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.