Sunday, 10 July 2011

Contested Will by James Shapiro

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare by James Shapiro (Simon and Schuster 2010)

I used to be what I guess you could call a casual Baconian. Without having read into the authorship debate in the slightest it was quite easy to pick up on casual  references in the media. It was also a good flight of fancy to imagine the man who essentially invented the scientific method could also be the genuine source of what is the jewel in England's cultural crown. However, thanks to James Shapiro's book I am now pretty firmly of the belief that the glovers' son from Stratford was the true author of the plays.

In the book Shapiro examines the arguments for two of the leading candidates in the authorship debate, Francis Bacon and Edward De Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Only when you study the arguments for these guys do you realise how nonsensical they are. Arguments that William Shakespeare didn't write the plays attributed to him (authorship which had not been challenged until the late Eighteenth Century) are based on the assumption that to have written the plays the author must have been a nobleman, familiar with the law and life in the Elizabethan court, with a university education, attributes, from what the documentary evidence indicates, that certainly cannot be applied to the glovers' son from Stratford. This would only be true if in the writing the plays the author was being autobiographical and wrote from experience never mind the fact that Elizabethan autobiography essential didn't exist outside ecclesiastical writings.

Finally Shapiro makes the argument for Shakespeare himself, detailing references to Shakespeare by contemporary authors such as Ben Jonson and recent textual studies into co-authorship, including five of Shakespeare's last ten plays, which strongly undermines the Oxfordian case. When asked why the authorship question is important, because no matter who wrote them we still have the plays Shapiro makes the interesting point that it does matter because by searching for a more suitable author we do great injustice to Shakespeare's most powerful tool, his imagination.

This is the second book by Shapiro I've read, the first was the Samuel Johnson award winning '1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare' and as with this book the concept was really interesting but the execution was just a little bit too academic for popular appeal and it took me quite a while to get through this rather slim book. That said, the subject matter really is interesting and if you've every wondered about the Shakespeare authorship question then this is probably as balanced and even-handed a take on it as you'll ever find especially now that the Oxfordian movement goes from strength to strength.