Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Anonymous" and the Question of Shakespeare Authorship

Roland Emmerich's film Anonymous premiers across the nation on October 28 -- tomorrow.  I am so excited to take friends to see this film because it is the first movie to deal with the question "Who wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare?"  I was privileged to see the world premier of the film before it made its debut in Toronto and I found it quite enjoyable.  Just look at the preview and you might catch a bit of my excitement.

It is amazing to me the kind of flak that this movie stirred up already -- and most people haven't even seen it yet!  One thing that I noticed is that the reviewers attack the concept behind the film: that an earl wrote the plays and used a commoner as the face of the plays.  That strikes me as odd.  What about the story itself?  If this were 100% fantasy, not set in Elizabethan England, not using historical figures as characters, would reviewers still criticize the plot as a preposterous notion?  Or would they be able to sit back and enjoy it for what it is -- a movie, something that is meant to entertain.  When Shakespeare in Love premiered were people up in arms saying, "Now our children will believe that Romeo & Juliet is based on Shakespeare's life!"  I don't remember that happening...but maybe it did.  Again, I would say, it's a movie.

I am willing to admit that perhaps I just defend the film because I have studied the authorship question for years and don't believe that William Shakespeare from Stratford wrote the works attributed to the Bard.  Maybe that makes me crazy.  Certainly when I mentioned this in passing to a recent acquaintance I received a look of incredulity upon my admission.  But why do we believe Shakespeare wrote the plays?  And why it is so wrong to question that assumption?  Shouldn't we strive to know what we believe and why -- and hope that those beliefs are at least somewhat grounded in logic and reality?

Growing up I was taught that Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon was the Bard. However, once I was in college I started questioning that assumption. As someone who was looking to make sense of her long-held beliefs (about many things), I wondered why or how someone who received relatively little education and who left behind little evidence regarding his life was attributed with writing the greatest plays in the English language -- plays that surpassed even those authored by better-educated contemporaries, such as Marlowe.  After researching theories and learning about Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, I concluded that while authorship cannot be definitively proven, it makes more sense to ascribe the writings to someone like Oxford.

As an educator, I believe that some learning fundamentals and adolescent development have not changed much with the passage of time. Throughout my experience working with students, I was constantly reminded that while students may have innate genius and talents, without a person or a system to support the development of talents and encourage the expression of genius, the talents and genius will give way to more pressing concerns (like "How can I get a job to help my family?"). In Elizabethan England, I find it hard to believe that Shakespeare from Stratford had the time and resources to learn about multiple languages, countries, political intrigues, histories, etc., and then have the time to write in addition to holding a job and providing for his family. 

If, by some miracle, it was possible for Shakespeare from Stratford to read and educate himself far beyond the levels of a countryside grammar school education and he was able to write beautiful works, I wonder why there are not more examples of writers with this level of education writing as Shakespeare's contemporaries. 

It is a nice story and of course one wants to believe that a peasant with little education and experience was able to rise above a hum-drum life and write some of the most beautiful poetry in the world. As Americans, I think we long for the fairy tale that says a bit of talent, a bit of genius, and a bit of hard work is all that is necessary to bring success. Nevertheless, reality is often very different, as we see daily. It might be nice to say that Shakespeare from Stratford wrote the works of the Bard, but I don't buy it.

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