversy" with solid, factual scholarship and then shows how claims that Shakespeare "must" have personally experienced everything he wrote (who thinks that about Tom Clancy, Stephen King or J.R.R. Tolkien?) cheapen the plays and the very thing that makes them, and all great fiction, so timeless: the magical ability of the author's imagination to take us places we--and even they--have never been. Even if you only marginally care about Shakespeare, this is a great historical adventure story.
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Format: Hardcover
The evidence Shapiro adduces, in his last chapter, for authorship by Shakespeare of Stratford, was almost totally unknown to me, and I suspect to nearly every other layman who loves the works and wonders who wrote them.

It is so persuasive that I can explain why men who should have known better, like Twain and Freud, bought into the conspiracy because they were otherwise totally ignorant of the time and place, the operations of Elizabethan playhouses, the practices of Jacobean printers, the ubiquity and accessibility of printed source material then, and many contemporaneous events, all of which are the business of experts like Shapiro.

(To say nothing of the point that many facts in scant supply about Shakespeare -- his education, the books he owned -- are equally lacking with his fellow playwrights; yet who suggests Dekker didn't write Dekker's plays, or Marlowe Marlowe's, and more than I can name here, many of which exhibit greater erudition than Shakespeare's? Also, Shakespeare's much-criticized attitudes about money were no different from his fellow playwrights or property owners.)

Freud's business was covert motives, which he applies to this mystery; Twain's, exposing frauds and humbugs, which he liked to believe he came upon here. They and their converts made Procrustean beds for the Warwickshire glover, and with such rancor, at times, I can only shake my head. The conspiracy-hunters reveal more about themselves than about anyone in olde Englande.

I only wish Shapiro gave more space to the tantalizing suggestions of Christopher Marlowe's clandestine authorship (my former pet theory, not strongly held), if only to refute it with something stronger than the claim of its being far-fetched.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you are interested in a sociological perspective on the Authorship Question, you will find much in this book to interest you. Shapiro writes of J. Thomas Looney and his "followers" (as he later writes of Diana Price and her "followers"), and of "Oxfordian disciples." If you consider it relevant and significant that South Shields is "strongly evangelical," that Looney valued Positivism, and that he had a "profound distaste for modernity," etc., you will find this book fascinating.

However, if you are looking for a detailed presentation of the case that "Will," the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, was the great playwright and poet we know as "Shakespeare," you will unfortunately be disappointed. Shapiro writes (p. 90) "It's not entirely clear why Oxford emerged as the most plausible of these aristocratic contenders." One can hope that, in his next edition, Shapiro will pay more attention to Looney's reasoning, and less to his religious and philosophical leanings.

As far as I can tell, the only modern unorthodox researcher seriously considered by Shapiro is Diana Price (Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography, 2001). Regrettably, there is no mention of Mark Anderson (Shakespeare by Another Name, 2005), Brenda James and William Rubenstein (The Truth Will Out, 2005), Robin Williams (Sweet Swan of Avon, 2006), David Roper (Proving Shakespeare, 2008), or Jonathan Bond (The De Vere Code, 2009), and only an oblique reference to Joseph Sobran (Alias Shakespeare, 1997).

Shapiro curiously refers to Price's "Chart of Literary Papertrails" as a list of "Contemporary Personal Literary Evidence," for which he uses the acronym "CLPE" [sic].
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