Contested Will, By James Shapiro

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The Independent Culture

Who wrote Shakespeare? The most famous literary whodunit of all has generated thousands of books and articles, shrill TV documentaries and even a (moot) trial in the US Supreme Court. In Contested Will, James Shapiro sensibly asks what all the fuss is about.

It wasn't until the late-18th century that scholars began to cast doubt on the glover's son from Stratford, arguing that there was "an unbridgeable rift between the facts of Shakespeare's life and what the plays and poems reveal about their author's education". The idea of writing as a confessional medium was gaining currency, and it seemed unlikely that a man of such humble background and apparently limited life experience could have penned the great works.

But Shapiro shows that this claim is anachronistic. There is no evidence that authors in Shakespeare's day wrote from experience: "Autobiography as a genre... was extremely unusual." The arguments for apparently more worldly men, such as Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, have turned up tendentious readings of the plays but little hard evidence. Shapiro's engrossing and frequently funny narrative reveals many famous sceptics had ulterior motives: Mark Twain threw his weight behind Bacon because Shakespeare threatened his conception of fiction as autobiographical; Freud advocated Oxford, because his psychoanalytic reading of Hamlet was scuppered when he learnt Shakespeare's father had died after it was written.

Shapiro ends with a robust defence of Shakespeare and his art, arguing that if we dismiss him because he lacked experience, then we ignore the very thing that made him exceptional – his imagination.