Everytime I try to say anything about the Shakespeare Authorship Question, as it is called among us artsy types who give a rip, I can feel all of your collective eyes rolling out in cyberspace. I get it. You don’t care. I should move on.
Hollywood, however, has come calling, and the first big budget cinematic treatment of the issue comes in the form of Roland Emmerich’s magnum opus Anonymous, which posits that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. Several of my Shakespearean-minded Facebook friends posted a link to this article in the New York Times, which takes issue with the aggressive propoganda campaign accompanying the movie. Apparently, the producers are sending “study guides” to high school classrooms to present the evidence for de Vere, and orthodox Shakespeare scholars aren’t particularly happy about it.
Well, neither am I, if truth by told.
Why? As a believer in the Oxfordian theory – i.e. Oxford was Shakespeare – shouldn’t I be cheering the attempt to bring the Authorship Question out into the open? People who have collectively rolled their eyes may now be compelled to address these issues once and for all! Isn’t that great?
Anonymous, in my estimation, will prove to be no friend of the Oxfordian cause. As the New York Times article states, “Supporters of de Vere’s candidacy who have awaited this film with excitement may come to regret it, for ‘Anonymous’ shows, quite devastatingly, how high a price they must pay to unseat Shakespeare.”
That sentence is based on many false assumptions, all of which will likely be reinforced by Emmerich’s movie.
In the first place, I have no desire to “unseat Shakespeare.” William Shakespeare wrote William Shakespeare’s plays. The question should not be, “Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?” but, rather, “Who was Shakespeare?”
The answer is that William Shakespeare was the pseudonym of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Mark Twain [Samuel Clemens] wrote Mark Twain; George Orwell [Eric Blair] wrote George Orwell, and William Shakespeare [Edward DeVere] wrote William Shakespeare. It wasn’t until years after his death, and the death of the similarly-named William Shaksper of Stratford-on-Avon, that the plays began to be attributed to the second man instead of the first. There are credible and simple explanations for that which don’t require the intellectually “high price” that the New York Times talks about, but those explanations aren’t nearly as exciting as the nonsense that forms the dramatic backdrop for Emmerich’s flick.
Anonymous is not content to claim that de Vere was the Bard; they also insist he was the true King of England, too.
According to the movie’s theory, de Vere was both the son and the lover(!) of Queen Elizabeth I, the so-called “Virgin Queen” who, in their estimation, was anything but. Elizabeth then conceived Oxford’s son/half-brother, Henry Wriothsley, the Earl of Southhampton, who grew up to be Oxford’s gay lover and the subject of his homosexually-tinged Sonnets. It’s all very incestuous and sleazy, which may make for a guiltily pleasurable foray to the movie theatre, but as history, it’s complete hooey. There are shorter, more direct intellectual routes to Oxfordianism than this soap opera morass, and one does not have to believe that if Oxford was Shakespeare, it automatically follows that he impregnated his mother and diddled his son.
The Oxfordian Theory is controversial enough without this added baggage, and my fear is that this movie will forever link the plausible with the wildly implausible and bury the credible elements of the Oxfordian argument under this extra, unnecessary weight.