Who Wrote Shakespeare?
There’s a class war going on.
It’s not being waged where you might think it is—in presidential primary debates, or on the streets of Occupied America.
It’s being waged in movie theaters where the nearly century-old debate about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays is being engaged anew in trash-epic director Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous,” whose subject and hero is one Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who’s being presented as the aristocratic author of the plays most, if not all of us, believe to have been written by William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon.
Shakespeare, in the movie, is a buffoonish, ambitious, drunken actor who declares himself to be the author of the plays. There’s also a lot of historical political intrigue centered around royal succession, Queen Elizabeth and the like.
I’m not here to argue the merits of the film, or the status of Mr. Emmerich as a director. He apparently sincerely believes that Oxford was indeed the author of the plays.
Good for him. He’s not the first person to think so. The authorship debate around Shakespeare’s plays has been debated for centuries, and the Oxford candidacy has attracted Supreme Court judges, learned scholars and not-so-learned scholars.
That’s where class comes in. The basic contention is that Shakespeare—with a minor education – was a would-be-actor from a small town who could not possibly have written the plays he did. He would be required to have an immense amount of knowledge, a superior education, an understanding of the ways of courts and geography.
That he probably didn’t—as is often pointed out he made big mistakes in geography and history. Here’s what Shakespeare did have a major understanding of—the human heart and mind, the psychology of being human. Just about all the plots are borrowed from other sources, including other plays, or ancient Roman texts, the bible, English history books. Shakespeare’s genius—that’s what it was—lies in his understanding of human nature, and his poetic abilities, his invention of free verse, his knowledge about how to put a play together.
A lot of the debate about authorship—the Queen herself, Francis Bacon, rival playwright Ben Johnson, have been held up as candidates—centers around a kind of intellectual snobbishness, an unwillingness to accept the idea that Shakespeare—a commoner, or son of the lower middle class at best, could be the greatest author who ever lived. If Oxford was the author, he hid it well. Trouble is that Shakespeare, too, hid himself, in some ways. Little, or not enough, is known about his life, although what we do know suggests that he was a man of the theater, a professional who kept books, ran a company, managed to know enough about the upper classes to become a favorite playwright of the queen.
Someone recently suggested to me that I can’t stand the idea that Shakespeare’s works might have been written by an aristocrat, by a member of the ruling class of England. I can stand the idea. What I can’t stand is the idea that the plays and the sonnets and the characters MUST have been written and created by an aristocrat.
The very definition of artistic genius is its mystery—it does not zero in on class, societal standing, education per se, or any other MUST factor other than it exists and it flowers in a particular person. Shrinks no doubt have had their say on this matter.
The plays of course contain many royal, aristocratic types—generals, kings and queens, lords and dukes and duchesses, even a few small business men and Shakespeare gave them speech that was understood by everyone. But he also created, to name one, Falstaff, a full-bodied man both vile and lecherous, outsized and full of bombast, a man who was more of a father to a prince than the king himself. He was the salt, and mud, and beer of the earth. It’s doubtful that Oxford would have imagined such a man, let alone hung out in bars with him. Aristocrats may have gone to the theater, but they did not admit going to the dogs.
I’m going to see the movie. Emmerich, if nothing else, makes movies that aren’t usually boring except when it’s “Godzilla” filmed entirely in grey rain, or so it seemed. His movies—“Independence Day”, “The Day After Tomorrow” and “The Patriot” among them are not exercises in nuance, and I don’t expect “Anonymous” to be that either.