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Will Contested

Conspiracy theories aside, argues Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro, Shakespeare really did write Shakespeare.

By Randy Dotinga / May 11, 2010

Will Contested: Who Wrote Shakespeare? By James Shapiro Simon & Schuster 352 pp., $26

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Could the creator of Hamlet and Macbeth really have been a regular guy from the sticks who spent a lot of time worrying about low-brow things like making a living? Or was he (or she) a person with the background befitting such a genius? An earl, perhaps. Maybe a famed philosopher scientist. Or a certain grand lady who may have had spare time to write “King Lear” when she wasn’t busy ruling England.

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Great minds have ruminated over the was-Shakespeare-really-Shakespeare question for more than two centuries, and many have come up with a seductive answer: no way.

Helen Keller doubted the bard was that genial balding man in the portrait. So did Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud. More recently, Supreme Court justices have joined the train of doubt.

But it’s all hogwash and flapdoodle, claims Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, who uses a variety of classier words to make his case in a convincing new book.

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.

The very long list of would-be Shakespeares includes prestigious names too, like Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, and, yes, Queen Elizabeth. Or perhaps the true author was an even larger presence on the world stage: An anonymous writer in 1852 was so disturbed by the prospect of the bard being the bard that he (or she) wondered if maybe divine intervention – a helping hand from above – explained Shakespeare’s genius.

As he did in his previous book, “A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599,” Shapiro leans toward a serious tone. But despite its academic flavor, “Contested Will” manages to come alive when eccentric characters start stealing the narrative.

There’s a forger who convinced just about everyone that he had a new Shakespeare play and letters from Queen Elizabeth to the board. And a would-be codebreaker who finds bizarre hidden messages (although, sadly, no “Hi Mom!”) in Shakespearean plays. Most colorfully of all, an American author from the 19th century spawns scandal in her personal life before turning Francis Bacon into a prime who-wrote-Shakespeare suspect.

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