26 September 2011

Anonymous (the movie)

A hat tip to Bub for alerting me to the upcoming (October 28) release of the movie "Anonymous." Those of you who are long-time readers of this blog may remember or have surmised that I am a proponent of the proposition that Edward de Vere was the true author of the works attributed to the "shakspere" guy in Stratford.

The movie is directed by Roland Emmerich (Stargate, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012), who has said this re its development:
It's three characters. It's like Ben Jonson, who was a playwright then. William Shakespeare who was an actor. It's like the 17th Earl of Oxford who is the true author of all these plays. We see how, through these three people, it happens that all of these plays get credited to Shakespeare. I kind of found it as too much like Amadeus to me. It was about jealousy, about genius against end, so I proposed to make this a movie about political things, which is about succession. Succession, the monarchy, was absolute monarchy, and the most important political thing was who would be the next king. Then we incorporated that idea into that story line. It has all the elements of a Shakespeare play. It's about kings, queens, and princes. It's about illegitimate children, it's about incest, it's about all of these elements which Shakespeare plays have. And it's overall a tragedy. 
I suspect it will be a little "over the top," but perhaps it will introduce more of the general public to the doubts surrounding the Stratford man's authorship.

More about the Shakespeare authorship question some other time. Those who are interested in literature and history will be well rewarded by scanning this Wikipedia article on the Oxfordian theory, and then visiting the website of the Shakespeare-Oxford Society.


  1. I don't see much intellectual value in an invented variation on the "Shakespeare was somebody else" collection of theories. I think most viewers will consume the fake, dramatized story instead of digging deeper into the real scholarly debate.

    I wonder how the director will work in the necessary explosions and over-the-top action?

  2. According to Emmerich it's about hey you know well gosh it's about everything! And then some. Sounds like it's going to be a real blockbuster.

    And can't believe you've bought into the conspiracy theories about authorship. Kind of Bachmannesque and rather sweet.

  3. Saying the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays is like saying Larry Summers (MIT, Harvard) must have written the novels because Stephen King went to the University of Maine and no public school graduate could have possibly written the novels.

    Several million English majors since Shakespeare wrote the plays and no new Shakespeare's. Genius is a lighting bolt that strikes where it may and trying to explain it as the result of education or social advantage is like trying to use absinthe to explain Van Gogh.

  4. Agree with Anonymous and Bub. Bub puts it especially well: "Genius is a lightning bolt that strikes where it may." It's no more likely that it struck de Vere than that it struck Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, and since the scholarship tends to favor the latter, the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford didn't have the necessary education or connections doesn't count for much.

    --Swift Loris

  5. The comment section is not a good place to present a long explanation, but I'll at least offer an overview of why I'm a "Oxfordian" rather than a "Stratfordian."

    I'll concede that "genius" can strike anyone at any time, with remarkable results. But pure genius - without EDUCATION - is limited in expression. There are geniuses in mathematics certainly, and in the arts (especially music). A genius might design items or craft materials wondrously well - BUT - having genius does not confer knowledge.

    You can't say that an uneducated genius knows the names of the streets of Verona or the history of the kings of England. A genius is not born (and does not magically receive) the ability to describe historical battlefield maneuvers or the proper courtesies to apply at a royal court reception.

    Such knowledge requires education – and there is no evidence that the Stratford man had such education (indeed it was not available in Stratford).

    (to be continued)

  6. The "genius explains all" argument has been referred to as the "Satan Maneuver," as described here by Mark Alexander:

    The Satan Maneuver

    This ploy came to my attention some years ago while watching a televised interview of an evangelical minister. The minister claimed that the earth was created 6,000 years ago. The interviewer asked about the discoveries of fossils that were undoubtedly millions of years old; how could the minister account for those age-old fossils? The minister replied simply, “Satan put them there.” The interviewer was stumped, of course. The minister had played an ace from a different deck. It didn’t matter to him that to all extents and purposes the game, i.e. the interview––insofar as it was something to take seriously––was ended at that point. In fact, that may have been his intention. The Satan Maneuver is a more or less face-saving way of putting a stop to a discussion that is not going the way the maneuverer wants it to go.

    Unfortunately the Satan Maneuver appears frequently in Shakespeare studies. When confronted with internal evidence that Shakespeare may have had a high-level education, whether in law or the classics, a scholar will produce a rabbit out of his or her hat by falling back on Shakespeare’s genius, which is, like Satan, a phenomenon of no known source or established dimension. For example, A.L. Rowse in his Shakespeare The Man explains Shakespeare’s comprehensive and wide-ranging experience with classical and contemporary literature and history thus: “He had a marvellous capacity from the outset for making a little go a long way; his real historical reading came later—he was very much a reading man, and he read quickly” (28).

    How he has grasped Shakespeare’s “marvellous capacity” or knows his reading ability, Rowse does not say. But his meaning is clear; Shakespeare gleaned his incredible wealth of knowledge by having a capacious mind that magically (through the mystery of genius) grasped knowledge quickly and easily. ... By introducing such statements, scholars cut short arguments in favor of a university education or the kind of experience and leisure that only the nobility had access to in Shakespeare’s day. The forum of reason, argument, and evidence dissolves. Genius in the form of a superhuman mind and memory explains all, the magical ability to immediately and photographically apprehend everything, sans education, sans experience, merely from reading a few translations or conversing with travellers.

    Evidence and Reason

    All participants who intend to argue in a forum based on evidence and reason must avoid any form of Satan Maneuver and be called to account when they do. Any worthwhile discussion of Shakespeare’s “genius” must be conducted outside the magical specter of his superhuman aptitudes, or of any supposed education, work or travel experience unsupported by the kind of ordinary documentation we would expect to see from this period."

    (end of citation)

  7. Shakespeare's knowledge of the law has been extensively studied and analysed -

    Finally, in 2000, as part of its Athlone Shakespeare Dictionary Series, The Athlone Press published Shakespeare’s Legal Language: A Dictionary by Sokal and Sokal. [33] The comprehensive dictionary fills over 400 pages of detailed discussion of Shakespeare’s legal terms and concepts. An index of passages containing these terms and concepts fills forty pages with approximately 1600 references using over 200 distinct terms and concepts

    -and persons knowledgeable about the profession and legal history do not feel that such knowledge could have been picked up without formal study, just by talking to people.

    Here's another citation from Alexander's article -

    …when the clowns argue over Ophelia’s burial, they are parodying the arguments of Hales v. Petit:

    Grave. Is she to be buried in Christian burial that wilfully seeks her own salvation?
    Other. I tell you she is, therefore make her grave straight. The crowner hath sat on her, and finds it Christian burial.
    Grave. How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defence?
    Other. Why, ’tis found so.
    Grave. It must be se offendendo; it cannot be else. For here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act; and an act hath three branches—it is to act, to do, to perform; argal, she drowned herself wittingly.
    Other. Nay, but hear you, Goodman delver—
    Grave. Give me leave. Here lies the water—good: here stands the man—good. If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes; mark you that. But if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself. Argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
    Other. But is this law?
    Grave. Ay’ marry is’t, crowner’s quest law. (V:1:1–22)

    The gravediggers freely use the relevant legal terms, though they mangle them in the process (“argal” for ergo, “crowner’s quest” for coroner’s inquest); but there are two problems with assuming that this passage would be understood by a general audience. First, the case was decided in 1561. Therefore, while such a case would stay with students of law for many decades to come, it is unlikely that it would still be fresh in the public mind forty years later when Hamlet was published. Second, Plowden’s Reports are not written in English. They are written in Norman French, or law French, a technical language restricted to lawyers, judges, and law students, and they were not translated into English. Even those few members of the public audience who could read French would have had a hard time with Plowden’s Reports. This passage, therefore, constitutes evidence that Shakespeare read law French, as would lawyers or students of law and only lawyers and students of law, and that he associated with other students of law.

    I'll stop here. Some day I'll craft a series of posts on why Oxford is likely the author of the works, but I never wanted to turn TYWKIWDBI into a single-topic blog, and such posts take a lot of time to research and type up.

    Best wishes,


  8. I keep waiting for Emmerich to come up with something as fun as Stargate that wasn't completely insulting to my intelligence. Looks like it's going to be a long wait.

  9. I agree that the blog is not a place to post extensive comments about this topic but ... this passage constitutes evidence that Shakespeare read law French ... does no such thing. And you should know better than to believe it does.

  10. Washington was an autodidact. In the era before TV, movies, magazines, radio (the internet), novels, travel and weekends, what was a bright person to do other than read - especially if you had an aversion to physical labor as Shakespeare likely did?

    We know (because of that computer textural analysis) that the same person wrote all the plays, sonnets and the collaborations. It's hard enough to believe that the Earl of Oxford hobnobed and collaborated with eight or nine (at least) peasant collaborators to write various plays. But then you would have to believe that none of those eight or nine collaborators would have mentioned to someone that Shakespeare was really someone else (writers being unbelievably bitchy (I would know) that's just not believable).

    The attraction of believing the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays is the same human failing that makes people want to believe that there were no hijacked airplanes on 9-11, that Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor in advance, that Oswald didn't act alone, that Churchill let Coventry be destroyed rather than clue in the Germans that the British had Enigma, that the Apollo astronauts didn't land on the moon, that Bill Clinton had numerous people murdered, et cetera et cetera. It's too human to believe that you have secret knowledge that the unwashed doesn't have and therefore you have a more refined appreciation for how things really are than those willing to accept received wisdom.

    The thing about Churchill is actually true and it may very well be that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays. But i) it's unknowable, and ii) it's very very unlikely that he did. Under those constraints, you should use Occam's Razor and accept that the man from Stratford wrote the plays. I'm pretty well convinced that Stephen King wrote the novels (even the Bachman ones) and that's as unbelievable as a leatherworker's kid for the sticks wrote Macbeth.

  11. "...that Bill Clinton had numerous people murdered, et cetera et cetera"

    Eh? Is this a thing? I mean, people actually think this happened?

  12. Where have you been?


    That's not nearly as weird as this:


    There are many stupid people in the United States - though probably not a larger percentage per capita than anywhere else.

  13. It is interesting to me that in the Shakespeare authorship question one of the most famous proponents of the postulate that Shakespeare could not have written anything of value was an uneducated hick from Missouri. I did not see Mark Twain write the books attributed to him. He did not have an education. Therefore Twain could not possibly have written anything worthwhile. Maybe he was a front for Jefferson Davis.

    Seriously, given Roland Emmerich's record as a movie maker and bastion of truth, I wonder who Shakespeare will be in his movie. Will the sonnets really be mistranslations of Vogon poetry? Will aliens blow up the Globe Theatre?

  14. Here is Twain addressing that argument:

    "It is surmised by the biographers that the young Shakespeare got his vast knowledge of the law and his familiar and accurate acquaintance with the manners and customs and shop-talk of lawyers through being for a time the CLERK OF A STRATFORD COURT: just as a bright lad like me, reared in a village on the banks of the Mississippi, might become perfect in knowledge of the Behring Strait whale-fishery and the shop-talk of the veteran exercisers of that adventure-bristling trade through catching catfish with a 'trot-line' Sundays."

  15. OK so did where did Twain (ever the smart ass, he) get his knowledge of Connecticut Yankees, King Arthur, Mysterious Strangers and Joan of Arc? From piloting riverboats? Just kidding!

    I always found it intriguing that the conspiracy to blame all Shakespeare's works on the guy from Stratford took almost three centuries to surface. And almost all the proponents Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, George Bernard Shaw,et al were pretty much iconoclasts with axes to grind in other subjects as well.

    Shakespeare was educated. A grammar school education then included Latin and Greek, reading the classics such as Ovid in the original language. Not many high schoolers in America could survive an Elizabethan Grammar school. His acting career familiarized him with the plays of the day--most of which he recycled for his own works. Hollywood was not the first to do remakes and reboots.
    Until I see a manuscript copy of One of Shakespeare's plays in Devere's handwriting,(or some other concrete proof) I'm remaining skeptical of the claim.

    Roland Emmerich's movie Anonymous, portrays Oxford as the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth who becomes the queen's lover as an adult and with her sires his own half-brother/son, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicates the Sonnets. I don't think it will clear up the controversy.

  16. "Shakespeare was educated. A grammar school education then included Latin and Greek, reading the classics such as Ovid in the original language."

    You do realize this is entirely speculative. There's no documentation of his schooling, and he had difficulty spelling his own name when signing documents.

  17. I am inclined towards the null hypothesis (i.e. I am a weak Stratfordian). Certainly none of Shakespeare's contemporaries express any doubt that he is anyone other than who he says he is.

    There are no school records for Shakespeare because there are no school records at all for the school he is purported to have attended.

    Indeed as a commoner he would barely have scratched the historical record at all were it not for his plays. So he is something of a Rorschach Test for people to project whatever they like upon.

    The thing I don't understand is this: What, if anything, does all this arguing (and people do seem to feel very passionately about it) add to our understanding of the plays?

    Here is a greek vase. I contend (for the sake of argument) that the scholars are wrong. It was not painted by "The Darius Painter". Instead I believe that it was painted by Demosthenes.

    Regardless of if I am right or wrong, how can I understand or appreciate this work of art in a new light by replacing the name of someone who left almost no historical biography with the name of someone who was more prominent and played a bigger historical role?

  18. Nolandda, I've been slow about answering your question because it's a complex one that deserves a lengthy answer. What I should do is write a separate post on the matter.

    In a way, it doesn't matter who wrote what, if one is satisfied to judge a work of art on its own merits. To me such information is interesting in its own right, and if I walk through a museum, I step forward to look at the little cards to see the name of the artist and the period he/she worked.

    If someone were to reveal in a deathbed confession that the works attributed to Stephen King were actually written by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it wouldn't "matter" in the sense that Cujo would still be Cujo and The Dead Zone would still have the same text.

    But there are scholars to whom such things are important - people who try to interpret one work based on another work by the same artist/author/poet/photographer.

    For the Shakespeare controversy, ascribing the work to DeVere explains some obscure references in the texts, may cast some light on who the "dark lady" of the sonnets was, etc. But perhaps all of that is scholarly mumbo-jumbo used for theses and academic promotions, and not really relevant to the works per se. I don't know.

    Re your comment that "none of Shakespeare's contemporaries express any doubt that he is anyone other than who he says he is," it's curious that he also seems to have been so lightly regarded that few people mention him at all. None of the studens who would have gone to school with him in Stratford ever were recorded to have claimed to have been his classmate.

    And this: In 1622 (the year before the Folio was published), after the plays had been performed on various London stages for thirty years, Henry Peacham wrote a chapter in a book about English poetry, listing "those who had honored poesie with their pens." Edward Earl of Oxford was the first name. Spenser was on the list. And Philip Sidney. There was no mention of Shakespeare...

    Doesn't prove anything, but it's curious.

  19. Thanks. Very interesting. I too like looking at the authorship of works of art primarily to understand what the author may have been thinking. (e.g. "Oh this is by Anne Truitt, she was a minimalist." or "Oh that is a Van Eyck I should be on the lookout for Northern Renisance symbolism.")

    This hasn't been one of my pet areas, but I am glad people are thinking about it.

  20. I read this today and thought of this post:

    "In the movies, a few mistakes don’t matter, but 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?"

  21. Nolandda, that's a rather standard rebuttal coming from a reviewer who was once "a professor of Shakespeare."

    I can't address all of those examples here and now; it would take several full poss. But the counterarguments would include the following.

    "Shakespeare continued to write, several times with partners, until 1613..." There is, of course, no single established canon of dates of writing of the plays. You understand that publication dates are not the same as authorship dates. The original mss are lost (or hidden), and the date of writing can only be surmised. That some were published after deVere's death is not a death blow to his authorship.

    Events in Macbeth could have been inspired by the gunpowder plot, but the "equivocation" central to the story goes way back (the Doctrine of Equivocation was first laid out in 1584.) deVere's father-in-law, Lord Burghley, wrote about Catholics equivocating under torture in a 1583 tract. Nothing in Macbeth is specific to the later plot.

    And re The Tempest, the island of Bermuda was well known in the 1500s. deVere had extensive travel experience aboard ships, including perhaps reconnaissance expeditions re the Armada in 1588. He would not need to rely on published pamphlets to describe a shipwreck. "The Bermudas" was also the nickname of a neighborhood in Westminster, and if The Tempest is viewed as a grotesque of England (as many do), then the sprite Ariel saying he once traveled "at midnight to fetch dew from the still vex'd Bermoothes" could just as well be interpreted as going to a famous part of London to buy distilled liquor.

    Re the dating problem, note also the counterargument that contemporary science is incorporated into the plays - until 1604, after which it stops. A supernova from 1572 is described in Hamlet, but one in 1604 is not, nor Kepler's 1609 study of planetary orbits.

    There's much more. I can't do the arguments justice, both for lack of scholarship on my part, but mostly for lack of time.

  22. Apparently academe has decided to finally weigh in on this issue:



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