By this time you have learnt pretty many things about Shakespeare and the Elizabethan time. There is a recent film that raises the issue some scholars around the world are debating, namely that Shakespeare’s works were not all written by him. I personally do not believe in this theory, yet I think it is fascinating to realize how deeply mysterious the life of the great Bard still is and it discloses how passionate people can get about the question of Shakespeare’s identity. Moreover it highlights another important aspect you have investigated with other teachers: history is never objective. What we find in history books is tinted with different subjective elements: who selects the sources to be published, what documents are used, what artefacts are not known or are still hidden to us.
“Nobody will ever know what really went on then,” the filmmaker Mr. Emmerich said. “But certain things are very hard to explain, like how this commoner wrote these 36 — or some say 38 — plays”.
Watch the trailer. Why is the film entitled Anonymous then?
Emmerich’s film, Anonymous, argues that the greatest plays in the English language were not written by William Shakespeare. Rather, they were the secret work of a nobleman, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare of Stratford, he proposes, became Oxford’s frontman (main figure) in history’s greatest literary scam (fraud/dishonest plan).
On October 28, 2011, the movie Anonymous opened: it flopped (was unsuccessful) at the box office, but there was considerable discussion of the film at the time. William Shakespeare is a character in the movie, but the central character is Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, who is the real author of the works commonly attributed to William Shakespeare (an argument called the Oxfordian Theory) and who was the incestuous lover of Elizabeth I (a twist known in academic circles as the Prince Tudor Theory Part II). These Oxfordians are convinced of the fact that Shakespeare’s works could never have been written by a mere middle-class person like Shakespeare himself, only a nobleman (an Earl), a noble soul, could possibly have done it. Alternative candidates for the “real” Shakespeare have numbered the Cambridge-schooled Christopher Marlowe (who also happens to have been killed before the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays appeared) and the philosopher–statesman Francis Bacon. But the hottest candidate for some time has been the Earl of Oxford, himself a patron of dramatists, a courtier-poet of middling (average) talent, and an adventurer who was at various times banished from the court and captured by pirates.
There is, of course, no reason to credit the earl with even one line of any work that has traditionally been attributed to William Shakespeare: not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of the plays or poems. Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing de Vere’s supporters is that he died in 1604, before 10 or so of Shakespeare’s plays were written. John Shakespeare was indeed illiterate. But his son William was not, as we know incontrovertibly from no fewer than six surviving signatures in Shakespeare’s own flowing hand, the first from 1612, when he was giving evidence in a domestic lawsuit. By the time he was 13 or so, Shakespeare would have read (in Latin) works by Terence, Plautus, Virgil, Erasmus, Cicero, and probably Plutarch and Livy too. How could Shakespeare have known all about kings and queens and courtiers? By writing for them and playing before them over and over again—nearly a hundred performances before Elizabeth and James, almost 20 times a year in the latter case. His plays were published in quarto from 1598 with his name on the page. The notion that the monarchs would have been tricked into thinking he was the true author, when in fact he wasn’t, beggars belief (is unbelievable). The greatness of Shakespeare is precisely that he did not conform to social type—that he was, in the words of the critic William Hazlitt, “no one and everyone.” He didn’t need to go to Italy because Rome had come to him at school and came again in the travels of his roaming mind. His capacity for imaginative extension was socially limitless too: reaching into the speech of tavern tarts (prostitutes) as well as archbishops and kings. As Hazlitt beautifully and perfectly put it, “He was just like any other man, but … he was like all other men. He was the least of an egotist that it was possible to be. He was nothing in himself, but he was all that others were, or that they could become.” What matters is what Shakespeare wrote, not who he was.
The case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, dates from 1920, when J. Thomas Looney, an English writer who loathed democracy and modernity, argued that only a worldly nobleman could have created such works of genius; Shakespeare, a glover’s son and money-lender, could never have done so. Looney also showed that episodes in de Vere’s life closely matched events in the plays. His theory has since attracted impressive supporters, including Sigmund Freud, the Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia and his former colleague John Paul Stevens, and Mr. Emmerich.
Harvard Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt once compared Oxfordianism to Holocaust denial and lamented this in a letter to the Times several years ago:
The idea that William Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays and poems is a matter of conjecture and the idea that the “authorship controversy” be taught in the classroom are the exact equivalent of current arguments that “intelligent design” be taught alongside evolution. In both cases an overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on a serious assessment of hard evidence, is challenged by passionately held fantasies whose adherents demand equal time. The demand seems harmless enough until one reflects on its implications. Should claims that the Holocaust did not occur also be made part of the standard curriculum?
And if Oxfordianism is not exactly the literary equivalent of Holocaust denial, it’s not entirely harmless, either. Inevitably, a few people will end up denying themselves the pleasures and rewards of reading and rereading Shakespeare’s works for the thrilling iambic pentameter and instead opt to read for “clues” pointing to the mind-rotting conspiracy theory.
Anonymous is a drama set in the Elizabethan era, it boldly questions the authorship of Shakespeare’s works. In doing so, it prompts consideration of the intersection of art and politics and the role of the artist in society. Lots of scholars reacted negatively to this film. Do you think this movie confuses students or make Shakespeare more interesting to them? Try to support your views.
James Shapiro wrote the following criticism to the film. How do you respond to it?
The most troubling thing about “Anonymous” is not that it turns Shakespeare into an illiterate money-grubber. It’s not even that England’s virgin Queen Elizabeth is turned into a wantonly promiscuous woman who is revealed to be both the lover and mother of de Vere. Rather, it’s that in making the case for de Vere, the film turns great plays into propaganda.(“Hollywood Dishonors the Bard”, October 16, 2011, The New York Times, The Opinion Pages)
Ron Rosenbaum in his article “10 Things I Hate About Anonymous”, points out
- Shakespeare translated and composed verse in Latin, he attended a grammar school in Stratford.
- The movie has many historical distortions such as having “Shakespeare’s company” put on a production of Richard III to support the insurgency of Lord Essex. It is well-established that the play the real Shakespeare’s company actually put on during that insurgency was Richard II, not Richard III. Richard II is about a deposition of a sitting monarch.
- Shakespeare was well known as a playwright. To quote the great scholar Brian Vickers: “We have a huge number of allusions [to Shakespeare], both laudatory and envious, from fellow-writers and others in the London theatre-world who knew him well; an almost continuous series of references from 1592 to his death in 1616, all of which identify him as both actor and author.”
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a highly sophisticated, intricately woven meditation on the nature of love and sex and in Anonymous, we are informed that the play was written by an 11-year-old (the future Earl of Oxford)!
- The fact that Oxford died in 1604 has always been troublesome for the Oxfordians, since someone calling himself Shakespeare continued to write plays until 1612. Most scholars agree that Shakespeare wrote a dozen plays, including some of his most profound later works—Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest—after Oxford was dead. Did Oxford somehow emanate them from beyond the grave?
So if Anonymous may be defined as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” because it supports the bogus theory that Shakespeare never wrote the works he is renowned for, why watching it?
So who’s right in the authorship dogfight? Those casting doubt on the Stratford man point out that there is no original manuscript in his handwriting and only six shaky examples of his signature. Equally, his will doesn’t mention the 37 plays. On the other hand there are lots of scholars that claim there’s a mass of documentary evidence to prove the genuine authorship. Then historians pointed out that the Thames wasn’t frozen in 1603 and Elizabeth’s funeral is well documented as being on land.
What conclusion have you come to, if any, after this short analysis?
Watch the following video. What did Shakespeare’s “fans” do to protest against the film Anonymous? Do you think Shakespeare would like the film Anonymous? Why (not)?
A famous scholar of Shakespeare mentions why the idea that Shakespeare did not write his works is just looney. What information do you learn from him you did not know of before?
I would love to end this “controversial” post with a quotation of James Shapiro, Shakespeare Scholar at Columbia University and author of Contested Will:
The premise of Anonymous is that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, the Earl of Oxford did, even though he died before ten of the plays were written. If you were teaching in a high school, and your students asked you, “Who wrote Shakespeare?” how would you respond?
First, I’d urge those students to think hard about what’s at stake in that question. Then I’d suggest that if they are really interested in the authorship controversy, to investigate it further to their own satisfaction, and to acquaint themselves with scholarship on the subject (and I mean scholarship, arguments grounded in evidence, not surmise or fantasy—Contested Will has an extensive “Bibliographical Essay.”
But my real advice to any high school student is to read the plays (especially aloud, with friends), go see as many productions as possible, and take the plunge and act in them as well. Shakespeare was an actor, and there is no better way to understand why they were written by a man of the theater than by performing the plays and seeing performances of them. (source: http://www.folger.edu)
SO ENJOY SHAKESPEARE. I hope he hill SHAKE and not SPEAR you!
If you want to investigate more, look at this nice prezi presentation.
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