Sunday, October 31, 2010
Book Review: CONTESTED WILL: WHO WROTE SHAKESPEARE? by James Shapiro (Simon and Schuster, 2010)
This is a solid introduction to the lengthy history of the controversy over whether a man named "Shakespeare" (or "Shaxberd," or "Shakspere," or whatever you fancy) really wrote the plays attributed to him. Though Shapiro comes down strongly in favor of the orthodox view, he takes the arguments in favor of such claimants as Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere seriously and lets their advocates (which include such "big bugs" as Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud) have their say. Shapiro traces the origin of the authorship question, ironically enough, to the 18th-century scholar Edmond Malone, who is best known today for wrecking the "house of cards" built by the fraudster William Ireland, who had forged what he claimed were a whole treasure trove of newly-discovered Shakespearean documents. Malone may have done this important service to the scholarly world, but, in his early speculations that Shakespeare may have reflected his personal circumstances and specific life-events in his plays and sonnets, he may also have opened the largest, roilingest "can of worms" in the history of literary criticism. Shapiro argues that many of our assumptions about what modern authors "must" be revealing in their works can't automatically be used to describe an author who operated in a very different time. He also does his share of "grunt work" by digging up contemporary references and other material to buttress his claim that Shakespeare was indeed responsible for his own works -- though it is increasingly clear that he collaborated with other playwrights to a much greater degree than the "Bardolaters" of generations past were willing to admit. I highly recommend this enjoyable book to anyone with an interest in Shakespeare.