Contested Will by James Shapiro

Contested Will by James Shapiro


James Shapiro.
Contested Will.
Simon and Schuster,
N.Y. 2010.
ISBN: 1416541624

Shapiro, a reputable academic and literary scholar with particular expertise in Shakespearean scholarship, opens his preface thus:

This is a book about when and why many people began to question whether William Shakespeare wrote the plays long attributed to him, and, if he didn't write them, who did.

Shapiro conducts an engaging, conversational exploration of the various serious efforts to determine who "the man from Stratford," was, and who wrote the plays of Shakespeare. He begins, logically enough, at the beginning, with the contention of one James Wilmot in 1785, convinced that Francis Bacon wrote the plays. Shapiro explores the main theories and theorists, discovering along the way various frauds, forgeries and cover-ups. I should note, as Shapiro does, that a group of notable people have been convinced that "the man from Stratford" did not write the plays of Shakespeare; these include Henry James and Malcolm X, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller, Orson Welles, Mark Twain and Sir Derek Jacobi (this one really surprises me). He engages in fairly thorough discussions of the research and conclusions of Delia Bacon, who first made a serious effort to support Francis Bacon as the author, and the research of J. T. Looney, the first to offer Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, as the "real" author.

Alternate contenders favored as a putative author of the plays include Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford) and Sir Francis Bacon, though others have been proposed, and Shapiro leisurely looks at the research performed by various people in support of one or another candidate. Shapiro's approach to the question is intriguingly different; his interest in the authorship question is, as he says, "not in what people think--which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms--so much as why they think it."

This is an engaging, even-handed exploration of the authorship question. Like Shapiro, I am firmly convinced (and have reason for it) that William Shakespeare, late of Stratford-Upon-Avon, the husband of Anne Hathaway and the father of Judith and Hamnet, is the author of the poems and plays, but anyone with interest in Shakespeare at all will find this an engaging exploration. I note that the "Bibliographical Essay" at the end is an extremely useful and well-documented annotated bibliography.