‘Anonymous’ and the Shakespeare conspiracy theory that won’t die


Director Roland Emmerich on the set of Columbia Pictures' "Anonymous." (Reiner Bajo/COLUMBIA PICTURES)
October 30, 2011

In London, the Flat Earth Society explains that we live on a giant disk.

In Petersburg, Ky., the Creation Museum shows cave men and dinosaurs frolicking together.

And in a movie theater near you, “Anonymous,” which opened Friday, reveals how the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

O brave new world — the culmination of more than 300 years of Enlightenment thinking and empirical science. But in the words of the Bard — whoever he was — “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!”

Which brings us back to “Anonymous,” Roland Emmerich’s new costume drama that has English professors tying their tweed blazers into knots. After his success with the documentaries “Godzilla” and “Independence Day,” Emmerich has now brought his CGI touch to the Soul of the Age. (And if you think that soul was Shakespeare’s, I’ve got some moon rocks I’d like to sell you.)


The famed Martin Droeshout engraving of the dramatist, printed on the cover of Shakespeare's first Folio, or first complete collection of his plays, printed in 1623. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Various alternative authors have been promoted over the past 150 years, but the current favorite is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. (Pay no attention to the fact that he died before “Antony and Cleopatra,” “The Tempest” and “The Winter’s Tale” were written.) Behind every one of these claims is the assumption that only an aristocrat could have composed the immortal words of “Hamlet” or written with such precision about Italy or divulged the thoughts of kings and queens. Once you allow that some glovemaker’s son from Stratford with a grade-school education wrote those plays, you’re likely to start imagining that a cloistered old maid in Amherst, Mass., composed the greatest poetry of the 19th century. (But don’t listen to me. I’m nobody. Who are you?)

Following the basic plot of what’s called the Oxfordian Theory, “Anonymous” shows that de Vere was the real writer of what we call “Shakespeare’s work.” The action takes us all the way to the day when the Globe Theatre was burned to the ground in 1613 by fire-breathing dragons. (Don’t quote me on that — I have to check the date.)

Three different actors play de Vere at different points in his life, or possibly Emmerich believes that de Vere was actually three different people. It doesn’t help that the teenage de Vere is played by Jamie Campbell Bower, the lithe hunk from the Starz network’s “Camelot,” which made me realize that King Arthur probably wrote “King Lear.”

I have no dog in this fight. In graduate school, I studied American literature, not British, so I was busy trying to show that Nathaniel Hawthorne was a warlock. (Never found a single piece of evidence to disprove that claim.) But it got me thinking what it must be like for scholars who have spent their lives studying the Renaissance to be confronted again and again by the fact that the playwright who dominated the London stage was actually Queen Elizabeth’s son-then-lover writing in secret.

Last year, James Shapiro, an English professor at Columbia University, wrote “Contested Will,” a whole book about the debate, without losing his temper even once. But when I reached him by phone in London, “Anonymous” was pushing all his buttons.

“It is the most cynical thing I’ve ever seen,” he says. “In order to depose Shakespeare as a money-grubber, Sony has decided to make money on the back of misleading school kids.”

Shapiro claims that what gives the Oxford argument currency nowadays is our modern conviction that everything is essentially autobiographical. That sounds interesting, but I can’t help wondering what it has to do with me. “We live in an age of memoir and controversy,” he says. “You put those together, and you’ve got the Earl of Oxford Theory.”

And then he points me to the evidence: “Anybody who wants to know about Shakespeare can just walk into 201 East Capitol Street in Washington.” I’m hoping this is where Dan Brown discovered the Freemason’s Pyramid, but it turns out to be the Folger Library, the largest repository of Shakespeare material in the world.

The Folger’s director is a sharp, affable man who claims his name is Michael Witmore. We sit on university chairs in his book-lined office, and he seems like someone with nothing to hide. (He’s that good.)

“As a Shakespeare scholar,” he tells me, “I do not lie awake at night worried about who really wrote these plays.” No, of course not. Not with Bigfoot on the loose and the world about to end Nov. 11. “It’s intellectually dishonest to doubt documentary evidence on the assumption that other evidence will show up to disprove what we have. But if you feel, against all possible evidence, that you can find a piece of paper saying that Shakespeare could write about events that occurred after his death, you can go ahead. But I wouldn’t get very excited about your proposal. In the same way that I wouldn’t get very excited about your proposal to prove that Shakespeare based his comedies on 1970s TV sitcoms.”

Of course . . . I hadn’t even thought of that before: The Henry Winkler Theory.

Eric Rasmussen, a professor of English at the University of Nevada, is a regular Robert Langdon of the Shakespearean world. He’s spent years sleuthing around the globe for rare Shakespeare documents. Why, I ask him, do we persist in arguing about who wrote “Hamlet” and “Twelfth Night” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream”?

“You have these sublimely beautiful creations that you think only a supernatural being could have created,” he says. “It immediately suggests, ‘Could it really have been a country hick that didn’t go to college?’ The best analysis, I think, is: A welfare mother couldn’t have written ‘Harry Potter.’ And maybe 400 years from now, someone will say that.” (You heard it here first, folks.)

There’s something almost religious about the de Vere argument, he suggests. “It’s foolish to say, ‘Prove to me that your God exists.’ And that’s the way it is with this. There’s no proof that de Vere wrote these plays. But you can’t disprove it; therefore, it’s plausible. How can I respond to that?”

I know someone who can. Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt’s biography of the Bard was a bestseller for months in 2004. He hasn’t seen “Anonymous,” but he knows the enemy well.

“It seems hilarious for Americans to buy this argument,” he says. “Why would we think that only people who have the right bloodlines can write these plays? It’s a strange but familiar quality of the human imagination that you can write about kings and presidents without being related to one. Why Americans are drawn to this is a mystery to me.”

Ah, a mystery. I like the sound of that.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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