'Anonymous': Was Shakespeare a Fraud?

Scholars say no and brace for onslaught.

October 16, 2011, 9:29 PM

Oct. 14, 2011— -- Oh boy, here we go. "Anonymous," a new film due out at the end of the month, dramatizes the 90-year-old theory that the works of Shakespeare were actually written by the tumultuous and increasingly broke London aristocrat Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, courtier to Queen Elizabeth I.

Vanessa Redgrave plays Elizabeth. Sir Derek Jacobi guides us in and out of the story.

Rhys Ifans (previously acclaimed for his wonderfully goofy turn as the inexcusable flat-mate in "Notting Hill") transforms easily into a troubled and thwarted Earl of Oxford, penning great plays in secret.

Supporters of this Oxford authorship theory, "Oxfordians," include U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens, Orson Welles and Sigmund Freud, no less.

Others who decry or cast serious doubt on Shakespeare as the author also include Mark Twain, Supreme Court Justice Blackmun, and actors Redgrave and Jacobi.

None of whom -- and here's the irritating rub -- are professional Shakespeare scholars, people who commit themselves to long years of exposure to the myriad bits of hard evidence that keep surfacing from the England of 400 years ago.

And never mind that Oxford died in 1604, before (say the peer-reviewed professional scholars of the period) a number of quintessentially Shakespearean plays including "The Tempest," "All's Well That Ends Well" and "Antony and Cleopatra" could possibly have been written. (Shakespeare died in 1616.)

There are too many similarities, say Oxfordians, between events in the fictional lives of Hamlet plus a few other Shakespeare characters and the life of the Earl of Oxford.

His high-class education is also documented while there are no education records for Shakespeare.

The film's visually compelling digital depictions of Shakespeare's London give vibrant life to any illusion.

They are so detailed, gritty, thoroughly researched for accurate appearance, with breathtaking high, wide and close-up shots of the Globe theater, the jerry-built houses piled up on London Bridge, muddy street and glistening court scenes, all brought to life by high-octane actors channeling passionate confusion and human frailty while wearing with greatest ease the authentic clothing of the times, that high school and college teachers worldwide are bound to assign the film, if for no other reason than to bring Shakespeare and his times alive for their students -- make it all real, or at least real-ish.

In other words, the 200-year-old notion that someone other than Will Shakespeare, the London actor and theater co-owner from Stratford, wrote the plays and poems that bear his name is about to get an unprecedented tidal wave of publicity of a kind that may bring big smiles to the eyes of Hollywood producers but make the eyes of professional Shakespeare scholars start, like stars, from their spheres, cause their knotted and combinéd locks to part, and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

That's how the ghost of Hamlet's father imagines a mere mortal would react upon seeing the horrors of purgatory, in which now he burns.

Professional Shakespeare scholars now anticipate a sort of academic purgatory as they brace for a flood of questions bound to come from all sorts of students, teachers and movie lovers new to the authorship question.

Already heading into classrooms from the film's producers is a slick six-page color brochure, "Anonymous -- Was Shakespeare a Fraud?" Its "Dear Educator" advice declares its "Target Audience… is students in English literature, theater, and British history classes," with "Program Objectives… to encourage critical thinking by challenging students to examine theories about the authorship of Shakespeare's works."

This PR-as-Teacher's Guide, which appears slanted in favor of Oxfordian claims, has been sent online to college Shakespeare teachers (link below). There's also a gorgeous coffee-table book confidently titled "Anonymous: William Shakespeare Revealed," and a documentary about making the film.

To avoid "spoilers," suffice it to say the film acts out Oxfordian theories of why Shakespeare got credit, Oxford didn't, and the Queen granted favors.

Long ago, this reporter and his classmates were sent out into the world with a warning from our professor, Tom Tashiro, that we might encounter people who just couldn't accept the idea that Will Shakespeare from the provincial market town of Stratford, west of London, could have written the great works… since he apparently didn't even go to college.

"He was a bright kid from the Midwest who made his way to New York!" beamed Tashiro.

I liked that analogy, being from the Midwest, and still do.

So, upon seeing the trailers for "Anonymous," I emailed my old college friend William Hunt who had later done award-winning scholarship on Elizabethan England in the course of getting his Ph.D. at Harvard.

Replying that "this Oxfordian business has always strained my pretty elastic credulity," and now a professor, Hunt summarized, unambiguously, thus:

"No, absolutely no competent student of the period, historical or literary, has ever taken this theory seriously. First of all, the founding premise is false -- there is nothing especially mysterious about William Shakespeare, who is as well documented as one could expect of a man of his time. None of his contemporaries or associates expressed any doubt about the authorship of his poems and plays. Nothing about De Vere (Oxford) suggests he had any great talent, and there is no reason to suppose he would have suppressed any talents he possessed."

American Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro of Columbia University told ABC News he agrees "Wholeheartedly! -- With every word of that!" when Hunt's reply was read to him over the phone.

Shapiro, whose recent book, "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?" is one of the most comprehensive examinations yet of the "Shakespeare Authorship" phenomenon, has won highest praise from his academic peers in America and Britain for the originality, clarity and thoroughness of his work on Shakespeare.

He documents how it wasn't even until 200 years after Shakespeare's death that the notion of someone else being the author got going -- and all after a gathering deification of Shakespeare so great that some people began to grow uneasy with his common origins.

Since then, some 50 names have been championed as "The Real Shakespeare," virtually all by people who -- as Tashiro had warned - reject the idea that Will Shakespeare of Stratford, with no university creds or known foreign travel, could possibly create plays abounding in such knowledge, foreign settings, and wisdom so beautifully and universally expressed that it's been praised ever since his death as being "for all time."

Great filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and John Ford, authors Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Herman Melville and Edgar Allen Poe, artists Andrew Wyeth, Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh, digital design giants Steve Jobs and Bill Gates -- all self-educated after their mid-teens with little if any college at all -- are just some of the possible world-class counter-examples, but Shapiro reports there is little discussion of such names among anti-Stratfordians.

He and many scholars complain that Shakespeare deniers resist dealing with countervailing evidence and often say it's simply part of a cover-up.

"For me, it is ultimately about how one responds to documentary evidence," said Shapiro. "Since there is no documentary evidence linking Oxford to the plays--only fabricated or wildly circumstantial evidence, or conspiracy theories meant to explain away the lack of evidence -- serious debate is impossible."

He and others have also turned up a great deal of documentary evidence directly linking William Shakespeare to the plays, as "Contested Will" lays out.

Wikipedia, says Shapiro, has (as of this writing) a compact, illuminating and trustworthy treatment of "The Case for Shakespeare's Authorship" to be found under the entry, "Shakespeare Authorship Question."

This reporter's first encounter with Shakespeare doubters was in 1974, when the Earl of Oxford – as Shakespeare -- appeared on the cover of none other than the Harvard Magazine.

I was at first intrigued -- not being a Shakespeare scholar -- with how the Oxfordians played the evidence of their "astonishing coincidences."

But every professional Shakespeare scholar I consulted, then and since, has been able quickly to show how selective or contorted, ignoring or dismissing inconvenient bits, are the arguments for the non-Shakespeares.

This professional journalist would gladly report any credible evidence for the authorship of the 17th Earl of Oxford, or anyone, but none -- none -- has, to my knowledge, ever turned up.

Oxfordians often dream of finding a neglected or buried trunk of musty manuscripts that will prove everything.

Hollywood producers dream of luring us in great numbers to gaze at their flickering screens.

Shakespeare's magical character Prospero knew all about this dreaming, of course.

In "The Tempest," he points out that "We are such stuff as dreams are made on."

This comes after he has conjured up wild fantasies for our entertainment that seemed perfectly real to everyone on stage and in the audience… before, as he reminds us, they are all then "melted into air -- into thin air."

(The PR-as-Teacher's Guide featuring The Earl of Oxford and titled "Anonymous - Was Shakespeare a Fraud?" -- is online here)

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