The Shakespeare Shakedown

Article excerpt

Byline: Simon Schama

The new film 'Anonymous' says the Bard was a fraud. Don't buy it.

Roland Emmerich's inadvertently comic new movie, Anonymous, purports to announce to the world that the works we deluded souls imagine to have been written by one William Shakespeare were actually penned by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. James Shapiro's fine book Contested Will chronicles the long obsession with depriving Shakespeare of authentic authorship of his works, mostly on the grounds that no manuscripts survive but also that his cultural provenance was too lowly, and his education too rudimentary, to have allowed him to penetrate the minds of kings and courtiers. Only someone from the upper crust, widely traveled and educated at the highest level, this argument runs, could have had the intellectual wherewithal to have created, say, Julius Caesar.

Alternative candidates for the "real" Shakespeare have numbered the Cambridge-schooled Christopher Marlowe (who also happens to have been killed before the greatest of Shakespeare's plays appeared) and the philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon. But the hottest candidate for some time has been the Earl of Oxford, himself a patron of dramatists, a courtier-poet of middling talent, and an adventurer who was at various times banished from the court and captured by pirates. The Oxford theory has been doing the rounds since 1920, when an English scholar, Thomas Looney (pronounced Loaney), first brought it before the world.

None of which would matter very much were there not something repellent at the heart of the theory, and that something is the toad, snobbery--the engine that drives the Oxfordian case against the son of the Stratford glover John Shakespeare. John was indeed illiterate. But his son was not, as we know incontrovertibly from no fewer than six surviving signatures in Shakespeare's own flowing hand, the first from 1612, when he was giving evidence in a domestic lawsuit.

The Earl of Oxford was learned and, by reports, witty. But publicity materials for Anonymous say that Shakespeare by comparison went to a mere "village school" and so could hardly have compared with the cultural richness imbibed by Oxford. …