May 17th, 2010

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

This is not your average book recommendation -- but at least some of you may find the following of interest.

As many of this journal's readers are probably aware, I'm a Shakespeare buff.  I have seen most of the canon performed (including Pericles, but not yet Timon, King John, or Henry VIII), and I've read, albeit pretty lightly, in the newer scholarship.  So I was intrigued when I ran across a book recently entitled Contested Will by noted scholar James Shapiro, exploring the minefield that is the Great Authorship Question.

For those not familiar with said minefield: there's a sizeable body of individuals, including academics, noted actors, and Supreme Court justices, who believe that Stratfordian actor William Shakespeare did not write Hamlet, King Lear, or any of the other plays and poems commonly attributed to him -- instead, depending on whose theory one adopts, the Shakespearean canon may be the work of the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, or any of a host of others (or possibly by a collective of several different writers working in concert).  Of the rival candidates, the most prominent have been Bacon (now mostly discredited) and Oxford, also known as Edward de Vere (now the primary contender).

Contested Will isn't a strictly neutral examination of the controversy; Shapiro acknowledges up front that he's a Stratfordian, and spends roughly the last quarter of the book making his case.  But before he gets to that case, he delivers a concise yet detailed history of the authorship controversy itself, examining the larger context in which the leading alternative theories arose and the lives of the leading proponents of those theories -- notably Delia Bacon, Mark Twain, and Dr. Sigmund Freud.  Shapiro also looks at many of the key books and documents produced and cited by early anti-Stratfordians, discussing not merely their conclusions but the thought processes that lie behind them.  There's briefer but no less observant coverage of more contemporary developments, including televised "moot court" trials and Internet authorship-studies sites defending both sides of the conflict.  A thorough bibliographic essay provides extensive annotations and avenues for further reading.

The authorship debate being what it is (and judging by the online responses to published reviews), Contested Will isn't likely to convince devoted Oxfordians to abandon their cause -- though I'd recommend it to them nonetheless.  Some of the source material Shapiro examines is either quite recently discovered or notably obscure, and a few of his analytical barbs are aimed -- if gently -- at traditionalists as much as at anti-Stratfordians.  I'd also recommend the book to anyone with a broad interest in Shakespearean lore and literature; Shapiro's prose is engaging and his style is accessible, with little recourse to academic jargon. 

For those interested in exploring the authorship controversy more generally, two sites:
For the Stratfordian case: Shakespeare Authorship
For the anti-Stratfordian case: Shakespearean Authorship Trust

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