In the 1970s the philosopher Michel Foucault asked “what is an author?”:
The disclosure that Shakespeare was not born in the house that tourists now visit would not modify the functioning of the authorʻs name, but, if it were proved that he had not written the sonnets that we attribute to him, this would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the authorʻs name functions … the name of an author is not precisely a proper name among others (Foucault, 1977, 122).
Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous puts us in this very position. When I studied Shakespeare at Harvard with Marjorie Garber, author of Shakespeare, After All, she had no qualms admitting that the works of The Bard were of a “collective” nature. They contained too much wisdom collected over the ages to be the work of one man. But Emmerich’s film says they were – of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who, according to the plot, was in line for King of England.
There are certainly some holes in the received Shakespeare story. When he died he left his “second best bed” to his wife (though Bill Bryson explains that this was because the second best bed was the one that was actually slept in, while the best bed was put on display in the living room), but no mention of manuscripts is made in his will. None of the plays are written in his handwriting – though the film goes further, claiming that Shakespeare was actually illiterate. Shakespeare had a grammar school education, while the Earl had tutors for each of the classical subjects. The film closes by noting that the playwright Ben Jonson, the only person allegedly to have known the true identity of the Bard, dedicated his collected works to “the man we call William Shakespeare” [italics all mine].
But there are some problems with the film’s premise as well. The plays correspond fairly well with Shakespeare’s life (1564 – 1615). He had a son named Hamnet. One of the early books to consider the topic of Shakespeare’s identity was Shakespeare’s Lives in which Sir Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe are also put forward as candidates. And let us not forget Malcolm X’s contention that Shakespeare was actually King James himself, since Shakespeare was a contemporary of the King James bible, and almost certainly an early reader/editor of it. Of course this theory completely neglects the fact that about half of Shakepeare’s output was under Queen Elizabeth (When James was in Scotland, a point the film makes clear), making him half Elizabethan and half Jacobin as a playwright.
Stephen Greenblatt summarizes the archival record of Shakespeare’s non-literary life in Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare:
Apart from the poems and the plays themselves, the surviving traces of Shakespeare’s life are abundant but thin. Dogged archival labor over many generation has turned up contemporary allusions to him, along with a reasonable number of the playwright’s property transactions, a marriage license bond, christening records, cast lists in which he is named as a performer, tax bills, petty legal affidavits, payments for services, and an interesting last will and testament, but no immediately obvious clues to unravel the great mystery of such immense creative power (Greenblatt, 2004, 12).
The film cleverly, and darkly, uses the motif of the play within the play. It connects many of the plays to the politics of succession. It incredibly suggests that Queen Elizabeth and de Vere had a child. It posits that Henry III was a device to get a mob to attack the Machiavellian advisor to Elizabeth. While this is all very clever, the characters are not wholly believable. While the three actors who portray Elizabeth lend her weight, and Rhys Ifans (Xenophilus Lovegood in Harry Potter 7.1) surprisingly plays de Vere in a dignified manner meant to convince the audience he is capable of such genius, Ben Jonson comes across as a tragic-comic action hero, and the hunchbacked villain Robert Cecil is a waspish walking cliche. The film portrays Shakespeare himself as something slightly above a bumbling idiot. After previewing and promoting the film, my bluish-collar neighborhood theatre didn’t run the film, and I missed it until its DVD release. This is a decent representation of the film’s appeal. It doesn’t succeed as action, or even drama, and leaves too many questions for the truly scholarly. But Derek Jacobi lends his considerable weight to reopening, or at least keeping open, questions over the man who Harold Bloom called the center of the Western Canon.
Update; April 23, 2014, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday:
In his book, simply entitled Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson makes a compelling argument that Shakespeare was in fact the author of the plays. Beginning with a genealogy of the idea that someone else wrote the plays, he shows the marginal origin of this theory, which only later attracted prominent proponents, such as Sigmund Freud. Bryson reasons away, credibly, the arguments that he simply had not enough education, background or rank to author such masterly works by noting that others such as Ben Jonson had similar backgrounds.
Then he positively obliterates the argument that Edward de Vere authored the plays pointing out that he died too early to have written the final plays. Proponents of de Vere have justified this quite scathing critique away, but not convincingly, as Bryson shows the mental acrobatics necessary to forward such a hypothesis. But the debate is not finally, entirely settled, as youʻll see in the next post, written, appropriately, by anonymous.