I normally make it a principle not to write on movies that I haven’t seen, but the new film claiming that Earl of Oxford Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare’s plays has made me so mad that I can’t let it pass.
Anonymous apparently claims the Shakespeare was a fraud who took credit for the work of others. Oxford, so it is asserted, saw is as ungentlemanly to write for the theater and used Shakespeare as a front.
If Oxford really did write the plays, he’s even more of a genius that Anonymous suggests since at least nine of them were composed after he was dead, including Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. Oh, but maybe he wrote them before his death with orders that they be parceled out afterwards to keep up the illusion. But if that’s the case, what are we to make of the fact that a couple of them were pretty clearly inspired by events that happened after his death? Maybe he’s such a genius that he could see into the future as well. Or maybe he channeled them through the fraud Shakespeare from beyond the grave.
I don’t normally get this exercised about how Hollywood butchers history. Shakespeare in Love, which I find delightful, plays fast and loose with a few facts. With such films I amuse myself by noting the discrepancies between fact and fiction and then go with the flow.
Maybe this one stings because so many people seem ready to believe in another author. I don’t know how many times over the years I, as an English professor, have been asked whether Shakespeare really wrote his plays. (People have been speculating about this since the 19th century.) I’ve come to the conclusion that the interesting question is not whether Shakespeare wrote his own plays—his contemporary playwrights thought that he did, as do all reputable experts today—but why people have so much investment in thinking he didn’t.
Part of the explanation lies, I think, in people wanting to dethrone someone. Shakespeare is foisted on them from high school on, sometimes earlier, as “the greatest writer who ever lived.” While I happen to think that Shakespeare indeed was the greatest writer who ever lived, some part of us chafes at what is called Bardolatry. Indeed, there’s a secret thrill in believing that perhaps the emperor has no clothes. Maybe we also want to expose as frauds those English teachers who forced us to plow through long passages of Renaissance English.
Beth Charlebois, our college’s Shakespeare scholar, believes that class snobbery motivates many of the anti-Shakespeareans. After all, could the son of a glove maker with only a secondary school education have created many of literature’s most striking characters and memorable lines? A critic from the time saw Shakespeare as “an upstart crow” and perhaps more recent doubters do as well.
For me, a convincing argument in favor of Shakespearean authorship is that, given how small the theater world was (and continues to be), a secret of this magnitude could not have been kept. Gossip ran rampant then as it runs now. Don’t you think that a rival like Ben Jonson would have smoked Shakespeare out if he had been a fraud? And yet Jonson wrote, after Shakespeare’s death, “Soul of the age!/The applause! delight! the wonder of our stage!” and “He was not of an age but of all time.” Oh, but I forgot that Jonson was in league with Oxford.
Every argument in favor of other authors depends on elaborate conspiracy theories, absences that are claimed to be significant (why don’t have any manuscripts in Shakespeare’s handwriting), and strained interpretations. To skeptics I note that all plausible alternatives to Shakespeare have been eliminated and quote the Sherlock Holmes maxim, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Not that I find it improbable that a man with only a secondary school education could become a major author.
The few verses that we know are Oxford’s, by the way, are fairly bland, despite his university training. Oh, but maybe these were just a decoy to put us off the scent.
I think the film makes me angry because I am so deeply grateful to Shakespeare for his work that I take it amiss when people want to deprive him of what is his due. I feel like they’re dumping on a personal friend.
There used to be a joke that the plays of William Shakespeare were not written by William Shakespeare but by another man with the same name. Forty years ago I remember reading a comic article in The Atlantic Monthly that pretended to take the joke seriously and then searched Shakespeare’s plays for textual evidence. As indication that there was some rivalry between these two Shakespeares, the article uncovered such lines as “the devil will shake,” which can be found in the Comedy of Errors passage “if you give it her/The devil will shake her chain.” After finding several such lines, the article concluded that the plays of William Shakespeare were not written by William Shakespeare nor by another man with the same name but by a third man named William Shakespeare who had no relation to the other two.
That’s a more plausible argument than the one advanced by Anonymous.