Amazon: Contested Will Under Fire, Or Anatomy of a Denouement

Posted By on March 5, 2011

Declining Amazon review scores for "Contested Will." New reviewers fault both Shapiro's command of relevant historical context and slippery documentation practices. The price of a new hardback copy of the book is now $3.39. Click on the image for an enlarged view. Image reproduced under Fair Use doctrine.

This is going to be a long post, so buckle your seat belt and settle back for a windy ride around the hairpin turns of the Authorship slalom.  The ride will be worth it, I promise….

According to Amazon,  James Shapiro’s Contested Will was published less than a year ago, April 10, 2010 — 13 days, that is, before the official birthday of Shakespeare, and one day, measuring by Old Style, before the birthday of the 17th Earl of Oxford.*

Rob Hardy, writing 6 days before the official release date, on April 4, was the first to congratulate Shapiro on a job well done.

Employing a favorite phrase from the Stratfordian lexicon, Hardy announced that (as Shapiro had undoubtedly proven) “There is no evidence that anyone in Shakespeare’s time thought that the plays came from anyone else. In fact, it was only a couple of centuries after his death that doubters started piping up” (emphasis mine).

Over the next few months a handful of anti-Stratfordian reviews were posted,  but it is clear that the opinions expressed in them were not persuasive to the majority of readers who left responses on Shapiro’s Amazon page. Such reviews originally averaged only about 1/3 approval rating, while that of  Hardy, the “founding father” of Shapiro’s cheerleading squad on Amazon, maintained a healthy following, with far many more readers approving than contesting his analysis of Shapiro’s book and the authorship question more generally.

Most of the new reviews that did appear followed in the groove laid down by Hardy’s pen. A September 25 review by S.G. Oles sounded a typical note, asserting that

Over the years, it’s been hard to get real Shakespeare scholars to take anti-Shakespeare theories seriously. It’s like trying to get a respected astrophysicist to write a book about the flying saucer millions believe crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico. The failure of scholars to take anti-Stratfordianism seriously — just like the government’s long refusal to take the Roswell rumors seriously — fed the passion of true believers, convincing them there was a conspiracy of silence keeping the truth from being revealed.

“Scholarly and Enjoyable,” raved W.A. Carpenter in November. Esther Shay, commenting from Eugene, Oregon, concurred: “Hail, Man of Stratford!” Shapiro, asserted Shay, had authored

A brilliant study of the Shakespeare authorship controversy–one which ought, in a reasonable world, to dispel forever any doubt that yes, Shakespeare really did write Shakespeare. Unfortunately, we do not live in a reasonable world, but in one so increasingly confusing and complicated that we are at times easy prey to tales of great conspiracies operated with supernatural cleverness by mysterious forces.

As of March 2011, Hardy’s book still has the most votes of any review in the listings, with 79 of 112 readers finding it “useful.”

And, up until very recently, Hardy’s review, being the most often approved by readers, was listed on the top of the Amazon charts.

But then something changed.

Little by little, as time passed, more negative reviews had started appearing, and those reviews began to receive a significantly higher proportion of positive votes from readers.  Shapiro’s rating began to slip (it now stands at only about 3.45/5), and along with it the price for a new hardback copy of the book — now down to $10.10 (61% of retail) from Amazon and as little as $5.99 from affiliates — began to fall (the publisher, Simon and Schuster, still lists the book for $26).

A watershed moment of some sort occurred only a month ago, with Richard Waugaman‘s February 4 review:

Pity the poor reader who trusts Shapiro as a reliable guide to the fascinating world of Shakespeare authorship debate. Despite his efforts to sound objective, Shapiro clearly had his mind made up before he examined the evidence. This might explain why he didn’t bother to look into new evidence that contradicts his preconceived beliefs. He completely ignored several excellent books that show the prevalence of pseudonymous authorship in Shakespeare’s day (for example, The Anonymous Renaissance: Cultures of Discretion in Tudor-Stuart England or Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature).

Waugaman went on to argue that Shapiro

deliberately avoided examining new evidence that marginalia in Edward de Vere’s Bible reveals a treasure trove of new literary sources for Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. Among other things, the marked Psalms unlock the mysteries of some especially enigmatic Sonnets, that are engaged in a “conversation” with specific Psalms.

What happened next was truly strange. Based on the historical evidence, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that had Waugaman written that last April, his review would have been buried in a heap of obloquy from Stratfordian die-hards.

Not today. As of March 5, 68 of 78 readers had found Waugaman’s review not only credible but helpful, and ten of the twelve comments are positive.

Within a few days Waugaman’s review had topped Hardy’s on the Amazon charts — although not as many readers had commented on it, it had a much higher approval rate  than Hardy’s, no doubt due to the combination of informed perspective and impartial tone.  One of few negative comments, posted February 3 by Doug Haydn Fan,  seems to prognosticate the future of Stratfordian criticism: “A loon is a loon is a loon – however you trot it out!”

Fan’s refreshing logic did not deter Libby, writing from Louisiana, from offering her own account of Shapiro’s book. Waugaman had generously given Shapiro two stars, but Libby was a tougher grader: One star was all she would give.

Libby also shifted the focus from the content to the rhetoric of Shapiro’s presentation and made some interesting observations about Shapiro’s documentation practices:

In [the book’s] introductory paragraph, Mr. Shapiro so humbly writes, “What follows, then, is a guide limited to the specific sources I have drawn on in print, manuscript, and electronic form, so that anyone interested can retrace or follow up on my research.”

So this is how I am supposed to determine which “facts” and “theories” in his book belong to which source? Why no proper footnotes? I would like the opportunity to read the author’s own writings and evaluate his own theories but yet such reasonable opportunity is no where to be found. Does Mr. Shapiro seriously suggest I obtain all of the sources he presumably used to write his book, then correlate which of his writings were based on which sources leaving his new and original thoughts for me to ponder?

This was bad enough for Shapiro and his promoters; worse still, less than a week later, Libby’s review, with 11 of 12 positive votes, suddenly eclipsed Hardy’s, moving into second position in the review rankings for the book.

It’s hard to imagine things getting any worse than this for Shapiro, but worse they did get, and at a seemingly accelerating pace.   Hardy’s review, now nearly a year old, has not only the largest number of votes but also by far the  longest comments section of any of review of Shapiro’s book.

As in the reviews themselves, the history of the comments suggests that the Shapiro boosters on Amazon are running out of steam.

From last April until a month ago, the discussion was dominated by supporters of Shapiro’s book and Hardy’s review.

Then, on Feb. 5,   Shakespeare Fellowship member William Ray jumped into the thread with this stunning remark

This review was helpful in that anything the reviewer has said I would doubt and suspect the opposite were true. To take on the joke that begins the wordy statement, someone wrote Shakespeare who had his same name. This is funny because it is a tautology, i.e., it is nonsense.

That was the 25th comment in the thread. A month later, there are a hundred comments, and during the past two weeks, critics of Hardy’s review have outnumbered defenders by more than 2/1, a complete reversal of the dynamic before Ray’s February 5 intervention.

The first response to Ray was that Stratfordian logic (never, to be sure, a strong point for the orthodoxy) fell off a cliff. The inimitable Mr. Oles took one of the first stabs at answering Ray:

William Ray, your prose style seems to indicate you are in an advanced state of drug addiction — which would explain your interest in Shakespeare denial.

Oles followed this remark with a string of posts, sometimes offering attempts at rational arguments, but heavily interlarded with the  usual gratuitous fallacies and personal attacks.  “Sir,” answered Ray,

your display of energy may fall under the category, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” Three blog comments in a row by the same writer in answer to a pretty moderate post by another. But the fury of the response may be evidence of growing doubt about one’s own position. So there is some value in replying.

The combination of politeness and laser-like clarity in Ray’s remarks was soon yielding fruit of sorts from Oles, who graduated  from insults about Ray’s alleged intoxication to pointing out that

you are asking people to believe something which has never happened in the entire history of the world: a major writer creating a large body of work under a pseudonym that isn’t exposed during his lifetime.


The other shoe did not drop until two days ago, on March 3, when independent British scholar John Rollett signed on to the debate:

Shapiro’s book Contested Will is a great read, but contains a number of surprising factual errors. For example, he appears to think that doubts about Shakespeare first surfaced around 1750 (page 21), with which Rob Hardy (review, April 4, 2010) apparently concurs. But in the late 1590’s John Marston and Joseph Hall were much exercised over the authorship of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece.

They derided someone they referred to as ‘Labeo’ for penning them (“Write better Labeo, or write none”). Labeo was the most prominent Roman lawyer of his day, and it has been surmised that by ‘Labeo’ they were pointing to Francis Bacon. Again, Thomas Edwards indicated in “L’Envoy” to his poem Cephalus and Procris. Narcissus, that V&A was written by someone wearing “purple robes” and dwelling “Amidst the Center of this clime”…..

Shapiro makes much of his discovery (pages 12-3) that the lectures supposedly presented by James Corton Cowell in February 1805 to the Ipswich Philosophic Society (“Arthur Cobbold Esqre., President”) were a Baconian forgery. In fact, the original finding that the lectures were a Baconian spoof was made by me, an Ipswich resident, in 2002, after many hours spent in the Suffolk Record Office.

Briefly, although there are large families with both surnames in the area, no trace can be found of either of these two gentlemen. Professor Daniel Wright presented my findings at a conference in Portland, Or., and a report of it by Nathan Baca was printed in Shakespeare Matters 2, no. 4, Summer 2003 (available on the web).

Professor Shapiro could be forgiven if he had not read this account, but astonishingly he references Baca’s report on pages 319-20 of his book, without mentioning that his ‘discovery’ had been anticipated….

It is remarkable that Professor Shapiro should have made several gross errors of a kind that would necessitate a PhD student re-writing and re-presenting his PhD thesis. Did he not ask even a single colleague to read through his typescript?

By this point it was obvious that the Oxfordians (including the present writer, who contributed several comments to the thread) had the initiative.

What were Oles, Hardy, or any of the rest to respond to Rollett’s wild card?

Someone they had never heard of, who seemed to know what he was talking about, was not only demolishing the logic of Shapiro’s argument, a foundational point for Mr. Hardy back in April, about the historical time frame for the origins of the authorship question, but was also accusing the great man from Columbia of stealing some other parts of his argument from persons to whom he gave no credit — viz. Rollett himself.

This is a serious accusation, if true, and it appears that none of Shapiro’s former supporters, understandably, wanted to go near it.  If they denied it and it was true (as so it seemed), they’d be lying to defend something that was indefensible, but if they admitted it that would be even worse.

Instead, Ray himself responded:

In reading the adjacent letter from Dr. Rollett concerning James Shapiro’s giving the readers an impression that he, Shapiro, was the discoverer of the Cowell-Wilmot forgery, not Rollett:

By logical examination, Shapiro is lying both about the sequence and about himself supposedly deserving credit as discoverer of the forgery.

By this time, as might be expected, even the voluble Mr. “R. Rob. Hardy” seemed to have vanished, along with Oles and the other Stratfordians who, no more than two months ago, had been holding forth talking among themselves about what  moronic conspiracy theorists the anti-Stratfordians are, and only three weeks ago were happily engaging Mr. Ray in discussion that ranged from abusive (usually)  to (less often) civil. Throughout it all Mr. Ray appears to never once have lost his cool.

Now, suddenly, they were gone. Is that a “sign of the times?”

Well sir, I reckon maybe so. As the inimitable B.J. Robbins, one of the most avid Shapiro boosters on Amazon, put it in an exchange on the same thread with yours truly,

You can take ANY educated person out of his field of expertise, feed him one-sided information, and convince him/her of just about anything.

Yup. That pretty much sums it up.

(Full the disclosure: the present writer has met “Libby” over the internet due to common interests including authorship, and has known and greatly respected Dr. Waugaman, Mr. Ray, and Mr. Rollett, for some years).

*Or, April 22, New Style!

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


4 Responses to “Amazon: Contested Will Under Fire, Or Anatomy of a Denouement”

  1. knitwitted says:

    Say Doc… What do you think about the reviews on Amazon which are based on facts regarding the contents of the book itself rather than a gushing forth of gee what a great scholar when said fact-based reviews have garnered a few negative votes? As of today, Libby’s review has 25 of 30 “helpful” votes.

    hmm… Are the negative votes from people who (a) liked the book; (b) disagree with the fact that the book had no footnotes; (c) don’t like the reviewer; (d) live in some weird alternate universe where all monkeys must vote in the negative.

    Interesting! I notice on your review you asked why the negative voters don’t offer an explanation. Surely it would be nice to know why such fact-based reviews are “wrong”.

  2. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Indeed it would be nice to know. In the absence of any explanation one can only infer that the votes were purely irrational, based on prejudice or conditioning, so d) would be the best answer. I’d be happy to see if that inference requires change, but so far the “voters” appear to be unwilling to emerge from the wikipedia cave or the other sheltered and/or anonymous environments in which they function best. c’est la vie!

  3. kenkap says:

    If you go to You Tube, Shapiro boasts about the discovery of the forgeries. I find his behavior unethical and reprehensible. Is this the lengths he will go?

  4. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Hi Ken, thanks for visiting!

    I have plans for that video. : ) Trust me. Truth is the daughter of time.

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