The Chandos portrait of Shakespeare
The movie Anonymous, which opened in Canada last week, is only the latest ⎯ although perhaps the loudest ⎯ in a series of attempts to discredit William Shakespeare that reach back to the nineteenth century. Anonymous depicts Shakespeare as a fraud, a middling actor who merely served as the beard, or front man, for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, whom the movie portrays as the real author of the plays. The film is directed by Roland Emmerich, who is best known for the disaster movies 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, and for 10,000 BC, a film that gives an idea of the kind of distaste Emmerich has for historical accuracy.
And, indeed, Anonymous doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Emmerich shows us the playwright Christopher Marlowe alive and well on the day the Earl of Essex leaves for Ireland in 1599, when Marlowe had already been dead six years; he has a character say that Marlowe died when his throat was cut, whereas famously Marlowe was stabbed through the skull, just above the eye; he has audiences marvelling that Romeo and Juliet is written in blank verse, when blank verse had been the medium for drama for at least thirty years already, since Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc in 1561; and most baffling of all, he offers no explanation as to how the Earl of Oxford, who died in 1604, went on to write a series of Shakespearean plays that continued to emerge at the rate of one or two a year for the next nine years, including some, such as Macbeth and The Tempest, that allude to specific historical events that occurred after Oxford’s death.
In short, Anonymous is a dishonest work. If it exposes anyone as a fraud, it is Roland Emmerich, not Shakespeare.
However, while he bears ultimate responsibility for the movie, some readers will rightly object that Emmerich himself is not responsible for the theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s works. True: that responsibility belongs to a man who rejoiced in the name J. Thomas Looney. Looney first proposed that Oxford was the real playwright in a book called Shakespeare Identified (1920). However, Looney was himself responding to earlier questions raised about Shakespeare’s authorship that had begun in the 1840s, and in particular those that had been advanced by Delia Bacon, who (surely not motivated by regard for her surname) had argued that a group of writers led by Sir Francis Bacon had written the plays. And those are just the two most familiar of many astonishing theories. Other candidates who have been proposed include Christopher Marlowe (who, in this theory, faked his own death), William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, and, most recently, Sir Henry Neville. What all of these candidates have in common is that they were graduates of either Cambridge or Oxford University, which William Shakespeare was decidedly not. Moreover, all of them, with the exception of Marlowe, were also nobles.
Those facts point us to what ultimately seems to motivate all theories that call into doubt Shakespeare’s authorship. They are all based in snobbery. They are founded in indignant incredulity at the very possibility that the son of a small-town merchant could become the greatest writer of all time. The theorists try to couch their objections in supposedly irrefutable facts: they say the plays must be the work of someone who was well-educated in literature and law, someone who understood court manners, and someone who was well-travelled. But each of these points is easily answered.
The evidence of education that the plays show is hardly anything that would be particular to the university, where little literature, let alone dramatic literature, was studied. Universities then concentrated on subjects such as philosophy, theology, logic and natural science. Rather, the plays show evidence of some education in rhetoric and Latin, both of which were taught in ordinary Grammar schools. One of these was located in Stratford-upon-Avon, less than a kilometre from Shakespeare’s home, and he would have been eligible to attend it free, because his father was the town’s High Bailiff (an office equivalent to Mayor). And if Shakespeare had no formal education after he left that school, he would be in good company, for any list of candidates for second best playwright in English would have to include the great polymath, Bernard Shaw, who dropped out of school at age fifteen, and the intellectually brilliant Tom Stoppard, who ended his formal education at seventeen.
There is, however, evidence of fairly wide reading. But, demand the conspiracy theorists, where would someone of modest income find these books in the absence of a public library? Well, many of the books upon which Shakespeare’s plays depend (including some of the most important, such as an English translation of Plutarch’s Lives, a Latin edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and a few others, possibly including Holinshed’s Chronicles, the source for the history plays), were published by Richard Field. Field was a prominent London publisher and book-seller, who was about two-and-a-half years older than Shakespeare and had grown up about a block away from him in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was Field who published all three of Shakespeare’s long poems.
It is true that the plays show some sense of how the law worked (although there is little about actual law cases); but then the Elizabethan middle class was breathtakingly litigious, and we have plenty of evidence that William Shakespeare was frequently in court.
As for the insistence that the author of the plays would have to be a noble to be as familiar with royalty as the plays suggest, there are several quick answers: court intrigues and manners were all but universally imitated in the literature of the time; and anyway, Shakespeare was often at court as an invited performer. Furthermore, it would have been much easier for a middle-class writer to learn of courtly manners and speech than for a noble to imitate the language of commoners, which the plays also contain, and which is represented more convincingly than was managed by other playwrights of the time.
The most laughable objection is that plays that are set in Bohemia, Italy and Greece show that the author must have been well-travelled, whereas Shakespeare had never been outside of England. Well-travelled? The plays speak of the seacoast of land-locked Bohemia, and likewise suggest that there is a sea-port in the inland city of Milan; they put a thick, dark forest on the outskirts of Athens, where for centuries there had been no more than olive groves; and they seem innocent of the knowledge that there are canals in Venice. I could go on, but the point is that these are the works of someone with a vivid imagination much more than they are eyewitness accounts compiled by a world-traveller. (By contrast it has to be said that the plays accurately depict the geography of England.)
Other complaints concern the alleged lack of evidence that the actor Shakespeare was an author. For example, it is sometimes declared that we have no letters written by Shakespeare. Not true. We have a few, all prefacing his poetry and typical of the grovelling that writers of a lower class were forced to assume toward noble patrons. We also have first-hand testimonials as to his authorship from those who knew William Shakespeare, such as fellow actors and company share-holders John Heminges and Henry Condell, and from his friend and greatest rival as a playwright, Ben Jonson (for whom Shakespeare had acted). Those who believe these statements are evidence that a vast conspiracy was maintained amongst all those who worked with Shakespeare have obviously never worked in the notoriously gossipy theatre profession, let alone encountered the level of indiscretion that can be expected from a bitter rejected actor. And on that point, we can say that there are also statements from enemies, such as those who objected to the success enjoyed by a playwright of modest class and education, which likewise explicitly identify William Shakespeare as the author of the plays, the author with the actor, and the actor with the man who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The bald fact is that no doubt whatever was raised from any quarter about whether Shakespeare had written the plays attributed to him until the 1840s, about 230 years after his death.
Why was such a doubt raised then? Well, we know that the nineteenth century saw an enormous growth in the status-obsessed middle class, and the identification of fine sentiment with aristocratic nobility. But a further reason must be that the authors of that age showed remarkably little feeling for theatrical language. Although theatre was popular, there was little new real literature to be heard on the stage; and the attempts to write new poetic dramas in the vein of Shakespeare’s resulted in many flat, turgid “closet dramas” that no one thought of staging then, let alone today. Accordingly, they overlooked the one point that stands most conclusively in favour of the actor William Shakespeare being the author of the plays attributed to him: his plays are better than the others produced during his lifetime because they were and are more theatrical. And why? Well, here is the crucial fact: of all his contemporaries, Shakespeare was one of the very few playwrights who actually lived every day in the theatre, where he learned how actors thought and worked and how audiences watched and listened. Shakespeare clearly loved the theatre, and understood better than any of his contemporaries its enormous potential to reach the secret recesses of the human heart. That he and his fellow company members realized that potential over and over again is not an achievement of which he should be robbed simply because some people cannot imagine how he did it.
The true Shakespeare is not anonymous.