“What if I told you…that Shakespeare never wrote a single word,” plainly states Derek Jacobi at the beginning of the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s upcoming Shakespeare film, Anonymous. Shakespeare has made surprisingly few appearances on film, the last being 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, a sort of Notting Hill-era Britcom with codpieces. It is, therefore, a shame Anonymous is not a film about Shakespeare, but takes as its subject the most peculiar aspect of Shakespeare’s legacy, the conspiracy theory that ‘the man from Stratford’ did not write the plays attributed to him.
The ‘anti-Stratfordian’ movement, as it is known, dates back to the mid-19th century, and the reasons behind the claims that somebody else wrote the plays are numerous. They frequently rely on reading the plays as autobiography, denial of evidence, and bizarre codes and ciphers believed to be hidden in the plays themselves, as well as a good dose of snobbery towards Shakespeare’s background. For a comprehensive debunking of the anti-Stratfordian myth, it is worth reading James Shapiro’s excellent book, Contested Will, or alternatively simply viewing the surprisingly clear Wikipedia page.
As for the candidates themselves, there are currently over fifty contenders, including Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, King James, and Elizabeth I. No less eclectic are their supporters over the years, who count among their ranks Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Malcolm X, and Sigmund Freud.
Two prominent contemporary figures in the anti-Stratfordian camp are Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who, in 2007, issued a ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’ that features the signatures of several high-profile doubters, as an attempt to rally the anti-Stratfordian cause. In recent years the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy has gained greater mainstream interest: the fact that Rylance even served as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre between 1995-2005 reflects this. Jacobi and Rylance will both appear in Anonymous, and director Roland Emmerich’s signature featured on the 2007 declaration.
While favoured candidates for an alternative author swap positions fairly regularly, the current frontrunner is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, an aristocrat, adventurer, playwright, and literary patron. Anonymous intends to fight his corner – with a few embellishments, namely that de Vere was also the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I, and had an incestuous relationship with her. Even in anti-Stratfordian ranks, this is a fringe theory, and one often met with derision.
By showcasing this dramatic and controversial theory, Anonymous could prove to be an own goal for the anti-Stratfordian camp. Oliver Stone’s JFK , released in 1991, is the daddy of conspiracy cinema. It succeeded in cementing the idea of a conspiracy in the public mind; following its release, more people were convinced of a cover-up and the US government even reviewed their records of the assassination. Its success lay in the simplicity of the plot, and the fact that it followed established and prominent theories of the Kennedy assassination, the ‘magic bullet’, the ‘second gunman’ etc. Could it be that Emmerich’s desire for blockbuster success via the most controversial and bizarre plot possible has overridden the anti-Stratfordian desire to maintain an image of legitimacy? Anonymous runs a serious risk of exposing them to ridicule.
In fact, the choice of such a bizarre theory seems so poorly considered that an intriguing, and just as unlikely, conspiracy of its own could be considered. What if Roland Emmerich is in fact a Shakespeare supporter, is deep undercover in the enemy camp, and has gone to the trouble of shooting a multi-million dollar film that contends that Shakespeare did not write his plays, but with the most preposterous storyline possible – all as some kind of cunning ‘false flag’ operation to discredit the anti-Stratfordians. But, like the conspiracies themselves, this is an unreasonable theory based on zero evidence.
Belief in conspiracy theory in the modern world is widespread, a 2003 poll indicated that 75% of Americans believe in a JFK cover-up, a 2006 poll found that nearly half of all Britons believe the death of Princess Diana was not an accident, and we have only to look at recent conspiracies surrounding the 9/11 attacks and Barack Obama’s citizenship to see that the appetite for conspiracy remains strong. Not to mention the images of ‘Da Vinci Code tours’ that appeared in the wake of the book’s popularity, ferrying hundreds of Dan Brown enthusiasts around the Vatican to conduct their own examinations of the Sistine Chapel for hidden codes.
It is difficult to understand the current widespread appeal of conspiracy theories. In explaining his opposition to the Shakespeare conspiracies in Contested Will, James Shapiro writes, “No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story…I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story.” This can seem a strong statement to make in our tolerant age, in which giving a fair hearing to every argument is highly placed. It is also a refreshing indictment of the very postmodern notion of treating every opinion as equally valid, often rejecting any notion of objective truth, even when such truth is provable.
In an extreme example, the devastating consequencies of this policy were made clear in the UK media’s reporting of the possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The scientific paper that made the link in 1998 was widely discredited by the medical community as ‘fraudulent’ and ‘dishonest’, and the scientific consensus is that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, yet, in its mission to present both sides of the arguement equally, the media rejected the possibility of objective truth and carried on reporting the link as either possible, factual, or at least as important as the other arguement, leading many parents to deny their children the vaccine and thus leaving them exposed to potentially harmful infections.
Recourse to conspiracy theory can also be an act of desperation, or a response of collective hysteria to a profound event for which ready explainations are not forthcoming. They can also be interpreted as a response to what the anthropologist George Marcus termed a ‘crisis of representation’, or the widespread disengagement and disillusionment from political structures in Western society. Here, a direct connection is made between the disappearance of meta-narratives – ‘grand explanatory schemes’ – or the decline of ideology in an postmodern and post-political age (the idea that politics no longer offers positive ideas to improve the world, but merely sound administration through crisis, of which we are almost always in a permenant state of), and the need to seek answers elsewhere, often in conspiracy. The crisis of bureaucratic democracy becomes a crisis of truth. It is an outlet for frustration, where the majority no longer sees any real ‘choice’ in the political process, to quote Slavoj Žižek,
‘The political frustration of the majority is thus understandable: they are called to decide, while, at the same time, receiving the message that they are in no position effectively to decide, i.e. to objectively weigh the pros and cons. The recourse to “conspiracy theories” is a desperate way out of this deadlock, an attempt to regain a minimum of what Fred Jameson calls “cognitive mapping.”‘
Compared to these grand speculations, the world of the Shakespeare question is an almost insignificant one, but suspicion of Shakespeare has followed the general trend of more widespread acceptance of conspiracies, and the alternative theories have recently gained a degree of respectability. At the beginning of the trailer for Anonymous, when we see his ‘Shakespeare never wrote a single word’ speech, Jacobi is not hunched beside a fire in the back room of some dingy pub, but in a packed and professional looking auditorium, minus any kind of tin foil headgear. It is indicative that having once been a mark of eccentricity, the debate has become respectable, and despite the ridiculous storyline, Anonymous has the opportunity to re-energise the debate. And it intends to do this aggressively: in a press conference last year, Rhys Ifans, who will play Edward de Vere, mentioned that the character of Shakespeare will be presented as an ‘illiterate drunk’, a reference to the more snobbish aspect of the conspiracies: that Shakespeare was too poorly educated and un-gentlemanly to have written the plays. The inclusion of the incestuous royal relationship storyline could be a coup for Shakespeare loyalists, but the real test of the film’s success will be whether it legitimises questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, or marks a return to the days of the tin foil hat.
A shortened version of this post appears at blogcritics.org –