'Anonymous' Primer: A Brief Overview of the Shakespeare Authorship Debate

'Anonymous' Primer: A Brief Overview of the Shakespeare Authorship Debate

Oct 24, 2011

AnonymousFrom the building of the pyramids, to the moon landing, to 9/11, pretty much nothing unbelievable in the world can happen without some group of people, well, not believing it. And few human achievements are more unbelievable than a simple, relatively uneducated glover-maker’s son from a small town in 16th century England writing what are considered, even 400 years later, to be by far the greatest and most popular collection of works in the entire history of the English language (and the bane of students everywhere).

So it’s no surprise that for years there has been great debate about whether William Shakespeare was in fact the author of the plays that are attributed to him. A debate that inspired that Roland Emmerich to take time out from blowing up the world to make the new film Anonymous about the subject. But what is this debate: how did it get started, who is involved, and how does Anonymous tie into it?


The Conspiracy

Well, it all started in the mid-1800s. Prior to that time Shakespeare had been considered a good and moderately popular playwright, but he wasn’t thought of as The Greatest of All Time. In the early 1800s though, a critical reevaluation of his plays began and soon the popularity of his works and the level of prestige afforded them skyrocketed. As Shakespeare came to be thought of as the greatest playwright in the history of the English language though, people started looking more closely at his plays and his biography and often came back confused by what they found.

How was someone with seemingly little formal education able to write plays that demonstrated such a command of language and such a great understanding of law, history, Latin and many other subjects? How was someone who never left England able to write with such a keen understanding of daily life in foreign lands? And how was a commoner able to write so clearly and accurately about the lives of nobility? In an age when historical criticism was all the rage, such questions captured the public’s imagination, and the authorship debate was born. And though the debate largely faded from the popular consciousness by the mid 1900s, it’s been re-ignited in recent years by the Internet and some passionate and high profile supporters.

But so, if William Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays then the question remains: who did? Although over 70 different people have been proposed at one point or another as “the real Shakespeare”, the debate largely centers around four men…


The Candidates

Francis BaconFrancis Bacon

In 1856 the pamphlet “Was Lord Bacon the Author of Shakespeare’s Plays?” launched the authorship debate by making the case that Bacon, a lawyer, philosopher, and essayist, was in fact…well…the title of the pamphlet says it all. Baconian theory, as it’s known, became extremely popular and attracted such supporters as Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Friedrich Nietzsche. The theory is based on the (unproven) idea that Francis Bacon was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth and that he, and possibly several of his friends, were upset about their lack of influence and collaborated to use “Shakespeare’s” plays as a means of covertly spreading their controversial and subversive political and philosophical ideals.

The Case For:

-- He was an accomplished writer, but as he aspired to higher political office (and was supposedly the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth) he allegedly couldn’t afford to be seen as a lowly playwright

-- There are numerous textual and stylistic similarities between some of his writings and some of Shakespeare’s

-- He was a lawyer, a historian, and very well-read so he would have had the knowledge base required to write Shakespeare’s plays

-- The perceived source material for The Tempest was available to him, but not to Shakespeare

-- He was present at the first known production of The Comedy of Errors while records show that Shakespeare was not

-- The end of Shakespeare’s output (1613) coincided with Bacon becoming Attorney General


The Case Against:

-- There’s no record of Bacon’s ability to write plays or even write in verse

-- Much of the “evidence” used on his behalf is highly speculative

-- His candidacy is based almost entirely on a completely unproven conspiracy theory

-- Bacon is too delicious to have also written the greatest plays in the English language


William StanleyWilliam Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby

Derby’s candidacy is based on author James Greenstreet’s 1891 revelation that a Jesuit spy in 1599 had reported that Derby "is busye in penning commodyes for the common players” yet there’s no record of plays by Derby ever existing. Not a lot to base a candidacy on, but the Derbyite movement became surprisingly popular for several decades before largely dying out.

The Case For:

-- The abovementioned quote

-- Numerous characters in Shakespeare’s plays seem to be based on people associated with Derby

-- Possible experiences he had on a trip to France could be seen as very similar to much of Love’s Labors Lost

-- He had his own theater company and a well-known love for the theater

-- His first name was also William


The Case Against:

-Other than his nobility he had no reason to not simply publish under his own name

-There’s no evidence of him being a writer of any great skill

-Look at the Case For above. Not exactly the strongest of cases.


Christopher MarloweChristopher Marlowe

The Marlovian theory started slowly in 1895 but eventually gained a large following, and remains highly popular today. It centers on the idea that Marlowe, in addition to being a playwright of great renown, also worked as a spy, and that he was not murdered in 1593 as was reported, but rather “pulled a Tupac” and faked his own to death to escape his enemies and an impending trial. The Marlovian theory has gained considerable steam in recent years with now even most mainstream scholars agreeing that Marlowe indeed worked as a spy, that the circumstances surrounding his death are highly suspect, and that the witnesses to his death all likely lied about at least some elements of it.

The Case For:

-- Of any candidate he would seem to have by far the best reason for writing plays under someone else’s name

-- Obviously he knew how to write plays, and write them well

-- Most Shakespeare scholars agree that Shakespeare’s early plays seem heavily influenced by Marlowe’s

-- Shakespeare’s first published work appeared thirteen days after Marlowe’s death

-- All of the witnesses to Marlowe’s death were in some way connected to his alleged employer and known patron Thomas Walsingham

-- The inquiry into his death was poorly supervised and seems somewhat suspect

-- Since Marlowe’s death was ruled an accident, yet is now generally agreed to have been intentional, what other “facts” about his death might be wrong?


The Case Against:

-- To successfully fake his death would have required a vast and complicated conspiracy involving a large number of people, none of which has ever been proven

-- Other than the existence of Shakespeare’s plays there is absolutely nothing else to possibly suggest that Marlowe lived past 1593

-- His death was accepted as genuine by sixteen jurors at an official inquest


Edward de VereEdward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

James Looney first proposed Oxford as a candidate in 1920, and while people perhaps should have been more skeptical about getting their conspiracy theories from someone named Looney, the Oxfordian theory quickly became, and still remains, the most popular anti-Shakespeare theory. It is based around the idea that many of Shakespeare’s works, particularly Hamlet and the sonnets, closely match known details of Oxford’s life.

The Case For:

-- As mentioned, there are many striking similarities between known events in Oxford’s life and events in Shakespeare’s plays, including almost the entirety of Hamlet

-- The sonnets, which have always somewhat troubled Shakespeare scholars, don’t seem to have much to do with the known life experiences of Shakespeare, yet they do seem to closely echo the biography of Oxford

-- He was known in his time as a great poet and possibly a playwright, although no copies of his plays still exist

-- Oxford had a great many connections to the Elizabethan theater scene including being an owner of the theater where many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed

-- Several of Shakespeare’s history plays give more prominent roles to members of the Oxford lineage than they would seem to warrant, while other of his plays downplay or omit disgraced members of the family

-- Many of Shakespeare’s plays are set in or make reference to Italy and Oxford spent considerable time there

-- It’s often believed that there was a stigma at the time against nobility writing dramatic works intended for public consumption, thus giving Oxford a reason to publish under a different name…


The Case Against:

-- …but there is no real evidence to support that belief

-- He was the patron of an acting company for over 20 years and in that time the company never once performed a play of Shakespeare’s

-- Oxford died in 1604, before the first appearance of 10 of Shakespeare’s plays

-- Nearly all scholars believe that Macbeth makes reference to the Gunpowder Plot, an event which took place a year after Oxford’s death

-- There is record of Oxford publishing verse poetry under his own name, so why would he then feel the need to publish his plays under Shakespeare’s name? A question which leads to….


The Movie Version


Anonymous is based on a controversial offshoot of the Oxfordian theory known as the Prince Tudor theory. The Prince Tudor theory is the belief Edward de Vere was actually Queen Elizabeth’s secret lover. The movie goes one step further though, melding that idea with a key aspect of Baconian theory to create a scenario in which Edward de Vere was not only Queen Elizabeth’s lover, but also, unbeknownst to both of them, her illegitimate son. This theory is known as the Prince Tudor II theory and is highly controversial even amongst Oxfordians. But it does exist. And while it certainly makes for compelling drama and intrigue, there’s no real evidence to support it. Or to support its claim that Oxford wrote under a fake name because there was a great cultural stigma and even danger attached to being a playwright.

Being a playwright was indeed considered a base and relatively unrespectable profession at the time, but there’s no proof that nobility would have not been allowed to participate in it as a hobby. And the arrest of Ben Jonson that the movie uses as evidence of the danger of writing plays didn’t occur because Jonson simply wrote a play, but because he wrote a particularly lewd and seditious one. And even then, his arrest was a relatively minor incident which was resolved quickly. He and many other playwrights of the day often wrote plays that dealt with nobility and real life events without suffering any ill consequences. In fact, many of them became quite close with the aristocracy as a result of their works.

But whether it’s true or not, the theory makes for an interesting film and anything that gets people talking about Shakespeare’s plays is probably a good thing. Because whether they were written by Shakespeare, Oxford, Marlowe, Bacon, Derby, or the publishers of CliffsNotes, they have given Kenneth Branagh a career and they have more than stood the test of time. So see the film, read up on the debate, and feel free to chime in with your comments below. Who do you think wrote Shakespeare’s plays?

Categories: Features, In Theaters
blog comments powered by Disqus

Facebook on Movies.com