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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  1,412 ratings  ·  272 reviews
For more than two hundred years after William Shakespeare's death, no one doubted that he had written his plays. Since then, however, dozens of candidates have been proposed for the authorship of what is generally agreed to be the finest body of work by a writer in the English language. In this remarkable book, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro explains when and why so man ...more
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published April 6th 2010 by Simon & Schuster (first published 2010)
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Bill Kerwin
Jul 05, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

This well-written exploration of the most popular of all literary conspiracy theories--namely, denying that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare--may contain (at least for my taste) too many details about the most prominent Baconians and Oxfordians, but such details are germane to Shapiro's subject, since he is more interested in the reasons why people began to question--and continue to question--Shakespearean authorship than he is in the reasons for and against this opinion.

Shapiro believes--as I do-
...more
Aliza
Apr 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
I am a Shakespeare fanatic so I was predisposed to liking this book (especially as Shapiro is very much of the opinion that Shakespeare DID write all the plays attributed to him), but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned. I've taken graduate level courses on Shakespeare and Textual Criticism, so I was familiar with most of the evidence that Shapiro presents for Shakespeare. With a few exceptions, there was nothing new here in that regard. What impressed me was the approach Shapiro ta ...more
Chris
May 30, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James!" -- Ben Jonson

When I was nowt but a lad I read Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence's Bacon is Shakespeare (1910) in the school library, which is when I first came across the notion that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare. According to him the plays are full of cryptic clues asserting that Francis Bacon used Will as a mask for writing all th
...more
Martin
Aug 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing

I had expected a strong overlap between Shapiro's book and the parallel sections of Schoenbaum's Shakespeare's Lives, the 400 year history of attempts to create a Life of Shakespeare. But there is no replication. Shapiro is no less scholarly, but he goes further in striving to understand the creators, and gullible victims, of the idea that Shakespeare did not write the works attributed to him.

The book is unusual in coming from a genuine Shakespearean scholar (most avoid this subject like the pla
...more
Nicky
Mar 31, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, history
I am not the greatest fan of Shakespeare -- or at least, of how rarely someone can discover his work for themselves, at their own pace. Of how he might well be the only literary figure people can think of on short notice. But I am a Stratfordian: I do believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote at least the plays firmly attributed to him and probably more, now orphaned or lost to us. So I wasn't sure about this book. It's not immediately clear, at a glance, what theory Shapiro subscribes ...more
Leslie
Dec 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
The authorship of the plays is really a nonquestion, interesting to people who think that Dan Brown fellow was writing about real history with all that code and secret society stuff. It didn't occur to anyone to question the authorship of Shakespeare's plays until more than two hundred years after his death and makes about as much sense as questioning that Dante or Dickens or Poe or Atwood wrote the works we put their names on; once someone asks the question, though, the anomaly hunting and conv ...more
Bruce
Oct 22, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Professor of English at Columbia University, Shapiro sets out not only to examine the evidence that the plays customarily attributed to Shakespeare may have in fact been written by someone else, but also to explore the reasons why such theories abound and have persisted for two hundred years or so. He first traces the histories of various forgeries claiming to substantiate information about and events in Shakespeare’s life, and then he reviews the gradual “deification” of Shakespeare, a process ...more
Ellen
Feb 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Why am I so surprised that the author of 1599 would have researched and written a fantastic book regarding the so-called Shakespeare authorship controversy? I really shouldn't have been. If I could give this book more stars, I would.

For years, as an English teacher, I encountered students, particularly back in the '80s and '90s, who would ask me who really wrote Shakespeare. (Some would ask if they had to read the plays since it wasn't proven that there was a Shakespeare who really wrote them. G
...more
J
Apr 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone with an interest in Shakespeare
Shelves: shakespeare
I love this book. It was absolutely fascinating and at the same time enlightening.

I'm no expert on the authorship question, but I did have my doubts about Shakespeare, after reading up on the other "candidates". While Shapiro (a Stratfordian) didn't wipe away all my doubts, he did something far more important. He illustrated the authorship question.

His book is not so much a nitpicky detail about why someone or other probably wrote Shakespeare, it's rather a look at why Baconians and Oxfordians a
...more
Lara Eakins
May 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobooks
My only real complaint about the book is kind of a pedantic one - he uses the label “skeptic” to describe those who question the Shakespeare authorship. The use of that label has been a problem in other areas since the people that identify themselves as part of the “skeptic movement” don’t want to be confused with this type of person labelled “skeptic”. As happened with those who question anthropogenic global warming, I would call the Baconians, Oxfordians, etc. “Shakespeare Denialists”.

The pat
...more
Alicen
Apr 12, 2011 rated it liked it
James Shapiro captures the anti-Shakespeare movement in the opening pages of this book as "a failure to grasp what could not be imagined". One of the main arguments against Shakespeare remains to this day the lack of evidence that he received any formal education or traveled to any of the places that feature in his brilliant works - and his opponents cannot imagine how he could have done so. Although I am staunch member of the Shakespeare of Stratford camp, I figured if I was going to read one a ...more
Roman Clodia
Jun 22, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In this detailed and cohesive exploration of the 'authorship question' Shapiro takes the conspiracy theorists and sceptics seriously, and then meticulously exposes the fallacies, misapprehensions and sometimes sheer dogged refusals of common sense that support their theories that Shakespeare couldn't have written 'Shakespeare'. It goes without saying that this is properly researched and draws on a career spent writing on and teaching Shakespeare and early modern literature.

What Shapiro does so w
...more
Jon
Jul 22, 2010 rated it really liked it
Most of this book is not about arguing the case of who really wrote Shakespeare's plays--it's about examining why various people including Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud doubted that "the man from Stratford" could possibly have done it. The answers lie not in the truth or falsity of their positions, but in their prejudices about the nature of fiction and in the spirits of the times in which they lived. Fairly convincing, but not of great intrinsic interest to me. Finally in the last ...more
Mike W
Aug 06, 2010 rated it really liked it
This book is quite engaging. It's starts a little slow, but rewards the patient reader amply. The story of Delia Bacon alone made reading the book worthwhile. But there is more to the book than Delia Bacon. Mark Twain, Henry James and Sigmund Freud make appearances as well, since each had a strong opinion about the authorship of Hamlet and the rest.

I had no strong opinion about the authorship question before reading the book, but Shapiro argues persuasively that William Shakespeare did indeed wr
...more
Erica Miles
Apr 11, 2015 rated it liked it
I realize that this is a scholarly and carefully researched work on a controversial subject and that I am merely a plebeian reader who does not have the credentials to appreciate it. However, I found the manifold miniscule details, however historically relevant, made for a very slow-paced book, and I did not have the patience to finish it. I felt out of my element in this strictly intellectual genre, even given the generous smattering of witty anecdotes and fascinating tidbits. I would probably ...more
Yibbie
Jun 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I had no interest in the Shakespeare authorship controversy, none. Then I read a book about the Oak Island treasure hunt. Maybe you can’t guess the connection? Well, one of the conjectures as to what lays buried at the bottom of that watery pit is the lost originals of Shakespeare’s works and the final proof of the identity of the author. I mean, what better place could there be to preserve paper documents for posterity? Anyway, I was startled by the detail that was put into proving that theory ...more
Horza
Sep 15, 2018 added it
Whomst is Shakespeare? That is the question.

The answer is at hand, thusly: 'tis me. I am Shakespeare. Come, let us march against the powers of heaven - who first lays hand on me, I'll be his priest!

Right, that's done, book review:

This is a history of the theory that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare. Shapiro lays out the background and beginnings of the Shakespeare authorship controversy (view spoiler)
...more
John Park
Sep 14, 2016 rated it liked it
Three and a half stars.

"This is a book about when and why people began to question whether William Shakespeare wrote the plays long attributed to him, and, if he didn't write them, who did." An accurate summary: Shapiro does make a very strong case in support of Shakespeare's authorship, but his main interest is the nature and origin of the questioning.

Belief that a glover's son from Stratford could not have written such complex and powerful works has attracted some big names: Sigmund Freud, Mar
...more
Marie Fouhey
Jun 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
In Contested Will, James Shapiro traces the history of attempts to prove that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays credited to him. The question seems to have arisen about 100-150 years after his death when people couldn't reconcile the little that was known about Shakespeare's life with his works. Gradually people began to consider first the sonnets, then the plays, to be autobiographical and pulled examples from the works to "prove" their case. Many of the suppositions rely on convol ...more
Philip Buchan
Dec 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shapiro's Contested Will is an excellent review of the phenomenon of Shakespeare Authorship Denial, a fringe literary theory that William Shakespeare of Stratford was not the author of the works attributed to him. Over a century and a half, many candidates have been proposed as an alternative candidate as the author, from Francis Bacon to Christopher Marlowe to the Earl of Oxford to Henry Neville. Shapiro details the history of this movement, and shows that the extant evidence strongly supports ...more
Victoria
Feb 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I was given the opportunity to hear Dr. Shapiro speak at school, as well as having a personal lunch with him. I “studied up” on his work before his talk (my professor had mentioned this book on the first day of class). I have never read a more charming, interesting, and thorough Shakespeare criticism. I read his book rapidly, and his prose is entertaining and easy to follow. I look forward to reading more of his work in the future. Without a doubt, this book has influenced me in my own critical ...more
Hana El.
Sep 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, theatre
Basically, rich, snobby people can't ~fathom~ how someone who wasn't also rich and snobby could have come up with these plays!
Sammy
Apr 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
A hugely important book. The silliness over allegations that other people wrote Shakespeare's plays and poems continues into the 21st century, with no good reason. The great thing about Shapiro's book is that he analyses the history of such claims, as well as the stories of the two most common claimants - Francis Bacon and Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford - from an academic point-of-view, allowing us to see the reasons why these traditions arose, and the motivations behind those who were doing it. ...more
Eric
Oct 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A superb primer on the Shakespeare authorship "controversy," its origins in the 19th century, the basic tenets of the Baconian and Oxfordian arguments against Shakespeare, which are the two best known theories, and finally the reasons why the whole kerfuffle is largely misguided speculation by people who don't know or understand much about the Elizabethan era. (Baconians believe Sir Francis Bacon wrote the plays, Oxfordians believe it was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford). But James Shapi ...more
Steve Turtell
Jun 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
I have no doubt that the man called William Shakespeare from Stratford is the author of the plays attributed to him--and if I did have any doubts, this book would have laid them to rest completely. It should--but I'm certain it won't--do the same for all the "Oxfordians" and "Baconians" and "Marlovians" who insist, against all the evidence, that a glover's son could not possibly have given us such works of genius as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, Kin ...more
Sandra
Oct 04, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It took me a while to get into it, but once I got to the 'Bacon' section, I was totally gripped. So many interesting things to learn about reactions to Shakespeare over the last four hundred years.
Zenmoon
Nov 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Lovers of literary intrigue
There’s quite an art to making scholarly material this accessible. Shapiro writes eloquently and with great expertise about the Shakespeare authorship debate that has raged now for centuries. I’ve been fascinated in it ever since I came across an Atlantic article written in 1991, ‘Looking for Shakespeare’, in which two Shakespeareans present opposing cases; one for Shakespeare as the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, and the other for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Around the same time I s ...more
Caroline
Aug 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a book about the Shakespeare authorship controversy - but it's more about the history of that controversy, and how and why people came to believe that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays, than it is a book weighing the merits of those various claims. Shapiro states right from the outset that he is a Stratfordian, that is, someone who believes William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays and no-one else.

Whilst there are quite literally dozens of potential claimants this boo
...more
Joshua
Nov 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shapiro's book is a wonderful summary and reflection on the Shakespeare authorship controversy. Common sense tells us that there's something to the mystery--after all, we know so little about Shakespeare's life and person. He bequeathed no books in his will. No one seemed to know he was a playwright in Stratford. He didn't have the education or cultural background to write so knowingly of Renaissance life. And so on. But Shapiro re-examines many of these tried-and-true myths through the Occam's ...more
Marika
Dec 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing
While reading this book, I was almost constantly irritated and even outright angry - with the fact that so man people choose to believe in a lie. It is a fascinating aspect of our human psyche, that if something is repeated often enough, and by an increasing number of people, we start to think that it has got to be true. In many cases, that 'something' eventually becomes 'the truth' if we allow it. And we do believe, despite the lack of real evidence, or the fact that there is contradictory evid ...more
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James S. Shapiro is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University who specialises in Shakespeare and the Early Modern period. Shapiro has served on the faculty at Columbia University since 1985, teaching Shakespeare and other topics, and he has published widely on Shakespeare and Elizabethan culture.

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“We've inherited many ideas about writing that emerged in the eighteenth century, especially an interest in literature as both an expression and an exploration of the self. This development — part of what distinguishes the "modern" from the "early modern" — has shaped the work of many of our most celebrated authors, whose personal experiences indelibly and visibly mark their writing. It's fair to say that the fiction and poetry of many of the finest writers of the past century or so — and I'm thinking here of Conrad, Proust, Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Plath, Ellison, Lowell, Sexton, Roth, and Coetzee, to name but a few — have been deeply autobiographical. The link between the life and the work is one of the things we're curious about and look for when we pick up the latest book by a favorite author.” 7 likes
“It may take a decade or two before the extent of Shakespeare's collaboration passes from the graduate seminar to the undergraduate lecture, and finally to popular biography, by which time it will be one of those things about Shakespeare that we thought we knew all along. Right now, though, for those who teach the plays and write about his life, it hasn't been easy abandoning old habits of mind. I know that I am not alone in struggling to come to terms with how profoundly it alters one's sense of how Shakespeare wrote, especially toward the end of his career when he coauthored half of his last ten plays. For intermixed with five that he wrote alone, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest, are Timon of Athens (written with Thomas Middleton), Pericles (written with George Wilkins), and Henry the Eighth, the lost Cardenio, and The Two Noble Kinsmen (all written with John Fletcher).” 5 likes
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