Who was the bard?
This isn’t a question that James Shapiro tries to answer, but one he strives to make some academic sense of. Why are we so obsessed with the bard and who he is? And why do we continue to search for evidence of his life and existence over 400 years later?
Shapiro’s ‘Contested Will’ is one of those rare academic gems; a well-researched text made approachable and accessible for even the least experienced and knowledgeable Shakespeare scholar. Shapiro is in ingenious in his exploration of the conspiracies surrounding Shakespeare and his plays, not simply just describing what these theories are, but how they came to be so present even now in the 21st century.
However it is important to note, that like any other academic text, facts can always be made false as more research is conducted over time. The fact that ‘Contested Will’ was published over 9 years ago means that this is more likely to be the case with Shapiro’s text, but this does not mean that the text’s worth is any less because of it. Even when searching ‘Contested Will’ on any search engine, no evidence of any kind of factual inaccuracy arises surrounding the text; but it’s always important to read and perceive these kinds of texts with some kind of awareness of its possible inaccuracy.
The text is well written and well approachable to the scholarly eye, but those who are looking for a more informal, thrilling read around Shakespeare’s life and conspiracies should turn away from Shapiro’s text and seek some of the more extreme (and invalidated) work of Shakespearean scholars such as Edmond Malone (an 18th century scholar who was proven to be discredited and who is hugely berated by Shapiro).
But this is what I feel is Shapiro’s most praiseworthy, defining factor. His exploration is rational, formal and is well balanced in its bias in that it feels that is has none (with the possible exception in his account of said previous Edmund Malone) despite Shapiro’s admittance that he is in no doubt that Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and not any other examples offered up by incredulous scholars such as Sir Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh or Christopher Marlowe. Shapiro is a praiseworthy scholar in that he doesn’t allow his beliefs to affect his judgement in any way whatsoever.
So is ‘Contested Will’ worth reading?
That said, even as an English student, I found it was sometimes difficult to get used to the idea that I was reading a scholarly, formal text in my own free time for enjoyment; and this particular subject and text might be a stretch for those who are not used to the form and structure of such scholarly essays. But Shapiro’s text is well-worth a read when you are in good need of rest from some of the contemporary drivel supplied on social media sites today, or even just for some good old fashion knowledgeable fun.
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