Friday, June 1, 2018

Contested Will by James Shapiro

Contested Will is basically non-fiction literary mystery which looks into the question: who wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare?

If you haven’t heard, there’s some debate into the authorship of the Shakespeare plays. The first section of the book deals with how this debate even arose. To sum, by the time people grew interested in the life of Shakespeare, the people who knew him were dead. And thanks to a man name Malone, they started thinking that details of Shakespeare’s plays revealed details about Shakespeare’s life. And because people can be snobs, they started thinking that a glover’s son couldn’t possibly have written all these wonderful plays. In fact, his plays must have been written about someone worthy and two of the strongest contenders are Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Parts two and three of the book look at how the theories of Bacon and Oxford as Shakespeare came about by tracing the history of the arguments through the people who advocated for them. For Bacon, he covers Delia Bacon (very sympathetically) and Mark Twain. The Bacon theory is very much connected to ciphers. For the Oxford theory, he talks about Freud and Looney and this theory is very conspiracy-theory and based on supposed similarities in life events. Perhaps it’s because Shapiro is a Shakespearean scholar and hence skeptical of the Bacon and Oxford theory, but I didn’t find the proponents for the alternative candidates very convincing.

In the last section, Shapiro uses early Shakespearean texts and what contemporary writers said to argue (more convincingly, in my opinion) that William Shakespeare did indeed write his own plays.

The Shakespearean authorship question isn’t very well-known, but if you like literature and mysteries, I think you’ll enjoy this book. It’s not only well-written, it’s well-researched (he doesn’t have a bibliography, he has a bibliographic essay!)


  1. I have heard the rumor that Shakespeare didn't write the plays. This sounds like a fascinating read.


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