Summer Reading: Contested Will by James Shapiro

First book of the summer down! And what a lovely, gripping book it was!

Ever since my first introduction to Shakespeare in middle school, I have been aware of the authorship question. However, the topic never intrigued me quite enough to do significant research. I knew who the big contenders were–Earl of Oxford, Marlowe, Bacon–and why they were candidates–educated, intriguing, established. I could have a superficial conversation, but not much else.

I picked up Contested Will by James Shapiro because I read and adored his 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, and the authorship question did hold some minor curiosity for me. A dozen pages into the book, the subject had me entirely enthralled.

The strength of Shapiro’s book is the historical approach with which he documents the authorship question. Even though he has a very clear and very strong opinion on the matter–and he is wonderfully honest about it from the start–he spends most of his time looking at the historical and critical epochs that caused doubts and brought candidates into popularity.

Despite Shapiro’s clear stance as a Stratfordian, he resists the temptation to belittle the proponents of Oxford or Bacon (the two alternatives he spends the most time discussing). He may highlight the problems in their logic–sometimes with biting wit–he never attacks the person, or their intelligence. Of course, as a Stratfordian myself, I may be biased in my own way. Personal bias aside, Shapiro packs the book with historical facts and amusing anecdotes, keeping the pace fast and readers engaged.

I came to this book with a good amount of knowledge, but Shapiro gives clear context for the events and persons he describes without getting bogged down in the details. As such, the book should be easily accessible to those unfamiliar with the details of Shakespeare’s life or the history of the authorship question.

So read it. Read it if you like Shakespeare, historical scandals, or literary mysteries.

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