Book Review: Contested Will by James Shapiro

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The Authorship Controversy is infamous in the Shakespeare community and it keeps rearing its ugly head as new people are convinced that William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford, could not have written the plays attributed to him. This controversy (although conspiracy theory may be a better phrase) is something that has always perplexed me. I have never doubted that William Shakespeare wrote his plays, but I never felt I had the bank of knowledge to pull from to properly defend the man. Cue James Shapiro, a well-respected name in the Shakespeare community, and his book Contested Will. Shapiro lends his expertise to the defense of Shakespeare and writes in in such a way that it is easily digestable to the casual reader.

Shapiro frames the argument around the people involved. The book is broken down by the three main contenders: William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, and the Earl of Oxford. Then, each of those chapters is broken down further primarily based on the specific people involved in voicing those theories, or occasionally by other major developments that happened on a broader scale. From the very beginning he does not hide the fact that he believes Shakespeare wrote the plays. Before diving into the theories for Bacon or Oxford, he walks the reader through the time of Shakespeare’s death up until we started seriously looking for biographical information (about a century or two later). As he explores the Bacon and Oxford theories, he provides the context of the major authors of the conspiracy along with the greater historical context. He circles back to Shakespeare and details the evidence we have for William Shakespeare being the true author of the plays and the recent learning that he likely collaborated with many of his contemporaries. In the end, he discusses the greater pitfalls of biographical reading that many academics fall in to.

Shapiro’s expertise shines through as he provides important context to each element of the Authorship Controversy. He explains where the skeptics, such as Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud, were at in their personal and professional lives which lends clear insight into why they could believe such a theory. At the same time, he is critical of how these theories were acknowledged or ignored by the academic world and the broader population. He points out the clear flaws in no academics taking these theories seriously enough to publicly refute the evidence. Instead they opted to ignore or glibly mock the idea, like when they poked fun at Looney’s (pronounced like boney) name. He goes on to explain how in the late 20th century, the Oxfordians took advantage of fair reporting practices and demanded equal air time to explain their theories. It gave further credence to the Oxfordian case. By exploring every possible contributing factor, Shapiro makes it clear how these theories developed and why they were given greater and greater legitimacy.

In an effort to efficiently present all of the contextual evidence necessary, Shapiro chose to focus on specific people or events rather than chronological order. This framing device was necessary given the amount of information Shapiro was trying to convey. However, at times it caused the timeline to be a bit confused, particularly when he would call back to information presented earlier. For example, in the section on Oxford he brought back a reference to book that Twain read back in the Bacon section. For me, this was a realization that much of this was developing at the same time. It forced me to consciously move away from getting bogged down in the chronology. However, by the end of the book, the reader has an entire picture of how each specific theory evolved, along with how the general questioning of Shakespeare as the author developed, which was the point after all.

Shapiro presents A LOT of information in this book. It would have been easy for it to be a dry presentation of the facts. However, Shapiro inserts a sense of humor and frequently borders on downright snarky (sometimes gleefully jumping over that line). As stated earlier, he doesn’t hide his bias for Shakespeare, which I imagine stopped some anti-Stratfordians from reading it at all. While I, as a Shakespearean, appreciated this, I can see where it would turn off those in the anti-Stratfordian camp, the exact people that should be reading it, in my opinion. His snark and sarcasm is also ironic given his criticism of the academic community largely not taking this seriously. By presenting such a clear bias, he may have hurt his own legitimacy, however enjoyable it may be.

Shapiro concisely and simply states his case against other theories and presents clear evidence in favor of Shakespeare. His expertise is on par with his humor and this combination is what makes the book enjoyable for any reader. He managed to take what could have been another dry read for anyone except the most dedicated scholar and make it entertaining for any Shakespeare fan. Overall, I believe this book should be required reading for any student of Shakespeare. It’s time for this important information to be common knowledge.

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