“Illiterate”, “drunkard”, “fraud” – not descriptions we would usually apply to the world’s most prolific writer, yet this is how Shakespeare is portrayed in the new film Anonymous. Roland Emmerich’s latest creation is based on the idea that William Shakespeare’s works were actually penned by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. According to the film, while Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) was opportunistic, thuggish and vain, de Vere (Rhys Ifans) was suave, modest and supremely intelligent. He was apparently also the illegitimate son/lover of “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I.
While the plot is evidently largely fictional, the theory that Shakespeare’s a fraud is not a new one. In the early 20th Century, ‘loony’ scholar Thomas Looney put forward Edward de Vere as the possible author of Shakespeare’s work. Like all authorship conspiracies, the Oxfordian theory springs from disbelief that a country bumpkin from Stratford could have written such intricate works without a university education or ever having travelled. Apparently, it’s far more likely that a snob who was renowned for being incredibly vain would publish a few mediocre poems and cover up writing the best plays of his time for no reason.
Anonymous has indeed ruffled a few feathers. Last week, residents of Stratford-Upon-Avon taped over signs with Shakespeare’s name and covered statues of him in protest against the film’s release. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has also set up an online campaign, 60 Minutes With Shakespeare, where you can hear prominent figures – including Stephen Fry and Prince Charles – give their views on the Shakespeare authorship controversy.
“There is a risk that people who have never questioned the authorship of Shakespeare works could be hoodwinked,” worries Paul Edmonson, head researcher at the Birthplace Trust, adding: “we hope [the campaign] will remind people of the enormous legacy we owe to Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon.”
But is this tempest justified or is it simply much ado about nothing? Is Anonymous really that much of a threat? Although figures such as Mark Twain, Orson Welles and Sigmund Freud may have been ‘Anti-Stratfordians’, most people agree that Shakespeare actually did write the texts. Arguments to the contrary are largely discredited – and rightly so – because they focus not on historical documents but the potential authors’ biographies, ignoring the possibility of social mobility. Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Kyd didn’t go to university; Ben Jonson was a stepson of a bricklayer, Christopher Marlowe that of a cobbler. In the face of a wealth of historical and literary evidence, the authorship conspiracy is clearly a case of intellectual fraud, motivated by insidious jealousy and snobbery. Despite this, I can’t help but think that Shakespeare himself – who frequently distorted historical characters – would somehow approve of Anonymous. Like many of Emmerich’s films, this comedy of errors is so extravagant that if anything it’s negative publicity for the Oxford