The forthcoming release of the film ‘Anonymous’, directed by Roland Emmerich, raises anew the question ‘Was Shakespeare a Fraud?’—and the plot reads like a modern-day savory celebrity scandal invented by a paparazzi in dire straits and looking to make big money fast.
The movie’s plot in brief: yes, Shakespeare was indeed a fraud—the real author of Shakespeare’s works was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, a nobleman, but also the lover and, possibly, the son of Queen Elizabeth.
Admittedly, the plays ‘Oedipus’ (Sophocles) and ‘Hamlet’ (Shakespeare) were based on similar storylines, but they displayed more depth and passion and definitely less juice—but oh well; as I haven’t yet seen the movie (probably won’t) I should not talk 😉
What I find more interesting than the movie is the obsession with Shakespeare’s ‘true’ origins. I write ‘obsession’, because the Shakespeare authorship debate is almost as old as Shakespeare himself. As well documented by a lengthy Wikipedia article on the matter, not only has this question weighed upon as heavy minds as those of Freud, Mark Twain, Henry James and Orson Wells, it has also been the subject of a moot court among three Supreme Court judges in 1987—and more.
According to James Shapiro in his book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Simon & Schuster 2010) the various ‘conspiracy’ theories regarding the famous author reveal a disinclination vis-à-vis artists from cultural milieus not usually associated with art as in Art, i.e. with a capital A. The real Shakespeare—the little we know about him—was not your orthodox English nobleman. Surely, the so-called Oxfordians argue, a vulgar and second-rate actor like him could not have mastered the language or the imagination to produce Shakespeare.
A pretty obnoxious attitude, don’t you think? Imagine someone today claiming Steve Jobs, who recently died—much too young, by the way—could not have invented Apple and iPhone because he was merely an adopted child who dropped out of college, in Oregon of all places, and after only one semester.
The best case for Shakespeare being Shakespeare I found in a wonderful book bearing the delightful title Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal (Icon Books 2008). Ben Crystal’s book is not a biography of Shakespeare. It is a book about reading Shakespeare in context: as a playwright, a poet and an actor—for everyman (and woman) in the Elisabethan age. Shakespeare did not write for the elites, he wrote for the masses, and his verse is best understood as an “instruction manual, for his actors, on how to perform great stories” (p.12).
A key to these instructions is how he applied and broke the rules of the iambic pentameter (what Ben Crystal very helpfully explains as the de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM rule—speak out the emphasis and you’ll get it).
Ben Crystal knows what he is talking about, as he is an actor himself. His advice on how to read Shakespeare works. I had always a lot of admiration for Shakespeare but only really learned to enjoy him after reading Ben Crystal’s book; and only then did I really grasp the meaning of Hamlet’s famous speech ‘to be or not to be.’
Shakespeare, whoever his lordship or simple man might have been—he definitely was a passionate man of the theatre.