Reviews for Contested Will : Who Wrote Shakespeare?

Booklist Reviews 2010 April #1
*Starred Review* For almost two centuries after his death, no one questioned Shakespeare's authorship. By the time the 1790s brought major Shakespeare forgeries and their exposure, however, Shakespeare's image had changed. As Shapiro, whose A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005) may be the best recent Shakespearean biographical book, demonstrates, the playwright had been virtually deified by then, and any scrap of information about him was received as if it were a piece of the True Cross. Moreover, burgeoning romanticism licensed seeking the author in the text; that is, educing facts about the writer from the characters and actions in his plays. Along came the new biblical criticism to encourage doubting other deities as it questioned Christ. An American, Delia Bacon, having lost strict Christian faith, essayed that the man from Stratford was a front for Sir Francis Bacon (no relation); Baconian authorship roped in prestigious advocates including Mark Twain, Henry James, and Helen Keller before the cause of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, displaced it in the mid-twentieth century. Shapiro devotes a lengthy chapter to both advocacy movements, the later of which has found new life on the Web, before succinctly explaining why Shakespeare's case has always trumped all challengers and only becomes stronger as new evidence is discovered, as it has been, rather richly, since the 1970s. A book no Shakespearean should miss. Copyright 2010 Booklist Reviews.

Choice Reviews 2010 October
"Who wrote Shakespeare?" might seem a surprising topic for Shapiro (Columbia Univ.), whose well-known A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (2005) examines the historical context of one year in Shakespeare's theatrical career. In fact Shapiro is not joining the debate, he is asking why it arose. He concludes that changing literary expectations, long after Shakespeare's death, led to an interest not just in the works themselves, but in the personality of the man behind them, and that a growing assumption that literature was necessarily autobiographical led to deducing the details of Shakespeare's life from his plays. Hence, Shapiro concludes, those reverencing "the Bard" and those finding better matches for the "life" discerned in the plays are opposite ends of the same spectrum, with both anachronistically imposing assumptions from the present onto the past. Well written and accessible, the book focuses on Bacon and Oxford as claimants to Shakespeare's plays, but others are acknowledged. Though his own beliefs are clear, the author shuns polemics. This is a remarkably even-handed analysis and must reading for anyone curious about the "authorship question." Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. Copyright 2010 American Library Association.

Kirkus Reviews 2010 January #1
The author of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (2005) chronicles the emergence of doubts about the playwright's identity and speculates about the assumptions and motives of the principal doubters.Shapiro (English/Columbia Univ.) is convinced that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays, but he waits until the penultimate chapter to summarize his evidence. The author's generally dispassionate, scholarly treatment will convince few doubters, for as he notes, "[p]ositions are fixed and debate has proved to be futile or self-serving." Shapiro begins with an account of a late-18th-century fraud perpetrated by William-Henry Ireland, who forged documents in Shakespeare's hand, including the manuscript of King Lear, then charts the growth of the notion of Shakespeare-as-literary-deity. This led, he argues, to the belief that the playwright must have been someone who possessed a superior education, was intimate with aristocrats and royals, had traveled extensively and owned a vast library--all of which exclude the man from Stratford. Early candidates ranged widely, but it was Delia Bacon who advanced the cause of Francis Bacon, a choice who attracted support from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Helen Keller and other notables. John Thomas Looney's "Shakespeare" Identified (1920) proposed the current champion--Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford--whose legions have swollen, says Shapiro, because of sympathetic print and electronic journalists, the Internet and the recent accommodations of mainstream publishers. What has also propelled the surge is the Oxfordians' belief that the works must have arisen from the playwright's personal, firsthand experience. Shapiro sharply challenges this belief and convincingly demonstrates that it would have baffled Elizabethans and Jacobeans--not to mention that it would have ignored the power of a writer's imagination. The author bases his own conviction on the documentary evidence that he summarizes near the end.A thorough, engaging work whose arguments would prove more persuasive were we not living in an era of such fierce anti-intellectualism and pervasive conspiracy theory.Agent: Anne Edelstein/Anne Edelstein Literary Agency Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2010 February #2

Mark Twain quipped that Shakespeare was not written by Shakespeare but another person named Shakespeare. Shapiro (English, Columbia Univ.; Shakespeare and the Jews) concludes that Shakespeare was written by Shakespeare. That said, he argues that an examination of the controversies over Shakespeare's authorship, which only began to arise in the 18th century, is valuable. It is not merely a matter of antiquarian curiosity but impinges on may issues in modern critical practice, raising questions about texts, autobiography, collaboration, national identity, interpretation, ideology, and the "author" function. Among the many competing claims of authorship, Shapiro focuses primarily on those for Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford as representative. His primary questions are the why and the how, tracing the history of these claims from their origins, how they gained momentum, and their lack of real substantiation. Thoroughly documented, Shapiro's book is scholarly yet well paced and accessible. VERDICT Rewarding for both the Shakespeare scholar and the serious general reader.--T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah, GA

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Library Journal Reviews 2009 December #1
Not just another argument about who wrote Shakespeare but an examination of the controversy itself over time. Shakespeare books always have an audience. With a six-city tour. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Reviews 2014 January #1

This engaging and fair history of the Shakespeare authorship debate examines the cases for Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as the true authors of the plays and provides a fascinating look at some of the most prominent anti-Stratfordians, including Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, and Helen Keller.

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2010 February #4

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. (Apr.)

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