I must begin by creeping to the 'Headmaster', DM, because he urged this book upon me and who am I to dare to refuse? Once again, Sir, you demonstrate your excellent taste and discernment! Actually, I was halfway there anyway because Shapiro's earlier book, 1599: A year in the Life of Shakespeare, I now treasure as one of my all-time favourites. Shapiro has that rare but invaluable talent of passing on a seemingly inexhaustible breadth and depth of knowledge on Shakespeare and his times with the very lightest of touches. At the end of it you have been well and truly educated and yet you didn't feel a thing - except warm pleasure.
The same is true of his latest book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare, although it must be admitted that, as DM warned, it gets a little hard-going in the middle. This is not, I think, Shapiro's fault. Given the subject matter he is absolutey required to repeat, with as much accuracy as possible, the infantile dribblings of a great many people who should have known better. The list of fools, suckers, shysters, snobs and dimwits just seemed to get longer and longer. Here is just a sample:
Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Tom Bethell (of The American Spectator whose journalism I used to admire), Leslie Howard (the late film actor), Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance and so on and on. None of these are 'shysters' but I leave it to readers of the book to catergorise them according to taste.
Not, I hasten to make clear, that all these people and many others actually agreed upon who had written Shakespeare's plays, oh dear me, no; like Python's The People's Front of Judea confronting The Judean People's Front, the two sides, one in favour of Francis Bacon, the other favouring the Earl of Oxford, lambast each other with cries of "Splitters!" and both reserve complete contempt for the minority groups in favour of Kit Marlowe or Edmund Spenser or Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all!
It's a tale of snobbery and ignorance, of unhistorical assumptions, of myths about the writing life sometimes fuelled by bestselling authors who ought to know better.
In essence, this disbelief in the abilities of the country boy from Stratford rests upon the belief that no-one could write in so much detail of matters and experiences which, given Will's lower-middle-class background, he could not have experienced himself. In other words, artistic imagination does not exist. And this came from several world-renowned writers!
You couldn't make it up - but they did!