This Friday the film Anonymous hits theaters accompanied with a storm of controversy. The film purports to show that William Shakespeare was not the actual author of the works attributed to him, but only a frontman for Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. This is another variation in the ongoing crusade to prove that anyone else besides the man from Stratford-Upon-Avon was the author of one of the greatest collections of literature in history. This is not a review of the film itself, but rather an examination of the major issues it raises and how they stack up.
The film is directed by Roland Emmerich, better known for big budget disaster films such as 2012 or Independence Day. Going from such a genre to a completely different one might riase questions as to Emmerich’s suitability to handle such a controversial film. However, that hasn’t stopped him from advancing Anonymous as a evidence of ‘history’s greatest literary scam’.
The possibility of De Vere as the author, also known as Oxfordian theory, is currently the most ‘popular’ alternate candidate for the true authorship of ‘Shakespeare’. Sony Pictures sure is trying to convince some people of that notion, as it has been giving out lesson plans to ‘literature and history teachers in the hope of convincing students that Shakespeare was a fraud’.
So how does the film go about making its case for De Vere? There are a few main points the film tries to make. First, in order to deal with the lack of evidence supporting the pro-De Vere case, a insidious plot is introduced that there was an effort to cover up and destroy evidence of De Vere’s authorship and the abscence of such evidence is proof of the conspiracy. Columbia Professor of English James Shapiro has written that this a film of our times, where conviction is equal to actual evidence and “…Emmerich has treated fact-based arguments and the authorities who make them with suspicion.” Next, there is the argument, related to the lack of evidence one, that what little ‘proof’ there is that scholars use in favor of Shakespeare can be explained away because there is so little of it and it proves nothing, especially the fact that his will mentions nothing of the plays he supposedly wrote.
Another argument made by the film is that someone of such lowly birth such as Shakespeare, could not have had the culture, sophistication and high-class education to write about the inner workings of royalty and nobles. Thus only someone like De Vere could have written the works. The film depicts Shakespeare basically as a boorish rogue who takes advantage of an oppourtunity to advance himself and who could not grasp the literary ‘genius’ necessary to write and comprehend what he was purported to have written.
So are these arguments valid in any way? To tackle the first one, using lack of evidence as evidence in and of itself is a cop out that tarnishes the argument as a whole. If people want to say Shakespeare didn’t write his works, that’s fine, but circumstantial evidence and hearsay are not valid ways to support that notion. Neither is using such as an ‘Exhibit A’ so to speak. It’s a conspiracy theory at best that does nothing for the film. Then we come to the class argument. To say that someone can’t do or accomplish something based on their ‘class’ is a horrible choice to make in this day and age. Noted historian Simon Schama has said, “The greatness of Shakespeare is precisely that he did not conform to social type…” The Bard was someone English culture at the time was unaccustomed to dealing with and those who identify with upper class sentiments have used that againist him. The way Shakespeare was able to write about the workings of the high class was performing for them and paying attention to the attitudes of those nobles around him. Being born into a ‘lowly birth’ should not disqualify anyone from anything, including being the author of a series of literary masterpieces.
Another thing that discredits the message of Anonymous is that the authorship of Shakespeare isn’t really the focus of the film as Emmerich throws in outrageous plot elements. These include the fact that De Vere was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I and that later on in his life he had an incestuous affair with her. In keeping with his previous work, Emmerich throws in a ton of CGI and does it all in studios in Berlin, not even London. In trying to make a point, Emmerich cluttered the whole film with stuff that largely discredits the whole venture and distracts from said point.
Whether or not Anonymous actually succeeds in swaying people into believing De Vere is the true author is irrelevant. Emmerich and the people behind the film have made a movie based on shaky suppositions that include shock value and outrageous claims that will never be taken seriously by the academic community. I did not write this in order to attack the premise that De Vere wrote the works of Shakespeare, what I’m questioning is the methods that Emmerich and the film have used to try to prove such a premise. At the end of the day, Shakespeare’s works are still enjoyable, so who wrote them is the least of our concerns in this instance. What we should be concerned with is the nature of the film, how it tries to prove its point and what that says about our society as a whole.