James Shapiro


American edition: Simon and Schuster, 2010


A New York Times "Notable Book" for 2010

Awarded the Theater Library Association's George Freedley Memorial Award (2011).

One of the 'Best Books of the Year' (Publishers Weekly; The Observer; The Kansas City Star; The Sunday Star Times (NZ);The Financial Times, The Providence Journal; and the Times Literary Supplement)

“A book no Shakespearean should miss” (Booklist--starred review)

"I devoured this book. Shapiro guides us through this strange history with a beguiling mixture of scepticism and sympathy. Packed with many fine pen-portraits, it's a timely contribution to a vexed debate." (Simon Russell Beale)

“Shapiro’s book is… authoritative, lucid and devastatingly funny, and its brief concluding statement of the case for Shakespeare is masterly.” (John Carey, Sunday Times)

"Shapiro's book is a brilliantly researched, highly readable, thoughtful and wise contribution to the history of Shakespeare's reputation." (Stanley Wells, The New York Review of Books)

"In this fascinating study, Shapiro, an English professor at Columbia, casts skepticism about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works as a “long footnote to the larger story of the way we read now” and traces shifting assumptions about the relation between art and autobiography….. Shapiro is lively, psychologically subtle, and dryly appreciative of conspiratorial excess.” (The New Yorker)

“‘Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?’ serves as the first full-length discussion of the big authorship question by a Shakespeare pro in 100 years, maybe the first ever. It's worth the wait. Shapiro is a powerful, engaging writer with a gift for connecting great generalities and illustrating them with telling examples. "Contested Will" explores the origin and development of the authorship question with unexpected openness and some insights that will be new even to the most seasoned of authorship buffs.” (Ward Elliott, Los Angeles Times)

“'Contested Will' is dense with lives and stories and argument. It is also entertaining….The last chapter is a return to sanity: a brilliant defence of the man from Stratford. Piece by piece, Mr Shapiro builds the case— the contemporary witnesses, the tracks left by printing houses and theatrical practice, the thousand details that show, apart from anything else, how unnecessary the whole farrago has been. The Shakespeare that emerges is both simple and mysterious: a man of the theatre, who read, observed, listened and remembered. Beyond that is imagination. In essence, that’s what the book is about." (The Economist)

"'Contested Will' is a bravura performance" (Saul Rosenberg, The Wall Street Journal)

“As he conducts us through the pretensions of the Baconians, the Marlovians, the Oxfordians, and on through the latest internet conspiracy theories, larded with pompous quasi-legal language about "reasonable doubt" and "prima facie case", Shapiro sprinkles his text with glinting, steely facts, about the actors of Shakespeare's company, about Elizabethan printers and their methods, about what Shakespeare's manuscripts reveal about how his plays and stagecraft worked. These details, in the chapter which he devotes to Shakespeare himself, are the most riveting part of his book…. Shapiro does not waste words on the preposterous, but he does uncover the mechanism of fantasy and projection that go to make up much of the case against Shakespeare. His book lays bare, too, assumptions about the writing life that come to us from the 18th-century romantics. Those who made Shakespeare a demigod have much to answer for.” (Hilary Mantel, The Guardian)

“A learned but hilarious work of popular scholarship” (Mark Lawson, ‘Front Row’ BBC Radio 4)

"Shapiro's irresistible proof that – shock! – Shakespeare wrote his own works hums with learning and panache. No scholar has ever given such polite yet ruthless scrutiny to the mind-boggling 150-year record of snobbery and delusion behind the claims that either Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford pulled off the scam of the ages while having plays 'delivered surreptitiously to the stage door of the Globe'....No one has better accounted for the big fat lie of the "authorship controversy". Shapiro cogently shows that both sceptics and old-style Bardolaters share similar fantasies about solitary and secret genius" (Boyd Tonkin, The Independent)

“This is essentially a historiographical study of the controversy, looking at the cultural contexts of its emergence and evolution, and at the lives, circumstances, agendas and pathologies of those who have contributed to it. It is also unlike most other books on the subject because it is a pleasure to read. Like its splendid predecessor, 1599: A year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005), it is briskly paced, cleverly detailed, elegantly argued, and never forgets that for all the complexities and quiddities of the material, the writing of history is essentially the telling of a story (or in this case, the story of a story).” (Charles Nicholl, Times Literary Supplement)

"Shapiro, author of the much admired 'A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599,' achieves another major success in the field of Shakespeare research by exploring why the Bard's authorship of his works has been so much challenged....As Shapiro admirably demonstrates, William Shakespeare emerges with his name and reputation intact." (Publishers Weekly--starred review)

“Most Shakespeare experts have a lot to say about the conspiracy theorists who deny Shakespeare’s authorship of his own plays – but very little of it is printable, let alone as readable as James Shapiro’s Contested Will….[T]he application of Shapiro’s detective skills to the piles of pseudo-scholarship from the past century and a half yields valuable results. Contested Will isn’t just the most intelligent book on the topic for years, but a re-examination of the documentary evidence offered on all sides of the question.” (Michael Dobson, The Financial Times)

“Contested Will is a serious, interesting and original book about how Shakespeare’s genius can dominate the imagination.” (Jeremy Noel-Tod, The Telegraph)

"This is as good a place to go to if you have been exposed to the arguments for alternative authorship and started wondering whether there is something in them. In the closing pages of the book, Shapiro also makes it admirably clear where he stands on the claim that Shakespeare lacked the “life-experience” to have written the plays. It disheartens him, above all because “it diminishes the very thing that makes Shakespeare so exceptional: his imagination.” (John Gross, Commentary)

“Remember that guy in 10th grade English class who always vowed Shakespeare didn’t write his own stuff? He needs this book.” (Sonya Sorich, Columbus Ledger Enquirer)

"Of course, it's paradoxical that such a forceful and well-grounded argument against biographical interpretation should forever be rummaging through the life stories of its subjects in search of motivation. And one of the sophisticated pleasures of "Contested Will" is the way that Shapiro will pause on occasion to observe similar ironies. For example: "The forces of democracy and equality and the overturning of hierarchy [that is, the Internet], the very things that drove Looney to argue that Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays, now, ironically, have come to the rescue of the movement he had founded." So I don't doubt that Shapiro is exquisitely aware of his own self-generated irony, even if he refrains from pointing it out." (Laura Miller, Salon)

"After all, it does matter who wrote Shakespeare, because the case Shapiro makes for him doubles as a defence of art. As he complains, the argument about the poverty of Shakespeare's experience refuses to acknowledge what he learned from books: all his plays are retold tales or commentaries on recorded history. More damningly, the doubters fail to credit Shakespeare with possessing imagination which, as Theseus says in A Midsummer Night's Dream, means the capacity to mould "airy nothing" into matter and create alternative worlds out of words. Contested Will ends with a challenge, issued as much to theory-addled academics as to deluded cultists: scepticism about Shakespeare signals an agnostic disrespect for what Shapiro bravely, bracingly calls "the mystery of literary creation." (Peter Conrad, The Observer)

"Shapiro...does not offer his work as an academic tutorial but as a tantalizing, centuries-old mystery. Yet few mystery writers have brought so much erudition and scholarship to their books as Shapiro brings to his Elizabethan whodunit." (Tom Mackin, New Jersey Star-Ledger)

“The book is rich with insight and analysis. Shapiro's examination of how the social situations of Looney and Delia Bacon contributed to their theories is sensitive and convincing. He sketches an incisive picture of Twain as the first author-corporation, complete with marketing plan. His proposal that practical theatrical reasons account for Shakespeare's turn to tragicomedy at the end of his career is bracingly down-to-earth. And in his attack against those who would limit what an artist can produce to what he has directly experienced, he champions not only common sense but creativity. How did the humble glover's son from the provinces write all those varied and complex characters? ‘He imagined them all.’” (Lloyd Rose, The Washington Post)

"Shapiro is a gifted storyteller, whether describing Helen Keller’s visit to Mark Twain in 1909, or his own discovery that a key document, the transcript of two lectures by James Corton Cowell from 1805, regarded by Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians alike as a founding text in the controversy, is itself a fabrication.....The case for Shakespeare is made cogently and convincingly." (Helen Hackett, London Review of Books)

"There is fascinating new research in Contested Will, whereby Shapiro aims his question - why did they believe this ridiculous conspiracy theory? - at a number of distinguished anti-Stratfordians. In every case, his answer is psychologically intriguing and entirely convincing." (Jonathan Bate, Sunday Telegraph)

"Shapiro's meticulously researched book reads like a detective novel….[It] is an important book, which goes a long way towards putting an end to the authorship question once and for all. Bring on the conspiracy theorists, I have met their nemesis, and its name shall be Contested Will." (Ben Crystal, The Independent)

“James Shapiro has thus done yeoman service by writing "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?" In this no-nonsense study of the zanies whose theory-mongering has blighted the world of legitimate Shakespeare studies, Mr. Shapiro not only probes the peculiar mentalities of the most prominent deniers, but provides a brilliantly pithy, devastatingly final summing-up of the mountains of incontrovertible evidence proving that the not-so-mysterious "man from Stratford" did in fact write the greatest plays ever written. Read the last chapter of "Contested Will" and you'll never need to read anything else about what is known in polite circles as ’the authorship question.’" (Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal)

"James Shapiro doesn’t credit the conspiracy theories that claim that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays. But he is none the less deeply interested in why these theories exist. He intelligently recounts – and then expertly trounces – the forgeries, snobberies, dodgy scholarship and romantic expectations that over the centuries have denied Shakespeare his imagination. It makes for endlessly fascinating, compulsive reading" (Holly Kyte, The Telegraph)

“It would be difficult to imagine a better work of scholarship than this. Deeply informed, profoundly thoughtful, provocative, and always alive to the human relevance of even the most seemingly obscure anecdotes and bits of archival record. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? is a masterpiece.” (James Williams, PopMatters)

"This is not the first time Shapiro has found a clever route for penetrating the mysteries of Shakespeare, who for most people today is a mystery on every line. In Shapiro's last book, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, he concentrated on a single, gloriously productive year in Shakespeare's career. Against the masses of cant and idolatry, hyperbolic niggling and earnest misreading published each year, Shapiro, a longtime Columbia University professor, is one of the few who make everyday sense." (David Walton, Dallas Morning News)

"Shapiro’s own case for Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays and poems reveals all the strengths that led readers to embrace '1599' so enthusiastically – it is accessible without being simplistic, and uses the accretion of textual and circumstantial evidence to make a compelling case, based not on spurious missing documents, batty readings and even battier readers, but on the complex tale that the textual history of Shakespeare’s plays has to tell us." (Danielle Clarke, The Irish Times)

“'Contested Will' is a masterful work of literary history, an empathetic chronicle of eccentricity, and a calmly reasoned vindication of 'the Stratford man.'’’ (Kevin O’Kelly, Boston Globe)

“Elegant, witty, thorough and compulsively readable” (Nicholas Reid, Sunday Star Times, New Zealand)

“Five years ago, James Shapiro wrote ‘A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599,’ a meticulous study that rendered a slice of the standard history less implausible. Now, in ‘Contested Will,’ he addresses the authorship question itself. His refreshing method is to zoom all the way out, taking an interest “not in what people think — which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms — so much as why they think it.” Working its way back to the earliest doubters, Shapiro’s book offers both history and historiography, a mix that yields insights even for those who don’t know their ‘Othello’ from their ‘Pericles.’” (Jeremy McCarter, New York Times)

"What a splendid book this is. It's filled with impressive scholarship, but the research is worn so lightly that it never comes across as stuffy or pretentious, and all is expressed with vigor and clarity" (Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune)

"Shapiro’s 'Contested Will' is an authoritative book that will command the attention and respect of open-minded scholars and lovers of literature. Like the plays and poems of William Shakespeare – yes, the “upstart crow” from Stratford – this is a book that will stand the test of time." (Ed Voves, California Literary Review)

“‘Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?’ won’t resolve the debate, of course. But it manages to make doubters sound like addled conspiracy theorists, no mean feat considering that many of them are (or were) well-respected thinkers.” (Randy Dotinga, Christian Science Monitor)

“Shapiro is author of one of the most exciting books on Shakespeare it's been my pleasure to review, 2005's ‘A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599,’ and ‘Contested Will’ doesn't disappoint expectations. It's an adventure through a parallel universe peopled with strange, obsessional characters, fuelled by fascinating glimpses into the droller enthusiasms of the late and great, which their biographers were too embarrassed to explore.” (Hans Werner, Toronto Star)

“Erudite and entertaining….

The author concludes robustly that it does matter who wrote Shakespeare: we can believe in the power of the imagination or we can believe everything is disguised and needs de-coding; you can’t have both.” (Jack Carrigan, The Catholic Herald [UK])

“Shapiro's marvellous book should put these conspiracy theories to rest or at least make reasonable people question the basis of the idea that Shakespeare didn't write the plays….Of all the books on the Shakespeare authorship question, this is one that should be read.” Troy Lennon, Daily Telegraph [Australia])

“’Contested Will’ is literary history the way it ought to be, combining breadth and detail without overwhelming the reader with either. Shapiro’s uncluttered style and compelling story-telling, makes this a book that scholar, student and layman can equally enjoy.” (Arul Mani, Tehelka Magazine [India])

“It is good to have Professor Shapiro on hand to take down the arguments of such as Sigmund Freud (Shakespeare was actually a Frenchman called Jacques Pierre); Mark Twain (nothing happened to Shakespeare so how could he dramatise all this stuff?)…as well as sundry nineteenth century snobs who believe that a glover’s son with not much Latin was just too common to be England’s greatest writer. Why you should read it: 
 To demolish those devil’s advocates once and for all” (Christopher Bray, The National, Abu Dhabi)

“With even-handed compassion, Shapiro chronicles the slow but steady growth of this dark belief, from its first scholarly murmurs, circa 1800, to its current Internet burgeoning. Wisely, he declines to ridicule its preachers, instead weighing their various claims fairly, in lucid, uncontentious prose, saving for the final chapter his reasoned rebuttal of their basic assumption. Secure in his knowledge of Shakespeare's world, Shapiro feels no compulsion to pick quarrels with these cipher-hunters and conspiracy theorists, not even when their extravagance invents, for their authorial candidates, incestuous affairs with Queen Elizabeth. He takes no cheap shots at such easy targets.” (Michael Feingold, The Village Voice)

“What lovers of Shakespeare have come to expect from Columbia University Prof. James Shapiro are well-researched, cogent, and readable studies of the bard’s life and works…. He takes us through the minefield of messages in code, of searches for hidden evidence, of mental breakdowns and utter wackiness that have always characterized the efforts to prove that Francis Bacon or the earl of Oxford really wrote the plays. There are laughs aplenty here, but Shapiro knows that conspiracy theorists and history deniers, today no less than yesterday, are a scary bunch, no matter how bumbling and ludicrous their assertions.” (Tony Lewis, The Providence Journal)

"With lucid writing for the common reader, with sense, and with respect toward those with whom he rightly disagrees, Shapiro tells how this whole mishegas got started, and then, with unbelievable patience, shows how it has not a shred of a breath of a hope of being - anything. I recommend it to all who want a vivid picture of how William Shakespeare worked. It's a great, true story" (John Timpane, Philadelphia Enquirer)

“Entertainingly combative….Shapiro demonstrates that if you want to believe that Bacon, Oxford or anyone other than the man from Stratford wrote the plays you have to ignore copious evidence to the contrary and indulge in intellectual contortions.” (Charles Matthews, San Francisco Chronicle).

The history of the travails of Shakespeare skeptics is fantastic: psychics, ciphers, dredged rivers, illicit affairs, brilliant forgeries, and famous tombs all swirl through James Shapiro’s entertaining and insightful recounting of the Shakespeare authorship controversy (Sophia Lear, The Book, [The New Republic Online Review])

“In this accomplished and very readable book, James Shapiro undertakes a comprehensive study of the so-called ‘authorship question’…. What distinguishes Shapiro's approach to the authorship question is the respect and serious consideration he accords all but the looniest of claims” (Marvin Hunt, Charlotte Observer)

“Let me recommend James Shapiro's 'Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?' as penetrating a look into the man who wrote those timeless verses as any 20 scholarly exegeses likely to be printed this year” (David Walton, Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“Shapiro's illuminating, evenhanded investigation into a question that is not really a question is ultimately an effort to push back against what Shakespeare tagged "The common curse of mankind—folly and ignorance." (Craig Silver, Forbes)

UK edition: Faber, 2005
(Best non-fiction book published in Britain)


“Superbly illuminating....as a synthesizer and as a guide—in clear prose underpinned by considerable learning, worn lightly—[Shapiro] deserves whoops of applause.” -- Sam Leith, The Spectator

“By giving us an account of what Shakespeare must have read, heard and seen that year, Shapiro goes further than any other biographer in accounting for the relationship between those words and his life.”-- Frances Wilson, The Daily Telegraph

“From the deliciously vivid first pages, in which a group of armed theatricals make a dash through the snow in the dead of night to filch a theatre's timber frame and transfer it to the Globe, Shapiro weaves a tantalizing narrative.” --David Lister, The Independent

“The book is really a wonderfully deft interweaving of historical and cultural context, physical and social description, the politics and economics of Shakespeare’s work as a professional actor and co-owner of the Globe theatre.” -- Fintan O’Toole, The Irish Times

“If you have any interest in Shakespeare at all, you won't be able to put it down…for my money, A Year in the Life really shows how books like this ought to be written.” -- Hans Werner, The Toronto Star

Listed among the best books of the year in The Guardian, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Irish Times, The Evening Standard, The Sunday Times, The New Statesman, The Observer, The Telegraph, and The National Post (Canada), The New Zealand Listener, Radio New Zealand, The Courier Mail (Australia), Barnes and Noble.com, and the Times Literary Supplement.

US edition: Pantheon, 2000

"Compelling....even-handed....Shapiro exposes the basic human desire to rewrite the past."--San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle

"It seems only natural while reading 'Oberammergau' to wonder if you're reading Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' by mistake....Fascinating."--The Austin Chronicle

"Full of fascinating nuggets....If you want to know Oberammergau's play survived while countless others just like it disappeared, Mr. Shapiro can tell you."--Wall Street Journal

"Deftly mends the ancient disciplines of theater and theology with contemporary ethnic politics."--Newsday

Columbia Univ. Press, 1996

"Shapiro's work...will remain unsurpassed for many years to come"--Times Literary Supplement

"A repository of information about a great many matters long in need of the kind of intellectual analysis that Shapiro gives them"--New York Review of Books

"A groundbreaking study of Elizabethan anti-Semitism that offers a shockingly long pedigree for Shakespeare's Shylock"--Kirkus Reviews

"An outstanding example of how a literary thinker can illuminate both our cultural past and our present"--Moment

Columbia Univ. Press, 1991
In a provocative study of the influence of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare on each other’s plays, poems and legacies, James Shapiro considers the parodic recollections that reveal these rivalries, illuminating the complex ways in which their mutual influence made its presence and pressure felt.

“The approach is eclectic, the prose carefully crafted. It is, in sort, a rare commodity in contemporary criticism—and important analytical study that is accessible not only to scholars but to theater professionals and lay people as well”—Shakespeare Quarterly