The real case for Oxford won’t be found in the movie Anonymous

In the past we’ve groused (see, for instance, this post) about how the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has flat-out ignored the Shakespeare authorship question and has snubbed those who think that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, rather than Will Shakespeare, the actor and businessman from Stratford, was probably the real author of Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar.

But we can’t complain any more, because in the last several months the Festival’s boss of bosses, general director Antoni Cimolini, has been all over the subject. It is said that one of Mr. Cimolini’s distinguished predecessors in Stratford, Tyrone Guthrie, who directed the very first Shakespeare performances in Stratford in 1952, very much doubted the traditional attribution of the plays. Unfortunately Mr. Cimolino (who will be directing Cymbeline at Stratford in the summer of 2012 and is also apparently the leading candidate to replace Des McAnuff as Artistic Director after the 2013 season) doesn’t take the issue seriously.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

The reason for all this talk is that movie critics have been interviewing prominent Shakespeare people like Mr. Cimolini about the new Roland Emmerich movie Anonymous, which we’ve finally seen. Just like Shakespeare in Love, this new movie has plenty of historical characters, a few historical facts, a number of historical inaccuracies, and a wholly invented story. When we first heard about it, we hoped that it might draw attention to the real case for the Earl of Oxford. Unfortunately, Anonymous — whatever its merits in strictly cinematic terms, on which we express no opinion — is downright counter-productive on the authorship question.

In the movie, the Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), portrayed by Rhys Ifans, is in the closet as a playwright because it doesn’t befit a nobleman to be mixed up with theater. By the early 1590s, Oxford has written one unperformed play after another, tied them up in neat bundles, and piled them on a shelf — Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and plenty more. He writes compulsively.  His wife, frustrated because he neglects his other affairs, comes into his library and says, “Writing plays again? You promised!” (The producers clearly didn’t blow their budget on screenwriters.)

The actor Rhys Ifans, who plays Oxford

Oxford wants to see his plays performed, and fortune delivers into his hands a chance to blackmail Ben Jonson into making it happen. Oxford insists that Jonson put his name to Henry V, but Jonson doesn’t want credit for it and arranges for an vain, illiterate actor named Will Shakespeare to claim authorship instead. The play is a smash, and at the final curtain, when the audience cries “Author, author!” (surely audiences didn’t do that back in 1593!), the oafish Shakespeare comes forward to accept applause. As more of Oxford’s plays are produced, Will Shakespeare continues to take credit. Oxford’s stash still hasn’t given out when he dies in 1604, so “Shakespeare” plays continue to be brought forth for years to come.

But there’s more. It seems (in the movie) that Edward de Vere was the bastard son of Queen Elizabeth, secretly raised and educated as a nobleman’s son. Later, de Vere has an affair with the Queen (his own mother, though neither knew it!), resulting in the birth of the Earl of Southampton, whose mother is thus also his grandmother.

The movie gives Stratfordians new pretexts for piling ridicule on Oxfordians and for ignoring the real case for Oxford. It’s “snobbery,” says Stephen Marche in the New York Times, for Oxfordians to insist that a glovemaker’s son from Stratford with a grammar school education could never have become a brilliant writer. Mr. Cimolini piles on in the Toronto Globe and Mail: “inherent snobbery.”

But (and I think I speak for most Oxfordians) this isn’t the Oxfordian argument at all. Who actually insists that Will Shakespeare was an illiterate bumpkin, as one of the characters in the movie says he was? A few Shakespeare doubters may think that, but most of us don’t. Why shouldn’t such a man have gotten a decent education? And of course Oxfordians recognize that men and women with little formal education can come to write timeless literature.  We just don’t think Will Shakespeare was one of those persons. “Snobbery” is a classic “straw man” argument.


Then there’s the “conspiracy” card. J. Kelly Nestruck, who reviews theater in the Globe and Mail, says that he “made the leap from ambivalence” about Shakespeare authorship to “ardent defender of the Bard of Avon” when he met somebody who not only believed that William Shakespeare did not write the plays, but who also turned out to be a “truther” — one of the paranoid screwballs who think the Twin Towers were brought down by George W. Bush and the Jews. Nestruck charitably lumps Oxfordians with some of the better-known examples of ignorance and hatefulness: “Shakespeare denial is part and parcel of a dangerous, anti-rational mode of thinking,” a “gateway drug” to becoming a Truther, a Birther, and a believer in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

What rot! Emsworth, who is willing to bet that he’s read a lot more of Richard Hofstadter than J. Kelly Nestruck ever has, and who firmly resents the imputation of anti-intellectualism, can’t think of a single conspiracy theory, from “who shot JFK” to ” who fixed the Super Bowl” that he ever bought into.

This is just changing the subject. As a class, we Oxfordians aren’t suckers for conspiracies. How exactly it happened that Oxford didn’t take credit for the Shakespeare plays and sonnets, we don’t know, but we doubt very much that it was anything like the elaborate conspiracies postulated in Anonymous. The movie recycles several of the least likely of the speculative scenarios that have cropped up around Oxford and the question of authorship and gives Stratfordians plenty to mock. There’s no historical evidence that the Virgin Queen was actually a promiscuous slut or ever had any bastard children, but in any event why should the love life of Queen Elizabeth or the parentage of Henry Wriothsley, Earl of Southampton, have anything to do with the question of who wrote Hamlet? The movie leaves viewers with the false impression that to believe in Oxford’s authorship of the “Shakespeare” plays is to buy into an imaginative set of wildly improbable conspiracy theories. We assure anyone who’s actually interested in the subject that it’s not necessary.

Then there’s the crude slur that to doubt the Stratford man is to have a screw loose. Stratfordians generally begin talking about Shakespeare authorship by sneering about the name of one of the early Oxfordians (Mr. Marche is typical: “the aptly named J. Thomas Looney”), and some them have wasted a lot of ink over the last few months on amateur psychoanalysis of the supposedly paranoid tendencies of people who would doubt something so “incontrovertible” as the notion that the man from Stratford wrote Hamlet. James Shapiro, the writer of a generally interesting book about the history of the Shakespeare authorship question (see this Emsworth comment) is one of the quickest to impugn the mental stability of authorship doubters.

Sadly, the public comments of our Stratford man, Mr. Cimolino, over the last several months don’t suggest that he’s actually reviewed the substantive case for Oxford. He asserts in the Globe and Mail that there is “in fact no evidence to connect Oxford with the plays, and no reason to suppose that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote them. To which Oxfordians retort, ‘Of course not: Oxford deliberately deliberately hid his authorship.'” No, Mr. Cimolino, that’s not what we say.  True, there’s no “smoking gun,” no single, irrefutable document that conclusively proves the case for Oxford.  But there really is plenty of evidence, much of which is reviewed, very soberly and with considerable erudition, by such organizations as the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (here’s its website) and the journal Brief Chronicles (here’s its website).  Viewing it as a whole, we find it persuasive.

No doubt Mr. Cimolino did not set out intentionally to insult the many patrons of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival who doubt the authorship of the Stratford man, and we’re slow to take offense.  But we invite him to take a closer look.


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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Tamas Feher:

    In my mind the undeniable fact that the playwright knew Italy so accurately is one of the strongest pieces of evidence that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays.

    But please tell me why it is believed that play manuscripts were hidden in Venice. That idea is new to me.


  2. Mr. Gonzalez: Not sure I understand the question. Can you clarify?

  3. Hi There Emsworth,
    Speaking of which, What are some factors that make collusion more likely to be successful? In economic terms.

  4. It really doesn’t matter if Oxenford or the Queen or both of them were immoral or plotted for/against the english throne. The only important topic is Italy. Half of the bardian canon is “presented in italics”. One who hasn’t been to the boot-shaped country could not have written them, yet the realtor of Stratford never left Blighty. On the other hand Oxenford was fully italianated and toured the whole land from Venice to Milano in a full years time.

    The manuscripts of the plays are/were hidden in Venice, but nobody knows where Oxenford’s purchased house stood in the city of canals. It is suspected to be located in the general vicinity of the Santa Lucia church, which means it was most likely razed around 1846 to make place for the railway station. Likely the bardian manuscripts were landfilled with the rubble of that house.

    Therefore, ultimate proof is not possible, unless the Queen of England goes live on BBC1 someday and says the court has known for over 400 years that it was Oxenford and finally they admit it publicly.

  5. H. S. Schumann:

    I appreciate your comment, and also your recommendation of Mr. Beauclark’s book, which looks like just the sort of thing I would enjoy.

    Can we really make anything of Will Shakespeare’s six unreadable signatures? Of course if he really had been the playwright and poet, we would surely expect more signatures, and more consistency from his handwriting. But if he was just a play producer and bit actor and Stratford merchant, we wouldn’t expect either quantity or quality — but that wouldn’t necessarily imply illiteracy.

    As for Queen Elizabeth, portrayed in the film as a woman who took sex from whomever she liked — well, by the standards of 2011, that wouldn’t make her a slut. In fact, given the way our secularized culture now actively praises women for taking control of their own sexuality, it could be argued that the concept of sluttishness is archaic. But perhaps it never was very well understood, as this exchange from As You Like It suggests:

    Truly, and to cast away honesty upon a foul slut
    were to put good meat into an unclean dish.
    I am not a slut, though I thank the gods I am foul.
    Well, praised be the gods for thy foulness!
    sluttishness may come hereafter.

  6. Great post.

  7. I agree with most of your comments, but I think you are being a bit unfair to the film. Queen Elizabeth is not portrayed as a “promiscuous slut.” She is shown as a sensuous, intelligent, and powerful woman who might have been, unfortunately, too much under the influence of the Cecil’s. The fact that, during her lifetime, she may have had sex with a few nobleman does not make her a slut, however.

    As far as the Prince Tudor theories proclaimed in the film, there is considerable evidence to support this, though I personally do not buy into both of them. I would suggest reading Charles Beauclerk’s brilliant book “Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom,” for a compelling insight into the evidence for these theories.

    The portrayal of William Shasper in the film may be a bit over-the-top but the record indicates that he was an unscrupulous play broker who may have wanted to cash in the plays he didn’t write. The fact that he left only six unreadable signatures during his life may indicate that the film got it right about his literacy.

    In any event, notwithstanding the powerful Shakespeare industry’s attempt to discredit the film, as film critic Kirby McCord put it, “Anonymous” is an intricate tale full of multi-dimensional characterizations, wonderful sets and costumes, unconventional perspectives, and a number of elaborately executed surprises. As such, it is a fascinating recreation of history that is entertaining, eyebrow raising and enlightening.”

  8. Dear Emsworth
    Thank you for this, as always thoughtful, post, with which broadly I agree. A couple of points or cautious questions/observations:
    1. ‘Shakespeare in Love’ did not do the Stratfordian cause any harm, despite its clearly totally fictional and anachronistic character. I think ‘Shakespeare in Love – the Post-Modern version’ will assist in getting the Oxfordian scenario into the public mind, despite its many flaws and massive anachronisms, and the contamination by the cultish Prince Tudor theory. I think that, however simplistically, there IS here an attempt to convey something of what being a masterful genius is like, particularly in the portrayal of the relationship between Oxford and Ben Jonson in the film. No such thing is possible in any film about the Stratford man; the basis is not there, whatever we think about his education (I think Diana Price, indirectly, is very good on all of this ).
    2. I DO think we Oxfordians have to account for the posthumous fraud which is involved in the First and Second Folio projects, and the basis of the pseudonym, which changed over time almost certainly, however this subtle problem was impossible to convey in the film which in any case had other fish to fry altogether. But it DOES once more point to a problem!
    I believe Peter Dickson, despite his often hyperbolic self-advertisement [here is a flavour of it:
    has made a serious beginning on mapping a scenario in his new book – Bardgate and the Royalists who Stole the Bard – which I hope will find a serious publisher. But I will not enlarge on this here. However I DO think that this situation IS one of the great unsolved mysteries, and we need to take the anomalousness of it seriously:

    Good to speak with you sir as always!

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