William Shakespeare's birthday is generally celebrated on April 23rd. In honor of his birthday, here is a discussion of the 'authorship' question and a review of the 2011 dramatic film Anonymous, which postulates that the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, was the person who really wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare. The film is available on DVD.
(The review was originally published on Feb. 26th on Political Film Blog.)
Director Roland Emmerich makes a huge transition, from tentpole disaster flicks to literary whodunit, in the period piece Anonymous — which came out on DVD this month and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume Design. This speculative fiction feature asks whether Shakespeare was a fraud and comes up with an elaborate answer. This is not just a cultural curiosity. Those of a political bent should take note of the film – which doesn’t mean I recommend seeing it. But it is of political importance.
First of all, it is a conspiracy theory, and really, it’s becoming more and more important to be able to analyze conspiracy theories, whether from the left or the right. Anonymous seizes on the discussions that have been raging among researchers for some time now, and that seem to be gaining steam: for example, an M.A. in Authorship Studies, apparently the first of its kind, has been launched at Brunel University in London. Anonymous fashions from these speculations a period piece that claims William Shakespeare was not the real author of the 38 plays attributed to him – someone else was.
However, Anonymous offers few points to dismantle the view held for centuries that middle-class Will Shakespeare, the actor who came to London from the backwater of Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote the plays. Derek Jacobi touches on only a couple points in an introductory monologue he delivers to a darkened audience from a modern stage – a fluid entry prologue to the movie and entry into Elizabethan times, but one cribbed straight from the Chorus in the 1989 film Henry V, as played by Jacobi in Kenneth Branagh’s film directing debut. (For the record, Branagh is a Stratfordian; he still holds that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. Jacobi is an Oxfordian; he finds it more likely that Edward de Vere, the then Earl of Oxford, was Shakespeare.)
Without any more persuasive details to re-calibrate our image of the Bard, Anonymous moves immediately into its fantasy premise: what if someone else was Shakespeare? We are expected to invest right away in the story of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, a brilliant writer who — because of elevated social status, political suppression, and a lot of whispering in very dark shadows by Elizabeth’s chief minister — has to keep his writing secret. In other words, Anonymous skips over the steps we might have needed to suspend our disbelief, and thrusts us straight into de Vere’s own story. Which is not really fair to the actor playing de Vere, Rhys Efans, since it’s harder for him to win converts when we haven’t been properly detached from Shakespeare first. Nonetheless, Efans does excellent work, offering up an uncharacteristically romantic performance, and suggesting an elegant and melancholic lost spirit who puts his suffering into his art.
As entertainment, Anonymous works well. The performances by classically-trained British character actors like Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis and Mark Rylance – the latter the former artistic director of the new Globe Theatre, and a signatory to the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt — are at the level we’ve come to expect from that island. The filmmakers must have resisted impulses to cast more commercial movie stars like Orlando Bloom or Kate Beckinsale, which is an unexpected restraint from the director of 2012 and Independence Day. And while the dialogue may not always be factually correct, it is surprisingly light on cheese. Moreover, we’re given compelling glimpses of early Shakespearean productions, theatre audiences of the time, and Tudor London – which is appealingly recreated with background CGI shots.
But John Orloff’s original script wastes so much energy on a cloak-and-dagger (and bodice-ripping) storyline (trying, perhaps, to outdo predecessors like Elizabeth, The Other Boleyn Girl, and the miniseries The Tudors), that it fails to lay out much evidence for its own conspiracy theory. Instead, it piles on plot convolutions and distractions – getting further and further away from the destination. When the dust has cleared, what the movie is saying is that (SPOILER ALERT) the author of Shakespeare’s canon was Queen Elizabeth I’s son. Not only that, but this Earl of Oxford, forcibly separated from her as a child, grows up in anonymity — and so as an adult, unbeknownst to either of them, ends up sleeping with his own mother. Wait, there’s more. They have a son together, who again is hidden away from his mother. This son grows up and gets involved with a rebellion. Treason charges ensue. And all of this carrying-on takes place in three different criss-crossing time periods, making it tricky to keep score.
But this confusing sensationalism does help conceal Emmerich and Orloff playing fast and loose with basic facts. Though methodical attention to a timeline really ought to be the first order of business for any serious conspiracy theorist, the filmmakers treat the chronology (which any high school student can read in the front of any pocket Shakespeare) as something they can just make up to suit their fancy. They are especially cavalier with the dates when Shakespeare’s plays appeared — a sloppiness that’s surely unnecessary.
Two such instances are particularly irksome:
The first production we see of a script written by the Earl of Oxford, the one which Shakespeare first steps forth to claim, is Henry V. In the accepted timetable, scholars place the premiere of this history play in 1598 or so. At that point, “Shakespeare” had been a known playwright for six years, with over a dozen plays produced under his name.
All right. Let’s be charitable and imagine that Orloff and Emmerich had already thought this through, and actually believe there was an unrecorded premiere of Henry V before any of Shakespeare’s other plays. Except that this supposed debut play features an account of the character Falstaff’s death (of heartbreak over young King Harry’s rejection of him). If Henry V were Shakespeare’s first play, the audience would have no reason to care about the death of this off-stage character. Nor would they care about King Harry’s once-close commoner friends, who scavenge corpses on the battlefield in defiance of his orders — nor about Harry’s truly personal moral dilemma on whether he should execute them. Of course, in the accepted timetable, Henry V is produced after Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, because it is a sequel to them. And in those prequels, which are on the shelves of any library for all to see, Falstaff was introduced as an integral character and Harry’s beloved friend. These plays also introduce the scavengers Harry has to punish once he’s king as his drinking pals when he was prince. His coming of age and his shuffling off of former lowly acquaintances is a significant (and very popular) part of this trilogy. Of all plays for Anonymous to claim as Shakespeare’s launching pad, a sequel to two others seems the most nonsensical.
If you start a conspiracy theory out this way, I guess it can only go downhill from there. And it does. When Oxford and the poet Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) discuss the success of the Henry V premiere, the completed script for Macbeth sits among other completed plays on the Earl’s shelf. Later, we see it performed between Julius Caesar and Hamlet. Now, Julius Caesar and Hamlet are both estimated to have been performed — in what we might as well call ‘the official story’ — around 1600-1601. And Macbeth is widely known as Shakespeare’s “Scottish play”, since it’s the one he set in Scotland. Scholars therefore generally believe it was written to commemorate the ascent of the Scottish king James to the English throne. Before that could happen, of course, Queen Elizabeth had to die, which she did in 1603. (Naturally, the ‘official story’ places the first performances of Macbeth around 1605 -1606.) In the movie’s alternate timeline, however, Macbeth would have been written while Elizabeth was still alive and still full of animosity towards James – who was the son of her enemy Mary Queen of Scots. Moreover, this would have been before the succession was established, when it was very much up in the air whether James would be King or not. Even stranger, the film itself gives de Vere a strong personal stake in the succession – he is after all, Elizabeth’s bastard son. (Yes, in ‘the official story,’ she’s a famously Virgin Queen.) Why would he want to honor the Scottish king?
But there’s a reason why Orloff may have felt he had to move Macbeth up a few years. It’s the incontestable fact that the Earl of Oxford died in 1604. Oxfordians do have a big gaping hole in their theory – the fact that new Shakespeare plays continued to be written for another 9 years. And that unlike Oxford, William Shakespeare was actually alive at the time.
The movie’s answer is to show Jonson salvaging a stack of Oxford’s unproduced plays after the Earl dies. We’re supposed to believe that despite de Vere’s involvement in a rebellion, his debts, illness, and a wife who screamed “Stop this at once!” when he picked up a quill, the Earl was so prolific that he was 11 plays ahead of production when he died. And that among these were the great and psychological tragedies Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Othello, and King Lear. These plays he was supposed to have written and left on a shelf for Jonson to get produced after his death would also have to include the quartet of late ‘romances’ Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest – an unprecedented change of direction for “Shakespeare”, but one which happened to coincide with William Shakespeare’s own change of direction, his retirement to a quiet life in Stratford.
One would think this major timeline discrepancy would be a huge hurdle for the Oxfordians, and far outweigh one of the chief arguments in the authorship debate: that Shakespeare of Stratford was of too low birth to be “Shakespeare.” But they care more that a nobleman’s education, expertise in legal customs, the enlightenment of travel, and experience at the royal court seem like they would have been necessary to come up with the richness of references that abound in the plays.
What is baffling about this theory is that the authorship doubters don’t consider Shakespeare could have taught himself. Inauspicious parentage and an incomplete or informal education are also part of the biographies of the geniuses Mozart, William Blake, Charles Dickens, and George Bernard Shaw. All of them began to apprentice or earn a living before adulthood – and to learn directly from the world – and all of them obviously had a vast, passionate, and insatiable breadth of interests. And there’s another genius this discussion brings to mind: Leonardo da Vinci. To say that he taught himself Latin, math, and a host of sciences is an understatement. Nonetheless, greatly helped by the invention of the printing press in 1440, da Vinci was able to do it all a century before Shakespeare was even born. So it’s unclear why the doubters think Shakespeare couldn’t find what he needed to in books.
The notion that Will Shakespeare came from an ordinary family and yet still wrote the pantaloons off everybody before and since really galls those who want to take him away from the masses. This is of course a political prejudice, however unconscious it might be. But this film isn’t content with just suggesting that “Shakespeare” had to have been a nobleman; it also makes him of royal blood.
This isn’t all top-down oppression. Though monarchy these days sure isn’t what it once was, many people without any aristocratic lineage at all still seem to love princess narratives (from Anastasia to Snow White), as well as coming-of-age stories about once and future kings (like that Oscar-winner last year about the guy with the stutter). Perhaps the idea of a royal as the author of these masterpieces is part of the persistent appeal of monarchy as symbol. Royalty in the literature of our culture is often shorthand for intrinsic merit, and bears with it the weight of destiny. Shakespeare being a glover’s son may not seem exotic enough after all that brainwashing, compared to the intensely imaginative worlds that his plays convey. However, even if the believers are willing and even if they are just extending the attitudes behind a great many fairy tales and BBC miniseries…it’s still a prejudice.
The other prejudice of the movie is against actors. In Anonymous, de Vere first approaches Shakespeare’s friend Jonson to be his front, but Jonson refuses. After a thunderously-received opening performance, Shakespeare rushes on-stage and seizes credit for the Earl’s play. Oxford exclaims to Jonson in horror: “An actor??!” Jonson shrugs. He and the movie collude in the joke.
Will Shakespeare is painted as a vacuous show-off, a thespian eager to pose as a great writer because he’s hooked on the fame and adulation – and money. As Jonson, serving as go-between for the real playwright, hands this buffoon the next script, he begs Will “For God’s sake, stay off the stage!”, declaring: “Actors do not have time to write!” A few actors might take umbrage at that, namely the writers Ethan Hawke, George Clooney, Sam Shepard, Sean Penn, Orson Welles, Anna Deveare Smith, Regina Taylor, Kenneth Branagh, Woody Allen, Julie Delpy, Owen Wilson, Charlayne Woodard, Don McKellar, and James Franco (whose time management skills seem unparalleled). It would also come as a shock to Moliere, who wrote for the theatre company with which he regularly performed, and to Dickens, who had wanted to be an actor and continued to hit the boards over the course of his prolific writing career.
By contrast, it seems unlikely that a dramatist who sneered at actors as de Vere does in this film would be so driven to write for them, let alone employ theatrical metaphors like “All the world’s a stage” and “this wooden O”. De Vere, who we see extremely isolated in his box seat watching the plays, and who never shows any affection for those involved in the actual staging of his works, hardly seems like someone who’d insert plays-within-plays as in Love’s Labor’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet. Nor does it seem likely he’d spend so much time on the Melancholy Dane’s relationship with the Players – or offer them a master class in the craft of acting in his “Advice” speech.
If the search for Shakespeare is indeed unsettled, solving it will have to take into account the fact that his dialogue seems to emanate from an intrinsic understanding of actors. What is so extraordinary about the form Shakespeare used was that the very meter that came out of him made the lines actable. Students acting Shakespeare today are taught to ‘scan’ the lines, because diagramming their rhythm shows what the characters feel. Shakespeare wrote pauses, racing thoughts, fluidity, breathing, interruptions, and the like directly into the text — and learning to spot the techniques he employed opens the floodgates for an actor.* If a line runs shorter than usual, that’s a clue. If it runs longer, that’s another clue. Whether the character speaks in verse or prose, whether they use alliteration, antithesis, or simile, whether they rhyme — these are all clues. Shakespeare’s characters do not even all sound alike. Often their speech patterns are profoundly psychologically revealing. For instance, when the treacherous Iago lays the seeds to taint Othello’s mind, he speaks in a simple and straight-forward way, so that he won’t appear too smart to Othello. But when Iago speaks to the foolish Roderigo, who he is trying to enlist to carry out his scheme, he uses more complex language in order to impress him and win his allegiance.
Anonymous seems unaware of any of this. It shows de Vere as a child actor, a child author in fact (it alleges that he wrote and performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a young Elizabeth I, though this certainly doesn’t match accepted chronology) but as an adult he seems completely removed from the actual theatrical process. Meanwhile, “the Swan of Stratford” (as Jonson eulogized Shakespeare in real life) is an illiterate, superficial, hammy opportunist. But if Will Shakespeare were as big a dolt as Rafe Spall portrays him, surely, over 20 years of performances, it would have become obvious to his co-stars that he hadn’t written the plays. Surely someone, at some point, would have asked “How did Cleopatra hold the asp?” or “Do you want me to do this as a ladder speech?” and then the jig would have been up.
And herein we see where class prejudice and prejudice against actors meet. The reserved, refined, royal de Vere portrayed by Efans doesn’t seem at all like he’d indulge in bawdy puns or low-brow insults, though Shakespeare’s plays are full of them. Spall’s Will Shakespeare, on the other hand, has terrific energy and gregariousness – much more akin to the feeling of the Bard’s actual texts. Moreover, De Vere would of course have had to keep a great distance from any class beneath his pedigree. By contrast, Spall’s middle-class Shakespeare has exactly the spirited and egalitarian manner that would bring him in contact with a wide range of people and thus open the world to his imagination. Oxfordians question how Shakespeare could have written about royalty and the machinations of government without first-hand knowledge of the Tudor court. But I think the much more serious question is how could an aristocrat, trained from birth to disdain other classes, have written — with such humor, empathy and insight – roles so memorable as Juliet’s Nurse and Romeo’s Friar, Ophelia’s Gravedigger and Macbeth’s Porter, or any of Shakespeare’s sailors, jailers, prostitutes, constables, “rude mechanicals,” waiting-women, soldiers, shepherds, or servants?
I hope that the new M.A. in Authorship Studies will come up with (and publicize widely) standards of proof for a good conspiracy theory, because the world can use them – no matter what the topic. As it is, Oxfordians face several serious problems of logic, and for Orloff to craft a logical script based on this theory might well have been a Herculean task.
One of the doubts against Shakespeare’s authorship, as stated above, is that he was allegedly too busy acting to write all those plays. And yet how was de Vere supposed to fare better? The real De Vere was a patron of the arts who travelled, ran an estate, invested in business ventures, joined military escapades, sat on trial commissions, served as privy councilor, advanced himself socially, and got involved at the royal court. De Vere seems even busier in the film thanks to all the royal bedding and plotting, but in addition, Orloff gives him a wife dead-set against his vocation — “You’re writing again! After you promised!” she shrieks. Not only was he really busy, but he apparently composed 38 epic plays in a hostile domestic environment.
We do know that de Vere had money troubles. The film actually positions this as a point in the Oxfordians’ favor: he must have been too busy writing the Shakespearean canon to manage his finances. Not something, as a logic professor might say, that necessarily ‘follows’. Yet De Vere did actually put his name on numerous poems. That he would do that, but not own up to having written the greatest plays in the English language, especially not after they started to make a bundle that he needed, seems very unrealistic.
Oxfordians claim that incidents from de Vere’s life can be found in Shakespeare’s work, but the film doesn’t go into these — perhaps because many of the supposed resemblances do seem quite a stretch. (If de Vere’s life was the basis for any autobiographical writing, did the filmmakers consider Sophocles’ Oedipus?) But even if details from de Vere’s life did get enacted in Shakespeare’s plays, it hardly seems to prove anything. As a patron of the arts, thanked on paper by many writers of the time, de Vere’s life was surely neither secret nor off-limits. And Shakespeare certainly took inspiration for many of the characters and details in his plays from people he knew, as well as things he read about.
Shakespeare’s willingness to retire in old age to the backwater of Stratford after the bright lights of London is also treated as a red flag by the authorship doubters. But scholars no longer regard The Tempest as his final play, so his retirement years weren’t exactly empty. Scholars now believe he went on to write Henry VIII, as well as The Two Noble Kinsmen, and possibly even a third, recently-discovered play, Cardenio. Moreover, these three final plays were all collaborations with John Fletcher. If Shakespeare wasn’t “Shakespeare”, wouldn’t Fletcher have noticed?
Historical record shows that Jonson acknowledged Shakespeare’s limited, parochial education in a written eulogy: “thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”. Jonson seems to also excuse Shakespeare’s lowly birth: “For a good poet’s made, as well as born.” In short, two of the aspects of William’s life which the doubters seem to think are such problems for authorship are not at all insurmountable for Shakespeare’s close associate. Furthermore, Jonson identified on paper the etching of Shakespeare we’ve all come to recognize (and one which we can plainly see is not Edward de Vere). He complimented Shakespeare the man by referring to the portraitist:
“O could he but have drawn his wit
As well in brass, as he has hit
His face; the print would then surpass
All that was ever writ in brass.”
Despite these words preserved for posterity, Anonymous enlists Jonson as one of Will’s detractors, bristling with resentment at Shakespeare’s success as an imposter. Orloff has him accuse Will of being illiterate, unable to form letters, and there’s a momentary stand-off between them in front of the theatre company. But in reality, Jonson called William “My Beloved Master Shakespeare”, and eulogized the Bard’s brilliance:
Of Shakspeare’s mind and manners brightly shines
In his well torned and true filed lines;
In each of which he seems to shake a lance,
As brandisht at the eyes of ignorance.”
Speaking of ignorance … Maybe Emmerich never intended us to take this conspiracy theory any more seriously than the earthquake that chases John Cusack’s car in 2012. Perhaps the theory is just an amusement to him, like the Mayan prophecy. But the director and writer have defended the conjectures in Anonymous, and the film certainly is not tongue-and-cheek. (In fact, it is pretty skimpy in the intentional humor department.) Just as the irresponsible PR for 2012 led some teenagers to become suicidal, Anonymous leaves destruction in its wake, too. While the chances are slim that viewers could confuse the tone of, say, Inglorious Basterds with history, the self-important way in which Anonymous is told could definitely dupe some people who don’t know much about the subject.
English professors, like the residents of Shakespeare’s home county, have lamented the threat the movie poses to their traditions and livelihoods. Although complaints like these are obviously not sufficient reasons to discount a conspiracy theory, the film and other Shakespeare authorship theories can make people very emotional, as if their hero is being demolished. (This reaction is markedly similar to the backlash against some other prominent conspiracy theories.) Anonymous, to its credit, isn’t suggesting that the author of the Shakespearean canon was not a genius, or that the body of work is any less extraordinary. It does try to honor the great poet – even if it places his head on someone else. It just doesn’t do a very good job of it.
In one memorable moment near the end of the film, de Vere asks Jonson what he thinks of the plays. Jonson – who throughout the movie has suffered a Salieri-like jealousy as the plays get better and better – finally expresses his deep admiration. Efans’ face as he listens to the compliment is striking: de Vere is genuinely moved. If there had been more moments like that, more attention to what it might actually mean — artistically, emotionally, spiritually — to be “Shakespeare”, the film might have been much more honorable. And that’s when ‘nobility’ would actually be worth something.
As it is, the film ultimately does end up diminishing the playwright of whom Jonson declared “He was not of an age, but for all time!” It doesn’t do this because it trashes the individual Will Shakespeare, but because it treats the mystery of intrigue as greater than the mystery of genius.
* A former acting teacher of mine, Joe Olivieri, wrote a great book about this for acting students: Shakespeare Without Fear.