Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro

Contested Will by James Shapiro


Goodreads: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2010


James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, traces the roots of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, examining why readers first began doubting the man from Stratford-upon-Avon had written his own plays. He examines the claims of Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the two candidates with the most support, before explaining why he believes Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

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James Shapiro’s Contested Will is an important addition to the debate surrounding the true authorship of William Shakespeare’s works. Though Shakespeare scholars generally do not credit the idea that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, conspiracy theories still abound. Shapiro argues that academic silence on the topic is part of the reason alternative candidates for Shakespeare still flourish. Despite the misgivings of his colleagues, he therefore wrote Contested Will, which traces the early reasons readers had to doubt Shakespeare’s authorship and carries into the present day. The book is an engrossing study of how our conceptions of authorship have changed–or not–over the years.

Previously, I was aware that those who argue Shakespeare could not have written Shakespeare usually based some claims on his class. Shakespeare was not cultured enough, rich enough, or educated enough to have written his plays. To me, the arguments reek of classicism, and are not particularly compelling. Shapiro goes farther, however, revealing how these sentiments arose out of a new conception of authorship in the Victorian era: an author can only write what he or she knows. This belief, that Shakespeare could only have written court scenes if he had been to court, or plays set in Italy if he had been to Italy, convinced even other authors like Mark Twain and Helen Keller than Shakespeare could not have written his plays.

Shapiro uses two of the most popular claimants to the Shakespeare oeuvre (Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford) to illustrate how different cultural conceptions over the years challenged people’s beliefs in Shakespeare.. Though many names have been proposed as the “real” Shakespeare, Shapiro argues that these two can reveal to us how Shakespeare’s authorship began to be questioned. In essence, people began to want to know who Shakespeare was, despite a lack of historical facts, and they wanted his image to match their idea of what an author should be. In some cases, this lead to complex forgeries demonstrating that Shakespeare was the urbane, well-connected, and Protestant author the people wanted. This stood in stark contrast to the evidence showing that Shakespeare was a man who did not write simply for writing’s sake, but because he cared about money!

Shapiro examines the evolving conceptions of authorship with what we know of authorship in early modern times. Autobiography was, he notes, practically unheard of, except in some spiritual texts, and even the concept of interiority may have been different: few people kept a diary. He also examines what we do know about the historical Shakespeare, and argues from it that we can conclude that William Shakespeare was, after all, William Shakespeare–a well-known figure in London and not a front for an aristocratic writer.

Interspersed with all this is a great deal of entertaining historical facts, from William Henry Ireland’s complex Shakespeare forgeries to the bizarre authorship theories suggesting that Queen Elizabeth was having incestuous affairs the government had to cover up. The sheer strangeness of the history is sure to pull in readers who love to learn about the past, even if they are not particularly interested in Shakespeare.

Contested Will is a highly readable and entertaining history. Based on extensive research, it is also a compelling work, one well suited to defend Shakespeare’s name and legacy.

4 stars

14 thoughts on “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro

  1. Isobel Necessary says:

    This is a really thorough review (which I absolutely mean as a complement). From the book’s title (I can’t tell if the title’s a pun – help me out?) I’d assumed it would be pro-conspiracy, but what you’ve actually described sounds so much better. Like you, I don’t have much time for the “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” (although I’m at bit inclined towards Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” anyway. Thanks for sharing, Krysta.


    • Krysta says:

      I believe the title is a pun on legal wills. It could be a reference to Shakespeare’s infamous will in which he left his wife his second best bed? I don’t think wills are particularly relevant to the actual book, though!

      I think “Death of the Author” could be particularly relevant for someone like Shakespeare since we don’t know much about him, anyway! Shapiro has written two other books, though, in which he examines Shakespeare’s historical and political climate and how some of his plays seem to resonate with those moments. I think that’s a convincing argument to make since you can link textual evidence to something actually recorded in history.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Yeah I’ve always thought the arguments reek of classism. I like the point about how academic silence on the issue could be the cause for so many conspiracy theories. This sounds like an interesting read!


  3. Michael J. Miller says:

    Have we talked about this before? If so, I apologize and will blame quarantine for eroding my memory. Anyway, Ryan North uses this debate as the foundation for his two choose-your-own-adventure Shakespeare books – ‘Romeo and/or Juliet’ and ‘To Be Or Not To Be.’ The joke introduction says historians have uncovered these works and now know Shakespeare simply used them and wrote down the path he chose through the book and presented it as his own original work. They mark the “real” play (written in North’s particularly unique voice/humor) if you want to follow that path but there are hundreds and hundreds of other options as well. You can play as multiple characters and even switch within the story sometimes.

    I knew I’d like the book when I heard Ryan North was doing it (Erica Henderson does some of the illustrations, too!). I knew I was in love with the book when I reached an ending to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ where, playing as Juliet, I cradled a dying Romeo in my arms and he looks up and whispers, “Just don’t let the ninjas win.” Then I drew my sword and ran off into combat.


    • Krysta says:

      I don’t remember talking about it! I haven’t read North’s book yet, but I think Briana may have? It sounds like a funny premise, though, because it’s kind of true. Shakespeare did usually rewrite other people’s plays! I should check it out to see North and Henderson team up again!

      Also, ninjas? What??

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        RIGHT?? There are story paths which a very close to your traditional Shakespearean settings/plots but then you can also find ninjas and giant robots – at once point I hit a locked gate I needed to understand computer programming language (yay for a Squirrel Girl moment!) to open which I sooooo don’t so I had to keep guessing until I got through XD.

        It is absolutely worth checking out when you have the time. It’s all the unique humor that made Squirrel Girl shine (although no other characters quite have her heart) but wrapped in a Shakespearean package. They are a lot of fun.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        Ahhhhhhh, yay!!! Best. Class. EVER. My first time through the Hamlet one I died after like two or three choices XD. So I guess I learned it’s a good thing I don’t live in Hamlet-times because my instincts would in no way, shape, or form keep me alive.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. DoingDewey says:

    After Shakespeare’s Library turned out to actually be about absurd, poorly supported alternate author theories instead of about the search for Shakespeare’s library, I’m a little hesitant to pick up something I know is on this topic. It sounds like this was much better done though and it is a topic interests me, so I might give this a chance 🙂


    • Krysta says:

      I’m not convinced alternative author theories can be supported in any meaningful ways. So I think maybe I’m biased in that I already agreed with Shapiro here that Shakespeare was Shakespeare and so am apt to take him more seriously. But it was really interesting to read his theories on why people seem to find alternative author theories compelling. It’s not so much about alternative author theories as it is a sort of social/literary history on how people have imagined the role of “the author” over the years and how that has influenced their thoughts on who Shakespeare must have been.


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