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Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro

11879_jpg_130x400_q85I am a great Shakespeare fan (as my post during last year’s Shakespeare Week proved) but the question of authorship has never really been of much interest to me. I was vaguely aware of the authorship controversy, but didn’t know any details. I never once questioned that Will of Stratford, despite the limitations of his life experience, had written the plays. But ultimately I always felt that who the author was had no impact on the power of the plays themselves. Then I read Contested Will and realised that I’m actually a die-hard Stratfordian and that I really do care that Shakespeare wrote the plays.

I thought Shapiro’s 1599, which I read last year, was exceptional. I’d encourage anyone to read it. So when I saw that his next book addressed the authorship question, my curiosity was piqued – would the man who had written 1599 question the authorship of the plays?

In the prologue, Shapiro recounts the story of how a nine-year-old boy questioned the authorship of the plays:

“When toward the end of the class I invited questions, a quiet boy on my left raised his hand and said: ‘My brother told me that Shakespeare really didn’t write Romeo and Juliet. Is that true?’ It was the kind of question I was used to hearing from undergraduates on the first day of a Shakespeare course or from audience members at popular lectures, but I hadn’t expected that doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship had filtered down to the fourth grade.”

Firstly, I should point out that despite the array of candidates on the hard-back cover, Shapiro only really looks at three – William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Initially I was disappointed by this, my appetite was whetted now and my utter ignorance craved knowledge of everything. But Shapiro is a master of odd details and well-written non-fiction so that soon I was so taken up with the conspiracy theories that I forgot to be disappointed that he didn’t address Mary Sidney’s or Christopher Marlowe’s claims in more depth.

He begins with Shakespeare and why the controversy arose, tying it in with the religious controversies of the day. Samuel Mosheim Schmucker reacted to David Friedrich Strauss’s work disproving Jesus with a parody which did the same for William Shakespeare. It was never Schmucker’s intention to prove that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays, he merely wished to prove that you could turn the same devices Strauss used to disprove the existence of Jesus to disproving the existence of anyone. From there the theories grew and became ever wilder.

He then has a chapter on Francis Bacon, then Edward de Vere. Shapiro has a knack for teasing out the details, telling a good story. From someone who had never heard of Delia Bacon before I was utterly fascinated by her. Though I may not agree with her theory, I found myself scribbling notes of things to look up at the library.

Often though, I found the conspiracy theories – which always seem to focus on the incest and illegitimate sons of Queen Elizabeth – laughable. More often than not evidence that proves Shakespeare wrote the plays is twisted into proof that it was all a cover up.

I found myself a little bewildered by the growing idea that all fiction is some way or other autobiographical. It’s not something that is in evidence in my own work or the work of friends. Shapiro has a wonderful grasp of Shakespeare’s era and points out that families, creativity and behaviour was so much different to our experience now, we simply cannot compare like-for-like. The idea that theories have been borne of our desire to identify with the playwright is a very interesting one, one that is completely reflected in me.

Shapiro concludes with a second Shakespeare chapter, describing his reasons for believing in Will of Stratford. I found myself agreeing on every point. In the Epilogue he states that it is important who wrote the plays which led to a lot of thinking on my part. From believing that I wouldn’t care who wrote them because I loved them as pieces in their own right, I realised that I also loved the man behind them. The glover’s son made good, who travelled to London and wrote exceptional plays and poems, retired to his hometown and lived forever. What writer doesn’t want to believe in that?

"When I first explored the idea of writing this book some years ago, a friend unnerved me by asking, ‘What difference does it make who wrote the plays?’ The reflexive answer I offered in response is much clearer to me now: ‘A lot.’”


Faber and Faber, 2010. ISBN-10:057123576X. 384pp.

For more on the authorship debate, here’s a Shakespearean article: Out damn’d conspiracy!

And an Oxfordian article: The real Shakespeare?

For an article on the upcoming Oxfordian film, Anonymous, (containing further links to Stratfordian and anti-Stratfordian sites): Roland Emmerich stirs up Shakespeare debate

[Nikki has other obsessions apart from Shakespeare and while she cannot claim to write as well as him, you can read about some of her obsessions on her blog]

19 comments on “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro

  1. Anne Brooke
    November 14, 2011

    Fabulous article, Nikki! I too enjoyed reading 1599, and am a great believer that Shakespeare wrote the plays.

    I would disagree that fiction isn’t about the people who write it however – I would feel in a very deep way it is. I suspect we only ever tell our own stories over and over again, just in very different guises 🙂


  2. John
    November 14, 2011

    What an excellent review! I have never been that much intrigued by the concept of Shakespeare not having written his amazing work, although I think you have pointed out that this concern/preoccupation can be thought-provoking. Shakespeare’s appropriation of plots is an established fact and perhaps that is enough for me in terms of looking at the authenticity question, but the way you have argued about it makes me feel stupid for not being more curious…

    I always feel along with Anne that stories do have some connection with the author- each one having some kind of common signature- but that each writer deals with this in a different way. Because nobody can understand their changing and arguably fragmented inner selves the stories they tell are marked by their contradictions, values, concepts of beauty, ideals of justice and so on. However, the text should be appreciated on its merits rather than dissected in terms of what is autobiographical and what is not in my humble opinion because it can get sterile.

    Many thanks,


  3. niks87
    November 14, 2011

    Thanks for the comments so far. Sorry, I should have been clearer because I do agree that there is an element of the author in everything they write – looking back at my own work I can see there are preoccupations that keep coming up, ideas that recur and character types I’m clearly interested in. But I don’t buy that everything has to be autobiographical.

    For example, I’ve written about the relationship between a brother and sister, not having a sibling myself. There are reasons for that but I’m always wary of making judgements based on an author’s work. To use John’s lovely turn of phrase, can anyone truly understand “the fragmented inner self” of another person well enough to dissect what in their work is truly autobiographical? I’m uncomfortable with the idea that because, for example, you write about a wicked stepmother you therefore had one. I find it too simplistic.

    Yes, there are elements in everything I have written that in some way link back to me, either through experience or things I’m interested in or things that have happened to people I know, but I think it would be pretty hard to piece my personal history together from what I’ve written, that’s what I’m so wary of.

  4. rosyb
    November 14, 2011

    When you study and compare all the different editions, it becomes clearer (to me) that we don’t consider Shakespeare enough in terms of theatre and ensemble, perhaps because we are taught him as “literature” and perhaps that is the misunderstanding. If we think of the plays as a film, perhaps it is more obvious that there are a number of voices to create a masterpiece. If you take American Beauty – is it the writer or the director who is reflecting themselves and their inner life? Can you dissect it in such a way? I do not believe Shakespeare’s plays are necessarily totally consistent and therein lies their great all-encompassing power. There are many different versions of different lengths of the different plays also, So studying it forensically and looking for clues in every detail could be a false path. At least a false path if we are looking for an individual psyche. If we looking at them as encompassing their time and place and holding a world view and full of images of poetry and symbolism that can be dissected for that – well that’s a different matter.

    I also love Macbeth, but I thought there were serious questions over whether there are large sections written later by – Middleton is it? I find this side of things incredibly interesting. A lot more interesting than a load of conspiracy theories about who wrote them, linked to royalty (why are conspiracy theories always linked to royalty or someone who is considered famous or exciting, not ordinary people?). I think the conspiracy theories miss the point by concentrating so hard on the individual rather than looking at these works as PLAYS, as collaborations, as things that have been altered and have many versions, as things that exist in performance and perhaps have been changed by performance.

  5. hschumann
    November 14, 2011

    Following is a letter to the New York Times, replying to Professor James Shapiro of Columbia University, from Helen Heightsman Gordon, M.A., Ed. D., an English professor emeritus of Bakersfield College, California, and author of The Secret Love Story in Shakespeare’s Sonnets [2008].

    Dear NY Times:

    If you fact-checked the column by James Shapiro (Oct 17) you would do your readers a great favor. Here are some of the lies in that column that any responsible reporter would have questioned:

    Lie #1- The lesson plans by Sony Pictures are being distributed to literature and history teachers “in the hope of convincing them that Shakespeare was a fraud.”

    Not true. These plans are being provided to teachers to inform them about the authorship controversy, which has been subject to much censorship in the academic world, and to encourage students to think for themselves on this controversial issue.

    Lie #2 – J. Thomas Looney [pronounced LONE-ee] “loathed democracy and modernity” and argued that “only a worldly nobleman could have created such works of genius.”
    Not true. Looney was a schoolmaster who was dissatisfied with teaching the traditional biography of Shakespeare, who argued that the Bard’s marvelous works revealed characteristics that we would expect to find in the author. These traits included a superior education, knowledge of several languages, familiarity with European courts and powerful aristocrats, some ambivalence about women, and so forth.

    Shapiro’s ad hominem attack attempts to paint this sincere, dedicated teacher as a snob. That oft-repeated accusation has been decisively refuted by many brilliant non-snobs who question whether the Stratford businessman had the background necessary to have produced works of such profound knowledge and literary talent as Shakespeare produced.

    Lie #3 – “Promoters of de Vere’s cause have a lot of evidence to explain away, including testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else that confirms that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him.”

    Not true. These supposed records either refer to non-literary court records about the Stratford man’s legal problems or they refer to the author by his pen name, “William Shakespeare” — like saying “Mark Twain wrote Mark Twain‘s work.” They do not in any way “confirm” that the Stratford resident is the same person as the author.

    Lie #4 – “Not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of the plays or poems.”

    This one is REALLY a whopper! Demonstrably untrue. Many scholars have provided documentary evidence of de Vere’s writing talent in letters and published poetry. There is also printed evidence that he was regarded by his peers as being a talented playwright and poet. Many scholars have provided evidence that de Vere had the background necessary to write the plays, including ability to read classic Greek and Latin works that had not been translated into English, evidence of travel through Italy in places accurately described in the plays, and so forth.

    Researchers are somewhat frustrated by the fact that de Vere’s malicious father-in-law suppressed or destroyed evidence that might have proved one way or the other that he wrote the plays and the sonnets. Ironically, it is the Stratford-worshippers who have never produced one single piece of writing in Shakespeare’s hand, and no documentary proof that Mr. Shake-speare (that’s how he spelled his own name) attended the Stratford Grammar School (those records have been destroyed).

    Lie #5 – “The greatest obstacle facing de Vere’s supporters is that he died in 1604, before ten or so of Shakespeare’s plays were written.”

    This might be convincing if it were true. The truth is that nobody knows when the plays were written. We only know when they were performed and when they were published (sometimes in pirated quartos as “anonymous” work). Dr. Shapiro cannot explain why Mr. Shaxpere (another way that he spelled his name) did not edit his own plays for publication during his years of retirement, if indeed he were the same person as the famous author.

    The First Folio was not printed until 1623, long after Mr. Shagspere’s death (another way that he spelled his name). And the Sonnets were published in 1609, while Mr. Shake-speare was alive, yet the Dedication refers to the author as “ever-living” — which means that the author is dead, but his works are still immortal.

    Lie #6 – “Later de Vere advocates . . . claimed that de Vere was Elizabeth’s illegitimate son and therefore the rightful heir to the English throne.”

    There are only two strong advocates [Paul Streitz and Charles Beauclerk – HW] for the “incest theory,” and the movie does not give this theory any credence (the subject is mentioned and then dismissed as a lie). On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that Elizabeth had a love affair with Edward de Vere, and at least one noted historian reports a rumor that they had a love-child who was being raised as the Third Earl of Southampton.
    Those Oxfordians who find that to be a credible scenario would consider Southampton the possible heir to the throne. The first seventeen sonnets are addressed to the “Fair Youth” that a consensus of Shakespeare scholars believe to be Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton. That makes a lot of sense when you read those sonnets as being from a loving father to the son that he cannot acknowledge, as he says in Sonnet 36:

    I may not evermore acknowledge thee
    Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame,
    Nor you with public kindness honor me,
    Unless thou tak’st that honor from thy name.

    So let us indeed stop telling lies to school children. Let’s give them the facts — all the facts, not just those carefully selected by the traditionalists who have maintained a taboo over the subject of the authorship for decades. Students can learn to think for themselves, and Roland Emmerich will give them much more to think about than Dr. Shapiro has done.

  6. Moira
    November 14, 2011

    The so-called “Stratfordian/Oxfordian” debate is right up there with the Ricardian one in my book … I simply can’t understand why people – most particularly the ‘Oxfordians’ it has to be said – have to get so tiresomely foam-flecked and long-winded about it.

    And I agree – why IS it that so many conspiracy theories involve royalty? It’s a bit like reincarnation. Very few people were ever lant collectors or charwomen in a previous life – they were always aristocrats or the illegitimate offspring of monarchs. It’s all a bit pathetic really …

    Great review, Nikki … and I like the cut of Professor Shapiro’s jib. The simple answer is usually the correct one, but I’m with Rosy that the whole ‘authorship’ question detracts – in a very small but irritating way – from the plays themselves. They’re masterworks, pure and simple (well – most of them are – I could nominate a couple that are less than sparkly), whoever wrote them.

    PS: I’ve no intention of addressing anything in Mr Schumann’s “comment” – except to point out that the unpublished letter – which is all over the internet like a rash – refers to a newspaper article written by Professor Shapiro – NOT to the book being reviewed – but I do have to say that anyone who thinks Sony Pictures issued the lesson plans for any reason OTHER than to generate publicity for their film is being incredibly naive.

  7. Lisa Glass
    November 14, 2011

    “I was vaguely aware of the authorship controversy, but didn’t know any details.” Nikki, I’m in that camp too. I heard a little bit about the controversy on my English BA and although I was briefly interested, I never looked much further than the books on my reading list.

    Still, conspiracy theories ARE incredibly exciting and intriguing, so I can see why this issue generates so much buzz. For some it’s become this great unsolved mystery, and people want – and are entitled – to give their own opinion or theory.

    Anyway, great piece!

  8. Jackie
    November 14, 2011

    Great review, Nikki! I’ve always thought the authorship question was like a fly buzzing around one’s head, pesky, but not important enough to notice. I also wonder why someone like Da Vinci is never questioned. If he was able to do all those drawings, paintings & inventions, why couldn’t a glover’s son write all those plays & sonnets?

  9. elizabethashworth
    November 15, 2011

    One of my favourite contestants for the author of Shakespeare’s plays is William Stanley, sixth earl of Derby. I came across the arguments for his case whilst researching the family.

    Whilst he is recorded in correspondence as being a prolific playwright not one of his works appears to exist.

    Add to that the rumour that ‘Shakespeare’ wrote the following words for Sir Thomas Stanley’s tomb:

    Not monumental stone preserves our fame,
    Nor skye-aspiring pyramids our name;
    The memory of him for whom this stands
    Shall outlive marble and defacer’s hands;
    When all to Time’s consumption shall be given,
    Stanley, for whom this stands shall stand in heaven.

    There’s more in the following links if anyone wants to know more:

    Click to access Raithel_Stanley.pdf

    And if Wiiliam Stanley was the author of the play Richard III it would explain his extreme bias!

  10. Nikki
    November 16, 2011

    Rosy – YES! It’s my biggest regret that though I’ve studied Shakespeare in a Lit class, I’ve never got it on its feet. I feel like I’m missing something crucial by not doing that. And as Edward proves in his article, Shakespeare is subject to the whims of the actor and the director, based on cutting decisions, costume, staging. One play can be produced in so many ways to reflect so many agendas. And that’s without taking into account that he worked in an ensemble – he wrote for specific actors (I believe in Much Ado he wrote “Will Kempe” instead of “Dogberry” in the script, but please correct me if I’m wrong!) And yes, he was a massive collaborator. I’m sure that there’s a book (or books) that dissect what was written by who, so that’s something I’m interested in.

    I’m not sure why the authorship debate should be learnt in schools. I could understand if the Shakespeare biography was part of the curriculum but, as far as I’m aware, it’s the plays, the poetry, that’s on the lesson plans, not his background. Any more than the background of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Jane Austen is taught to those studying The Great Gatsby or Emma. I don’t really see the relevance in a classroom.

    Lisa, while I might not agree with it, I too find it fascinating. Not just for the theories themselves, which are interesting, but because I think a debate such as this says so much about human nature.
    Steady on, Jackie, you’ll be starting a Da Vinci debate next!

    Elizabeth, thank you for those links. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt through reading this book and then looking for more, it’s that there is no shortage of candidates. But I had never heard the William Stanley theory, so thanks for the head’s up on that. *Runs off to read the links.*

  11. William Ray
    November 17, 2011

    Personally I think an author should be credited and honored for what he has done, and if the wrong person is given the credit, that is morally wrong. If the author concealed himself and his followers had reason to continue the pseudonymity, then it constitutes a lie that is carried forward in history. In this case, of one of the most if not the most perceptive and skillful writer in English, it should be a matter of interest to educated people. If it is not, what is the health of our culture? Since I have studied and discerned the lineaments of a tragic life, including unmistakable specifics placed as clues by the author, in the Shakespeare canon, I feel almost physical relief that the world’s greatest lyrics and poems were not written by a money-lending miser, which was all Shakspere of Stratford was. But people must decide for themselves what is important in life and in literature. As for Shapiro, he wanted to bury the inquiry for good. That won’t work as long as people love the truth. He condemns thinking in terms of autobiography for the single reason that there is a vast connection between the works and Edward de Vere, the noble who gave up everything for his art, and indeed did lose everything, including the honor of being recognized as the man behind the pseudonym Shakespeare.

  12. Nikki
    November 17, 2011

    I think that it’s definitely something that interests people, William and yes, I take your point about the morality of the question. Personally, having had teaching experience though, it’s hard enough to engage teens with the material withouth throwing the rest into the mix! What does fascinate me whether the author – if he wasn’t Shakespeare – wanted to be found out and heralded at some later point? Or if he was happy just to see his words live on?

    I don’t feel that Shapiro tried to bury it though. If that was his intention, he did a poor job because here we all are debating it and when I put the book down I went and looked for more information. This book sparked my interest, not dampened it.

  13. Hilary
    November 20, 2011

    What an excellent review, Nikki – it has made me abstract Contested Will from the depths of my To Read pile and start it!

    Nobody will be more fascinated than I when and if more proof emerges of the authorship of Shakespeare. Meanwhile, we have a strong enough identification of a rather shadowy man as the author. As a grammar-school-educated person from a small Midlands town myself, I am naturally allergic to any argument that a grammar-school-educated person from a small Midlands town could not possibly have written the works attributed to Shakespeare for that very reason. It is not only unworthy, but also implausible, given the wide range of backgrounds from which the greatest writers in English have come.

    Charles Nicoll in The Lodger reminded us just how much Shakespeare was a denizen of London, rather than Stratford, and just how truly cosmopolitan that city was. So many influences to soak up, so many people with tales from the wider world for someone with an enquiring mind to absorb.

    I agree with Nikki that the enquiry goes on.

  14. William Ray
    November 20, 2011

    I don’t wish to interfere with the tone and focus of your website, but contrary to the laudatory comments you have made, and have been supported in lauding, about Shapiro’s book ‘Contested Will’, I saw little more than an ad hominem attack on those (great) people who heretically doubted the Gulielmus Shakspere we have been taught left Stratford and poof created ‘Shakespeare’. In reply to your particular question, did Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wish to be found and given due recognition for his work: at several point in the Sonnets, most poignantly in Sonnet 72, he mourned that this would not happen. At the death oration in Hamlet, he spoke through the words of his protagonist, to his cousin Horatio–Oxford’s cousin was Horace Vere–“O good Horatio, what a wounded name/ Things standing thus unknown) shall live behind me,/ If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,/ Absent thee from felicity awhile,/ And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,/ To tell my story.” The First Folio then has four ‘O’s. Why four O’s? Oxford was known by his initials and, at certain times, punned his name and title between Italian and English (io=EO; ho–pronounced O=I have; aVERE=to have) in the works as an embedded badge of his identity with this device. On this occasion, the simple (simultaneously vocalizing) device of O, four times, refers to (E)O, Earl of Oxford, and to the German for four, vier being a homonym of Vere. Thus Oxford desperately wished that his honor–as the great artist he was–be known, but he knew it would be buried. Those of us who are concerned about this history and biography have seen sufficient evidences of his authorship through study in his similar life and works, his extensive foreign references, and his language and style, to sense that a great injustice in our literature and history has occurred, initially through an Elizabethan political ruse, then perpetuated by status quo inertia. As for your generous feeling that Shapiro did not try to bury this issue, I must point out that his words on the matter were clear, spoken in 2006: “I wrote it to shut them up once and for all” and “to show them how they don’t know how to evaluate evidence.” These are not words of a disinterested scholar but a partisan intent on his academic faction maintaining control over a subject matter, which he and his colleagues have gotten terribly wrong, in endorsing an inherited legend instead of seeking the truth. He was only playing nice on paper, tricking his readers about his true feelings. Sorry for this extensive comment in an otherwise especially literary discussion.

  15. theradicali
    December 16, 2011

    Actually Mark Anderson presents a very good argument for Oxford being Elizabeth’s son, sired by Thomas Seymour, the dowager queen catherine parr’s new husband. the april 12 1550 a canard, planted by Burghley some 25 years after the fact. Believes edward born early autumn 1548, and cites evidence that de Vere (16th Oxford) arm was twisted for the adoption (I have to read this closely again so see if Burghley was aware of this) … the ‘romance’ between them, well, Elizabeth knew Oxford was her son. She attended most of the events of his academic career and doubtless supervised his education — and there was that passage where she referred to him as her bastard to which he took extreme umbrage … elizabeth would have had to exercise too much agency for a carnal relationship to develop between them, look at the way she dodged around responsibility for mary’s execution … and given that at the time, (1570’s) well, dudley had cooled a bit, but Hatton & Oxford are mentioned by Alison Weir along with negotiations w/Alencon … as she said herself much earlier, she did not have much alone time and was always the center of attention

    if perchance wriothsley another of her spawn, the emotions around the ‘dear youth’ sonnets could as well (if not better) be addressed to a younger brother than to a shamefully conceived son

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  18. Simon
    March 21, 2012

    Every couple of years I read another ‘Who dunnit” about Shakespeare. As far as I can recall, the last one was about it all being a catholic plot of some sort. This book actually sounds great. I heard about it when Elaine Charles reviewed it on her radio show, “The Book report” I can’t wait to get my hands on it, although I might get the audio version and listen to it instead. The radio program played an extract from the audio book. You can listen to it on

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