I recently finished reading James Shaprio’s marvelous book, Contested Will. Michael Feingold writes in his terrific review of it at the Village Voice:
With sardonic aptness, James Shapiro, a Shakespeare scholar at Columbia, chooses Garrick's adoration as the starting point for his new book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, a rueful history of Shakespeare worship's darker side. For it seems that even in a field as narrow as dramatic poetry, once you declare that a god has walked the earth, satanic forces must instantly spring up to deny him. From Garrick's veneration of Shakespeare's unearthly powers, a counter-assumption was born: A lowly actor from a small-town background, like "the man from Stratford," could not possibly have written these extraordinary plays.
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.
Instead, cunningly, he makes his opponents' lives, not Shakespeare's, his principal subject, replacing their nitpicky disputes over unprovable biographical what-ifs with a fascinating, well-documented parade of literary eccentrics, displaying the torments that drive frustrated souls into revisionist mythmaking. Shapiro doesn't flinch even when the frustrated souls carry beloved names: Henry James, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Sigmund Freud are among those whose disbelief in Shakespeare's authorship he confronts, squarely and honorably.
Feingold follows this with a short summary of Shapiro’s case, and his concluding paragraph is pure gold. Read the review, and then read the book – it is very rewarding.
Note to my commenting Oxfordian fans: Please take issue with Mr. Shapiro, et al., and not me. They’re the ones you have to convince, because it is they who will have to convince me.
Contested Will Looks at the Nuts Who Think Shakespeare Didn't Write Shakespeare (The Village Voice)