Toil and Trouble

Anonymous: Hollywood’s Shakespeare Authorship Controversy

The new movie Anonymous says Shakespeare was a fraud and has literary scholars screaming “Fie!” Chris Lee examines the battle royale over the Bard’s authorship controversy. Plus, British historian Simon Schama debunks the fraud claims in Newsweek.

Reiner Bajo / Columbia TriStar-Sony Pictures

In the period thriller Anonymous, which reaches theaters on Oct. 28, director Roland Emmerich dredges up a delicious historical controversy that has 2011’s literary scholars fighting like Montagues and Capulets. The issue even provides a pithy logline: Was William Shakespeare a fraud?

Perhaps “fraud” isn’t forceful enough to describe the slings and arrows that the Bard of Avon endures in this $33 million bodice-ripper.

In Anonymous, young Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is depicted as a vainglorious buffoon and functional illiterate, a simpleton with a murderous self-preservation instinct who happily accepts credit (as well as vast wealth) for a body of writing he has no part in creating. That honor, in the movie’s take, belongs to the man who set Shakespeare up as his front and is really responsible for creating what is generally regarded as the finest body of work in the English language: the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. A trained lawyer, globe-trotting aristocrat, and theater-company patron (portrayed by Welsh actor Rhys Ifans of Notting Hill fame), de Vere dares not sully his social standing by taking his disreputable sideline of writing plays public. Nonetheless, he allows Shakespeare to mythologize himself, cranks out writing by the ream, and nearly manages to upend the royal court of Elizabethan England in the process.

Like The Da Vinci Code before it, Anonymous presents a revisionist history intended to challenge cherished notions about ancient times by reimagining the life—or in this case, the secret identity—of an Old Master.

Fanciful as it all may sound, however, the question of authorship wasn’t concocted by Hollywood’s fantasy factory to provide Emmerich, the German-born exemplar of Lowest Common Denominator Cinema (he’s responsible for such blockbusters as Independence Day, 2012, and The Day After Tomorrow), an empty exercise. Controversy has clung to Shakespeare for centuries with no less than Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Helen Keller among those who have deeply pondered the issue. And alternate speculation has held that other Shakespeare contemporaries—statesman Sir Francis Bacon, swashbuckling poet-playwright Christopher Marlowe, and William Stanley (the 6th Earl of Derby), even Queen Elizabeth herself—might just as easily have been responsible for what has been attributed the Bard.

Anonymous’ screenwriter John Orloff first stumbled across the authorship debate while working for an advertising firm in the mid-‘80s. After he began to research the subject, though, the novice writer and amateur historian became convinced the issue was “not some crackpot conspiracy theory as it might appear at first blush.”

“There’s no evidence that Shakespeare actually wrote anything and I don’t think anyone can be totally convinced either way,” Orloff said. “In 400 years, there’s been nothing discovered that was written by William Shakespeare. We have letters and manuscripts by his contemporaries. People left pieces of paper that they actually wrote. But not a single one exists by Shakespeare. All the evidence is circumstantial whether you think it’s him or you don’t think it’s him.”

As the argument goes among Oxfordians (as scholars who support that de Vere penned the plays are called), Shakespeare simply did not have the intellectual firepower. Born working-class and possessed of only a sixth-grade formal education, such a rural rube would not have gained the intimate knowledge of law, medicine, Latin, Greek, or Renaissance Italy that his plays reveal, theorists say. What’s in a name? indeed.

But to Stratfordians—the academics who take the traditional view of Shakespeare by Shakespeare—such debate is entirely fatuous. “Emmerich’s film is fictional and should be enjoyed as such,” Tiffany Stern, a professor of early modern drama at Oxford University, recently told The Times of London. “Shakespeare was a real person and really wrote the plays. The idea that he did not do so is a conspiracy theory that coincides with the rise of detective stories.” Added Gordon McMullan, professor of English at King’s College London: “Nobody with any professional training in the analysis of historical or literary evidence could think otherwise.”

Orloff brushes off such criticism of his movie as a knee-jerk response to an “academic subversion of normality.” “When you learn it’s not fact, it’s a bit unsettling,” the screenwriter said. “Why not question everything you’ve been taught?”

James S. Shapiro, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University who specializes in Shakespeare, sees “a gazillion factual errors” in Anonymous and makes quick work dismantling Oxfordian arguments. To name just one: He points out that while de Vere died in 1604, Shakespeare continued to write plays—10 more, to be precise, some in active collaboration with other playwrights—until 1614.

Shapiro wrote Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? which defends and maintains the reputation of Stratford’s most famous son. And he’s unsurprisingly not much of a fan of the film. But Shapiro’s main qualm comes not from its content as much as the way the movie’s distributor Sony is marketing Anonymous.

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The studio plans to concurrently release Last Will. & Testament, a documentary about the authorship debate, through First Folio Pictures (a production shingle whose president is none other than Roland Emmerich) and has been providing materials to educators that encourage teachers to “make this thought-provoking new film part of your class plan.”

“Movies like Amadeus or Bridge [on] the River Kwai take liberties with the facts but they don’t try to claim a kind of truth to what they were doing,” Shapiro said. “That’s what Sony and First Folio are trying to do. They’re providing lesson plans. ‘Here’s what you should do in your classroom.’ They’re trying to convey the veneer of scholarship, to gain a legitimacy, so that this film becomes a project to get kids to believe that Shakespeare was an illiterate fraud and Queen Elizabeth was a ‘ho. So it’s not just a movie.”

(A corporate spokesman for Sony responded to a request for information about the scope of its marketing push into schools with a statement: “The objective for our Anonymous program, as stated in the classroom literature, is ‘to encourage critical thinking by challenging students to examine the theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works and to formulate their own opinions.’ The study guide does not state that Edward de Vere is the writer of Shakespeare’s work, but it does pose the authorship question which has been debated by scholars for decades.”)

While various Oxfordians and Stratfordians continue to sling mud at one another in newspapers’ op-ed pages over the authorship issue, author Bert Fields has seized upon a third way. A veteran Hollywood entertainment lawyer—he’s represented every major movie studio and big-time star from Tom Cruise to the Beatles—with a longtime sideline as a Shakespeare scholar, Fields received a Crystal Quill award from the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles this month for his book Players: The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare. The book presents the theory that de Vere could have been responsible for the plays’ rough first drafts but he then worked in conjunction with a tough-minded theater actor/owner/habitué (who Fields refers to as “Stratford man”) to edit and flesh out the material.

Calling himself “agnostic” on the authorship debate, Fields says that Shakespeare scholars may be missing the larger takeaway that Anonymous provides—greater and more widespread appreciation of the Bard’s work.

“Why do these academics feel threatened by this? It isn’t threatening anybody,” Fields exclaimed. “The movie does things that I don’t necessarily agree with. But if anything, it makes the work more important. It focuses attention on the most important body of work in the English language.”