Contested Will, By James Shapiro
Sunday 09 January 2011
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.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Caitlyn Jenner's mother Ester thought her daughter, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, had transitioned for money
- 2 Charles Kennedy 1959-2015: A gifted, compassionate politician whose career was cut short by the 'demon drink' - latest news
- 3 Alton Towers crash: Four seriously injured and 16 guests trapped as Smiler ride carriages collide
- 4 Gay teenager 'forced to have sex with his own mother' to 'cure' his homosexuality, campaigners in India say
- 5 Ann Summers survey reveals the UK's favourite sex position
Britain's Got Talent producers apologise for not making Matisse dog double stunt 'clearer'
Britain's Got Talent 2015 final: Jules and Matisse used secret dog double for winning tightrope act
Netflix is testing out adverts
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 9: 'The Dance of Dragons' sees Jon Snow return to The Wall after epic Battle of Hardhome
Britain's Got Talent final 2015: 90 viewers complain to Ofcom about Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden's 'revealing' dresses
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Church of England 'one generation away from extinction' after dramatic loss of followers