Today: May 20, 2024

Who Wrote Shakespeare?

To believe or not to believe?

To believe or not to believe?

That’s the question at the heart of Roland Emmerich’s new film, Anonymous (main picture),
that claims William Shakespeare, history’s most famous author, was a big, fat,
fraud!

Never the most subtle of filmmakers, having saved the Earth
from aliens, mutant lizards and global warming, Emmerich has decided to do for
Shakespeare’s reputation what he’s been doing for some of the world’s most
iconic landmarks (the White House in Independence
Day
, New York in Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow, the entire
world in 2012): trash it big-style.

Emmerich isn’t the first crackpot to say Shakespeare didn’t
write the plays that bear his name however; he’s just the first one to have a
$30million budget.

As early as the 19th century, scholars and conspiracy
theorists were arguing over Shakespeare’s authorship with figures like Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and a gaggle of Shakespearean actors (among them Derek Jacobi whose appearance bookends
the film) all contesting accepted fact.

Some claim the true author of Shakespeare’s plays was poet,
playwright and spy Christopher Marlowe,
who somehow faked his death in 1593 only to re-emerge under the guise of
Shakespeare.

Some claim the author was philosopher, scientist, author,
statesman, jurist and all round Renaissance man Francis Bacon who used the Shakespeare name as an alias in order to
protect his government ambitions, littering the plays with coded messages
revealing his identity.

Anonymous however
claims the true author was Edward de
Vere
, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a theory first posited by the
aptly named J. Thomas Looney. A courtier with Catholic leanings and
Lancastrian sympathies who published one slim volume of poetry in his lifetime,
Oxford was a patron of the Arts and, according to Emmerich, he was the
illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I (the Virgin Queen), had an incestuous
affair with her that produced a son and employed first playwright Ben Johnson, then Shakespeare himself,
as front men to allow him to disseminate seditious plays aimed at toppling the
Government.

Moreover, Anonymous
portrays Shakespeare as a drunken, illiterate braggart, unable to even write
his own name, who murders Christopher Marlowe to prevent himself being revealed
as a fraud. Given that the film
takes place five years after Marlowe’s death, that’s a pretty neat trick.

While the film is really more fun than it should be and
makes not a lick of sense, could Emmerich be right? Could the Bard be a fraud? Not according to Shakespearean scholar and author Dr Neema Parvini.

“One of the big misnomers is that Shakespeare was
uneducated. We know he attended
grammar school in Stratford where he would have been educated in Latin and the
classics. While he didn’t go to
university, there’s nothing unusual about that. Ben Johnson didn’t go to university either and he was much
more popular, more successful, at the time than Shakespeare.”

But why have no examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting
survived to the present day, the conspiracy theorists cry?

“Paper was scarce and expensive. A commoner like Shakespeare would have recycled it. It’s not at all uncommon for no traces
of a person’s handwriting to exist.

“And we do have plenty of documentary evidence from official
records of his time in London and Stratford. We know he was a shareholder of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men
(later, after the coronation of James I, the King’s Men), the leading company
of players of the time, and co-owner of the Globe theatre.

“He’s attacked in print as early as 1592 when Robert Greene refers to him as Johannes
Factotum – a Jack of all Trades. Furthermore, the plays were advertised under
his name in his own time. His name
was above the title. In addition, he’s
cited more than 20 times as an author, in his lifetime, by his
contemporaries. He was a
celebrity. People knew who he
was.”

Shakespeare’s own will never mentions his plays or his
writing. It mentions his second
best bed, but nothing about any manuscripts or books.

“This is not especially remarkable as these would have
passed automatically to his children.
The will was only concerned with specific holdings and property.”

Shakespeare rarely wrote about the lower classes. His characters were always noblemen or
historical. Surely, a commoner
couldn’t write about the upper classes in such detail. Shakespeare must have been a member of
the aristocracy!

“Is J.K. Rowling
a wizard? Is Tom Clancy a spy? Was Tolkein a hobbit? Shakespeare was a writer; he used his
imagination.

“The royals and nobility were the celebrities of their day, they
were exotic, it was natural to have an interest in them. Shakespeares’s historical plays show
exceptional insight, delving into important political questions as well as
those of historical causation. But
by putting kings and queens on the contemporary stage he was humanising
them. He brings history down to a
human level.

“Also, it could be argued that a member of the nobility may
be less inclined to be so interested in the upper classes. There’s something a bit snobbish about
this theory, that a common man couldn’t possibly be such a good writer.”

Many of his plays were drawn from classical mythology. There’s an obvious influence in some of
his work of Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte.
And how could Shakespeare acquire such detailed knowledge of countries
like France and Italy when he never left England?

“He read. Books
were freely available to buy and trade in Elizabethan England. Plato, Virgil, Homer and Ovid had all
been translated and the plays of the Commedia dell’Arte had all been published.
Plus, Shakespeare would have had
access to the libraries and books of wealthy patrons, people like John Stow who was a renowned
collector.

“Besides, Shakespeare’s geographical errors are
legendary. Ben Johnson famously
criticised him for giving Bohemia a coast in The Winter’s Tale.”

There’s little of him in the plays, nothing
autobiographical…

“Every writer’s different. You could say that someone like Bob Dylan wears their heart on their sleeve while David Bowie plays lots of different
roles. The idea that one reveals
oneself in one’s writing is something of a cultural anachronism. It just wasn’t the fashion at the
time.”

But will Dr Parvini be seeing Anonymous?

“I might have to take a look…”

Maybe the final word on Anonymous
should come from the quill of the man under dispute himself:

“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.”

Anonymous was released on
28 October.

Dr Neema Parvini is a
visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London and an Adjunct
Assistant Professor at Richmond American International University in
London. He is the author of Shakespeare’s History Plays: Rethinking
Historicism
, published by Edinburgh University Press, and Shakespeare And Contemporary Theory: New
Historicism And Cultural Materialism
, published by Continuum.


Alex Moss Editor

Alex Moss’ obsession with film began the moment he witnessed the Alien burst forth from John Hurt’s stomach. It was perhaps ill-advised to witness this aged 6 but much like the beast within Hurt, he became infected by a parasite called ‘Movies’. Rarely away from his computer or a big screen, as he muses on Cinematic Deities, Alex is “more machine now than man. His mind is twisted and evil”. Email: alex.moss@filmjuice.com

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