Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Book Review - Contested Will by James Shapiro

Contested Will : who wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro

London: Faber & Faber, 2010                  ISBN 9780571235766

For those interested in the Shakespeare conspiracy, and for an accessible guide to its history and why those who believe in an alternative writer of the plays are irretrievably wrong, this is as good a place as any to start reading. Focusing on the claims of Bacon and Oxford in the main, with a passing reference to other claimants, Shapiro not only gives a good run-through of the evidence that convinces sane people that Shakespeare wrote the plays, but also brings out some of the absurdities in the claims for Bacon and Oxford.

What I found most interesting in this book is that both Delia Bacon (no relation to Francis), who proposed Francis as Shakespeare, and John Looney, who first proposed Oxford, did so after spiritual and personal crises which - as Shapiro points out - had a lot to do with them becoming iconoclast. It almost goes without saying that their initial doubts about Shakespeare arose from a complete misunderstanding of theatre and playwrighting in the 16th and early 17th centuries, and by them thinking of authorship during that time as reflective of how authors worked and thought in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Shapiro demonstrates that it is all too easy to fall into the trap of using Shakespeare's writings to try and discover something of his life, and also explains that in the 1500s and 1600s the idea of writing - especially for the stage - that was in any way autobiographical was almost unheard of.

As historical work on Bacon, Oxford, and Shakespeare has moved on in the later 20th and 21st centuries, it has become clear that both Bacon and Oxford could not have written the plays, and that Shakespeare - despite what Baconians and Oxfordians might have you believe - was acknowledged at the time by various sources as the writer of the plays we know, and of others now lost. It has also become clear that Shakespeare collaborated on several of his plays as well.

For every character or situation in the plays or poems that the conspiratists use to further their theories, there are two or three that offer a counter view, and Shapiro uses those characters in his final summing up, which is a withering attack on the small imaginations of those who would doubt Shakespeare. For it seems that those who refuse to believe that Shakespeare could write the plays also refuse to believe that it is possible to make up stories and plays from one's imagination, using things one has read or heard. It's actually quite sad to read the bleatings of these people.

So, well worth reading, and with an excellent bibliographical essay with which the reader can take their own journey through the major literature of the authorship question if they wish. Or, just stop at Shapiro.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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