Top 10 Lockdown History Books: 5/10: Contested Will by James Shapiro

During the 2020 lockdown, Soul City Wanderer took the opportunity to catch up on his history book reading: These are his top ten recommendations from the pile he ploughed through (in no particular order). 5/10: Contested Will by James Shapiro.

Soul City Wanderer’s own book Soul City Wandering was released in 2020. Available in paperback or on Kindle, it encourages readers to rediscover their urban surroundings.

James Shapiro Contested Will (Faber & Faber, 2010)

Much Ado About Nothing?

Even though I’ve had this one on my shelf for years, I’m glad I finally got a chance to read Contested Will, because the American author writes brilliantly fascinating books on Shakespeare. This one is all about the industry surrounding the authenticity of Shakespeare’s work, and focuses on two main contenders for alternative authorship, Francis Bacon, and the Earl of Oxford.

The first part is a history of farcical frauds and flights of fancy from the early days of Shakespearean authorship conspiracies. There is also an interesting study into how far early scholars would go into trying to prove the Bard’s works were autobiographical.

The second section is on Francis Bacon. Some of the more eminent Baconian theorists were American, such as Delia Bacon, Mark Twain and Henry James, perhaps reflecting the idea that American republican values meant that they interpreted Shakespeare better than his compatriots. I was interested to see the 19th century British historian Thomas Carlyle pop up, “shrieking” with laughter at Delia Bacon’s theory.

The third section covers the advocates for the Earl of Oxford. The real spanner in the works for this contender is that Shakespeare was still writing at least 10 years after his death.

Shapiro’s compelling argument for Shakespeare’s authorship in the fourth section is found in the Bard’s interaction with his working contemporaries. Amazing to find a reference to the late American rapper Tupac Shakur in all this, too.

Overall, what becomes clear is that many experts had a problem with the gap between the facts of Shakespeare’s somewhat mundane life up to the age of roughly 27, and his sudden remarkable literary output. What sometimes irks is the pure snobbery of those from an academic environment who believe that such a body of work was beyond a man of such breeding, background and education.

Another thing explored in this book is the accusations often levelled at Shakespeare, that he was a profiteering mercenary only ever interested in securing his ‘pound of flesh.’ Shapiro defends him to an extent, but the evidence, as sparse as it is, does suggest a ‘Scrooge’ at work.

Shakespeare as Scrooge? Now there’s a Christmas TV special in the offing!

James Shapiro Contested Will (Faber & Faber, 2010)

Dan Falk The Science of Shakespeare (St Martin’s Press, 2014)

Another fairly recent bestseller on the Bard is by another author from across the Atlantic. I have to say I wasn’t too sure about reading this one. It was given to me as a present, and when I saw the cover, I thought it might be a bit too contrived. What’s the old adage? Never judge a book by its cover!

The Science of Shakespeare is excellent. Written by the Canadian author Dan Falk, it is a fascinating study of the ‘scientific’ world around the time of Shakespeare and how it may have influenced some of his writing.

When Shakespeare was born in 1563, the world was just coming to terms with the new Copernican theory of the universe: that the Earth orbits around the Sun. Apparently, Shakespeare lived in a remarkable period of celestial drama with shooting stars and supernovas lighting up the skies on a regular basis, and with sharp-eyed philosophers such as Gordano Bruno, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Harriott and Thomas Digges keeping a check on them.

Interesting to note that radical church moderniser Martin Luther dismissed the Copernican theory and chastised the modern star-gazers who wished “to turned the whole of astronomy upside down.

The second part of this book has a fascinating theory on Hamlet which draws on an idea put forward by US astronomer Peter Usher. A map of 1588 shows the Danish stargazer Tycho Brahe’s observatory on the island of Hven in relation to the castle of Elsinore on the Danish mainland. Then, there is an image of Brahe’s 1590 coat of arms which contains the family names of Rosenkrans and Guildensteren. This would have been seen by English astronomer, Thomas Digges, who Shakespeare apparently knew. Certainly, Digges’s son Leonard wrote the ‘foreword’ to the bard’s First Folio printed in 1623. All very intriguing.

Another theory notes the allusions to Galileo in Cymbeline. The famous stargazer was born in the same year as Shakespeare. There are further discussions on the maths and medicine that appear in Shakespeare’s plays. This really was a ‘heavenly’ read.

Dan Falk The Science of Shakespeare (St Martin’s Press, 2014)

Note: unfortunately, Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon and the other four Shakespeare homes, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, New Place, Hall’s Croft and Mary Arden’s Farm, remain closed until at least spring 2021. See website here.   


Soul City Wanderer’s own book Soul City Wandering was released in 2020. Available in paperback or on Kindle, it encourages readers to rediscover their urban surroundings.

“A great book… a great guide.

Poems… music… history… and fantastic ways to… go for walks”

Robert Elms, BBC Radio London
Soul City Wandering – the 5-star rated top ten bestseller

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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