Released next week, Anonymous is the new film by the director Roland Emmerich. At the heart of this film is the argument that the plays of William Shakespeare were not, in fact, written by the Bard from Stratford but by an obscure English nobleman, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
Whilst the film itself is a work of fiction the contention that Shakespeare did not write the plays ascribed to him is not a new one. The theory was first posited in the 19th Century, by an obscure American writer, Delia Bacon. Widely dismissed by scholars ever since, Bacon's theory was that Shakespeare's plays were probably written by a group of men, including Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser, and the Earl of Oxford. Promoted in the 20th Century by the unfortunately named amateur scholar J. Thomas Looney, the so-called 'Oxfordian' theory, whilst discredited by all reputable scholarship, has gained legs in certain quarters.
Let us first consider the evidence, for and against Shakespeare's authorship. In the 'for' camp, we must begin by noting the obvious: that during his life and afterwards, the plays performed by various theatre companies, were ascribed to a man called William Shakespeare from Stratford-Upon-Avon. They were never ascribed to any one else. After Shakespeare's death, his friends and colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell collated the plays in the famous First Folio, under the authorship of 'William Shakespeare'. Why would they do this, if someone else wrote them? In the prefaratory verse to the First Folio, the poet Ben Jonson dedicated the verse, 'To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR, Mr. William Shakespeare'. Why would Jonson, a rival and sometime critic of Shakespeare and a man renowned for his ruthless public honesty, dissemble in this fashion, if the author of the plays was actually someone else?
If we consider the Earl of Oxford himself, what motivation could he possibly have had in hiding behind a pseudonym? The real Earl was widely understood during his life to be a vain and arrogant man. Given that Shakespeare's plays made the man from Stratford rich and famous during his lifetime, what motivation would de Vere have had to sidestep the limelight? However the most compelling evidence against de Vere's authorship is this: he died in 1604, before many of Shakespeare's plays were even written.
Scholars agree that amongst others, King Lear, Macbeth, Pericles, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, were all written after 1604. You would have thought that this would put an end to the matter, but no amount of evidence or reason can keep a good conspiracy theorist down. The plays are dated incorrectly. De Vere had a store of plays pre-written which were released at timely intervals after his death, are the usual excuses given.
But let us, in fairness, turn to the evidence that de Vere did in fact write the plays. I'll keep this brief, if only out of necessity, because of this simple reality: there is no evidence whatsoever, be it documentary, anecdotal, internal or external, to even suggest that Edward de Vere wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. De Vere's name never appeared on the playbills of any of the plays, on any of the editions of the plays, and was never associated in any other way with the plays or with Shakespeare during his lifetime. He was, in short, never mentioned in this context and these is not a whit of evidence to suggest otherwise. The world of scholarship has waited for years for so-called Oxfordian scholars to come up with some evidence, and they have never managed.
So, who then are the people who persist with this Oxfordian nonsense, and what motivates them? Over the next few weeks, as Anonymous is released, you will find game old birds such as Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance offering their banal opinions on the matter. Rylance, once the Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre and a man who should really know better, will say things such as this: how could Shakespeare, a poor boy from Stratford, have possibly known details of the Italian court? Surely, only an eyewitness, such as a nobleman could have such knowledge? (this, astoundingly is as good as Oxfordian 'evidence' gets).
Well, here's something for Rylance to chew on: perhaps Shakespeare made it up, invented the details, as creative people are often known to do. This seems never to occur to Oxfordians, who reject the notion that a mere glovemaker's son from a provincial backwater, could possibly have had the wit to write some of the most brilliant and insightful verse in the English language.
And it is here that we come to the dark heart of Oxfordian motivation: a shamelessly elitist and breathtakingly arrogant contention that only the most finely educated person, of the highest possible social class, could have access to creative genius. It is notable that Oxfordians are often famous actors (Orson Welles was another one), people who gather in a rarified clique of otherness, and who fail to understand that an ability to read the words beautifully, does not necessarily grant any insight into historical evidence, and who seem to think that genius is the sole property of the privileged.
With their vapid talk of 'mysteries' and 'gaps in the record', these arguments are finally revealed as the drabbest kind of conspiracy theories, motivated only by a toxic blend of snobbery and a vast, unchanging ignorance.
Anonymous goes on general release in the UK from the 28th October.