To see or not to see, that is the question about the new conspiracy movie Anonymous that asserts William Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him. As a NY Times magazine piece by Stephen Marche puts it:
“Was Shakespeare a fraud?” That’s the question the promotional machinery for Roland Emmerich’s new film, “Anonymous,” wants to usher out of the tiny enclosure of fringe academic conferences into the wider pastures of a Hollywood audience. Shakespeare is finally getting the Oliver Stone/“Da Vinci Code” treatment, with a lurid conspiratorial melodrama involving incest in royal bedchambers, a vapidly simplistic version of court intrigue, nifty costumes and historically inaccurate nonsense. First they came for the Kennedy scholars, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Kennedy scholar. Then they came for Opus Dei, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Catholic scholar. Now they have come for me.
Professors of Shakespeare — and I was one once upon a time — are blissfully unaware of the impending disaster that this film means for their professional lives. Thanks to “Anonymous,” undergraduates will be confidently asserting that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare for the next 10 years at least, and profs will have to waste countless hours explaining the obvious. “Anonymous” subscribes to the Oxfordian theory of authorship, the contention that Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Among Shakespeare scholars, the idea has roughly the same currency as the faked moon landing does among astronauts.
The good news is that “Anonymous” makes an extraordinarily poor case for the Oxfordian theory.
Yes, Shakespeare scholars, like climate scientists, must now suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and decide whether or not to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.
Readers know that I am a long time Shakespeare buff — see “William Shakespeare special: Why deniers out-debate smart talkers.” Indeed, a quarter-century ago I even published a journal article on Hamlet, and I have an unpublished manuscript that explores how Shakespeare uses rhetoric and the figures of speech to communicate his meaning. So I’m well aware of the snobbish myth that Shakespeare was supposedly too uneducated to have written so many diverse masterpieces.
That merely reflects a complete lack of understanding of basic grammar school education in Shakespeare’s day — where students were taught rhetoric, the figures of speech, and Latin poetry and grammar hour after hour after hour year after year. That’s why they called it grammar school. The book I am intending to publish next year on messaging devotes a page on this very subject, how Elizabethans like Shakespeare and the authors of the King James Bible came to their mastery of the English language. Understanding how they did it is key to understanding how you can do it.
This new movie goes one step further and ascribes the plays to a person who simply could not have written them. I haven’t seen it yet — I’m quite conflicted since I’m confident it will be as head exploding as your typical denier movie. Marche actually makes a direct connection in his piece between Shakespeare deniers and climate science deniers. But first he briefly explains why no serious Shakespeare scholar buys the Oxford theory:
… the liberties with facts in “Anonymous” become serious when they enter our conception of real history. In scholarship, chronology does matter. And the fatal weakness of the Oxfordian theory is chronological, a weakness that “Anonymous” never addresses: the brute fact that Edward de Vere died in 1604, while Shakespeare continued to write, several times with partners, until 1613. “Macbeth” and “The Tempest” were inspired by events posthumous to the Earl of Oxford: the gunpowder plot in 1605 and George Somers’s misadventure to Bermuda in 1609. How can anyone be inspired by events that happened after his death?So, enough. It is impossible that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare. Notice that I am not saying improbable; it is impossible. Better scholars than I will ever be have articulated the scale of the idiocy. Jonathan Bate in a single chapter of “The Genius of Shakespeare” annihilated the Oxfordian thesis. If you want to read the definitive treatment, there is James Shapiro’s more recent “Contested Will,” although that book is nearly as absurd as its subject, because using a brain like Shapiro’s on the authorship question is like bringing an F-22 to an alley knife fight, and he kind of knows it. He ties his argument into the larger question of art and its relationship to the artist’s life, but even so the whole business is evidently a waste of his vast talent.
Scientists don’t generally use the world “impossible” — though they do use “unequivocal” and “settled fact” — but then this guy was a Shakespeare professor. He does draw compelling analogies between Shakespeare deniers and climate science deniers:
Besides, no argument could ever possibly sway the Oxfordian crowd. They are the prophets of truthiness. “It couldn’t have been Shakespeare,” they say. “How could a semiliterate country boy have composed works of such power?” Their snobbery is the surest sign of their ignorance. Many of the greatest English writers emerged from the middle or lower classes. Dickens worked in a shoe-polish factory as a child. Keats was attacked for belonging to the “cockney school.” Snobbery mingles with paranoia, particularly about the supposedly nefarious intrigues of Shakespeare professors to keep the identity secret. Let me assure everybody that Shakespeare professors are absolutely incapable of operating a conspiracy of any size whatsoever. They can’t agree on who gets which parking spot. That’s what they spend most of their time intriguing about.
Well, it’s certainly apparent that no argument and no fact can sway the hard-core disinformers — see Koch-Funded Berkeley Temperature Study Does “Confirm the Reality of Global Warming.”
And climate scientists are even less capable of operating a conspiracy than Shakespeare scholars. After all, they’d need to enlist all the major science journals and every major science organization and every member government of the IPCC….
Marche himself notes:
The original Oxfordian, the aptly named J. Thomas Looney, who proposed the theory in 1920, believed that Shakespeare’s true identity remained a secret because, he said, “it has been left mainly in the hands of literary men.” In his rejection of expertise, at least, Looney was far ahead of his time. This same antielitism is haunting every large intellectual question today. We hear politicians opine on their theories about climate change and evolution as a way of displaying how little they know. When Rick Perry compared climate-change skeptics like himself to Galileo in a Republican debate, I dearly wished that the next question had been “Can you explain Galileo’s theory of falling bodies?” Of all the candidates with their various rejections of the scientific establishment, how many could name the fundamental laws of thermodynamics that students learn in high school? Healthy skepticism about elites has devolved into an absence of basic literacy.
The Shakespeare controversy, which emerged in the 19th century (at that time, theorists proposed that Francis Bacon was Shakespeare), was one of the origins of the willful ignorance and insidious false balance that is now rotting away our capacity to have meaningful discussions. The wider public, which has no reason to be familiar with questions of either Renaissance chronology or climate science, assumes that if there are arguments, there must be reasons for those arguments. Along with a right-wing antielitism, an unthinking left-wing open-mindedness and relativism have also given lunatic ideas soil to grow in. Our politeness has actually led us to believe that everybody deserves a say.
The problem is that not everybody does deserve a say. Just because an opinion exists does not mean that the opinion is worthy of respect. Some people deserve to be marginalized and excluded. There are many questions in this world over which rational people can have sensible confrontations: whether lower taxes stimulate or stagnate growth; whether abortion is immoral; whether the ’60s were an achievement or a disaster; whether the universe is motivated by a force for benevolence; whether the Fonz jumping on water skis over a shark was cool or lame. Whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare is not one of these questions.
Unfortunately, the nonquestion of Shakespeare’s identity is now being asked on billboards all over the world. It will raise debate where none should be. It will sow confusion where there is none. Somebody here is a fraud, but it isn’t Shakespeare.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Oh, wait. That’s just Bjorn Lomborg….