Shakespeare was Fakespeare, says new film

William Shakespeare is the author whose work has captivated us for centuries. Or did someone else, better educated and worldly, write his plays and poems – and is it for Hollywood to decide?

If there was ever a contender for the greatest writer in the English Language, it would be William Shakespeare. Responsible for some of literature’s most profound insights into humanity, politics and society, Shakespeare’s plays and poems continue to be read, performed and re-imagined, over 400 years after his death.

But what if the man credited with major works like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet never wrote those plays at all? This controversial theory resurfaces regularly, put forward by a handful of scholars, actors and enthusiasts for literary detective work since the 1850s. Now it is the inspiration behind Anonymous, a new costume drama.

The new film lays out the so-called Oxfordian theory of Shakespearian authorship, which holds that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote the complete works. The nobleman then credited a little-known actor to avoid a scandal: some of the plays are politically daring and might have caused problems at the Tudor court.

With a track record of action flicks like Independence Day, the director Roland Emmerich seems an unlikely candidate to deliver theories of literary authorship to modern day moviegoers. Luckily for him, a few leading actors like Derek Jacobi have sympathy with the Oxfordian argument, and add a touch of credibility to the film.

But why would anyone doubt the identity of the bard? Part of the argument stems from doubts that Shakespeare, who was from an ordinary family in Stratford-upon-Avon and probably had a grammar school education, could ever have produced such complex tapestries of language, laden with scholarly references and suggesting sophisticated knowledge as well as imagination.

The new film takes liberties with the truth to create a compelling argument in favour of the Oxfordians. Shakespeare is portrayed as a barely-literate, drunken buffoon, and the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I as a raunchy harlot with multiple illegitimate children. None of this fits with known facts – but for Emmerich, taking inspiration perhaps from the free way the plays attributed to Shakespeare use history and myth as material, such considerations needn’t get in the way of a good story.

To believe or not to believe?

Does it really matter whether the historical figure known as Shakespeare actually wrote the plays? According to some literary theorists, texts shouldn’t be tied to the intentions of their writers. Stories, plays and poems take on a life of their own when they are sent out into the world, and everyone interprets them differently. Whoever the real author or authors were, they created amazing literature – four centuries later, it’s the words on the page and on the stage that matter.

Some, however, view authorship as fundamental. Knowing who wrote Shakespeare’s plays means having a proper understanding of their meaning and their historical era.

You Decide

  1. Do you need to know about the person who created your favourite works of art, books or music? Does it add to your understanding or is it a distraction?
  2. Why would a myth about a man from Stratford as the world's most celebrated playwright have grown up if it is not true? Who benefits from the accepted point of view?

Activities

  1. Using the links and further research, put Shakespearian authorship on trial, representing each of the possible candidates who may have written the plays and poems. Create a case for each, and present it to the class.
  2. Choose a Shakespeare play, poem or passage that you are familiar with, and approach it from three different assumptions: that William Shakespeare was the author; that the Earl of Oxford was the author, and, lastly, that the authorship of the play is irrelevant.

Some People Say...

“Who cares if Shakespeare was real?”

What do you think?

Q & A

Just how widespread is this authorship argument?
Questions over whether Shakespeare actually wrote his plays have been around since the 19th century, and several possible candidates, usually other known playwrights, have been put forward as well as De Vere.
Who supports the Oxfordian theory?
It remains pretty fringe among Shakespeare scholars, who are mostly ‘Stratfordians’. Some of the actors in the film don’t agree with it but simply think it’s an interesting debate about life in Elizabethan England.
What do other people think?
For the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the allegations of Anonymous are particularly destructive. They fear that if the theory gains popularity, it will rob Stratford of its central place in British culture.

Word Watch

Re-imagined
Shakespeare's plays continue to be remade in wide range of forms, including film, poetry and dance, and translated into many languages. The process reflects Shakespeare's own way of creating work, using a range of classical and historical sources to inspire stories.
Edward de Vere
One of several candidates for Shakespearean authorship. De Vere, born in 1550, was the Earl of Oxford and a man of advanced education and great nobility.
Derek Jacobi
A popular and critically acclaimed actor, who often takes leading roles in theatrical productions of Shakespeare as well as cinema.
Literary Theorists
Literary theory is the study of how we understand literary texts. It explores how language creates different kinds of meaning, the role of critics and readers in creating the meaning of literature, and how stories, poems and plays reflect and create culture and hierarchy in society.

Subjects

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