Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Review: "Contested Will"

Contested Will
Who Wrote Shakespeare?

By James Shapiro

Simon & Schuster, 339 pages, $32

Reviewed by Michael Dudley

DESPITE his subtitle, American academic James Shapiro doesn't actually think there is any question that William Shakespeare of Stratford was the author of the greatest works in the English language.

This rather disingenuous approach will please traditionalists and will likely go unnoticed by the uninitiated.

Skeptics, however, will surely find Shapiro's arguments to be time-worn, weak and, indeed, fallacious.

An award-winning author and English professor at Columbia University, Shapiro has written three previous books on Shakespeare. In Contested Will, he recounts the almost two centuries of skepticism concerning the authorship of the Shakespeare canon.

We learn of the many famous individuals who could not accept the seemingly irreconcilable chasm between the dull, penny-pinching life of the Stratford man as expressed in the extant documents, and the brilliance of Shakespeare's plays. Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud and Helen Keller -- to name just a few -- all professed their doubts.

Shapiro is critical not only of these and other skeptics, but also of orthodox scholars who have tried to marry the internal evidence of the plays (such as the author's extensive knowledge of courtly life, the law and of Italy) to the life of Shakespeare of Stratford.

While more than 50 possible "Shakespeares" have been proposed (with several new candidates emerging recently), Shapiro focuses on the proponents of the two most widely accepted ones, Sir Francis Bacon and especially Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

In the 1850s, American Delia Bacon (no relation to Francis) concluded that Bacon had hidden secret codes in the plays and poems, and she and her many followers spent years and fortunes in a vain attempt to identify and decipher them.

Another American, J. Thomas Looney (pronounced "Loney"), by contrast, took a more positivistic approach during the First World War by first establishing a list of characteristics possessed by the author and then seeking an Elizabethan poet whose literary style and biography matched these criteria.

This method quickly led him to de Vere, who has, over the intervening 90 years, become by far the most plausible candidate.

Shapiro's primary interest lies in the motivations behind Baconianism and Oxfordianism. He discovers that Delia Bacon believed Bacon/Shakespeare to be a radical republican, while Looney admired Oxford/Shakespeare as a regressive feudalist.

While ignoring the substance of Bacon and Looney's work, Shapiro nonetheless devotes the final chapter to setting out his case for Stratfordian orthodoxy, which, like most conventional biographies of "the Bard," consists primarily of conflating all contemporary references to a writer named Shakespeare with the man from Stratford, and filling in the blanks with conjecture.

Even so, it is Shakespearean skeptics who come off as heedless cranks pursuing alternative explanations for largely ideological reasons, rather than as rational investigators solving a genuine literary and historical problem.

He insists that their search for connections between the life and the work is pointless, as the plays and poems are devoid of any biographical information, and were derived entirely from their author's imagination.

In other words, Shakespeare made it all up.

Shapiro doesn't reveal to his readers that Oxfordian scholars have uncovered a host of important solutions to otherwise inexplicable problems in the dating and interpretation of the canon, yet he can only defend the Stratfordian view with an appeal to the power of "imagination." He appears to believe this conclusion is profound; but, in explaining everything, "imagination" actually explains nothing.

It is difficult to imagine another field of study in which such circular logic would be taken seriously. That Shapiro is gaining considerable accolades for this book is itself an indication of the anemic state of orthodox Shakespearean scholarship.

Michael Dudley (an avowed Oxfordian for 20 years) is a research associate at the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2010 H7


  1. Hurray for Civitas and Michael Dudley. Those who would be interested in some sober (if not always reverent) history based opinions on the Authorship Question, have a look at

  2. Thank you for posting this. I hope readers will be encouraged to look beyond the orthodoxy into the fascinating world of the authorship question.

    Recommended site:

  3. This investigation reminds me the quest for the idea that "somebody" must be behind of the origins of our universe (time and space). Perhaps "nobody" is behind and the universe develops by its internal, chaotic dynamism, generated by the Big Bang. Perhaps also, there is "nobody" behind W. Shakespeare, and he is just writing by himself and using his great imagination dynamism. For almost 500 years considered as the Big Bang of literature.

    Andrew Targowski