Review: Contested Will, James Shapiro

I am a fan of delayed gratification. You may not know this about me because, for instance, I whined so much about not having Monsters of Men handed to me the identical second that I finished reading The Ask and the Answer. You may suppose that a girl who reads the end of books before she reads the middle, and interrupts cross-stitching a Christmas stocking for her little cousin to find out from Television Without Pity what is going to happen in the last twenty minutes of the episode of The Good Wife she is watching, is not a girl fond or capable of delaying gratification. You might think that I was the kind of little kid who would grab the marshmallow as soon as the dudes running the study had left the room.

But no! You are wrong! Given my druthers (yes, druthers. Problem?), I will delay gratification until my face falls off. When I get a book that I know is going to satisfy my heart, I wait. (Sometimes. Depends on the book.) I like the feeling that there is something lovely waiting for me whenever I choose to indulge in it. This is the same reason that I am bringing a name-heavy book about Egyptian history to work with me every day, rather than The Hand That First Held Mine, which between you and me I would rather be reading.

(Dear Bookwords Game: I miss you. Why isn’t there a word for a book with so many names to remember that it overloads your brain unless you are keeping really good notes, which is difficult to do on the subway (e.g., all Russian novels everywhere)? Love, Jenny)

Mumsy got me Contested Will for my birthday way back in May, and every time I wandered over to pick it up and read it, I got so excited about the prospect of learning fun facts about the Shakespeare authorship controversy that I decided to save it for another time. A time when I would be stressed and would really need someone to hold my brain’s hand and say, “Jenny’s Brain, Shakespeare did so write his own plays. Don’t you listen for a single minute to anyone who tells you different.” When I moved to New York and started apartment-hunting, I decided that would be a propitious time for me to read Contested Will at last.

It was so worth the wait. Shapiro goes over the history of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, from the first recorded dude who chose to doubt that a low-class actor out of Stratford could write the best plays that ever got written, through Shakespeare-doubting luminaries like Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Sigmund Freud, all the way up to the 2003 Supreme Court dudes who agreed Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. At the end of the book he makes a sustained and compelling argument in favor of the Stratfordian. Hooray, my prejudices were all confirmed!

One of the things that has always given me pause is that so many brilliant people have believed Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. Shapiro made me feel better by telling me that in this respect at least, they all tended to be crazy-crazy in the head. Twain and Freud and Keller all thought (they did!) that there were extensive, complicated codes within the plays that would “prove” their true authorship. Oh, and one of my favorite things in the whole book was this one guy in the 1800s who was mad about all the historians who were going around saying Jesus never existed, so as a satire, he wrote up a pamphlet using similar methods to prove Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare. As a satire! But he used all the arguments people really use. That is awesome to me.

I guess it is time for me and Shakespeare to be friends again. Reading The Taming of the Shrew this summer annoyed me to death, and I haven’t been able to write about it for y’all, or carry on with my Shakespeare-in-chronological-order project, even though I’m only two plays away from Romeo and Juliet. But Shapiro reminded me of all the reasons that I love my upstart crow, one reason being that he’s an enigma dude whose fairly ordinary life does not easily reconcile in our minds with the unrelenting brilliance of his writing. I like that about him.

Coda: Y’all probably get so sick of me going on about football, but since I am speaking of things that make my heart happy, I just have to report it. In a stirring battle of good vs. evil (our Mad Hatter with his daring play calls and grass-eating tradition being GOOD, and their shouty diva who blames the fans when he loses being EVIL), in the midst of a season plagued by timing issues and terrifying unreliableness on the part of our two (!) quarterbacks, contrary to the general national expectation of being utterly crushed, the LSU Tigers beat the Alabama Crimson Tide 24-21. This means a lot to me because the 2007 Bama game was the game that made me love football, and that is the last time we won against Bama (until this past Saturday). It was a hella exciting game. When I was out doing some exceptionally depressing apartment-hunting yesterday, and I nearly started to cry on the subway (don’t judge. I hate apartment-hunting.), I cheered myself up be replaying scenes from Saturday’s game in my head.

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37 thoughts on “Review: Contested Will, James Shapiro

  1. TWoP – woo woo!

    marshmallow study – ha!

    Bookwords Game – aw, we’ll see what we can do about a resurrection, maybe just for special occasions

    Shakespeare – all I can think of is the Baconians in Thursday Next’s world who go door to door with pamphlet’s promoting the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write his books. That sealed the deal for me with that book. Or Joseph Fienes in Shakespeare in Love, which reminds me of Cue for Treason, the best ‘have to read for school’ book I ever read.
    Helen Keller doubted? that seems odd to me. She seemed so level headed.

    apartment hunting – nothing yet? good luck. What is 420 friendly

    football – Americans and their football are like Canadians and their hockey. All I know about football in Canada is that I think it has 3 downs, and we had Doug Flutey for a long time ruling the field.

    • Yep, Helen Keller doubted. She wanted to publish a paper about her crackpot anti-Shakespeare theories, and she got mad when her publisher or whatever didn’t want to publish it. She thought it was because people just wanted her to write about being deaf and blind, rather than because HER IDEA WAS INSANE.

      Apartment hunting – Well, not to blow anyone’s cover, but 420 friendly means you can smoke pot there. But aside from its being illegal, the smell gives me a hell of a headache.

      Football – Hockey has downs? I didn’t even much know.

  2. Dear anyone reading:

    It’s so true. She’s an insane delay gratificationer, and always has been.

    You know in the Long Winter, when they get a box of nice things, and Mary goes, hey, let’s only read a very very little bit of the fun reading, so we can delay gratification? And how Mary is always putting off fun things like that? And destroying joy?

    I always thought of Jenny as Mary, because that’s always been EXACTLY WHAT SHE IS LIKE. Even when we were little, she was like, “what’s this? vegetables and dessert next to each other? I will eat vegetables first. Then delay dessert for two hours, so I can thoroughly enjoy it”

    Who does that, without even an attempt to throw away the vegetables and only eat dessert?

  3. Ooh Ooh I do that. There are certain types of books that I just know are going to be absolutely perfect reads for me and I hoard them up too. So I end up reading loads of stuff I half wanted to read and saving up the treats for later. Daft, I know, but how to circumvent the hardwiring of the brain?

  4. It’s weird. I’m not into delaying gratification for books, but I am totally all about it at meals (Yes, dessert comes last,’cause it’s the best!) And I always want to get my work out of the way first, so I can really enjoy my play. But with book choice, I’m not like that.

    And I’m glad to hear this is good. I’ve been wanting to read it because I’m fascinated by the authorship question, even though I am also firmly on the side of Shakespeare as author.

    • And it’s not like I never eat dessert first! It just makes a good ending for a meal.

      At first I was expecting the book to be more of an exploration of the different arguments for and against Shakespeare’s authorship. Instead it was a history of Shakespeare-doubting, which was very cool. I especially loved it when he talked about people who forged Shakespeare’s papers to make it look like he was the sort of dude that generation of readers would want Shakespeare to be.

  5. I am currently restraining myself from seeing what happened on Glee last night on Television without Pity, so I feel you.

    My local library at home recently picked this up; whenever I can, I try and display it, since punny title plus Shakespeare equals awesome. I’m glad it’s so good!

    • I nerdily read the TWOP TV recaps after I’ve watched the shows. But they make me smile, so that is my rationalization.

      I hope you enjoy Contested Will when you get it!

  6. I didn’t realize Contested Will was so full of interesting stuff. It sounds like something I would like!

    I get totally crazy over delayed gratification, and admire anyone with as much self control as you have, because I have NONE! (although I do practice things like saving the insides of a hostess cupcake or oreo for last, but this sort of delay is very short).

    • I bet you would! You are always reading interesting nonfiction, and this definitely qualifies. Also, my delayed gratification doesn’t work for everything. I’m a slave to a full box of Famous Amos cookies.

  7. I am all for delayed gratification as well, and that is why I have thousands of unread books around here, that I just know are going to blow my mind someday. But what I really love is thinking of you having your face fall off while waiting to read a good book. That is a genius image.

    As far as Shakespeare being the real author of his plays: I went to a live theater performance all about this. It was a play about how Shakespeare was only a horse groomer, and the real author of the plays was some wealthy aristocrat who was trying to hide his passion for writing plays from his parents. The play was really awesome, but I thought it was a lot of baloney. I believe, in my deepest heart, that Shakespeare was the author of those works, and no one can tell me otherwise, no matter what proof they claim to have.

    Wonderful review, Jenny!

    • So far? My face has not fallen off. Rejoice. :p

      What play was that? It sounds really cool! I want to see such a play even if it’s full of crazy sauce. BTW, they don’t have any proof. The “proof” is all based on the assumption that Shakespeare can’t be Shakespeare because, basically, he didn’t write any letters about how much he loved the theatre & intellectual life. *eyeroll*

  8. You know what seals the deal for me? Ben Jonson. I mean, he KNEW the dude, and he never gives any whisper of a hint that Shakespeare was anyone other than Shakespeare.

    I’m so glad you like this. I did too. And you might want to go see a good performance of Shrew, because it is very different when you see it performed. It becomes less “put the woman in her place” and more “her family sucks, but if she can trust me we can conquer the world.” Petruchio and Kate are playing a game, and they both know it; it’s a serious game, because she trusts no one, and he is crazy about her, but it’s still a witty and crazy game. Like, like Jane Eyre and Rochester.

    • Actually, Jen, I’m with Mum, and I never thought I would be, but I saw a really very good version of it at a renfair last year, and promptly forgave the play

    • I know I know I know. But I can’t make myself believe fundamentally that that’s what Shakespeare really meant. I know it can be performed in such a way, blah blah, it’s not really sexist, but I feel like Shakespeare wrote it sexist, and modern interpretations of it are just trying to make an unpalatable play palatable.

    • Mumsy – As far as Ben Jonson is concerned, all of Jonson’s statements about Shakespeare were made long after he died in 1616, uncorroborated by any statements made while the author was alive. While Shakespeare was alive, this supposed friend never once mentioned him by name and had nothing to say about him when he died.

      Indeed many of his writings on the subject were contradictory. He caricatured him as Sogliardo and “the “Poet-Ape” in one of his plays, he belittled Shakespeare’s small Latin and less Greek, then later testified that he was better than most of the ancient dramatists. He wrote that Shakespeare’s works contained no blots, then said that Shakespeare continuously reworked and revised.

      As Diana Price points out in “Shakespeare’s Unauthorized Biography”, p.193, “The sheer number of misleading or contradictory statements in First Folio strongly suggests that traditional biographers have been following a false scent.”

  9. Raidergirl beat me to the comment about The Eyre Affair, which wouldn’t be half as much fun without the “who wrote Shakespeare’s plays” factions.

    I just read about Bill Bryson’s Will in the World, which evidently also comes down on the side of Shakespeare actually writing his own plays.

    I’m with you about The Taming of the Shrew. Always disliked that play, and the musical version too (Kiss Me Kate). But I’ll think about what Mumsy says the next time I’m forced to sit through it.

    • Not Bill Bryson. Stephen Greenblatt? I have Will in the World, and I’m pretty sure that one’s Stephen Greenblatt, and the Bryson book is called something different.

      I’ve never seen Shrew performed, and I’m willing to believe I’d enjoy if it I did. Doesn’t mean I immediately forgive Shakespeare for it though. :p

  10. sometimes reading your posts makes my head swim,.

    swimminess is typically considered a bad thing, but in your case, it is an enjoyable experience.

    especially when i get to read the tags you use which tend to make me snort-laugh… at work… causing my employees to k now that i am NOT working.

    son of a…

  11. Et tu, Mark Twain?

    I’d love to read this, but I suppose I should read Shapiro’s 1599 first, considering I already own it 😛

    PS: We would never judge you! I really hope things take a turn for the best soon. Come on, ideal Jenny apartment! You’re out there somewhere. Make yourself known already.

    • I will be very interested to hear what you think of 1599. I liked Shapiro’s writing in Contested Will a lot, except very occasionally I thought it got too chatty (contractions and stuff. not a fan), and I thought his views on Shakespeare were pleasingly insightful.

      PS: Thank you for your good apartment wishes! I saw one the other day that looked great, but the way my luck’s been running they’ll rent it to someone else. *sigh*

  12. I don’t want to spoil your party but there is in fact little evidence that William of Stratford was a writer of anything, despite academics like Shapiro whose world would come tumbling down if it were proven otherwise. Think outside the box of conventional wisdom and read about other possibilities. You may find that you are startled about the weak case for Mr. Shaksper of Stratford.

    Many books that were used as source material for the plays were not translated into English in Shakespeare’s time. The fact that some works were published under the attribute of William Shakespeare does not identify the man behind the name. There is nothing in his handwriting ever discovered except for six almost illegible signatures. There are no letters, no correspondence, no manuscripts, no paper trail at all to identify the man behind the name, not a single word. Nobody claims to having ever met the man and there is no description of him recorded anywhere. When contemporaries refer to William Shakespeare, they are referring to the name on the title page and nothing else

    The assumption behind the support for William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author has to be that he was no ordinary mortal because otherwise there is no accounting for the detailed knowledge of the law, foreign languages, Italy, the court and aristocratic society, and sports such as falconry, tennis, jousting, fencing, and coursing that appears in the plays. I do not have any doubt that genius can spring from the most unlikely of circumstances. The only problem here is that there is in this case no evidence to support it. Would the greatest writer in the English language have allowed his daughters to remain illiterate?

    • I love this kind of argument because of its assumption that no-one in Shakespeare’s time (oh, except for the upper classes, OF COURSE) ever read a book, listened to tavern chat, met anyone from a different country, or went to a play. I guess that settles it, then.

    • >>>Would the greatest writer in the English language have allowed his daughters to remain illiterate?

      Well, he didn’t know he was going to be the greatest writer in the English language. Being a great writer doesn’t make you a good parent and educator. Didn’t Milton make his daughters read him Greek and Latin, but he wouldn’t teach them the languages?

      I’m not unwilling to believe that someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays, if someone, anywhere, would produce some shred of convincing evidence in favor of another author’s having written them. But I still haven’t seen anything like that. What I have seen is a lot of people arguing that the greatest writer in the English language wouldn’t do this and wouldn’t do that, because they don’t want to believe that the greatest writer in the English language would do this and that.

      • As far as Shakespeare’s daughter is concerned, do you think it makes any sense that a man who created smart, powerful women in his plays would be content to have his daughter not be able to read or write? This is an issue of logic and common sense.

        What books have you read on the subject? The evidence is out there. I would recommend “Shakespeare By Another Name” by Mark Anderson or “Shakespeare’s Unauthorized Biography” by Diana Price.

  13. Mumsy – You can say what you want about aristocrats. That seems like a kind of reverse snobbishness. Anyway, I said nothing about aristocrats. However, while we are on the subject, consider the following:

    Of the 37 plays, 36 are laid in royal courts and the world of the nobility. The principal characters are almost all aristocrats with the exception perhaps of Shylock and Falstaff. From all we can tell, Shakespeare fully shared the outlook of his characters, identifying fully with the courtesies, chivalries, and generosity of aristocratic life. Lower class characters in Shakespeare are almost all introduced for comic effect and given little development. Their names are indicative of their worth: Snug, Stout, Starveling, Dogberry, Simple, Mouldy, Wart, Feeble, etc.

    The history plays are concerned mostly with the consolidation and maintenance of royal power and are concerned with righting the wrongs that fall on people of high blood. His comedies are far removed from the practicalities of everyday life or the realistic need to make a living. Shakespeare’s vision is a deeply conservative, feudalistic and aristocratic one.

    As far as reading a book is concerned, The truth is that Shakespeare must have been able to read in French, Italian, and Spanish in addition to Latin and Greek, since the followings literary sources had not yet been translated into English. Scholars agree that these works were primary sources for Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, Othello and Measure for Measure.

    Francois de Belleforest Histories tragiques
    Ser Giovanni Fioranetino’s Il Pecorone
    Epitia and Hecatommithi
    Luigi da Porto’s Romeus and Juliet (Italian)
    Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (Spanish)

    I doubt if he picked this up at the local tavern. To be enamored and charmed by Shakespeare does not mean one must abandon common sense.

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