Are you a Stratfordian or an Oxfordian? For a long time I’ve avoided the debate around Shakespeare’s ‘true identity’. Partly because, like many people, I enjoy the romantic idea of the enigmatic genius. And partly because any debate around authorship (I believed) could potentially take away from the focus on, and the enjoyment of, the words themselves.
I never believed Shakespeare was a brand name for a conglomerate of writers (as some do) because there is too much symmetry across the body of work: through literary, rhetorical and dramatic devices; imagery and figurative language (use of analogy, different types of irony, metaphor, puns and symbols, to name a few); types of humour employed; and a certain self-awareness or meta-aspect (in many of the plays). I learnt a lot of this during an undergrad unit called ‘Shakespeare on Film’, one of the best subjects I’ve ever undertaken, and via a great book by Toby Widdicombe called Simply Shakespeare. I’ve always been more interested in the words, the drama and the stories than the idea of the author himself.
Funnily enough, the film Anonymous, which still attributes all the Bard’s works to one man (though not the man from Stratford-upon-Avon), is mainly about the ‘power of words’, and is still, definitely a celebration of the plays. Anonymous dramatises a theory which is held—not just by crackpots, but in many intellectual and academic circles—that the plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The film fleshes out this theory with the Earl’s desire to be a political influence on the people (for various reasons, I won’t spoil it). The Earl risks being arrested for treason if he exposes himself, and he first approaches Ben Jonson to put his names to the plays. Jonson baulks at the idea, and a boorish, illiterate actor called William Shakespeare steps up to the plate. Once Jonson begins to realise how incredible the plays are, he has a few regrets…
The film plays around with history (as we currently know it; a flexible thing it doth seem to be!). There are several inaccuracies, such as Essex being a threat to King James of Scotland (apparently he actually supported him), and the redating of the release of some of the plays to fit in with the story of the 1601 Essex Rebellion. Christopher Marlowe appears in 1598, when actually he died in 1593. James Shapiro explains a few of these inaccuaracies in his Guardian review (slight spoilers):
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is that the author of the great plays is reduced to a political propagandist, his plays to vehicles to advance his faction’s cause. De Vere himself is quite clear about his literary objectives: “All art is political … otherwise it is just decoration.” He delightedly applauds his art’s propagandistic impact at a performance of “his” Henry V that so riles the patriotic mob that actors playing the French are physically assaulted. (No, this never happened.) He then mocks a political foe, William Cecil, as Polonius, in Hamlet. (The film conveniently forgets that when Hamlet was staged Cecil was already dead.) At the film’s climax, on the eve of the half-hearted Essex uprising in 1601, De Vere stages Richard III in order to win the crowd’s support for his faction. Enraged, playgoers swarm out of the theatre in mid-performance, heading to court, before they are brutally gunned down on Robert Cecil’s order. (No, this never happened either. Yes, the Chamberlain’s Men did stage a play before the abortive uprising, but it was Richard II, and it had no direct connection with subsequent events, unforeseen at the time of the performance. Because Anonymous so badly needs to reduce Richard III to a propagandistic attack on a hunchback Robert Cecil, the substitution is made. Yet Orloff told an interviewer last month that Anonymous “is unbelievably historically accurate … stunningly accurate”).
The rest of the review is full of spoilers, so read it only if you’ve seen the film (or won’t see it).
Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere
The film is fairly entertaining as a political thriller, and should be enjoyed as such, not as documentary. Many characters are introduced early on and if you don’t have at least a light grasp of English history (particularly royalty, religion, politics and customs of the time) a bit of extra concentration is required. Director Roland Emmerich has done an amazing job of recreating Elizabethan England. I was very impressed by the sets and effects. The actors are all adequate, and the best performances are Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere and Vanessa Redgrave as Elizabeth I (I would watch her in anything).
As the film does still attribute all of the works to one author I did find myself intrigued by the theory, as gappy and impossible to prove as it is. But, as I said, the film’s main theme, in the end, is the power of words, and that truly great works will last the test of time (no matter whose name is on them).
Willy taking the credit
If you are interested in the ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments—as to Shakespeare, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, being the real author—I found these two very convincing arguments commissioned by The Telegraph:
I first read ‘Yes, Shakespeare was a fraud’ by Oxford scholar and author of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom Charles Beauclerk. He argues, among other things, that Shakespeare was possibly illiterate, that:
Like Hamlet, Oxford was a prince who had been sidelined. He distrusted the court’s Machiavellian machinations. From the age of 21 he adopted a unique signature, with a crown above his name and seven dashes below, indicating he thought of himself as the future King Edward VII. But he knew to keep his mouth shut. Instead he used drama—allegory—to assert his royal right.
Like Prince Hal, he was a bohemian prince ill at ease with his inheritance, who saw the actors and dramatists as his fellow truth-tellers. The themes that marked his life are the very themes that dominate Shakespeare’s work. Hamlet is essentially his autobiography.
Oxford knew the royal court, the milieu of Shakespeare’s plays. He was familiar with political events. The Stratford man’s life was a world away from this.
Then I read ‘No, Shakespeare was not a fraud’ by Professor Stanley Wells, honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and creator of 60 Minutes with Shakespeare. He says there are references to Shakespeare as a writer by at least 14 authors in his lifetime. He says:
Shakespeare’s authorship was not doubted until the 1850s when Delia Bacon, who ended up in an asylum, posited that the plays had been written by a committee of writers, including Francis Bacon (no relation). She wanted to open Shakespeare’s grave, as if there might have been a letter within saying: “It wasn’t me. Try Bacon.”
Since then, at least 77 people have been suggested as possible authors. It is absurd to think someone would write the world’s greatest plays and give someone else the credit.
The Earl of Oxford is the anti-Shakespeareans’ current favourite contender. He died in 1604 whereas the plays went on appearing until 1613. Oxfordians have to construct elaborate scenarios of concealment to explain this away.
What do you think? Does it matter? History and authorship are contentious and malleable concepts. The words and stories live on. You might say they are celebrated, some might argue they are abused, perhaps t’is neither here nor there. To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on.
At the end of it all, life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
What I don’t doubt is that whoever the author was, he (or maybe even she) was a phenomenally insightful and entertaining storyteller.
Anonymous has just been released on DVD and blu-ray in Australia
You might also enjoy some posts from my archives: I’ve visited the new Globe theatre twice now, including during my European jaunt last year, where we saw my favourite comedy Much Ado About Nothing (very briefly mentioned). In ‘Two Hamlets‘, in 2008, I looked at Branagh’s and Marsden’s versions of Hamlet. I’ve watched that Branagh version many times since.
Update: on the pro-Shakespeare side, was just sent this link, a #longread: Shakespeare Bites Back: Not So Anonymous