McGinnis: BGSU professor on the truth behind new Shakespeare filmWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | email@example.com
“Was Shakespeare a fraud?”
The question is asked by posters, banners, commercials and other advertising for the new film “Anonymous,” which saw limited release Oct. 28. As the movie opens wider, its tantalizing plot filled with conspiracy, secrets and claims about the truth behind theater’s most famous playwright will continue to draw a curious audience.
But the scholarship behind its premise — that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was the true author of Shakespeare’s works — is widely considered shaky at best and an offensive example of classism at worst.
Stephannie Gearhart, assistant professor in the Department of English at Bowling Green State University, had more than her fair share of experience dealing with the Bard’s work. She has presented essays at the Shakespeare Association of America, written numerous articles related to his plays and is currently writing a book manuscript, “Drama and the Politics of Generational Conflict in Shakespeare’s England.”
“With apologies to Ben Jonson, then, I’d say that Shakespeare was both ‘of an age’ and ‘for all time,’ though readers tend to ignore the former point in favor of the latter point,” Gearhart wrote in an email interview with Toledo Free Press Star.
Gearhart is intimately familiar with the Earl of Oxford theory, from its origins in the 1920 work of an author named (no jokes, please) J. Thomas Looney. It was Looney who posited that someone like de Vere would have a greater working knowledge of the royal court than an “outsider” like Shakespeare.
“Further, a man like de Vere, who because of his class position attended university, is assumed to have been capable of writing such sophisticated plays,” Gearhart said. “Shakespeare, on the other hand, had a more limited education because of his class position and thus is assumed by Oxfordians to have been unable to compose the plays; some critics even go so far as to suggest that Shakespeare was illiterate.”
These arguments are intriguing but they have no basis in reality.
“This theory is not based in fact but in a desire to find someone of a higher class to have been responsible for the plays,” Gearhart said.
“There are many reasonable objections to this theory, including 1. the education Shakespeare received would have been quite rigorous, and so to suggest he was illiterate or incapable of working so successfully with language is foolish; 2. the assumptions made about class in this theory are untenable; 3. de Vere’s extant poetry is not of the same quality as the poetry in the plays; 4. de Vere died in 1604, but several of the plays, including ‘Macbeth’ and ‘The Tempest,’ were written after this date.”
The theory also carries an unsettling streak of condescension, sneering at the idea that someone of “lower birth” could ever have accomplished something as grand as the Bard’s work.
“The objection that someone in Shakespeare’s social position could not have written the plays is founded upon a very ugly assumption about the intellectual abilities of those not belonging to the upper class,” Gearhart said.
Gearhart is concerned that audience members may end up swallowing the film’s version of history.
“Moviegoers tend to like conspiracy theory films, and I fear that if ‘Anonymous’ presents a compelling enough narrative, viewers will be convinced by it regardless of the facts. Most viewers, I suspect, are unaware of how and why a theory like this one came to be and all of the very reasonable evidence against it,” she said.
To that end, she said maybe those in the film’s audience will be inspired to do their own research, and learn for themselves what the facts (or lack thereof) behind the Oxford theory really are. Or maybe asking a larger question: More than 400 years after they first appeared, why do we even care about the question of who “really” wrote the plays?
“What I mean by this is, if we have all of these wonderful plays, why, we should ask ourselves, are we so concerned with identifying a single individual responsible for producing them? Why is authorship so important to us, and why does it bother us when we are uncertain about it?”
Gearhart has no answer for the most pivotal question of all — whether she’ll be seeing the film herself when it arrives in the area.
“I know that the film will not change my mind about the authorship question. At the same time, I’ve heard that it’s wise to know your enemy, so perhaps I will venture out to see ‘Anonymous,’ even if I end up watching it, as will most other Shakespeare scholars, gritting my teeth and shaking my head,” she said.
Email Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.