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.


Richard Brookhiser on Bill Buckley and National Review (Right Time, Right Place)

Right Time Right PlaceIf Richard Brookhiser had to sort out some feelings when he wrote Right Time, Right Place (a Father’s Day gift from Emsworth’s youngest daughter), well, so did we when we read it. Brookhiser’s subject is William F. Buckley, Jr., who discovered Brookhiser as a teenager, talked him out of Yale Law School, gave him a job at National Review, mentored him, and, when Brookhiser was only 23, promised that he’d be the next editor-in-chief and owner of National Review upon Buckley’s eventual retirement.


Richard Brookhiser, a Rochester, New York native. One would think that the local press would have taken notice of this locally-born author of several popular books on the Founding Fathers, but if so, we've missed it.

Brookhiser had to adjust his image of his hero when, eight years later and out of the blue, Buckley told Brookhiser (in a note left on Brookhiser’s desk) that he’d changed his mind and had concluded that his protege lacked executive ability and was “unsuited” to edit the magazine. Brookhiser overcame his bitterness at what he still considers Buckley’s “cowardice” and continued to work part-time for National Review; Buckley died in 2008. On the side, Brookhiser has written several popular books about American history.


William F. Buckley, Jr. with Ronald Reagan

We never knew any of this, even though Emsworth has read National Review faithfully for over 35 years and has admired Brookhiser’s work. We remembered when (without explanation) Brookhiser became a “senior editor” instead of “managing editor” about 20 years ago. After that, all we knew was that we didn’t see Brookhiser in NR nearly as often.

Later, we bought and appreciated his excellent biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Knowing no better, we assumed that Brookhiser had independent means and had decided to pursue free-lance writing as his primary career.

In this new book, Right Time, Right Place, Brookhiser tells the story of his years with National Review and yields up his memories of his imperfect hero. Brookhiser has a rare ability to reflect with objectivity on his own life, and his controlled prose has never been better. We were fascinated. The magazine has been part of our life for a long time, and Bill Buckley was one of our heroes too.  Finally, here was something more than the air-brushed stories of life at NR that we’d always had to settle for.

The book also brings into view other long-familiar National Review figures like William Rusher, Joe Sobran, and Jeffrey Hart. Brookhiser was more enthusiastic about some of his NR colleagues than others. (Sadly, Brookhiser’s wariness of Sobran has kept him from appreciating the arguments in favor of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the author of the Shakespeare plays. Sobran has been a prominent champion of Oxford.)

But it was the glimpses of the human side of Buckley (as opposed to the public figure with the carefully cultivated public image) that kept us glued to the book. We expect more of the same when we get a copy of Christopher Buckley’s book about his father.

And what feelings do we have to sort out as we read Right Time, Right Place? Frankly, jealousy of Brookhiser, his superior talents, and the doors that opened for him. He’s about our own age, he’s a fellow pianist, and his interests in literature very nearly mirror ours. We’ve known for years that his political views are closer to ours than anyone else at National Review. And he’s from Rochester! — born and raised in Irondequoit (sadly, with no more independent means than we have).

We don’t complain about our own career. But how we would have enjoyed working at National Review, making words matter, wrestling with ideas and policies, mixing with people of congenial views, trying to make the conservative case. Brookhiser, to his credit, seems genuinely grateful for the opportunities he’s had.

Bill Bryson on Shakespeare (and the authorship question)

bill-bryson-on-shakespeareShakespeare biographies are something of a pet peeve of ours, since so few hard facts about the life of William Shakespeare are actually known, and nobody ever turns up anything new. And so many new Shakespeare books come out every year that we don’t even try to keep up. So we nearly missed Shakespeare: The World as Stage, a modest little “biography” of the Bard that Bill Bryson published in 2007. 



We really liked this crisply written little book (196 pages and wide margins), even though a lot of it consists of filler material about 16th-century social and political history that doesn’t have any direct connection either with William Shakespeare or with the plays attributed to him. From pages 62 to 65, for instance, and for no compelling reason related to the life of Shakespeare, Bryson gives us a lively account of the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1567. From pages 92 to 94 he bunny-trails into an entertaining biographical sketch of Christopher Marlowe. We don’t blame him; if Shakespeare biographers didn’t do this sort of thing, their books would be awfully short.

And we did learn a few things that we didn’t know, or needed to be corrected on. Take the matter of the “second-best bed” bequeathed to Mrs. Shakespeare in Will Shakespeare’s will.  The old conventional wisdom (which we were taught long ago) was that Shakespeare’s failure to leave his wife his best bed was a sign of strained marital relations.  The newer conventional wisdom (which we dutifully accepted) was that the “second-best bed” would have been the marital bed and the one that Anne would have wanted most, after all.  But the latest wisdom, we learn from Bryson, is that it truly was unusual and inexplicable for a husband to leave his wife their second-best bed.

It is hard to imagine why anyone would write a “biography” of William Shakespeare today without giving at least some attention to whether the man born and buried in Stratford actually wrote the celebrated plays and sonnets, or whether someone else wrote them using the pseudonym “William Shakespeare.” Yet many writers on Shakespeare do ignore the issue. To his credit, Bill Bryson does not gloss over the question of authorship and, in fact, devotes the ninth and final chapter of his book to it.


Bill Bryson

To our sorrow (for, as noted in an earlier post, we ourselves are of the Oxfordian persuasion), Bryson is a hardened skeptic on the subject.  He goes so far as to say that “nearly all the anti-Shakespeare sentiment — actually all of it, every bit — involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact.”  Unfortunately, Bryson uses mostly straw-man arguments to support this sweeping statement, making sport of some of the least defensible things said on the subject — assertions that are very far from being pillars of anti-Stratfordian schools of thought.

For example, Bryson mocks a writer for the New York Times for claiming that William Shakespeare (the man from Stratford) never owned a book. As to that, there is no evidence one way or the other (except that that no books are mentioned in William Shakespeare’s will).  Personally, we don’t doubt that he was literate; why shouldn’t an actor, theatrical producer, and prominent citizen of Stratford have read and owned books?  But what does it matter? The argument against authorship by the Stratford man doesn’t depend in the slightest on the assumption that he didn’t or couldn’t read.



Bryson devotes five pages to making fun of the old theory that Sir Francis Bacon was the true author.  As Bryson well knows, however, hardly anything really thinks Bacon wrote the Shakespeare plays anymore.  Bryson gives less space, though he pays more serious attention, to Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, a candidate who does have a great deal of support today (including Emsworth’s).  Bryson concedes that de Vere

had certain things in his favor as a candidate: He was clever and had some standing as a poet and playwright (though none of his plays survives [or do they survive? Mr. Bryson, that’s the issue!], and none of his poetry indicates actual greatness — certainly not Shakespearean greatness); he was well traveled and spoke Italian, and he moved in the right circles to understand courtly manners.


Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford

But Bryson goes on to attack de Vere’s candidacy with some thoroughly debatable assertions. Bryson argues that de Vere’s colorful personal history (squandering his fortune and episodes of violence and sexual depravity) is irreconcilable with the “gift for compassion, empathy, or generosity of spirit” reflected in the plays and sonnets. Emsworth emphatically disagrees; the plays are more than violent and kinky enough to suggest that the playwright had first-hand experience with such matters during an irresponsible youth.

Bryson also claims, as if it were an unanswerable point, that de Vere couldn’t have written a number of the “later” Shakespeare plays because he died in 1604. In fact, as Bryson also knows very well, there’s no evidence as to when any Shakespeare play was actually written or even first performed.

In fairness, this book was intended to be a popular biography, not a work of scholarship, and the question of who wrote the plays and sonnets wasn’t Bryson’s main focus at all. Still, on the issue of authorship, we were unmoved either by Bryson’s mockery or by his reasoning.

Who wrote Hamlet? Not up for discussion at the Stratford Festival

Edward de Vere

Nibbling on our breakfast scone at a B & B in Stratford, Ontario last weekend, we were pleased to learn that two of our fellow guests, a couple from Dearborn, Michigan, were fellow Oxfordians. That is, they shared our view that the plays traditionally attributed to William Shakespeare were probably — no one will ever know for sure — written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

This led us to wonder, in turn, how many other Stratford Festival patrons share our irritation every time they open their play programs to find the five canned paragraphs that purport to sum up the life of William Shakespeare.

For most playwrights, biographical blurbs in theater programs have to be greatly condensed. Not so with William Shakespeare. So little is really known about him that at least half of the material about him in the Stratford Festival’s 2008 programs is filler — educated guesses about his life and career. We detect the dramaturge’s struggle for hard facts about the playwright from such speculative phrases as these:

“The exact date of his birth is unknown . . . .”

“[T]radition has it . . . .”

“The young Shakespeare is assumed to have attended what is now the Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford, where he would have studied . . . .”

“Nothing further is known of Shakespeare’s life until 1592 . . . .”

“Possibly as early as 1610, the playwright retired to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon . . . .”

Conspicuously absent from the Stratford Festival’s programs is any hint that this man of whom we know so little may not actually have written The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Love’s Labours Lost.

Francis Bacon

But surely the powers-that-be at the Stratford Festival are aware of the issue. And they are surely also aware of the new evidence pointing to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth, as the true author — far more evidence, both in quality and in quantity, than was ever brought forward in decades past to support the candidacies of Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, or other Elizabethans.

Emsworth does not complain that the Stratford Festival has not come out in favor of Oxford. This is a matter on which reasonable minds can differ.

As it stands, though, the Stratford Festival is effectively siding with the actor from Stratford. Have the Artistic Director and the dramaturge decided simply to leave things as they are until someone actually produces a draft of Macbeth in Oxford’s handwriting? What will it take for the Stratford Festival to acknowledge that there is at least a serious question as to authorship?

In the meantime, simply ignoring the case for Oxford is not what one might expect from the most influential Shakespeare organization in North America.

Emsworth refers curious readers to the website of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, which outlines the principal reasons to doubt that the actor from Stratford wrote the Shakespeare plays, along with the facts that point to Edward de Vere as the actual poet and playwright. (We are not connected with this organization.) Emsworth has just noticed that Wikipedia now includes an extensive and seemingly objective entry on “Oxfordian theory,” which sets forth arguments both for and against authorship by de Vere.