I may have spoken too soon when I said that the movie Anonymous is pretty good. When I put up the link, it had an 80% “fresh” rating at RottenTomatoes.com. As of this writing, that number has dipped down to 40%, making it certified “rotten.” I’m reading all the reviews with delight, as it’s exciting to see a topic in which I’ve been interested for decades finally get a broad audience. What’s remarkable to me, however, is that the reviews spend less time criticizing the actual film and more time lambasting the theory behind it.
The New York Times calls it “a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination,” and then adds: “Apart from that, it’s not bad.”
I have yet to see the film, which won’t reach Utah for another week, but it’s fun to watch film reviewers become newly-conscripted Shakespeare defenders. As they take issue with some of the central tenets of the Oxfordian theory, it’s clear that most of them are parroting conventional wisdom about which they know next to nothing.
Case in point: Oxfordians are simply snobs.
“The argument against the man from Stratford comes down to that tiresome English obsession: class snobbery,” writes USA Today. “There [is] something repellent at the heart of the theory, and that something is the toad, snobbery,” writes Stratfordian snob Simon Schama in Newsweek. The headline in the UK Telegraph reads “Only foolish snobs don’t believe in William Shakespeare.”
And on and on it goes.
It might help the case if some of these writers could consult a thesaurus and come up with a different word now and again. Synonyms for “snob” include “braggart, highbrow, name-dropper, parvenu, pretender, smarty pants, stiff neck,” and “upstart.” Pick one, guys. Pick several. When you read the word “snob” a dozen times, it loses all meaning and sounds vaguely ridiculous, like some kind of sea mutant.
It’s telling that the first refuge for those who defend the man from Stratford is ad hominem attacks. Maybe I am a snob. Perhaps I’m also a parvenu. Maybe I wear a monocle, a top hat, and call my wife “Lovey.” Even if all that were true, that doesn’t answer the question, which is not “Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare” – yes, he did – but, rather, “who was Shakespeare?”
The reason why we Oxfordians are branded snobs is that we claim that the man from Stratford was not Shakespeare, because his circumstances would have made that impossible. Defenders of the traditional theory, dubbed “Stratfordians,” insist that means Oxfordians don’t believe people of humble circumstances can have talent and achieve anything great. In fact, it means nothing of the sort.
Let us suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the man from Stratford was the most brilliant, talented, supernal genius the world has ever seen. He still couldn’t have been Shakespeare, because there is a distinct difference between “talent” and “opportunity.” The case for Oxford rests not on Oxford’s superior birth, but rather his superior access.
Shakespeare’s works are based on source materials that had not yet been translated into English, materials to which the man from Stratford would have had neither ability to read nor access to read them. The plays reference geographical details that perfectly coincide with Oxford’s experience and would have been completely unknown to the son of an illiterate glover who likely never traveled outside of southern England. There are elements of legal theory, falconry, courtly history, and other specific facts that Shakespeare clearly knew and the man from Stratford couldn’t possibly have known. Even if Mr. Shaksper of Stratford were ridiculously, obscenely talented, he would have been incapable of conjuring facts he had no opportunity to learn out of the ether.
There are other facts, too. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are the biographical work of an old nobleman writing gay love poems to a young nobleman with whom he had clearly been intimately involved. That fits perfectly with Oxford and makes absolutely no sense when applied to the man from Stratford, who would likely have been arrested for writing such presumptuous nonsense to a member of the royal family. Consequently, Stratfordians are forced to dismiss the Sonnets as mere “literary exercises” with no biographical information, even though the facts strongly suggest otherwise.
The fallback position, then, is for reviewers to state unequivocally that Oxford couldn’t possibly have written these plays, because he died in 1604, “before 10 or so of Shakespeare’s plays were written,” as sudden Shakespeare celeb James Shapiro points out in the New York Times. (Shapiro, incidentally, is the author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, which I found to be the most persuasive defense of the Stratford man’s claims to authorship ever written, although I remain unconvinced.)
Shapiro’s statement is nonsense.
In the first place, we essentially have no idea when these plays were written. All we have is references to when they were performed, which have created a convoluted chronology that has been retrofitted to coincide with the man from Stratford’s life.
For example, there is a reference to the play Hamlet that appears as early as 1587, when the man from Stratford was only 23 years old. (Oxford was 37.) Since most scholars maintain that Hamlet was one of Shakespeare’s later works, they can’t reconcile the early date with the conventional dating, so they conclude that this reference was to what is called the “Ur-Hamlet,” a play “likely written by Thomas Kyd” that Shakespeare used as a source for his later play of the same name. There is no evidence of any other Hamlet other than Shakespeare’s, and the facts suggest that Hamlet was written by 1587. But since that flies in the face of the Stratfordian theory, new facts are invented to account for the discrepancy.
Author Paul Anderson has pointed out that, while we can’t pinpoint the precise genesis of any of these plays, we can determine the date their source materials were written. None of his plays make any conclusive reference to any sources that were written after the year 1604, which, not coincidentally, is the year the Earl of Oxford died. (It was fully twelve years before the death of the man from Stratford.) Is it a snobbish question to ask why Shakespeare stopped reading new books after 1604? (Answer to that question: he was dead.)
I write this not to defend Anonymous, which clearly plays fast and loose with history on a number of fronts. But that doesn’t give the movie’s critics to ignore history themselves, nor does it allow them to get away with pretending that accusations of snobbery constitute a credible argument.