The reviews are pretty well unanimous that Anonymous is a silly film. If you’ve missed seeing them, the plot involves the theory that William Shakespeare didn’t write plays, but rather acted as a front man for a nobleman, a member of Queen Elizabeth’s court, because the reputation of a nobleman would be harmed if his name had been attached to plays produced for a commercial audience. There are several different people offered as “candidates” (as those interested in the controversy call them) for the “authorship” of the “works.” Over the centuries, these have included Francis Bacon (a lawyer and scholar, one of the founders of both modern science and modern philosophy) , Christopher Marlowe (a playwright exactly William Shakespeare’s age, who was killed young under dubious, slightly sketchy circumstances), and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who is the candidate put forward here. “Oxfordians” are said to include some prominent Shakespearean actors, including Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, and Michael York, as well as several North American literature professors.
There seem to be two or maybe three kinds of issues that concern people who become convinced that “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare.” (Here is a link to a discussion thread at an “Oxfordian” site, answering the question, “Why I became an Oxfordian.”) First, William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon was a middle-class boy who attended state-run schools, and stopped attending them in his early teens—while the plays are considered masterworks of the English language, worthy of study by the most learned of people, and with considered allusions not only to high-level political events and to the best theoretical knowledge of the times, but to ancient Greek and Roman texts, as well. People have even found in them apparent allusions to esoteric mysteries of the sort that it’s supposed only a scholar like Bacon could be familiar with. Second, it can appear that the connection between the standard biographies and the available source materials sometimes fail to sustain skeptical scrutiny. Third, some readers and playgoers report that the plays opened up a deeper meaning to them, culturally and emotionally, once they began thinking of them in terms of the works of a specific human being who is emphatically not William Shakespeare.
I have some sympathy with the second of these. It actually is not the case that there are no source materials documenting William Shakespeare’s life. The Riverside edition of Shakespeare, for example, lists all of these and excerpts some, and so does this site (which is maintained by people who find the very idea of “alternate authorship candidates” to be pernicious and anti-intellectual). These few facts, however, are not enough to build a 400-page biography on. Biographies of Shakespeare, like biographies of most historical figures of the early modern period (even kings and queens), include a large portion of conjecture and literary reconstruction. Moreover, throughout the centuries, English and American writers have interwoven their fancies with facts, often producing deeply influential portraits that by now have become part of the culture, as much as the exact words of Hamlet’s famous soliloquies. James Shapiro (in 1599), no less than Virginia Woolf (in Orlando and A Room of One’s Own), builds literary theories on the basis of a Shakespeare who was presented at court, and even had a room at the castle in which to write. The skeptical or scientifically-minded student, who may try to investigate the history as if it were, say, a crime still unrecognized and unknown to the police, can quickly become frustrated.
There are good histories that take account of what we know about the history of the period, often by English scholars of the history of the theatre, with full scholarly apparatus. These even examine practices of collaboration, and of “borrowing” that today we might consider plagiarism. They are, unfortunately, quite expensive, and they are not necessarily intended to affect the literary discourse, but they are not hard to find and they are not hard to read. This is far from the conspiracy theory some “Oxfordians” imagine.
The first and third objections, though, are silly, and I think they are connected. The reason people put Oxford forward as the probable author of “Shakespeare” isn’t just that their interpretation of these canonical works—unlike the accepted interpretation—is that they put forward a strongly aristocratic, Catholic, anti-Reformation point of view, which requires the playwright to have been a Catholic aristocrat who hobnobbed with the Queen’s Catholic opponents.
It’s also that they want everything they see in the plays (and also in the poems: the sonnets, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece) to have been available to the playwright, fully, and consciously. The idea that someone who studied Latin in grammar school, but didn’t graduate from college, could allude, as an adult, to Terence and Virgil and Seneca, doesn’t seem possible to them. The idea that ideas were shared among playwrights, that knowledge of politics was shared among men in coffeehouses, similarly, doesn’t seem possible.
They want to be able to attribute real knowledge to the playwright, to use him as an authority, and they can’t do it if he didn’t quite know what he was talking about, himself. This is not the way skilled readers encounter literature. Playwrights (like novelists and poets) write from a subjective, partial, emotional perspective—they don’t get Ph.D.-level knowledge of a subject so they can invent stories that embody scientific or theoretical truths.
In the 1920s and 1930s there was a large amount of amateur scholarship being produced about Shakespeare. Among lawyers, this sometimes took the form of displaying the depth of Shakespeare’s understanding of law, and then arguing that this meant that the author of the play in question must have been trained in the law. Physicians, similarly, argued that he was a physician. This scholarship doesn’t hold up well. Others went to great lengths to find an actual historical figure who seemed to fit the idea the plays gave them of the author, and they came up with Edward de Vere: a youngish, fairly low-level member of the court, raised in a kind of orphanage run by William Cecil, Baron Burleigh, Elizabeth’s chief minister, specifically for parentless young aristocrats, married unhappily to Burleigh’s own daughter, flirting with Catholicism in the face of Elizabeth’s excommunication by Rome, always complaining about how he was treated and how much money he was being allotted by his betters.
To some extent, I think, the Oxfordian narrative embodies a particular kind of confusion about how imaginative literature is written, and it could be interesting for that reason. There have been literary fronts in history (see The Front), and at times literature has been used politically (as Clare Asquith notes, applying her experiences with the arts of the former Soviet Union to the situation of Elizabethan England). There is a lot of collaboration—huge teams of writers on Hollywood television shows, unnamed script doctors and collaborators on Hollywood films, novel factories that “touch up” stories drafted by the named author—that often goes unrecognized. There are interesting new-historical questions about “social energies” that are harnessed by great writers, but not literally created by those writers ab ovo—and there are interesting cultural questions about where those social energies really do originate, and how they do.
I somehow have a feeling that Anonymous, from the creator of Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, will itself say nothing particularly interesting about those questions. But since—as more than one reviewer suggested might be necessary to make sense of the plot—I already have some sense of the differences between the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Leicester, and the Earl of Southampton—I will probably watch it anyway. If you don’t, you may prefer reading James Shapiro’s recent book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. Or watch HBO’s miniseries with Helen Mirren as Elizabeth I, and learn what those differences are.