Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was first put forward as the true Shakespeare in 1920, when English writer J. Thomas Looney (pronounced Lawney) argued that only a wealthy nobleman could have created works of genius. Since Shakespeare was a glover's son, he could never have crafted such works, and de Vere's life better matched the plots of each play. Looney's theory has been backed by such diverse bigwigs as Sigmund Freud, Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens, American author Mark Twain, and now director Roland Emmerich.
It is, however, a theory riddled with flaws, and exposes a strain of classism and aristocratic snobbery that should have been expelled from Shakesperean studies and the American consciousness years ago.
Wrong Facts and Conspiracy Theories
Let's ignore the fact, though it is a damning one, that the case for Edward de Vere, and more importantly, against William Shakespeare, has plenty of significant evidence against it. Contemporary writers, notes from Elizabethan noblemen, and even court records all confirm that Shakespeare wrote his now immortal plays. In a period of England not known for lauding either playwrights or commoners, it seems unlikely that a nobleman would have credit for his genius foisted on a low-born imposter.
Perhaps most damning, as James Shapiro of The New York Times has said, is the fact that Edward de Vere died in 1604, before some ten of Shakespeare's plays were even written, much less staged.
Shakespeare's authorship has been reviewed and debated since the 1850s. Over fifty candidates have been put forward as additional or alternate authors for his exquisite work.
The most popular alternatives are Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke; Sir Henry Neville, a nobleman politician; Christopher Marlowe, an equally famous playwright in Elizabethan times; Sir Francis Bacon, the great philosopher and lawyer; and Edward de Vere, the subject of Anonymous.
Anonymous doesn't bother with challenging hard facts, choosing instead to use the absence of evidence as proof in and of itself. Following the surefire method of conspiracy spreading, Anonymous asserts that there must have been a conspiracy to suppress the truth of de Vere's authorship.
The picture the film puts forward? Not only was Edward de Vere a child prodigy, writing A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1559 at age nine (making him uncomfortably savvy in double entendre before he allegedly hit puberty), he is also, apparently, the bastard son of the Virgin Queen, in an interpretation of Queen Elizabeth I that finds her both the lover and mother of her illegitimate child.
A Kid From Warwickshire: The Oxford Bias
Anonymous posits this scenario as the gritty truth behind a whitewashed fable handed down through generations, like the light shone on Columbus Day when the brutal enslavement of entire peoples began to be looked down upon. Let me offer you a different story, a darker story, the prologue to Anonymous states, giddy with anticipation of its own harsh realities.
But this different, darker story does not model itself off of great documentary filmmakers. Instead, it elevates the absurd, offensive idea that wealth and stature equals greatness by lavishing it in gorgeous sets and renowned actors.
Rhys Ifans as the Earl of Oxford, Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth I, Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare, David Thewlis as Sir William Cecil... these are all big names, well known in both the film and theater circuit.
As such, they help to mask the fact that Looney's theory, and Emmerich's interpretation, casts Shakespeare as an illiterate, shallow, and greedy little fraud, and a whoremonger and murderer besides. William Shakespeare, whom Anonymous takes pains to remind us is only the son of a modest glover, is a combination of almost every stereotype you can think of about those people trying to rise above their betters.
Rhys Ifan's de Vere, meanwhile, is all aristocratic sophistication, his considerable talents cultivated by his experiences at court and at war with duties as one of the richest and most powerful men in England.
The problem with this model should be apparent, but blatant class snobbery would be excusable, or at least tolerable enough to enjoy what is often an entertaining and well-shot film with an excellent cast, if those behind the project didn't put stock in what they portrayed.
The opposite, in review, seems to be the case. Emmerich labels himself a firm anti-Stratfordian... a likely Oxfordian, which for those outside Shakespearean scholarship means that the idea of a a kid from Warwickshire writing great plays is laughable.
As justification for his views, Emmerich claims in an interview with Moviefone that Shakespeare would never have been able to read Greek, Latin, Italian, and French, from which most of his source material was gleaned, and would, as a commoner, have written about servants and lower castes, not noblemen like those in King Lear, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.
Holes in the Theory
The problem with Emmerich's theory, which he puts forward with such sincerity, is that it is based on equally sincere ignorance.
William Shakespeare's father was elected alderman in Stratford-upon-Avon when Shakespeare was young, guaranteeing his sons free education. Shakespeare would have attended King Edward IV Grammar School, an institution known for its intensive curriculum and exposure to multiple language and literary traditions.
The idea that a commoner would (and could) only write about commoners is equally faulty. Marlowe, Shakespeare's contemporary, may have been of slighter stock, but he was nonetheless the son of a shoemaker born and residing in England -- yet, one of his greatest works is Tamburlaine the Great, an epic about an emperor of Central Asia.
As for Shakespeare's works revering noblemen and putting down commoners, one must never forget that noblemen were the ones financing and often watching these plays, and were staged by the Queen's (and later, for James I, the King's) Men.
Emmerich, in suggesting that only experience can produce imagination and genius, paints William Shakespeare as someone who must have been a fraud, ignoring the prevalence of science fiction and fantasy, historical fiction, or even simply the great works of literature across locations and time periods that create worlds and characters purely from the author's own fantastic creative powers.
A Spirited Defense of Creative Commoners
Luckily, Anonymous does such a faulty job proving its case, and explaining the meaning behind their faux-Shakespeare's plays, that Emmerich's film is unlikely to do more than convince a few conspiracy-loving audience members to quote the same tagline movie posters have made famous: Was Shakespeare a Fraud?
First off, as The Times prodigiously notes, the movie Anonymous is rife with historical errors. Barely forgivable mistakes include Christopher Marlowe watching Shakespeare's plays and being killed by the Bard some six years after Marlowe died in a bar brawl. Other more glaring flaws include audiences being shocked at the use of iambic pentameter when the form had already become the standard, and a censor's anger over Richard III being portrayed with a hump when the hunchbacked king had been established as a character roughly forty years before.
The most obvious indicator of a faux-historical film to this reviewer, however, is how it deals with its source material, and Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff's handling of Shakespeare's plays reveal, inadvertently, just how much depth these works are missing in the hands of others.
All art is political, Edward de Vere says in the film, otherwise it is just decoration. Shakespeare's plays were undeniably political works, just as they were undoubtedly nuanced tragedies or powerful love stories.
To limit the purpose and meaning of such works as Hamlet and Henry V to pure propaganda, however, is just poor scholarship. Shakespeare's power was in his words, not the reductive meaning garnered from any one interpretation of them.
The thrill of splicing apart all the levels of meaning, all the ambiguity of characterization and all the playfulness of word and rhythm are as much a part of Shakespeare's legacy as any plot point or biographical detail.
Was Shakespeare a Fraud?
Emmerich's comment to the Huffington Post, that great artists are inspired by our lives, is not only problematic because it comes from the producer of movies like Independence day and 10,000 BC. It only puts forward the idea that the author of Macbeth would have to have witnessed the murder of a king to write about greed and betrayal, and that the creator of A Midsummer Night's Dream would need to have known both fairies and noblemen personally in order to draw upon fairy tales and noble life.
Emmerich asserts that the film is not truly arguing Shakespeare's authorship, despite that argument being the pillar of his film's plot and marketing campaign.
The movie's really about, Emmerich has said, is the pen mightier than the sword? Is might more powerful than intellect? These are certainly crucial questions, and one to which the cast often, and at times even provocatively, gives lip-service.
But when might and the sword are placed in the hands of an ambitious and self-obsessed Shakespeare, while the Earl of Oxford is given pen, intellect, and artistic spirit, Emmerich's argument is no longer simply about plays and pens. It is about the idea that a commoner being a genius is something that still, hundreds of years later, is cast as impossible.