'Anonymous': Shakespeare under fire on the big-screen
Published Sunday, October 30, 2011 5:59PM EDT
It's teeming with playful phrases, obscure references and made-up words. Even with a glossary, introducing William Shakespeare's stylized prose to students can be an arduous task.
Now, some English educators fear that task may become more challenging thanks to "Anonymous." The film, which debuts this weekend, asserts that the humble poet from Stratford didn't write a single word that's been credited to him.
"For anybody whose first encounter with Shakespeare is this movie, this could be a disaster," said renowned Shakespearean scholar Alexander Leggatt. "I just hope there's enough good information to counteract it."
The movie plucks its premise from Oxfordian theory. It's a timeworn conspiracy purporting that nobleman Edward de Vere, better known as the 17th Earl of Oxford, is the true playwright behind all of Shakespeare's masterpieces.
Mainstream Shakespeare scholars have never given the theory much credence. While notables such as Orson Welles and Sigmund Freud have backed the idea, most academics still dismiss Oxfordians as literary wingnuts.
"It's almost like saying the Earth is flat, the Apollo moon landing never happened and six million people didn't die in the Holocaust," said Leggatt. "I really hate using such severe analogies but that's the level of thinking we're dealing with here."
Shakespeare's authorship has been questioned many times before. The anti-Stratfordian discussion stretches back to the 18th century when it was proposed that English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon wrote all the work attributed to Shakespeare.
The debate has been raging, albeit without much public attention, ever since.
But, to alter a Shakespeare quote: something different this way comes. "Anonymous" has provided Oxfordians with a multi-million dollar platform to present an idea that's been swept under history's rug.
It's a disheartening prospect for Leggatt, who spent much of his career teaching Shakespeare to students at the University of Toronto.
"What this may mean for Shakespeare educators is we'll waste a lot of time responding to nonsense in class. Thank goodness I'm retired," he said with a chuckle.
Generations of students have sat through round-robin readings of the Great Bard's work, which — if one reads closely enough — is rife with familial betrayal, political drama and enough erotica to rival some late-night cable channels.
Oxfordians promote the idea that the Earl of Oxford didn't own up to writing Shakespeare's masterworks because, among other reasons, penning plays was considered beneath him.
And so, as the story goes, he passed the work off on Shakespeare who's been dismissed in some circles as a simple commoner with a receding hairline.
"There are all these clues about the work that don't add up to Shakespeare of Stratford and that's where the dark creeps in," said Michael Egan, editor of The Oxfordian, a journal published by the Shakespeare-Oxford Society.
While Egan doesn't identify as a strict Oxfordian, the retired English professor argues academics should be more open-minded towards the theory.
Oxfordian theory purports that whoever wrote the works credited to Shakespeare had to be:
- Highly educated: As an aristocrat, the Earl would have had access to a top-notch education, said Egan. Shakespeare likely attended a basic Elizabethan grammar school.
- Familiar with multiple languages: Oxfordians claim that someone of Shakespeare's background wouldn't have referenced French, Italian, Latin and Greek words with such ease.
- Well travelled: De Vere was a known globetrotter with an intimate knowledge of Italy, which appears prominently in several Shakespeare plays such as "The Tempest" and "Othello." On the other hand, there's no evidence Shakespeare ever stepped foot in the country.
But the argument suffers from a particularly nagging detail: De Vere died in 1604. Shakespeare continued to write for about a decade after that.
Though most continue to dismiss Oxfordian theory as cockamamie, Egan said there's a palpable tension that lurks behind the Shakespeare authorship debate.
"Some academics have so much invested in the traditional view of Shakespeare; their careers, their books, their reputation," he said in a phone interview from his home in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Even beyond the classroom, Shakespeare's legacy endures.
The Bard of Avon's brand has been splashed onto pubs and shops around the United Kingdom. Shakespeare is also the engine of the tourist industry in Stratford, Ont., home to the internationally recognized Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
With all these tributes dedicated to Shakespeare's person, could the general public even accept the idea that the accolades may belong to someone else?
"Oxfordian theory is about sheer literary recognition," said Egan. "Here you have the jewels of English literature, the person who wrote them deserves credit."
A Bard by any other name
It's no secret that scholars have spared a lot of ink on the Shakespeare authorship debate.
They've studied every curve of his signature, which — at last count — only adorns about 79 known documents on Earth. They've pored over diaries belonging to his contemporaries. They've written lengthy dissertations. All in the name of authorship.
"Still, there hasn't been a single reputable scholar who's been able to prove Shakespeare didn't write his plays," said Anne Lancashire, a University of Toronto English professor.
Lancashire concedes that the movie "Anonymous" could convince the next wave of liberal arts undergraduates that Shakespeare is a fraud. But that may not be a bad thing, she argued.
"These days, I'm quite delighted when students in my classroom take an interest in Shakespeare at all," she said. "Whatever we can use as a starting point, I'm happy to work with."
Directed by Roland Emmerich, the film "Anonymous" is expected to explore the authenticity of Shakespeare's plays with the precise amount of drama and historical speculation that one would anticipate from the mind behind movies such as "2012"and "Eight Legged Freaks."
Regardless of what viewers may or may not take away from the movie, one retired Shakespearean scholar maintains that the question of who wrote the Bard's plays is inconsequential.
"It's unprovable and it's of no importance. We have the plays and that's the important part," said Alan Somerset, who spent 42 years teaching Shakespeare at the University of Western Ontario (UWO).
In a sense, perhaps the authorship debate is Shakespeare's last great comedy. With its whodunit plotline and a passionate cast of stakeholders, the dispute appears to have all the trappings of a play by the Bard.
While Somerset doesn't deny the debate's entertainment value, he maintains he'd prefer to take in a bona fide play instead.
"People gather to see the wonderful complexity that these plays bring into their lives and the playfulness of the language," he said. "Authorship has always been secondary."