I’ve gotten many questions about the new Shakespeare-oriented movie Anonymous from my students, and while I’ve tried to avoid the topic as a blog entry, it simply won’t go away. Let me preface this blog by admitting I have not seen the film, nor do I plan to. As movies now cost ten bucks or more a pop, I try to limit the ones I see to those I know I will enjoy. And I know I would merely sit in the theatre and fume during this one. Therefore, this blog will not be about the film, but the conspiracy theory on which it is based because, in all fairness, I don’t want to write about things I know little about
Now, I like conspiracy theories as much as the next person. Truly, I do. They’re entertaining, like science fiction, anchored in fact and dosed heavily with vigorous imagination. I find them intriguing, largely because the good ones are so fanciful. However, the problem with movies woven from the threads of conspiracy theories is that the majority of movie-goers have neither the interest nor the tools to research the proffered fabric of idea and history behind them. Instead, they merely take the offered threads as the whole cloth of truth and wear it, and therein lies the rub. Admittedly, this is the issue with any movie loosely based on historical proposition. But I am not nearly so concerned in this blog with the unwillingness of the average movie-goer to demand truth when it comes to movies toying with history as I am to disparage Hollywood’s willingness to spoon-feed a gullible public with a lame conspiracy theory and advertise it, however so subtly, as real history. What I mean to say is that I am merely concerned with Shakespeare’s legacy.
The biggest problem inherent in the conspiracy of Anonymous is that it is based on the weakest of the theories that Shakespeare of Stratford did not write “Shakespeare.” This particular theory is that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, was actually the author of Shakespeare’s works, while the Shakespeare we know today was merely a front. The most glaring problem with this theory is that Edward de Vere died in 1604, while Shakespeare continued to write and produce plays until 1613, some of which were known to be collaborations with other authors of the day. The Oxfordian’s answer to this seemingly insurmountable problem is that the Shakespeare’s plays were written much earlier than they were produced, and that the later plays were “unfinished”, thus explaining some of the incongruities with known works by the Earl of Oxford. They also insist that the current accepted timeline of the plays is incorrect, developed by Stratfordians to fit their own theories. It should be noted here that famed Shakespearean Dr. Stanley Wells and Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson proposed the following in their new e-book, “Shakespeare Bites Back”:
We should use the term ‘anti-Shakespearian’ to describe those who propagate this particular conspiracy theory. In the past they have more usually been referred to as ‘anti-Stratfordians’, which allows the work attributed to Shakespeare to be separated from the social and cultural context of its author. We wish to insist that no artists should be divorced from the work they have produced. To deny Shakespeare of Stratford’s connection to the work attributed to him is to deny the essence of what made that work possible. Michelangelo cannot be separated from Florence and Rome; Charles Dickens wouldn’t be Charles Dickens without London. Shakespeare was formed by both Stratford-upon-Avon and London. The phrases ‘the Stratford man’, ‘actor from Stratford’, and even ‘anti-Stratfordian’ itself perpetuate the kind of divide with which we are here taking issue. These terms concede that such a division between an artist and his or her background and cultural context is possible. ‘Anti-Shakespearian’ reminds us that in attempting to separate Shakespeare from his place of origin you are in effect vandalizing the works themselves and the world’s appreciation of them. We call upon anyone involved in this discussion who is speaking up for Shakespeare to call those who are attacking him ‘anti-Shakespearian’. (Wells & Edmonson 32).
At this point, it should be indicated that the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays was never questioned until the mid-19th century, which saw an upsurge in popularity of the plays. At this point in history, the general consensus was that only truly “educated” men could truly be geniuses of pen to paper. This view was later rejected by many of the more extreme Romantics, who sought to lift the “common man” into the light, though that is another debate all together.
But let us look at Shakespeare of Stratford’s education. Shakespeare, as the son of a member of the local gentry, would have been entitled to a free education at the King’s New School, which was less than a mile from John Shakespeare’s home. Few records survive from the school at this time, so there is no clear and stated record that Shakespeare attended. However, given that the chance at real education was still rather rare at that time, it is easy to suppose that John Shakespeare would have jumped at the chance for his son to attend school, especially since John himself was illiterate. Yes, this school was considered a “public” school, but let’s not confuse the current reputation of public schools with modern standards of public schools. The fact is that in Elizabethan and later England, “public school” meant what we today, in modern United Sates, mean as “private school.“ The curriculum for such schools was regulated by law, and Shakespeare would’ve been exposed to the classics of Latin and Greek culture, including but not limited to, Plautus, Ovid, Aristotle, Virgil, Plato, and to others whose influence can easily be seen in Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare would have also learned to read and write in Latin. In fact, he would have been totally immersed in it, a chance that every man in England would have envied. After all, according to Elizabeth I’s tutor, Roger Ascham, “all men covet their children to speak Latin” (Greenblatt 24), yet another indication that John Shakespeare would have certainly sent young Will off to his lessons. On top of that, we know from separate sources that Richard Fiel, the famed printer, was also educated at the King’s New School at Stratford, thus proving that education there was extensive enough to produce a more-than-competent professional. Incidentally, Field was closely associated with the troupe known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s theatre company, and printed many of Shakespeare’s plays.
So, why are there no records of Shakespeare’s attendance at this school? The answer is actually quite simple. The King’s New School did not keep a running record of its students at this early time in its history. Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, wrote that John Shakespeare had placed William “for some time in a free school.” Because the King’s New School was so close to John Shakespeare’s home and because of John’s role in the community, his sons would likely have been granted a tuition waiver. In sum, it seems thoroughly plausible that Shakespeare attended this school.
Of course, we have contemporary references to Shakespeare that testify to his authorship. Robert Greene, an already established playwright of the day wrote “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.” The tiger’s heart reference points to Shakespeare’s own Henry VI Part 3, and the “Shake-scene in a country” is a play on Shakespeare’s name and country-bumpkin origin.
There are other objections to the Oxfordian theory. Oxfordians claim that a playwright who had never ventured out of England could not have written the detailed scenes of foreign lands; yet, if one looks closely at Shakespeare’s descriptions, they are often wrong: for instance, coast lines where there are none, among other issues. More than likely, Shakespeare heard of these places by word of mouth and allowed his imagination to do the rest, an idea that seems foreign to many modern authors, since they are taught to “write what they know”. However, that theory is a fairly modern one, whereas authors of Shakespeare’s era allowed their imaginations to abound. If you don’t believe me, simply read a few fairytales, or better, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest. They are centered around images of the mind, and even Theseus tells us as much:
More strange than true: I never may believe
These antic fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination, That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear! (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.1.2-22).
Therefore, we may assume that Shakespeare, a poet, knew himself capable of such imaginations and images without any reasonable and concrete seed.
Moreover, one of the more popular forms of literature in Elizabethan England was travel literature. Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations was extremely popular, along with the memoirs of author/explorers like Raleigh, Gilbert, Drake, Cavendish, or Frobisher. Of course, we mustn’t forget that John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, published his A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Happened in Virginia in 1608, leading many modern critics to speculate on Caliban’s origins in the Native American barbarian. However, that is another argument all together. Nonetheless, the point here is that foreign lands and their descriptions were the talk of Shakespeare’s day, much as tales of the barbarian Gauls and Celts would have abounded in ancient Rome.
Yet, all these issues aside, does the true authorship of Shakespeare matter? On some level, yes. Obviously, historians and literary scholars have a vested interest in the authorship question. However, on another level, a man of Shakespeare’s humble origin not only rising to reclaim his father’s pride but also rising to such fame that his name is synonymous with greatness is an inspiration for those who do not have access to the great halls of classical education. Shakespeare of Stratford gives them hope that with the will and a seed of talent, they too might make their mark on the world, despite the odds against them. Furthermore, it spits in the eye of those that insist an expensive education is the only way to produce anything of value or genius in the world.
Nevertheless, on many other levels, the authorship question is unimportant. Whether Shakespeare of Stratford or some other Shakespeare wrote these great works is a miniscule matter compared to the great and enduring legacy of the works and words themselves. Shakespeare’s characters have grown to have a life of their own. Hamlet is no longer Shakespeare’s, but a man and persona in his own right. The same is true for Macbeth, Lady M, Othello, Iago, Lear, Cordelia, and so on. All have a life and being of their own, greater than any author or actor that touches them. The identity of whoever gave these characters life is a concern far smaller than the life of these characters themselves. Indeed, scholars, critics, actors, and directors speak of these characters as people and friends of the flesh, not mere personas of the stage and page. In this way, the authorship is irrelevant. It is the words that are essential.
* If you are interested in an even more in depth look at the history of Shakespearean authorship issues, the pitfalls of such anti-Shakespearean theories, or the known background of the man himself, I would recommend 60 Minutes with Shakespeare or the recent free e-book mentioned here, “Shakespeare Bites Back” by Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson & Prof. Stanley Wells, CBE, which is also available for download on the Blogging Shakespeare website. I would also highly recommend Dr. Greenblatt’s amazing biography of Willy Shakes Will in the World.