Book Look - Contested Will, by James Shapiro

If you read one book about the Shakespeare authorship controversy, make it this one! Fascinating, highly informative overview of the Shakespeare authorship controversy from its genesis (as far back as the 1700s!) to today by a noted Shakespearian scholar who knows how to spin an entertaining and compelling story.

What you'll enjoy about this book (or at least what I enjoyed!):

* Thorough review of what we definitely know about Shakespeare's life (he wasn't "uneducated", folks - even sons of glovemakers went to school), what we can logically infer about Shakespeare's life (for instance, evidence suggests he was a formidable businessman), and what we definitely don't know about Shakespeare's life, no matter what other so-called "scholars" may state to the contrary. (There's no evidence he had an affair with his patron, and no positive proof as to the identity of the dark lady.)

* A detailed discussion of pretty much every single piece of paper or evidence unearthed over the last 500 years by Shakespeare, referencing Shakespeare, or discussing Shakespeare - what little of it there is.

* Informative overview of era in which Shakespeare wrote, with emphasis on daily life, cultural/social norms, theater, and playwriting - extremely helpful in interpreting in context the information we do have.

* Unbiased presentation of the two most serious contenders for the Bard's throne (Bacon & Oxford): the genesis and evolution of each claim, the main actors promoting each, the evidence cited by each camp, a detailed discussion of the pros/cons of each camp's arguments, and an update on where each contender "stands" in popular opinion today.

* An in-depth exploration of other controversies that have surrounded Shakespeare's life, to include:
- which plays did Shakespeare actually write? (Author presents compelling evidence that many of the plays were co-authored)
- what was Shakespeare's source material?
- why did he suddenly retire from playwriting and move back to the country to become moneylender and seller of malt?
- why did Shakespeare leave his wife only his "second best bed"?

* An entertaining exploration of Shakespeare-related forgeries, impersonations, and other frauds perpetrated over the years. (Will we ever find out who forged the Cowell manuscript?)

* Perspectives on how opinions of Shakespeare and his works have evolved over time

* A fascinating look into the world "Bardolotry" - how an actor and playwright from Stratford-on-Avon came to be regarded as the greatest author of all times.

This is by far the best, most thorough, least biased discussion of the controversy I've ever laid hands on. Having said that, the author does definitely have a bias (though he goes to some pains in the prologue to convince us he doesn't): he believes that the bulk of the primary source material supports Shakespeare's authorship, and that Oxfordians and Baconians rely overmuch on dubious "textual evidence" and inference to make their case. But this does not appear to taint the completeness or reliability of the information he has presented here.

Best of all, Shapiro presents his discussion in so organized and thorough a fashion, it didn't matter that I approached this with little background knowledge of Shakespeare studies, 16th/17th century history, or textual analysis: everything I needed to access his discussions was thoughtfully embedded in the text. Lucky for us, Shapiro's not only a scholar but an excellent communicator who knows how to present even the driest information in a way that most readers should find engaging and thought-provoking.

Highly recommended - I hope others will enjoy this as much as I did!

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