Conspiracy Theorists come in many flavors and forms; there are the 9/11 Truthers, the Birthers, the Area 51 believers, the people who believe vaccines cause autism, and then of course there are the Barders. This last group is usually found in English Literature study circles and while their potential for damage is limited (unlike Birthers and anti-vaccine quacks) they are a fairly annoying lot nonetheless. There is NO evidence whatsoever that Shakespeare’s plays were written by the Earl of Oxford, (the conceit of Anonymous), or as others have theorized, Ben Jonson or Sir Francis Bacon.
There is however, a considerable amount of evidence that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare which by the way was what everyone during his own time period assumed, he being something of the Steven Spielberg of his day and England’s most popular playwright at a time when nobody considered plays ‘real’ art. They were, after all, designed to be enjoyed by commoners and often fairly drunk commoners at that, which is why the plays include so much ribald humor and fight scenes. It was only as the centuries passed and Shakespeare’s work began to be seen as the pinnacle of artistic achievement that it was that ‘doubts’ emerged. And the biggest reason appears to have been plain old-fashioned snobbery and frustrated romantic yearnings.
Surely, the argument goes, the most psychologically sophisticated characterization, intricately layered plotlines, and beautifully written language ever written for the theatre couldn’t have been done by some…some glover’s son who only attended grammar school. It had to have been someone who attended university—look at all the references to Ovid! They don’t seem aware that in Shakespeare’s time a typical grammar school education included reading the classics of Roman and Greek, (such as yep Ovid!) and learning to compose and translate into Latin—something most Barders couldn’t do. In fact, a lot of Literary Greats came from lowly backgrounds with minimal formal education; Charles Dickens worked in a factory as a child after his father got sent away to Marshalsea prison. One of the most famous Barders ironically was Mark Twain-yet old Mark or as he was originally known Samuel Clements never went to high school and still managed in spite of or perhaps because of it to become the Father of the Modern American novel.
None of this pulling yourself up by the bootstraps nonsense for Barders convinced of Shakespeare’s fraud though! Oh no those lovely sonnets and magnificent plays simply had to be the work of a nobleman! Look at all the descriptions of court life, which were so accurate! Of course the reasons they think Shakespeare’s description of court was so accurate is their impression of court life was formed from reading Shakespeare’s plays. And for that matter there are just as many characters from the lower classes in Shakespeare’s plays then there are from the upper echelons. Look at all the references to the law they proclaim! Shakespeare had no formal legal training! It’s true he didn’t-but he WAS embroiled in a LOT of lawsuits and thus couldn’t have helped learning a few things about the court system.
All those tired old arguments and more are on display in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous. The contempt for the “glover’s son” is palpable; Rafe Spall’s Will is an drunken, illiterate, buffoon who cannot even write a single letter, (again see commentary on Will’s grammar school education), who murders Marlowe to keep his undeserved credit. Ironically in a movie full of conspiracy theories they don’t dwell into the genuinely murky and interesting implications behind the premature death of Chris Marlowe who besides being a great playwright was also a gay spymaster. But the movie frequently doesn’t do right by its pantheon of famous players; Elizabeth I (played in her younger days by Joely Richardson and in old age by Vanessa Redgrave), is an easily manipulated slattern who can’t keep track of all her bastard sons (and who in the movie’s most improbable twist of all), is guilty of incest. Ben Jonson, (Sebastian Arnesto), who was one of the greatest literary lights of his day, is reduced to a jealous whiner who only serves to transport the Earl of Oxford’s great works.
The Earl of Oxford here depicted by Rhys Ifans (who admittedly has never been sexier), is a towering figure of genius. Why he’s such a genius he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was only nine! Have the filmmakers actually read or seen Midsummers Night’s Dream? The references to fairies aside it wasn’t a child’s play with all its primal sexuality. The movie posits that the Earl must hide his light because plays are inappropriate to nobleman (though poetry wasn’t’ so why hide the sonnets? The film never attempts to explain), and besides his plays were so political he had to distance himself from them. To that end they re-write history to have a failed rebellion take place on the eve of Richard III, that in real life happened when they performed Richard II, change the year the Globe burned down, and try to suggest that nobody ever wrote a play in pentamic iambeter before Romeo and Juliet. In fact at least a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays including The Tempest, MacBeth, and Corialanus, were all published after the Earl of Oxford’s death. But of course Anonymous furnishes another conspiracy theory to explain all that.
It may seem that I’m being a little harsh on what is after all just a very silly very tiresome movie filmed in consistently gloomy tones but there are deeper consequences to this sort of thing. We live in a world where consistently nutty theorists from the Swift Boaters to Creationists are given equal time under the guise of balance and this has troubling effects on our greater culture. Movies like Anonymous are symptoms of this disease and they help feed it. Already I feel sorry for the legions of English professors in high schools and universities who will now have to waste valuable class time debunking this rubbish when students demand they address the “controversy.”