Contested Will, By James Shapiro

Reviewed,David Evans
Sunday 09 January 2011 01:00
Comments

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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in