Noted scholar Roland Emmerich (c’mon, INDEPENDENCE DAY? THE DAY AFTER TOMMOROW? 2012? Those don’t cement his intellectual credentials?) opens his new film today – ANONYMOUS, which, as all his promo spots say “explores the theory that Shakespeare never wrote a word.” It isn’t a new theory, and it’s got all the credibility of one of the GOP candidate debates, but now it’s a movie, so there’s the chance that a public with little exposure to or interest in the facts of Shakespeare’s life will leave the theater buying this nonsense.
If you’ve been following along, you know I have an interest in the Bard. My last novel ROTTEN AT THE HEART, recasts him in the role of an unwilling Elizabethan shamus. What can I say? I love the guy. And it pains me when this revisionist silliness gains any traction.
So today, I’m turning the blog over to Edward Peittit, writer, literary provocateur and president of the Oak Lane Shakespeare Club, founded in 1908 and dedicated to reading the works of Shakespeare aloud. Lately, he has been giving public lectures about the Shakespeare authorship conspiracies. You can read him online at his blog.
Take it away, Ed.
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Roland Emmerich’s new film, ANONYMOUS, opens today. In it, he asserts that the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, was the real mastermind behind the works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a an idiot actor with no education (he couldn’t even write!) and Oxford was (little did we know) the most brilliant genius who ever lived. Frankly, if any Oxfordians are hoping this film will help their movement, they’re in for a rude awakening. The film is so poorly written and acted that the audience with whom I saw it broke out into laughter several times during some of it’s ham-fisted dramatic scenes. And for Emmerich, to claim, as he has in so many interviews, that his film is a challenge to the perceived historical record (that Shakes wrote the plays, etc) and then to have so many historical inaccuracies in his own film, is just plain foolish. Anonymous was historical revision at its worst. My full review of ANONYMOUS is on my blog.
So how did all this Shakesnonsense get started? Well, you can thank Delia Bacon. Bacon was an American writer and brilliant scholar in the 19th century who believed Shakespeare’s plays were encoded with pro-democratic philosophies of a secret cabal of Elizabethan politicians and noblemen, led by Sir Francis Bacon. Bacon (no relation to Delia) and friends were concerned with the tyrannical rule of Elizabeth I and were trying to inspire the people to, if not overthrow the government, at least become better educated about political philosophy. Talk about reading your own views into the past. None of this is at all believable to anyone with just a cursory knowledge of Elizabethan history. You can read Delia Bacon’s first essay on her theory here. She would later expand her theory into a book.
But really, just because some nutty woman (Delia Bacon was confined to an asylum at the end of her life) says Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, we now have crappy movies about it. Why does anyone still believe this and why didn’t anyone believe it until the 19th century?
I think the answer lies primarily in our aggrandizement of Shakespeare. Beginning in the 18th century, the British, then European, then American culture, carved out a pedestal for Shakespeare’s legacy and placed it so high in the firmament that it has become impossible to believe any mere mortal could have written his works. Especially after discovering the known facts of Shakespeare’s life: his background, his business ventures, his quiet retirement. In the 19th century, when these facts of Shakespeare’s biography became widely known, the Shakesworshippers were dumbfounded. They wanted a Shakespeare who was a towering genius, a god, a titan, fully aware of his own gifts, toiling away for his muse in the service of humankind. What they got instead was a guy who wrote plays for money, didn’t seem to care about his own literary posterity, and retired to live the life of a fat, big shot in a small town.
So instead of accepting what history gives us, some people began inventing ways in which Shakespeare’s works could have been written by someone else and in doing so, they could form their own candidate into the kind of writer they wanted. It’s the “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” idea, slightly changed into “When the legend becomes fact, change the facts so they fit the legend.” And this conspiracy nonsense will continue, perhaps forever. Once Delia Bacon published a book about it and then several others did, as well, it made the conspiracy okay for others to believe in it. Most conspiracy theories feed themselves. The proofs needed to sustain them come from their own theories. Evidence need never be found, because one can always reshape and reinterpret what has already been discovered.
One might think that since there have been so many people (close to a hundred now and rising) proposed as the true authors of Shakespeare’s works, that there must be something to this conspiracy. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right? Well, isn’t it easier to surmise that since so many candidates have been “proven” to have written the works, they must all be wrong. Doesn’t the plethora of choices just prove that if you want Marlowe or Oxford or Bacon to have written the plays, you’ll have no trouble proving it? Because, of course, you’re fitting your theory to the facts, instead of just looking at the facts and coming up with the most plausible situation.
And what are the facts? Why do we know William Shakespeare wrote his works? Because everyone that knew him and worked with him said he did. The actors and fellow writers with whom Shakespeare interacted and made money and collaborated all referred to him as the author of those works. To prove it, they even published a book with his name and picture on the title page. They wrote poems about his writing abilities. Not one of his contemporaries ever doubted him. The facts of Shakespeare’s life all point to him as the author of works. There is of course lots of other documentary evidence. A good summary online can be found here.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has finally decided to join the fray and combat the conspiracy nonsense that has gone on for too long and have provided a couple excellent resources that easily settle the questions of the conspirators. 60 Minutes with Shakespeare, featuring 60 authors, actors and scholars answering questions, approximately one minute each. The Trust also just today published a free e-book, Shakespeare Bites Back: Not So Anonymous, by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells.
Literary history matters to me as much as political history. So, if you hear or read about the “controversy” of Shakespeare’s authorship, how some conspiracy has finally revealed the true authorship of his works, recognize it for the historical revisionism it is. I do think it’s fun to reimagine the past. To imagine what it would have been like if Ben Franklin was secretly a detective or explore the “what if” scenarios, like what if Christopher Marlowe faked his death and remained a spy for the Elizabethan government. That’s fun to do. It’s always fun and creatively productive to explore fictions, as long as we don’t start believing the fictitious is true. Then we’re just deluding ourselves.