Book Notes: Contested Will, by James Shapiro


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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? Could one who wasn’t alive in the middle ages write a novel about the period? It’s obvious that Shakespeare was a cosmopolitan man, in contact with people who traveled, and a few discussions in a pub would have given him enough information to write about Italy, or any other country.

Of the many possible alternate Shakespeares, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, has become the most accepted candidate. This has as much to do with books being published about him as it does with the oddity of the theories behind his authorship. Since he died in 1604, before Shakespeare wrote many of the plays, there is much massaging of evidence to prove that he was the one. He would have, the Oxfordians say, written the plays before his death, and had Shakespeare “write” them over time. Elaborate ciphers are used to find hidden messages in the texts of Shakespeare’s plays, pointing to Oxford. Yet this would have required a massive conspiracy reaching as far as typesetters and printers…

Contested Will looks at the various anti-Stratfordian theories, but also their genesis, and shows how these theories developed, as well as how they are all wrong. Read it if you’re interested in the history of ideas, and how a conspiracy theory of this type could take root.

1 thought on “Book Notes: Contested Will, by James Shapiro

  1. This is the only book on the authorship question that I would recommend to anyone who wants to read about it. After reading it I felt I saw the entire issue in perspective and could now (with a clear conscience) dismiss the entire issue and get on with enjoying Shakespeare!

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