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Book Review 213: Contested Will

September 10, 2011 - Harry Eagar
CONTESTED WILL: Who Wrote Shakespeare? By James Shapiro. 339 pages, illustrated. Simon & Schuster, $26

James Shapiro’s entertaining and persuasive “Contested Will” steps back from the he said/she said debate about whether Shakespeare wrote his plays to ask, how did this so-called controversy come about?

The answers are surprising.

For more than 200 years after Shakespeare’s death, no one thought to wonder whether Shakespeare wrote the plays. A combination of Romantic sensibilities and slovenly applied principles of the Higher Criticism opened the way to the cranks.

A few of the cranks are famous, Mark Twain, for example. The Shakespeare doubters attracted the leading crackpots -- Ignatius Donnelly, king of American kooks; and Sigmund Freud, the most successful crackpot of the 20the century.

But “Contested Will” is not merely an account of delusional enthusiasts. It also has a theme of interest to anyone who admires the plays: An examination of the change in the 19th century in readers’ expectations of authors, especially the assumption that all creative writing is necessarily autobiographical.

Shapiro contends that we all now expect to find the author’s personal life in his work. That is not true for me, and there are still good writers who, it would seem, it would be hard to accuse of secret autobiography -- Robert Coover comes to mind since, like Shakespeare, he wrote about politics from a distance. But Shapiro may be on to something in the case of many readers; and for many writers.

Combine Victorian self-righteousness and the democratic, leveling power of the Internet, and you get a recrudescence of an idea that never had merit to begin with, since it attempted to drape a premodern man in modern sensibilities. Shapiro finds the outcome “demoralizing, a vision of a world in which collective comfort with conspiracy theory, spurious history, and construing fiction as autobiographical fact had passed a new threshold.”

It is easy to see why a teacher of Shakespeare would feel that way. For those of us with nothing invested in the real Shakespeare, though, the cavalcade of kooks is part of the grand pageant of nuttiness that both entertains and leaves us feeling superior.

 
 

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