Shakespeare--or "Fakespeare" as the Bard has slyly been called--isn't one of my usual obsessions. Having just seen the film "Anonymous," however, I felt the need to dig a little into this long-standing controversy over who really wrote Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet etc. "Anonymous" (2011) vividly re-imagines the true playwright to be Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who for political reasons, allowed a loud-mouthed actor named Will Shakespeare to take all the acclaim for his work. (Even just writing these words, I think about all the English teachers collectively weeping into their hand-stitched leather tomes...)
So what's the truth of it?
Quite frankly, I don't know. But here are some things I learned:
For a 150 years, an escalating war has been waged between "Stratfordians," who believe Shakespeare to be the playwright he's long been purported to be, and "Anti-Stratfordians" or Oxfordians, who label him a fraud. In addition to de Vere, Anti-Stratfordians (the likes of whom even included Mark Twain!) have put forth Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and even Queen Elizabeth I herself as viable alternatives.
Non-Stratfordians claim that only an educated noble could have been knowledgeable and articulate enough to pen such greatness. As the son of a glovemaker, Will did not fit that bill. Allegedly, no evidence has been found--letters, notes, unpublished works--that attribute to him even the most basic writing ability. This may be the most credible evidence, I don't know. What it implies however, is that genius can not come from humble beginnings, or that a person cannot overcome obstacles to achieve greatness. That bothers me.
Will Shakespeare's detractors further purport him to be a hack and a known thief of words (and if you believe the film, a murderer to boot). Yet, borrowing of words was a widespread practice. Notions of plagiarism, and authorship for that matter, were far more lax (even non-existent) during the late sixteenth, early seventeenth centuries. For example, there was more than one King Lear--the one we know as Shakespeare's as well as a number of other pieces detailing the life of the the Celtic king--but what does that signify in terms of authorship? The message in the film, and perhaps in the larger controversy, seems confused on this point.
(The film itself, I found intriguing, and the computer-generated sets spot-on. The precarious shops on London Bridge (but no heads on Traitor's Gate, alas!), the sickening bear-and-bull baiting in Southwark, the glimpse into the printing industry, the pummeling of slops during performances--great stuff! What wasn't so great: the blunt suggestion that the "Virgin Queen" had borne multiple children (one of whom she unwittingly took on as a lover later). Given that Elizabeth I's lack of an heir was one of the most pivotal concerns in British history, an additional conspiracy along these lines seems hard to swallow.)
Ultimately, to read, enjoy and assess plays or novels, do you need to know who the author "really" is? Does it matter, today, whether an author was the son of a glover or an Earl or a Queen (or a girl from West Philly, for that matter)?
For me, there's something comforting in knowing who the author "really" is (or was). And, conversely, something profoundly distressing to think we may have gotten it wrong.
What do you think?
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.