William Shakespeare, The Cobbe Portrait
The movie Anonymous will be released tomorrow. Apparently it has been pulled from its original wide release, and will now only show in two hundred and fifty theaters. The official reason goes something like this: people don’t seem to know what the movie is about, and so interest is low. (This might have something to do with the title.) Also, early audience surveys suggest most people simply don’t care.
But I care. The movie is Shakespeare related, and so I’m part of the conversation. I act in Shakespeare’s plays. I direct his plays. I teach a class on Shakespeare. Every year I set aside the month of June to read nothing but books about Shakespeare. Shakespeare is one of my life’s passions.
Now in case you don’t know, Anonymous is a rehash of the old conspiracy theory that claims Edward de Vere was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. The contention is that a country bumpkin like Will Shakespeare could not possibly have written works of such towering genius. The works must have come from a university educated, well traveled aristocrat. Enter Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford––the most popular candidate among conspiracy theorists these days. (In reality, he is just one of seventy seven other candidates suggested since Delia Bacon first questioned the authorship in the late 1840s––230 years after Shakespeare’s death.)
At this point I’d like to make it clear that I am not afraid of people seeing Anonymous. In fact, I encourage it. I think it will be good for people to see first hand just how absurd the conspiracy theory is. Rather than convert anyone to the Oxfordian cause, I’m confident it will lead many Oxfordians to the light.
Now where was I? Ah yes: Though Edward de Vere was suggested as a candidate by Delia Bacon, it wasn’t until 1920, when J. Thomas Looney published his book Shakespeare Identified, that he began to take his place as the poster boy of the authorship question. And, yes, you read that right: Looney. Other defenders of the conspirator’s faith include George M. Battey and Sherwood E. Silliman. So for those of you keeping score, that’s Looney, Battey, and Silliman. What does this prove? Nothing really––except maybe that God believes Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
Like all the others, the Edward de Vere theory is dead on arrival. Edward de Vere died in 1604. That’s close to a decade before Shakespeare stopped writing. Macbeth, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and several other Shakespeare plays were written after 1604. I have listened to more than one de Vere supporter say with a straight face that de Vere planned it that way. He had all these plays sitting around and had his co-conspirators release them over a given number of years. (You know, like Charles Schultz with his Peanuts cartoons––only these are five act verse plays containing some of the most astonishing things penned by a human being.) And he was such a genius that he referenced events that happened after his death. Not only did he know the gunpowder plot was going to happen, but also he knew the gunpowder plot conspirators would be labeled “equivocators.” Genius indeed.
Another immediate problem for de Vere supporters is that Edward de Vere wrote plays and poems to which he signed his name. There goes the idea that he couldn’t let people know he was a playwright. None of the plays survive, but we know they were comedies. So, apparently, he wasn’t worried about people thinking he wasn’t a serious aristocrat. De Vere supporters then claim that the “Shakespeare” plays were too politically controversial for de Vere to be identified with. Really? Then why wasn’t Shakespeare arrested and beaten on a weekly basis?
De Vere’s poems, on the other hand, do survive. Unfortunately for de Vere supporters, they are nothing but uninspired drivel. This is not just my opinion. Everyone seems to agree––even the conspiracy theorists. They explain this by saying that the poems are the product of his youth. But we know some of them were written when he was about forty years old. When Shakespeare was forty he had already written Hamlet.
You can read a few of Edward de Vere’s poems here. You can find Shakespeare’s poems and sonnets all over the internet. Here’s one. Read some de Vere. Then read some Shakespeare. You’ll feel embarrassed for de Vere. It’s like reading a Hallmark card poem, and then reading, well, Shakespeare.
The conspiracy just gets more and more absurd. And the movie is, apparently, quite unashamed of this. Edward is shown to be the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth, but they (mother and son) have sex, and Elizabeth gives birth to Southampton. I’ll stop there, but it gets even dumber than that. I have read a couple of de Vere supporters lament that the movie delves into this part of the theory. They wish it would have simply focused on “Shakespeare” being a pen name for de Vere. What they don’t understand is that these ridiculous fantasies are the direct result of that simple idea. Because when the pen name idea is confronted with very basic facts, the conspiracy theory must then spin into further absurdities to cover its baseless bases. This is how all conspiracy theories work.
I want to backtrack a moment and address the idea that Shakespeare’s plays were politically controversial. In the movie, the de Vere character says: “All art is political, otherwise it would just be decoration. And all artists have something to say, otherwise they’d make shoes.” This is not just a gross misunderstanding of Shakespeare’s genius, it is a gross misunderstanding of art and the artistic process. Consider the words of the poet John Keats:
“…at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
Negative Capability. The ultimate achievement of vulnerability, allowing the artist to surrender all prejudices, and therefore disappear from, or get out of the way of, a work of art. Keats says Shakespeare possessed this quality enormously. I would say no other artist has possessed as much of it. Ironic, then, that the writer of Anonymous creates a de Vere character that holds the exact opposite view of art. Of course he does. The uninspired mind always believes the message is paramount in art, because the uninspired mind can’t conceive of an experience beyond the message. Messages in art are usually reductive and insipid, and Shakespeare had little use for them.
Don’t believe me? What’s the message of Hamlet? Or King Lear? Or A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Don’t know? Don’t worry. Nobody knows. Not one single person. But, you ask, what about all the books and theses and essays on subversive this-and-thats in such-and-such-a-Shakespeare-play? Every claim about the social, political, religious, or sexual perspective of William Shakespeare derived from his plays or poems can be countered with the opposite view also derived from the plays or poems. As soon as you think he sides with Catholics, he lampoons them, but as soon as you think he’s a Protestant, he skewers them. Well then, he must be an atheist. Not so fast: God is now central to the resolution of the play.
Look at Henry V, for example. Was it written in subversion of the war in Ireland, or does it celebrate England’s God-endorsed military might? It seems capable of doing both quite beautifully. But if it is essentially celebratory, does that mean Shakespeare supported Elizabeth or Essex? If it means he supported Essex, did he disapprove of Elizabeth, or did he just support England? (When he performed Richard II at the behest of Essex, did that mean he supported the attempted coup, or was it just because he had no choice in the matter?) But if Henry V was essentially subversive, does that mean Shakespeare was against Elizabeth, or Essex, or England, or just war? And on and on it goes. There is simply no answer. Henry V reveals nothing about Shakespeare’s personal convictions about the war in Ireland or even war in general. Because Shakespeare gets out of the way, you can take from the play what you will. That’s what great artists do.
Shakespeare was no miserable writer of political tracts pretending to be art. He did not package nice little messages for us. Shakespeare was writing for our guts and our souls. If that’s just decoration, then give me decoration any day.
One last question for de Vere supporters: why? In a time when the majority of published plays were published without the playwright’s name, why on earth would you bother to attach another’s name to your work? If the secret was so important, wouldn’t the chances of discovery go up exponentially by letting another (or others) in on it? Of course they would. If the genius behind the works of Shakespeare wanted to keep his identity a secret, he would have simply kept his name off the plays. He would have left them––say it with me––anonymous.
If you want to read a conclusive dismantling of Shakespearean authorship conspiracies, I highly recommend Shapiro’s Contested Will. Not only does it give you the history of various theories, but also it seeks to understand the psychology behind such theories. Other great resources are shakespeareauthorship.com and 60-minutes.bloggingshakespeare.com.
In the end, all conspiracy theories are born out of fear. The Shakespeare authorship conspiracy theories are no different. For what structure and safety can there be in a world where the man who wrote Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Measure for Measure and Twelfth Night came from the country, was not university educated, and was concerned with money and social status? Shakespeare refuses to conform to our ideals. True, his grammar school experience was probably better than yours and mine when it comes to the use of words, but that doesn’t account for what he accomplished. The simple fact is he was a true genius. He had an astonishing gift. He was––and, at this point in history, still is––the best. And nothing is more unforgivable than that.
So for the Oxfordians out there, let me sum up:
Shakespeare was Shakespeare. He came from a small town in Warwickshire, called Stratford upon Avon. His father, a glover by trade, was the high bailiff (mayor) of Stratford. Shakespeare never went to college. He got a girl pregnant when he was still a teenager, and had to marry her. They had three kids together, and then he went to London. He was an actor, a playwright, and a poet. He seems to have been the first person to realize that Aristotle was not a playwright, and therefore his observations on dramatic structure were not sacred––or even necessary. If you tried to take his theatre, he’d take up arms against you. He was a savvy businessman, and he made a lot of money in his adult life. He’d loan you money and collect interest on it. If you didn’t pay, he’d drag you to court. He was a celebrity in his own time. He was better than any writer you’ve ever read. Deal with it.