In the interest of full disclosure, I should begin by saying I have not seen Anonymous. I don’t need to; its arguments are familiar to me. This blog post is not a review of the movie or even an attack. It’s more of a treatise on why we should view its historicity and arguments with a skeptical eye and why, in my opinion, English teachers should not be encouraged to introduce it into debate about Shakespeare scholarship in their class discussions, as Young Minds Inspired has created teaching materials for high school and college that the film’s producers hope English teachers will use.
First, many Shakespeare conspiracy theorists, whether they support Oxford (current contemporary favorite) or Bacon or Marlowe or any of the other candidates that have been proposed as the “real” Shakespeare, often paint those who believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare as defensive and inflexible regarding opening up the authorship question for debate. If Stratfordians, as proponents of the argument that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare are called, are defensive and inflexible it is because the bulk of rational and historical evidence heavily supports their view, yet conspiracy theorists are unswayed by this rational, historical evidence. Many Stratfordians refuse to engage in the debate because the Oxfordians typically present evidence that is taken out of context, distorted, or just incorrect. People are invested in their pet conspiracy theories, and they often won’t listen to the arguments proposed against them. On the other hand, I have seen some Stratfordians engage seriously in answering the arguments Oxfordians list as evidence for the correctness of their point of view, explaining why and how the arguments fail, only to be met with ad hominem attacks on their open-mindedness and a refusal to debate the matter further (take a look at the comments in the linked post). However, that is not to say that the people who believe that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare are in any way foolish, unintelligent, uninformed, or even not perfectly serious. It must be said that they are not, however, professional Shakespeare scholars, who by and large do not question Shakespeare’s authorship.
Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro was one of the first to examine the authorship question and its history in his wonderful book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. I can’t recommend the book highly enough if you have even a passing interest in Shakespeare and especially if you teach Shakespeare. He mentions early in the book that other Shakespeare scholars tried to convince him not to take on the authorship question mainly because they felt giving the argument serious air would have the side effect of giving it legitimacy. They have a point. This movie is sure to bring up the debate in our schools as our students are often avid moviegoers. Shapiro, however, felt that the time was right for a Shakespeare scholar to explain why Shakespeare scholars believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.
The chief argument that anti-Stratfordians make is that Shakespeare was born from humble means and did not have the right education in order to have been able to write the plays he wrote. However, Shakepeare’s “inferior” education at the grammar school in Stratford, which many anti-Stratfordians seem to think was akin to an average modern elementary education, included classical studies in Ovid, Cicero, Plautus, Terence, Virgil, and Erasmus—in Latin—all of which Shakespeare would have studied by the age of 13. One cannot argue he did not receive an education that could inspire the works he wrote. By the way, Ben Jonson’s father was a bricklayer, and Jonson also didn’t go to university, but no one questions the authorship of his plays or poems. Interestingly enough, Shakespeare makes some errors in his plays that one would not expect a Cambridge-educated man like Oxford to make: anachronistic references to clocks (Julius Caesar) and a description of Bohemia as a landlocked desert by the sea (A Winter’s Tale).
Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), is the current favorite candidate of Shakespeare conspiracy theorists. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and his candidacy as an alternative author dates to 1920, when J. Thomas Looney published Shakespeare Identified. Looney sought to explain how he felt certain events in Shakespeare’s plays were analogies for events in Oxford’s life and that Oxford had the right education and courtly connections to have written Shakespeare’s plays. Before Oxford, other candidates such as Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe became popular alternative Shakespeares. As I’ve mentioned, Shapiro wrote an entire book examining other claims for Shakespeare, and the website Shakespeare Authorship has a comprehensive section examining the major arguments that Oxfordians make:
- Alleged Parallels between the Plays and Oxford’s Life
- Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Italy, the Classics, and the Law
- Biographical Information: Shakespeare vs. His Contemporaries
- Oxford’s Letters
- Oxford’s Bible with a complete list of annotations
- Stylometry and the Shakespeare Clinic
- Response to Criticisms on Stylometry
- Further Response: Shakespeare’s Acting Career
- Shakespeare’s Will
- The Stratford Grammar School
- Shakespeare’s Stratford Friends
- Some General Thoughts: Oxfordians vs. Literary Scholars
In addition, an essay on the site, How We Know That Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare: The Historical Facts, by Tom Reedy and David Kathman, “summarize[s] the extensive web of evidence that identifies William Shakespeare of Stratford as the man who wrote the works of William Shakespeare.”
Another argument I see many Oxfordians make is that such intelligent luminaries as Mark Twain, Derek Jacobi, John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Sigmund Freud, and many others of equal talent all believed that someone other than Shakespeare—probably Oxford, but certainly not Shakespeare—wrote the plays attributed to him. This is a poor argument. Lots of people believe lots of things and the relative fame, talent, or intelligence of those who believe those things should not make them more or less true unless they are backed up also by evidence. Presenting this list as evidence itself is not evidence. It’s just a way of pointing out that one’s company isn’t completely made up of strange people in tinfoil hats.
What concerns me is not that people debate the issue. They can debate it if they like (although I believe it to be rather pointless in light of the evidence). My worry is that there is this notion that teachers who do not engage in this sort of debate in their English classes are perpetuating a lie or at least aren’t encouraging students to think critically and form their own opinions. From the materials produced by Young Minds Inspired:
- To encourage critical thinking by challenging students to examine the theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works and to formulate their own opinions.
- To strengthen students’ communication skills through classroom discussion and debate.
- To engage students in creative writing exercises.
A look at the language (emphasis mine) used in some of the activities is alarming:
PART A: WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are Shakespeare’s plays the work of a highly educated writer with firsthand experience of aristocracy? Or could they be the work of an author with exceptional creative talent and observational skills who borrowed from learned books to enhance his own writing? Divide your class into two teams, the Upstart Crows and the Reasonable Doubters, to weigh the question: Was William Shakespeare really an improbable genius, or just a front man for someone with real ability?
Here is an essay assignment in the materials:
PART B: WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
Use the information on this sheet to research the theory that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not the author of the “Shakespeare” plays. Then write a persuasive essay supporting your position.
PART A: WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Based on this short sketch of Edward de Vere and your knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays, what are the arguments pro and con that de Vere was the true author of the plays? Compare ideas, weigh the evidence, and come to a consensus. Then imagine that de Vere really was the true author. Should he have remained anonymous? Should Shakespeare have taken credit for his plays?
These activities are not about encouraging debate about the issue. They’re about encouraging students to believe Oxford wrote Shakespeare. Ron Rosenbaum lists some of the errors the Anonymous filmmakers make about Shakespeare and the times. As James Shapiro says in his New York Times op-ed in response to Anonymous, “promoters of de Vere’s cause have a lot of evidence to explain away, including testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else that confirms that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. Meanwhile, not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of the plays or poems.” He concludes that “the most troubling thing” about Anonymous is that “the film turns great plays into propaganda,” which Shapiro argues is reductive, and I would agree. In the film, the character Oxford says that “all art is political … otherwise it is just decoration.” That is really the only reason we create art? To make a political statement? When Simon Schama weighed in on the movie, he concluded the biggest problem with it was its “fatal lack of imagination on the subject of the imagination.”
Shakespeare was a gifted genius. What these activities are really going to teach kids is that people like Shakespeare are only possible if they are born into privilege and receive an education at a prestigious institution like Oxford or Cambridge (or Harvard or Yale… you get the picture). And what is also lost in these assignments is an appreciation for Shakespeare’s writing—the words, the phrases, the stories—which is traded off for a sexier debate about whether Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare. What a crime.