Synopses & 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 many people began to question whether Shakespeare wrote his plays. Among the doubters have been such writers and thinkers as Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Mark Twain, and Helen Keller. It is a fascinating story, replete with forgeries, deception, false claimants, ciphers and codes, conspiracy theories — and a stunning failure to grasp the power of the imagination.
As Contested Will makes clear, much more than proper attribution of Shakespeare's plays is at stake in this authorship controversy. Underlying the arguments over whether Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays are fundamental questions about literary genius, specifically about the relationship of life and art. Are the plays (and poems) of Shakespeare a sort of hidden autobiography? Do Hamlet, Macbeth, and the other great plays somehow reveal who wrote them?
Shapiro is the first Shakespeare scholar to examine the authorship controversy and its history in this way, explaining what it means, why it matters, and how it has persisted despite abundant evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays attributed to him. This is a brilliant historical investigation that will delight anyone interested in Shakespeare and the literary imagination.
"Shapiro, author of the much admired A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, achieves another major success in the field of Shakespeare research by exploring why the Bard's authorship of his works has been so much challenged. Step-by step, Shapiro describes how criticism of Shakespeare frequently evolved into attacks on his literacy and character. Actual challenges to the authorship of the Shakespeare canon originated with an outright fraud perpetrated by William-Henry Ireland in the 1790s and continued through the years with an almost religious fervor. Shapiro exposes one such forgery: the earliest known document, dating from 1805, challenging Shakespeare's authorship and proposing instead Francis Bacon. Shapiro mines previously unexamined documents to probe why brilliant men and women denied Shakespeare's authorship. For Mark Twain, Shapiro finds that the notion resonated with his belief that John Milton, not John Bunyan, wrote The Pilgrim's Progress. Sigmund Freud's support of the earl of Oxford as the author of Shakespeare appears to have involved a challenge to his Oedipus theory, which was based partly on his reading of Hamlet. As Shapiro admirably demonstrates, William Shakespeare emerges with his name and reputation intact. 16 pages of b&w photos." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
—The New Yorker
"Shapiro is an engaging and elegant guide . . . a masterful work of literary history, an empathetic chronicle of eccentricity, and a calmly reasoned vindication of 'the Stratford man.'"
—Kevin O'Kelly, The Boston Globe
"James Shapiro is an erudite Shakespearean and a convincing one. . . . A bravura performance."
—Saul Rosenberg, The Wall Street Journal
"It is authoritative, lucid and devastatingly funny, and its brief concluding statement of the case for Shakespeare is masterly."
—John Carey, The Sunday Times (London)
Shakespeare scholar Shapiro examines and debunks the notorious controversy that often surrounds the authorship of Shakespeare's plays.
James Shapiro is Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University. He is the author of four books, most recently A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, which won the BBC Samuel Johnson prize in the UK, given annually for the outstanding work of nonfiction. His next book will be The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.
About the Author
James Shapiro is the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1985. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, he studied at Columbia and the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books, most recently A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. He has been awarded numerous fellowships and grants from institutions such as the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. He has written for The New York Times, the Financial Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications. Mr. Shapiro lives in New York with his wife and son.