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Publishers Weekly stars Contested Will review

Publishers Weekly printed this laudatory starred review of James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? in its Nonfiction Reviews section today.

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? James Shapiro. Simon & Schuster, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-1-4165-4162-2

Shapiro, author of the much admired A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, achieves another major success in the field of Shakespeare research by exploring why the Bard’s authorship of his works has been so much challenged. Step-by step, Shapiro describes how criticism of Shakespeare frequently evolved into attacks on his literacy and character. Actual challenges to the authorship of the Shakespeare canon originated with an outright fraud perpetrated by William-Henry Ireland in the 1790s and continued through the years with an almost religious fervor. Shapiro exposes one such forgery: the earliest known document, dating from 1805, challenging Shakespeare’s authorship and proposing instead Francis Bacon. Shapiro mines previously unexamined documents to probe why brilliant men and women denied Shakespeare’s authorship. For Mark Twain, Shapiro finds that the notion resonated with his belief that John Milton, not John Bunyan, wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. Sigmund Freud’s support of the earl of Oxford as the author of Shakespeare appears to have involved a challenge to his Oedipus theory, which was based partly on his reading of Hamlet. As Shapiro admirably demonstrates, William Shakespeare emerges with his name and reputation intact. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Apr.)

I don’t know what is meant when the reviewer says: “Actual challenges to the authorship of the Shakespeare canon originated with an outright fraud perpetrated by William-Henry Ireland in the 1790s and continued through the years with an almost religious fervor.” I don’t think that Shapiro makes this claim in his book.

Feb. 25, 2010 Addition
Contested Will reviewer Richard Whalen said:

Shapiro does not say that Ireland’s forgeries were the first challenge to the authorship of Shakespeare’s works. He says that the forgeries might be considered the first authorship controversy in that they supported what people were hoping to find — a man of letters — just as people in the future would hope that they could find an alternative author. He says Ireland’s forgeries “. . . established a precedent for future claims about the identity of the author of the plays, which would turn out to be no less grounded in fantasy, anachronism, and projection.” (27) A rather subtle analogy.

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