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What Fools These Mortals Be

In his latest motion picture, Anonymous, apocalyptic film director Roland Emmerich brings to the big screen a conspiracy theory so lunatic that it is widely dismissed by the vast majority of scholars and historians in the world. His tale of William Shakespeare being a sham, the great bard's works written by some nobleman instead, should be treated with just the same incredulity as some of Emmerich's other blockbusters, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, and 10,000 B.C.

While the authorship of Shakespeare's plays was never questioned during his lifetime or in the centuries following, a small number of individuals have begun to question that he actually wrote his great works within the last hundred years. They insist that the son of an illiterate glove-maker from some bumpkin village is incapable of showing us the ambition of Julius Caesar, the love of Romeo and Juliet, the intrigue of Macbeth, and the tragedy of King Lear. How could someone from such a humble beginning know royalty well enough to bring to us Hamlet or Antony and Cleopatra?

Though the conspiracy theorists insist that someone like Shakespeare could not have written the plays, the answer as to who did is still up in the air, splitting the Shakespeare-deniers into various camps. The dozens of potential alternatives include Francis Bacon, Miguel de Cervantes, Walter Raleigh, Jesuit priests, King James I, Queen Elizabeth I, and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford whose candidacy Anonymous supports. The reason that there are so many potential alternatives is because there is no actual evidence that Shakespeare did not write the plays himself, thus making it difficult to declare outright that someone else must have.

The Oxfordian theory is based on a 1920 publication by J.T. Looney, "Shakespeare' Identified," which tells an unproven tale of how the Earl of Oxford was not only Queen Elizabeth's son, but her lover as well. In this fantastical explanation of events, the Earl of Oxford had to give up credit for his plays and poems because a nobleman could not degrade himself to join the lowest possible level in society--that of actor and playwright.

Why indulge in this delusion when there is no evidence to support it? Is it really that much easier for people to believe in such a conspiracy than to accept the genius of a common man? Is it so hard to believe that human beings, regardless of circumstances, are able to rise up from nothing to greatness? Are not men able to understand things without necessarily having experienced them firsthand? There is something rotten about beating up on a man's legacy centuries after he has been taken by that fell sergeant, death, no longer capable of defending himself against such slanderous conspiracy. His words and genius will live on, but we owe the Bard respect for what he was able to accomplish. Let us be honest about the legacy of he who wrote these masterpieces.

Anonymous will surely be an entertaining and well-written film, with tremendous visual effects, intricate costumes, and decent acting. It may even have the great benefit of pushing people to revisit the works of Shakespeare, and get close once more to tragic Othello or knavish Puck. However, people should watch the movie with the same kind of incredulity as when they watched Emmerich's The Patriot--a film that tried to capture much of the detail and narrative of the time period, and laid forth some of the feelings and ideas of the American Revolution, but which was nonetheless a made-up story based in unserious history.

William Shakespeare was a genius, and held a greater command of our English language than anyone before and after him. He understood the human mind, heart, and soul, and knew not only how to make people laugh and cry, but how to get them to consider great and noble things. A Hollywood blockbuster will not be able to discredit this genius; it cannot take away what he gave us. But, in today's conspiracy-loving society, it can plant a poisonous seed of disbelief in certain minds. We must do what we can to protect the memory of Shakespeare and his legacy. Allow people to admire the fact that he, a simple peasant from an illiterate family, was able to rise to such genius and beauty. To rob people of the idea of such possibility does a disservice both to Shakespeare and humanity in general. Taking that away would be the most unkindest cut of all.

Discussions - 4 Comments

Roger Ebert, quoting David Edelstein: "Anonymous" will confuse and bore those who know nothing about Shakespeare and incense those who know almost anything.

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Common Cents

One of the problems with Shakespeare, is that his name seems to be a pseudonym itself: Shakes spear was the original descriptor until sometime later an e appeared at the end of the name. Then the Last Will of Shakespeare was such an illegible mess that it's hard to conceive it was written by the man who wrote some of the greatest masterpieces of Western culture, and that will did not list a single play or manuscript as being bequeathed to anyone. It would be like owning fifteen hope diamonds but not mentioning any of them in your will for disposing of your most precious property. That would raise eyebrows. But as in politics, you can't beat somebody with nobody, and since the Earl died about ten years before the last plays were manuscripted, it is unlikely that the candidate in the film was the author. Or it could be that he was for the plays before his death (and the decline in quality of Shakepeare's latter period may reflect the fact of the Earl's death.)

The reason Shakespeare-deniers are called "conspiracy theorists" instead of "people with a different academic point of view" is because in order to buy any of this nonsense you either have to pretend that the evidence doesn't exist or that it was planted. Oh, yeah, that evidence stuff. Like playbills, letters, articles, eulogies, title pages, receipts, official records, books and poems by contemporaries, critical reviews by contemporaries, private notes by contemporaries, royal patents, and the official licenses of the Master of Revels that all confirm Mr. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon as an actor and playwright responsible for these wonderful things (well, some of his contemporary critics would disagree with the "wonderful" part). So his name was spelt oddly now and then. Have you read anything from that time period? Spelling was a mess all over the place and certainly not uniform.

And Shakespeare's writing in his later plays changed because he seemed to have purposefully changed his style to keep up with the every other playwright of the time. They shifted from Elizabethan-style plays to Jacobean, and it seems he was just keeping up with tastes and styles in addition to his own personal needs for what he wanted to portray.

As for the worth of the plays, while he was praised by many and certain plays of his became very popular, they did not have anywhere near the amount of widespread popularity we know until well after his death. He left his daughters a good amount of wealth, and seems he left his plays to his theatre company, at least judging by the fact that the company (involving some of his friends for whom he set aside money in his will) saw to the compilation of his works for distribution a few years after Shakespeare died. The fact that he did not leave his daughters and aged wife his writings is no where near enough of an argument to make for disputing his authorship.

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