Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Guest Review : "Contested Will" by James Shapiro

Regular contributor Dr. Carl Atkins sent in this guest review of James Shapiro's "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? ". Mr. Shapiro is also well known for A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (P.S.) , his biography of Shakespeare. Dr. Atkins, or "catkins" as he's spotted in the comments, is the author of Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Take it away, Carl:

I was actually pleasantly surprised. It was much more readable than I expected. I had read his "1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare" and found it to be rambling, disjointed, and filled with conjecture, so I was not expecting good things from a book about such a difficult subject. Yet "Contested Will" is, for the most part, tightly written, well structured, straightforward, factual without being too dry, and absorbing. It details the history of the authorship controversy, interestingly laying the blame on one of the most renowned Shakespeare scholars, Edmond Malone. He notes that Malone, frustrated at being unable to uncover any documents to help flesh out the biography he hoped to write about Shakespeare, began to look to the plays for biographical references. This opened the door for anti-Stratfordians to launch their only means of attack.

If the book has any fault it is only in spending a bit too much time detailing the course of the Oxfordian cause. I found myself getting a bit bored by the end of that section. But only a bit.

It is a testament to Shapiro's cool-headedness that he spends two-thirds of the book discussing the (circumstantial) evidence against Shakespeare's authorship and ends with 27 pages debunking it.

What is most impressive is that Shapiro does not come across as someone with an axe to grind, or as a scornful elitist. He actually sounds like someone who is presenting the evidence for all to see. He makes no pretense about what side he is on, but he makes the evidence very clear.

I did not think I would like a book about the authorship question because I do not think it is an important question. But this book is more about understanding the history of the authorship question than about resolving the controversy. That is a more interesting topic. This is a book I would recommend to all interested in Shakespeare. It is fun to read.

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