Maria Puente, USA TODAY
This is not a trick question: Who wrote Shakespeare?
By now, you'd think this is a settled matter. But you'd be so wrong.
On Friday a Hollywood director skilled at blowing up stuff onscreen is set to blow up 400 years of Shakespeare scholarship with Anonymous, a $30 million period-costume drama/thriller that traduces everything the high priests of the cult of Shakespeare have taught for centuries about the Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon.
Anonymous is about Elizabethan-era political scheming over the royal succession. The intrigue is set against the claim that the author of the most hallowed plays and poems in the English language was not the barely educated commoner William Shakespeare, about whom we know virtually nothing.
Instead, it was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans), the highly educated, well-traveled aristocrat with royal connections, who penned "To be or not to be" and all the other deathless lines we know as Shakespeare. Why hide his authorship? Because high-born types of the era did not mess about in rowdy theaters during the rise of the art-fearing Puritans.
"It's the first film suggesting that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare," says James Shapiro, Shakespeare scholar at Columbia University and author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Screenwriter John Orloff, an American who worked 20 years on the script, says it's one of the few films about the power of the written word. "Did Shakespeare write the plays? There's a valid argument that he did, but an even more valid argument that he didn't. And if not him, then who?"
In Anonymous, Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) is a semi-literate drunken actor from a country village who weasels his way into attaching his name to Oxford's plays and then shamelessly hogs all the applause. Oxford dies (in 1604, before some of the latest plays were supposedly written) with no one but Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), a rival playwright/poet to Shakespeare, in the know about what happened and why.
This notion is infuriating enough to many. But the real shocker in the movie is that the "Virgin Queen'' Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave as the dying queen and Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson as the young queen) not only wasn't a virgin but may have committed incest. Somewhere, Tudor spin doctors are shouting in their graves. In fact, the shouting over Anonymous is in full roar.
Shapiro has taken to the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times to denounce Anonymous. British historian Simon Schama was scathing in The Daily Beast, calling the film an "idiotic misunderstanding of history."
"I've been to dinner parties where people screamed at me," Orloff says. "It's fascinating how upset people get, but it shows how Shakespeare really is alive in our culture."
Scholars are outraged
The English are especially upset. "I feel like a heretic of the Middle Ages," jokes director Roland Emmerich, the German-born disaster maestro (Independence Day, 2012) who is defending the movie at book fairs, colleges and debating clubs.
"How many movies are discussed at the Oxford Union or the English Speaking Union?" Emmerich says, laughing.
Emmerich, who knew little about the authorship debate, was "flabbergasted'' to learn that scores of famous, smart people do not believe the man from Stratford wrote the plays, including: Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Sigmund Freud; British Shakespearean actors such as Derek Jacobi (he's in Anonymous); and at least three U.S. Supreme Court justices.
Historians, Shakespeare scholars and theater directors are the most outraged, Emmerich says, because they have the most to lose if it becomes even more widely believed that what has been taught about Shakespeare is all a lot of hooey.
"People say, 'How dare you!' but my movie clearly states I'm telling you a different, darker story," Emmerich says. "It's one possible alternative."
But it's not, says an exasperated Shapiro, who has examined the history of the authorship question and the long list of others (more than 50) put forward as the "real" Shakespeare. He worries that American audiences unschooled in history but all too familiar with conspiracy theories will believe the story Anonymous tells.
"It's another sign in our culture about the ways in which conspiracy thinking is winning the day, and it's tough to combat," he says.
The Oxfordians are numerous and organized, with websites and annual conferences and an online "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare" petition that already has thousands of signatures.
The debate matters
"We are hoping this becomes more of a legitimate issue, that more people devote scholarly attention to the facts," says Richard Joyrich, president of the U.S.-based Shakespeare Oxford Society.
But does it really matter? "Shakespeare matters, so this debate matters," says Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., a center of Stratfordian scholarship.
"If it's a story about what we might believe if we wanted to, that's the realm of fiction, and people have every right to live in the world of fiction. But don't say it isn't fiction."
Michael Kahn, artistic director of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Co., says that any movie that even talks about Shakespeare is probably good for those who do it.
"Whoever wrote (the plays) was a genius," he says. Then he adds, puckishly: "And maybe the movie will help sell tickets for our Much Ado About Nothing (opening in November)."
But why a movie now? Why not? The comedy/fantasy Shakespeare in Love was a huge success in 1998, says Daniel Wright, an Oxfordian and director of the Shakespeare Authorship Research Centre at Concordia University in Portland, Ore. "Don't expect Anonymous to be any more truthful than Love, but it touches on an issue for which there is an as-yet-undiscovered truth, so it will prompt people to pursue," Wright says.
The few known facts about Shakespeare could be "printed on the back of a postcard," Wright says.
This vacuum has always been a problem but particularly in the modern era, when so much stock is placed in the relationship between the writer's experience and his work.
The argument against the man from Stratford comes down to that tiresome English obsession: class snobbery.
The Oxfordians say Shakespeare didn't have the education, the class connections or the life and travel experiences to have been the author of plays and poems that suggest knowledge of history and politics, foreign languages and places — all of which Oxford possessed.
"I don't believe great art comes just from pure imagination — it also comes from life experience and a lot of pain," Emmerich says.
Still, the filmmakers are primarily entertainers. Anonymous has plenty of sword fights and rebel battles, velvet gowns and collar ruffs, muck in the streets and great, gushing gobs of Shakespeare declaimed on a re-created Globe stage.
"We set out to make an enjoyable, tense film," says Orloff. "The framing device is a reminder that it's a play, a piece of drama. If we fail at that, who cares about anything else?"