Ever heard of the theory that Shakespeare was a hoax? The idea is that William Shakespeare of Stratford - the man the plays were originally attributed to - didn't actually write them. In a twisting and secretive conspiracy, the books were actually penned by Francis Bacon. Or Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Or Christopher Marlowe. Or one of a whole slew of other people (including possibly Queen Elizabeth herself). Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, by James Shapiro, is a book concerned not just with the truth behind the matter, but with with why the conspiracy theories began and why they’ve gone almost mainstream.
The book begins by examining how Shakespeare's image developed over the centuries after his death. First he became a revered, even deified figure, built up into a perfect literary genius. But when researchers finally dug up the first long-desired scraps of information on his personal life, the real Shakespeare was disappointingly mundane. The legal and monetary records that survived made him look like a moneygrubbing Shylock type. This Shakespeare did not fit the mold that had been constructed for him.
Eventually, people began to suggest that Shakespeare was a hoax. The real author (and there would be many suggestions for the real author) was someone erudite, learned, well-traveled, and high-born (because, of course, some middle-class businessman wouldn’t have the noble breeding necessary to produce such works of pure artistry). Shapiro focuses on the two most popular candidates, Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere. Over the course of the book, he goes into the motives of the theorists and their followers (including such figures as Mark Twain, Helen Keller and Sigmund Freud). For instance, the writer who popularized Edward de Vere as a potential Real Shakespeare, believed that democracy should be demolished in favor of monarchy.
The last section of the book deals with what we do know about William Shakespeare of Stratford. There is surviving contemporary evidence that has surfaced over the centuries. Details lend interesting context to how Shakespeare worked. Those supposedly penny-penching business records may actually have been his wife, since as a married woman her business would all be under her husband's name. Shakespeare wrote many parts for specific actors. And during a late part of his career, he was frequently cowriting with other playwrights. This was particularly fascinating for me because Shakespeare left such an enduring influence in how British fairies evolved in the popular imagination – Oberon, Titania, Puck, and Mab are all here to stay, but we are still guessing at some of the particulars of where he got names (Mab, for instance).
Shapiro's writing is accessible and engaging, and paints a vivid picture of Shakespeare and the fans and critics who followed.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.