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Anonymous should be ignored by all Shakespeare lovers

Conspiracies about the authorship of Shakespeare have fascinated for decades, but ultimately ‘only foolish snobs don’t believe in Shakespeare’

By on Friday, 28 October 2011

Although this might seem a frivolous subject, I maintain that nothing that concerns Shakespeare can ever be considered frivolous. As readers probably know, there is a new film out, made by Sony Pictures and produced by Roland Emmerich, called Anonymous which allegedly “presents a compelling portrait of Edward de Vere as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays.” This, as Allan Massie points out, writing in the Telegraph yesterday, is utter nonsense. He comments, “Never mind that Oxford died in 1604, some years before Shakespeare’s last plays were written and produced…Never mind that nobody at the time attributed the authorship to anyone but he man from Stratford. Evidently they were all fooled, even Ben Jonson, a fellow playwright who knew William Shakespeare…”

This notion of De Vere’s candidacy only gained credence in 1920 when someone called J Thomas Looney produced the argument that only an aristocrat would possess the culture, knowledge and education to write the plays; a local lad from Stratford could not possibly have possessed the necessary sophistication etc. Massie puts this absurd idea in its place. Shakespeare’s literary sources for his plays are well-known and as his biographer Peter Ackroyd points out, he had the preternatural sensibility and imaginative capacity to transform what he read into the dramas that we know and love. As Massie puts it, playwrights and novelists “pick up bits and pieces of information and put them to use… Shakespeare had no need to have travelled or to have studied law, or been active in politics, to write the plays. Works of literature are made from memory, experience (which includes what you have read), observation and imagination…and if you have the last of these, a little of the others can be made to go a very long way.”

It seems that Looney has had his supporters, including Sigmund Freud. Now that Freud’s own preposterous ideas, such as the Oedipus Complex, have been exploded, it is time to put Looney in his place as a crank, snob and a conspiracy theorist. Of the film, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro writes in the New York Times that “Mr Emmerich has made a film for our time, in which claims based on conviction are as valid as those based on hard evidence.” I am surprised that author Dan Brown hasn’t (yet) taken up this theme.

I blogged about this subject earlier in the year when Sir Derek Jacobi, acting the part of King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse, pronounced that, “legend, hearsay and myth have created [Shakespeare].” Well, Jacobi is only a thespian, if a very fine one; Looney, aside from his unfortunate name, was trying to escape the anonymity he richly deserved; and this new film, Anonymous, ought to be ignored by all Shakespeare lovers. As Massie observes, “Only foolish snobs don’t believe in Shakespeare.”

  • Sartosvaleste25367

    But you don’t explain why Anonymous should ignored. Just because you or we don’t believe a story is not a sufficient reason to ignore it. You didn’t ignore it yourself. You write about and publicize it in the process.

  • Paul Rimmer

    It does seem far-fetched that Shakespeare was written by anyone but Shakespeare. But Freud’s ideas in psychology, at least, are still highly respected, if only as the first attempt to solve new problems.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rob.federle Rob Federle

    “Only an aristocrat could have possessed the culture, knowledge, and sophistication…”  Let’s not forget that Shakespeare was a product of the classical liberal arts education that we so seldomly see these days. Not to mention that as a Recusant Catholic, this is compelling evidence that Wm. Skakespeare attended the English College in Rome. A young Catholic man, educated in England and Rome, unsophisticated, untraveled? Mr. Looney was indeed aptly named. Funny, I hadn’t seen Dan Brown’s, Ron Howard’s, or Tom Hank’s names associated with this new movie.  Maybe that’s why they called it anonymous…

  • theroadmaster

    It reminds me of the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 or first moonwalk, which inform us that once we have eliminated every theory but the most plausible, then it the onus is on us to believe the latter.  It seems that according to such a theory spun in the 1920′s, this DeVere  chap, a member of the patrician classes, was the right candidate to author the famous canon of plays once thought written by the pleb, good Will Shakespeare.  I suppose it can be difficult to imagine how one man who started from relatively humble beginnings, could be responsible for so many iconographic plays which have effected the English language so much. But this is all about suppositions surrounding social class, education and culture, which can cloud the critical faculties of an academic or scholar.   

     Shakespeare’s authorship for all of the plays attributed to him was an historical given up from the 16th century right up to the last one.  The theoretical argument for an alternative author resembles the trends which come and go in a discipline like History where different schools of thought vie with each other in trying to explain the human motivations behind particular  events, etc.  One theory may win out for a while until an alternative one takes it’s place.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Света-Польская/100002624437134 Света Польская

    The insults Francis Phillips aims against those who doubt Shakespeare’s authorship – “foolish snobs” – are a violation of truth and unworthy of the Catholic Herald.
    Hugh Trevor Roper, himself no foolish snob, summed up the facts about Shakespeare’s literary life in a few lines – “During his lifetime nobody claimed to know him. Not a single tribute was paid to him at his death. As far as records go he was uneducated, had no literary friends, possessed at his death no books, and could not write.”
    Plenty of junk biographies, with circular reasoning and supposed explanations to infill this total lack of probative evidence are published regularly. They are specifically commissioned by publishers as part of a multi-million pound ‘Shakespeare Industry’, which Francis Phillips defends.
    The historical truth about Shakespeare consists of nothing more than legal, family and business documents.The man he shared rooms  with for several years was George Wilkins, a member of the underworld and a brothel owner. Court records show he kicked a pregnant woman in the belly, beat up another woman and then stamped on her so hard, she had to be carried home. Both these men were lodgers of Mountjoy. He ran a vice ring, controlled several brothels, and fathered two illegitimate children. Elders of the French Church reported Mountjoy and his son-in-law were “debauched” and led a “licentious lifestyle”. Their lodger, Shakespeare, became very rich while in that house. An 18th century book referred to him as “Pimping Billy”. Although the going rate for a play was between £6 and £7, Shakespeare laid down £440 in a single deal to buy a moiety of tithes in three villages; and this, apart from his other property deals, including the best house in town. The money certainly did not come from writing.
    As a Catholic, I personally admire ‘Shakespeare’s’ plays and poetry, but I love the truth even more. Anyone wishing to defend Shakespeare’s reputation should first read Sonnet 81. It is as prophetic as any Bible prophecy. Its fulfilment precisely foretells Francis Phillips’s admiration for Shakespeare, and why it is mistaken.
    I do not condone Emmerich’s historical inaccuracies, but de Vere is not one of them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Света-Польская/100002624437134 Света Польская

    The insults Francis Phillips aims against those who doubt
    Shakespeare’s authorship – “foolish snobs” – are a violation of truth and
    unworthy of the Catholic Herald. Hugh Trevor Roper, himself no foolish snob,
    summed up the facts about Shakespeare’s literary life in a few lines – “During
    his lifetime nobody claimed to know him. Not a single tribute was paid to him
    at his death. As far as records go he was uneducated, had no literary friends,
    possessed at his death no books, and could not write.” Plenty of junk
    biographies, with circular reasoning and supposed explanations to infill this
    total lack of probative evidence are published regularly. They are specifically
    commissioned by publishers as part of a multi-million pound ‘Shakespeare
    Industry’, which Francis Phillips defends. The historical truth about
    Shakespeare consists of nothing more than legal, family and business documents.
    The man he shared rooms  with for several
    years was George Wilkins, a member of the underworld and a brothel owner. Court
    records show he kicked a pregnant woman in the belly, beat up another woman and
    then stamped on her so hard, she had to be carried home. Both these men were
    lodgers of Mountjoy. He ran a vice ring, controlled several brothels, and
    fathered two illegitimate children. Elders of the French Church reported Mountjoy
    and his son-in-law were debauched and led a licentious life. Their lodger, Shakespeare,
    became very rich while in that house. An 18th century book referred
    to him as “Pimping Billy”. Although the going rate for a play was between £6
    and £7, Shakespeare laid down £440 in a single deal to buy a moiety of tithes
    in three villages; and this, apart from his other property deals, including the
    best house in town. The money certainly did not come from writing. As a Catholic,
    I personally admire ‘Shakespeare’s’ plays and poetry, but I love the truth even
    more. Anyone wishing to defend Shakespeare’s reputation should first read
    Sonnet 81. It is as prophetic as any Bible prophecy. Its fulfilment precisely
    foretells Francis Phillips’s admiration for Shakespeare, and why it is mistaken.
    I do not condone Emmerich’s historical inaccuracies, but de Vere is not one of
    them.

  • Maelstrom55

    Trust the ‘stratfordians’ to never miss a chance to mock J Thomas Looney’s name. But the rest of us are the snobs, oh yes. And Derek Jacobi is ‘only an thespian”. And this is a media telling its readers NOT to see a movie less they think for themselves.  Am afraid the author richly deserves some adjectives himself.

  • Anka Z

    “…[S]hould be ignored”?  May I remind you that this is not medieval
    Europe where priestly pedagogy and pretty stained glass windows were means by
    which illiterate Catholics were indoctrinated?  Nor is it the 1950s, whose
    black-and-white quality was reflected so aptly in the Legion of Decency decrees,
    which we as Catholics were admonished to adhere to, under penalty of sin.  I
    realize that your criticism of Anonymous has nothing to do with the morality (or
    lack thereof) depicted in the movie, but I find your paternalistic attitude
    objectionable. 
     

  • Blair Gubernath

    I’m sorry Rob but did I miss something?  You have records that indicate that William of Stratford attended school?  Please share these.  Historians have been looking for these for centuries.

  • Blair Gubernath

    I’m not sure of how to pronounce your name but excellent response.  Excellent!

  • Blair Gubernath

    Also the title of this article is ridiculous.  Shakspur Shaxpur Shagspere wrote nothing except his own name spelled six different ways and only barely.   Shakespeare was a pen name so Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. 
     

  • Anka Z

    Sveta, thank you for your insightful comments.  

  • Anka Z

    Rob, please share this “compelling evidence” with all of us.  A link would be more than acceptable.  Thank you!

  • HS the This One

    Rob, this is very rare and exciting stuff!   I have heard of Stratfordians and Oxfordians but wonder: what do you call your camp - the Robomians?  How will you progress, with open enrollments, or do you suppose  you shall remain its only member?  I must admit to admiration for the enormous wit displayed in the last few lines of your comment. You sir, are indeed aptly named.    

  • HS the This

    Allen Massie seems to have thought and lost. Never has gullible sounded with such authority, or with such accidental gravity. Here finally is a man tedious enough to make the “foolish snob” look sexy. Mr Massie, thank you for these perplexing observations.    

  • amfortas

    The worst thing is that notable actors such as Derek Jacobi and Vanessa Redgrave take part in the film. I’ll never be able to watch them again without remembering the association.

  • hypostatic123

    At least from this article and the responses we can see that people are still filled with passion over the authorship of these most marvelous works of a great human spirit.  I don’t know what to think about the dispute over the authorship, but I am heartened that people continue to be so moved by his work.

  • Pep2011

    History shows that the man from Stratford parents had to use marks for their signature.  His wife used a mark for her signature, as did his youngert daughter.  His eldest daughter vcould sign her name but could not recognize her own husband’s handwriting.  The man from Stratford left six signatures on business document.  None of them spelled the same way.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_A4E5PR5DDDIWYSTV5YDIIGTHLA Michael

    Some of the responses to this very sensible article display astonishing but very certain ignorance.

    As to the spellings of Shakespeare’s name, it was quite normal to use different different spellings especially in signatures.His daughters were not illiterate.

    As to Shakespeare sharing rooms with George Wilkins, a member of the underworld and a brothel owner, indeed it would explain where Shakespeare got his knowledge of such a world as featured e.g. in Henry IV part 1.

  • Jonathan Swift

    I see that the comments here are dominated by the those of the Brittanian school, and who think that Shakespeare’s plays were written by an Englishman. In fact, it is equally plausible that they were penned by an Arabian named Sheikh Al-Zubair, whose title was then Anglicized into the now familiar “Shakespeare”. It is such a shame that this “Arabian” school is ignored by the cultural imperialists who arrogantly suppose that the author of Shakespeare’s plays must have been British. In this “age when claims based on conviction are as valid as those based on hard evidence”, I find you members of the Britannian school very arrogant and closed minded indeed. Why isn’t the Arabian school getting a fair hearing?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roger-Stritmatter/570495920 Roger Stritmatter
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roger-Stritmatter/570495920 Roger Stritmatter

    Um, you need to spend more time with the plays and less time indulging in the certain conviction that the Stratford Shakspere — who most probably as you say was a recusant — wrote them. 

    It’s pretty clear that the author, whoever he was, was not a recusant. 

    Do you remember where Hamlet went to school?  Wittenberg.

    Hamlet Sr. was indeed a Catholic, who died with last rites of confession. 

    But the Sh. ouevre as a whole is decisively high church Anglican in tone.  Shakespeare’s primary Biblical touchstone was the Geneva Bible. How can you reconcile that with his alleged Catholicism?  Not very easily. And when you examine the points of doctrine and versions of history in the plays its pretty clear that although the author most certainly was sympathetic to the plight of recusants, he most certainly wasn’t one himself. http://shake-speares-bible.com/2009/12/26/london-times-how-many-pseudonyms-hath-shakespeare/

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Roger-Stritmatter/570495920 Roger Stritmatter

    For those who prefer not to take Francis Phillips vulgar insults at face value, here is a link to Looney’s Shakespeare Identified:  http://www.shakespearefellowship.org/etexts/si/00.htm.  Many informed persons, myself being one of them, regard Looney as one of the greater minds of the 20th century. But since Mr. Phillips has never read him, he naturally supposes that gratuitous put downs will suffice to erase the significance of Looney’s argument.  As ye sow so shall ye reap.  Only people who haven’t bothered to do any homework write disgracefully ignorant  “reviews” like this one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000417424019 Helen Gordon

    I’m one Shakespeare Lover who loved the film “Anonymous” and want to commend the director Emmerich and scriptwriter Orloff for an excellent dramatic production.  The premise is logical (which concurs with my 20 years of research on the authorship controversy), the photography is fascinating, the acting superb.  Those liberties that Orloff takes with dates and characters serve well for purposes of making the story an exciting dramatic production. (Shakespeare did the same with history.) The pompous academicians and “true believers” who are ignorant of Shakespeare’s work are the real snobs in this case, attacking the messengers instead of hearing the message. William Shakespeare was a pen name, most probably used by the Earl of Oxford, and for 400 years we have been mixing up the author and a man with a similar name (but never spelled the same as the author’s).  The name William Shakespeare did not appear in print until 1593, on a poem “Venus & Adonis”; and not until 1598 did it appear on any of the quartos or published plays. Where was Shaxper during the 1580′s?  The fact is that there is more relevant evidence for Oxford as an author than there is for the Stratford businessman.  Enjoy the movie, and if it gets you to thinklng for yourself, you will enjoy Shakespeare more than ever.
            Helen Heightsman Gordon, M.A., Ed.D., is the author of “The Secret Love Story in Shakespeare’s Sonnets” ‘[2008]

  • Anonymous

    “Do you remember where Hamlet went to school? Wittenburg.”

    Mmm, and he came back from his sojourn in protestant academia in a terribly melancholy state…
    And continues to be a tortured soul plaugued by doubts and a crisis of belief (unlike the shallowly ambitious state servants and fellow students sent to spy on him…) until he has finally resolved to lay down his life for his rightful inheritance and avenge its usurpation by a debauched, self-serving fratricidal adulterer – a man who can no longer pray, who has married Hamlet’s Mother (his dead brother’s Bride) and assumed entitlement to the entire patrimony invested in the kingship of Old (Catholic) Hamlet…

    As for Shakespeare’s own profession of faith, there is (as noted by Michael Woods among others) the secondary source testimony of 17th century Gloucestershire clergyman Richard Davies that he “dyed a papist”, presumably because he too had heard that Shakespeare had received the last rites from a Catholic priest, a conviction unlikely to have been in circulation had Shakespeare been known to have been a conforming Protestant. 

    And there are intriguing details concerning his marriage to Anne Hathaway in Temple Grafton, for which a special licence was granted that gives Shakespeare’s surname correctly, but that of his bride as Whately. They both lived in the parish of Stratford (Anne in Shottery and William in the town), and the law obliged couples to marry in either party’s home parish, but they chose not to, and the licence gives Anne’s place of residence as Temple Grafton. Now at that time the vicar at Holy Trinity, Stratford, was Henry Haycroft, a staunch Protestant, whereas John Frith over at Temple Grafton was anything but, described as he was in a government report a few years after the wedding as “an old priest and Unsound in religion”, being accused of ‘papistry’.

    One of Shakespeare’s cousins on his mother’s side of the family was St. Robert Southwell, the Jesuit martyr whose poems were considered among the finest of the age. Southwell, whose ‘The Burning Babe’ (admired by Ben Jonson) finds echoes in lines in Macbeth, wrote a letter addressed to ‘my loving and good cosin’ and ‘to my worthy good cosen Maister W.S.’ which was used as a preface to a collection of his poems that circulated in manuscript in the 1590s (he was hanged, drawn and quartered in1595). In it he acknowledges his cousin as the finer poet who encouraged him to publish his own work, and urges him to write the spiritual poetry that “rests in your will”.

    One can but imagine the impact on a man of Shakespeare’s sensibilities of the horrors of the Elizabethan spy-state, to say nothing of the butchery of his cousin: Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear with their themes of usurpation, betrayal, treachery and blood-curdling inhumanity are what followed before the relative calm of the later Jacobean plays. Then, in the spring of 1613, after he had retired to Stratford and just three years before his death, he purchased in London a property at Blackfriars – suspected by the Elizabethan priest-catchers to have been a Catholic ‘safe house’ – adjacent to the theatre for which he had worked along with Ben Jonson. The previous owners were recusants. The place was probably still being used as a safe house some years later when a Catholic priest and 90 members of a congregation of 300 died after the upstairs chamber of a neighbouring building collapsed. This same property is included in Shakespeare’s will as having a tenant by the name of John Robinson (the same name is given as a witness to the will), which happens not only to be the surname of one of the previous owner’s stewards but also of a young priest then in London known to have subsequently become a Jesuit.

    On the matter of education, the rigours of Elizabethan grammar-schooling would test all but the best of today’s university students: “small Latin and less Greek” indeed! As for Mr. Jacobi’s comments, I again prefer to trust the classically erudite Ben Jonson (hardly a man known to suffer fools – or charlatans – gladly!) – who came back to the King’s Men after Shakespeare’s company took over the Blackfriars – in the words of his famous dedication:

    To the
    memory of my beloved,
    The AUTHOR
    MASTER WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE,
    AND
    what he hath left us

  • Nicholas Ennos

    “Shakespeare had no need to have studied law”.

    This comes as a surprise to us lawyers who greatly enjoy the masterly use of legal metaphor and simile in the plays and sonnets, which display an erudite knowledge of Elizabethan law, and especially Elizabethan land law.