Unlike most reputable critics (Philip French in the Observer, and Stephen Marche in the New York Times, for instance), I thoroughly enjoyed Roland Emmerich’s new film ‘Anonymous.’ It’s splendidly acted, frequently funny, quite exciting at times, and visually superb in conjuring up Tudor London. As an entertaining romp based upon a self-evidently silly conspiracy theory about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s fine. The only problem is that, apparently, Emmerich and his scriptwriter John Orloff, are serious about the ‘anti-Stratfordian’ thesis and have promoted it as part of a campaign to undermine Shakespeare and promote Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the true author of the plays. Orloff has (allegedly) claimed that the film “is unbelievably historically accurate…stunningly accurate.”
Now, ’anti-Stratfordian’ conspiracy theories have been around for over 200 years and the less bizarre contenders for Shakespeare’s crown have included Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and John Donne. But in recent years the claim of de Vere has come to the fore, enthusiastically promoted by ‘Oxfordians’ on both sides of the Atlantic.
‘Oxfordians’ claim that de Vere’s artistocratic life as a favourite of Queen Elizabeth and in particular, his ‘grand tour’ of Europe and a year spent in Italy in 1576, make him the obvious candidate. What they tend to be less willing to acknowledge is the profoundly reactionary political underpinning of their belief, based as it is upon the views and theories of the first ‘Oxfordian’, a man called (wait for it) Thomas Looney and the ’positivist’ movement of which he was a leading figure: they hated modernity, capitalism and democracy in all its forms and longed for a return to feudalism and a hierachical (if benevolent) society. But it’s not necessary to go into the minutia of positivism in order to undersand the driving motivation of the Oxfordian movement: pure snobbery (something that the de Vere Society’s website makes little attempt to hide). How could this grammar school-educated, lower-middle class provincial malt dealer and money-lender have written these great works dealing with history, foreign lands and royal courts? No: it has to have been an aristocrat. Obligingly, Anonymous, portrays Shakespeare as a drunken, semi-literate lecher and fraudster (not to mention probable murderer).
Never mind the inconvenient facts that there is not a shred of evidence to connect deVere to the plays, that what survives of deVere’s own writing is little more than doggerel, or that he died in 1604, before about 10 of Shakespeare’s plays were written. It’s all a big conspiracy, don’t you see? It’s a cover-up by the so-called “experts” – the same sort of people who deny that 9/11 was an inside job or that Princess Diana was murdered.
The admirable James Shapiro deals with the conspiracy theories and the dodgy politics here. It’s an uncharacteristically polemical piece from the normally amiable and tolerant Mr Shapiro – maybe because the film itself is so dishonest and pretends to a veneer of credibility by employing the talents of great Shakesperian actors like Derek Jacobi, Vanessa Redgrave and Mark Rylance. Shapiro’s good humoured book ‘Contested Will’ is the definitive work on the subject, and is surprisingly kind to both Looney and Delia Bacon (a failed playright who was no relation to her own chosen candidate for authorship). While gently eviscerating the claims of the ‘anti-Stratfordian’ conspiracy theorists, Shapiro puts forward a suggestion that is actually much more interesting: that especially at the start and end of his career, Shakespeare collaborated with co-authors, probably Thomas Middleton, George Wilkins and John Fletcher. In arguing this position, Shapiro effectively debunks the view held by zealots on both sides of the ‘authorship’ dispute, that the author was a lone genius whose work must have been some kind of disguised reflection of his own life and experiences: the antagonists in this dispute, says Shapiro, “have more in common than either side is willing to concede.” I meant to review this brilliant book on ‘Shiraz’ when it first appeared in early 2010, but didn’t get round to it. To give you a flavour, here’s an excerpt from the ‘Prologue’:
Prologue (to ‘Contested Will,’ by James Shapiro):
This is a book about when and why many people began to question whether William Shakespeare wrote the plays long attributed to him, and, if he didn’t write them, who did.
There’s surprising consensus on the part of both skeptics and defenders of Shakespeare’s authorship about when the controversy first took root. Whether you get your facts from the Dictionary of National Biography or Wikipedia, the earliest documented claim dates back to 1785, when James Wilmot, an Oxford-trained scholar who lived a few miles outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, began searching locally for Shakespeare’s books, papers, or any indication that he had been an author—and came up empty-handed. Wilmot gradually came to the conclusion that someone else, most likely Sir Francis Bacon, had written the plays. Wilmot never published what he learned and near the end of his life burned all his papers. But before he died he spoke with a fellow researcher, a Quaker from Ipswich named James Corton Cowell, who later shared these findings with members of the Ipswich Philosophic Society.
Cowell did so in a pair of lectures delivered in 1805 that survive in a manuscript now located in the University of London’s Senate House Library, in which he confesses to being “a renegade” to the Shakespearean “faith.” Cowell was converted by Wilmot’s argument that “there is nothing in the writings of Shakespeare that does not argue the long and early training of the schoolman, the traveler, and the associate of the great and learned. Yet there is nothing in the known life of Shakespeare that shows he had any one of the qualities.” Wilmot is credited with being the first to argue, as far back as the late eighteenth century, for an unbridgeable rift between the facts of Shakespeare’s life and what the plays and poems reveal about their author’s education and experience. But both Wilmot and Cowell were ahead of their time, for close to a half-century passed before the controversy resurfaced in any serious or sustained way.
Since 1850 or so, thousands of books and articles have been published urging that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays. At first, bibliographers tried to keep count of all the works inspired by the controversy. By 1884 the list ran to 255 items; by 1949, it had swelled to over 4,500. Nobody bothered trying to keep a running tally after that, and in an age of blogs, websites, and online forums it’s impossible to do justice to how much intellectual energy has been—and continues to be—devoted to the subject. Over time, and for all sorts of reasons, leading artists and intellectuals from all walks of life joined the ranks of the skeptics. I can think of little else that unites Henry James and Malcolm X, Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller and Orson Welles, or Mark Twain and Sir Derek Jacobi.
It’s not easy keeping track of all the candidates promoted as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. The leading contenders nowadays are Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford) and Sir Francis Bacon. Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, the Earl of Derby, and the Earl of Rutland have attracted fewer though no less ardent supporters. And more than fifty others have been proposed as well—working alone or collaboratively—including Sir Walter Ralegh, John Donne, Anne Whateley, Robert Cecil, John Florio, Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Southampton, Queen Elizabeth, and King James. A complete list is pointless, for it would soon be outdated. During the time I’ve been working on this book, four more names have been put forward: the poet and courtier Fulke Greville, the Irish rebel William Nugent, the poet Aemelia Lanier (of Jewish descent and thought by some to be the unnamed Dark Lady of the Sonnets), and the Elizabethan diplomat Henry Neville. New candidates will almost surely be proposed in years to come. While the chapters that follow focus on Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford—whose candidacies are the best documented and most consequential—it’s not because I believe that their claims are necessarily stronger than any of these others. An exhaustive account of all the candidates, including those already advanced and those waiting in the wings, would be both tedious and futile, and for reasons that will soon become clear, Bacon and Oxford can be taken as representative.
Much of what has been written about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays follows the contours of a detective story, which is not all that surprising, since the authorship question and the “whodunit” emerged at the same historical moment. Like all good detective fiction, the Shakespeare mystery can be solved only by determining what evidence is credible, retracing steps, and avoiding false leads. My own account in the pages that follow is no different. I’ve spent the past twenty-five years researching and teaching Shakespeare’s works at Columbia University. For some, that automatically disqualifies me from writing fairly about the controversy on the grounds that my professional investments are so great that I cannot be objective. There are a few who have gone so far as to hint at a conspiracy at work among Shakespeare professors and institutions, with scholars paid off to suppress information that would undermine Shakespeare’s claim. If so, somebody forgot to put my name on the list.
Read the full Shapiro ’Prologue’ here
By sheer co-incidence, I was recently in the delightful village of Castle Hedingham, situated in Essex near the border with Sussex. It’s the birthplace of Edward de Vere, complete with Norman castle built c.1140 by Aubrey de Vere and still owned by his descendants. The locals are, naturally, very excited about the film: earholing a group of them in the pub, I overheard something along these lines: “It’s well known these days, isn’t it? Shakespeare’s stuff was all about kings and queens and the royal court, wasn’t it? It had to be an aristocrat, didn’t it? I mean it’s well known – Shakespeare couldn’t even read or write, could he? Has to be de Vere, hasn’t it? Stands to reason, doesn’t it?” Well at least they had a respectable and rational reason for wanting to believe such nonsense.
Good stuff from Terry Teachout here.
H/t The Fat Man