What’s In A Name?
The following story contains espionage, conspiracy theories, faked deaths, cover-ups, identity theft, homosexuality, incest and ghosts.
All good ingredients for a Hollywood blockbuster, minus some car chases and planet-engulfing catastrophes. But that didn’t stop the world’s foremost planet-engulfing catastrophiser, Roland Emmerich, from running with it. The result is Anonymous, the explosive (‘SPLOSIONS, YEAH!) story of
alien invasion monster rampage global cataclysm Shakespeare?!
Anonymous is a whodunit (or, in Emmerich’s words, a “political thriller”). Specifically, who done Shakespeare? See, there’s a thriving cottage industry built on the Shakespeare authorship debate, which centres on doubts about the identity of the Bard of Avon. True story.
The rise of these doubts – in the early 19th century – corresponds roughly with Shakespeare’s elevation in the common mind to the greatest writer in the English language. During his own lifetime, he was neither especially revered nor were there many, if any, questions about his authorship. So what happened?
Shakespearian scholar Jonathan Bate puts it simply: “As soon as you have a god you have apostates.” And as with most apostates, it’s the lack of proof that bothers them. What little is known about the bard’s life doesn’t reflect the quality of his writing, they say. The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt sums up their cases, if you’re interested.
One of the first official dissenters was proto-hipster Joseph C Hart, who in 1848 wrote a book called The Romance of Yachting. In it he speculated that Shakespeare was a cover ID for a collaborative rat pack of authors. There’s still a faction that believes such a coterie – possibly including the Stratford bard himself – may have all contributed to the Shakespeare ‘pseudonym’.
Why? Some adherents of this theory maintain that the real authors were noblemen who wished to avoid the stigma of print. Others merely claim Shakespeare collaborated and co-wrote much more frequently than he gives credit for – like an Elizabethan D-grade student paying someone smarter to write his essays for him.
In 1856, American writer Delia Bacon took up the cause, arguing for a cabal of co-conspirators that included Sir Walter Raleigh and was led by Sir Francis Bacon, noblemen both. Nomenclative nepotism aside, Bacon’s Bacon theory was a hit. Within 30 years there were over 250 books on the subject and in 1886 the Francis Bacon Society was formed to further the theory. The society still exists.
The Bacon lovers’ theory dates back to 1597, when lawyer-poets Joseph Hall and John Marston engaged in a satire duel that seems to identify the author of Venus and Adonis as Bacon using a pseudonym. Doubt exists as to their true meaning, however.
A few years before the turn of the century, attorney Wilbur Gleason Zeigler published the speculative novel It Was Marlowe. His story gave rise to the now widely held Marlovian theory: Shakespeare was an illiterate fraud and his lesser known contemporary, Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, a spy on Her Majesty’s Secret (16th-Century) Service – who also happened to be gay (horror!) and an atheist (HORROR OF HORRORS!) – faked his own death to escape assassination at the hands of the Star Chamber, then wrote the plays under the Shakespeare pseudonym while living out his days in hiding.
There are, no doubt, gaping plot holes in this narrative but Marlowe is currently the second most popular choice, after the highly educated, well- travelled aristocrat Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. De Vere’s case was first proposed in 1920 by a schoolteacher, J Thomas Looney, who doesn’t live up to his name if you believe the Oxfordians. It’s also de Vere whom Emmerich puts forward in Anonymous.
He appears to have gone with the less popular Prince Tudor spin on the Oxfordian theory: that de Vere was the virgin queen’s secret son and also her incestuous lover and they had an illegitimate child together. (One of the early supporters of this theory even turned to a medium, contacting the ghosts of Shakespeare, de Vere and Elizabeth, who all ‘confirmed’ it, of course.)
Since Anonymous is released in Australia on 3 November, I can’t say how convincing Emmerich’s pitch is, although it’s clearly not a documentary. Ten years ago, however, Australian filmmaker Mike Rubbo (the man behind ABC TV’s Race Around The World; remember that?) did convince me – almost.
His 2001 documentary Much Ado About Something was my introduction to the debate and after watching it for the first time I claimed it had changed my life. I’m a less hyperbolic grown-up now and have returned to a position dominated by Occam’s Razor and most academic thinking, but there’s no denying Rubbo presents a well-supported case.
In doing so, he and Emmerich join a long list of sceptics, including fellow director Orson Welles; actors Charlie Chaplin and Jeremy Irons; authors Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain; psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud; and US Supreme Court senior justice John Paul Stevens, who has weighed the evidence and convicted Shakespeare as a fraud.
Impressive names, but none of them Shakespeare experts. Like, say, Mark Rylance, the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, or former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company Sir Derek Jacobi (who also narrates Anonymous). They co-founded the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt, which both Emmerich and Rubbo have signed.
But does it all really matter? Ultimately, it’s like the Bible: who wrote it isn’t as important as what they wrote – unless you’re a god-botherer, in which case, God wrote it (or dictated it to his flunkies). But to many people, Shakespeare is a kind of god. To cast doubt on him is like Darwin claiming we’re a bunch of overgrown monkeys. It’s scandalous.
“Shakespeare is very precious to people,” Rubbo told me. But “what they don’t understand is that once they get over the initial hurt, as it were, it’s absolutely fascinating and it’s the greatest mystery in the world.”
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