Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, by James Shapiro
As someone who reads a lot about Shakespeare, I am pleased that this book deals thoughtfully with many of the problems that I have with books about Shakespeare. By and large this book expresses my own thoughts and opinions about Shakespeare and how one can best judge his writing. What is most notable about this book is the way that the author discusses the question of authorship for Shakespeare in a way that does not involve the sort of romantic ideal that we have at present when it comes to the autobiographical nature of writings and the search of writings for insight about the psychology of writers. Shakespeare was not that sort of writer. Indeed, Shakespeare regularly collaborated with other writers, especially at the beginning and end of his career, and was nothing if not a very restrained person when it came to his own personal life. And the fact is that very little is known about Shakespeare’s life, although a great deal is known about his writing and about his life in the theater, thanks to the reminisces of others and the business documents he appears on, more than is commonly recognized.
This particular book is a bit more than 300 pages long and is divided into four sections. The first section talks about Shakespeare and what we know about them, and is very candid about the way that Shakespeare is not a very appealing figure for contemporary readers who dislike his avaricious business dealings and his general personal obscurity. After that the author talks about Bacon and Oxford, pointing out the various factors that made them (and other figures) be viewed as candidates and lamenting the way that Shakespeare scholars created the legitimacy problem through adopting a romantic approach to the texts as autobiographical and personal and by adding fake details about Shakespeare’s life to flesh out what is known. After that the author spends a last section talking in detail about Shakespeare and how he can be known on his own terms as a writer of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods and how a lot more is known about him and about his life in the theater than is often admitted, and that he was skilled at appropriating what others had written and not nearly as original as he is claimed to be, even if he is a difficult man to pin down.
And it is that difficulty to pin down Shakespeare that makes him so fascinating for readers. The plays of Shakespeare are rich in terms of their psychological insight, but they are also aimed at a broad audience, with the sort of material that would appear to a wide range of people while also demonstrating the sort of savvy that can only be gained from knowing one’s actors and the places one’s plays are performed. The author quite wisely comments that this sort of insider knowledge does say something profound about Shakespeare and the way that a theater insider, writing scripts that involve a small amount of people, quite a few of whom play to a particular type, is going to write differently than someone who is writing privately and without a particular group of actors in mind. Much of the writing about Shakespeare tends to assume that he wrote from the point of view of the elite and lacked sympathy with the common person but does not indicate the way that Shakespeare himself was a social climber and parvenu from a small town who was able to make himself in London and write some lasting plays that have inspired a great many, even if not much is known about the man himself.