Friday, 13 April, 2012 - 12:04

'Anonymous' and the great Shakespeare debate

by Emma Dixon

Conspiracy theories about large, global events get thrown up time and again. True, it’s easy to be taken in by new evidence, but usually flaws are eventually exposed and these theories then fade away until new ones come along. 

So in some ways you really have to applaud Roland Emmerich’s new film ‘Anonymous’. In it, William Shakespeare, often thought of as the greatest writer in the English language, is shown not to be the author of his famous plays.  In other words: a fraud. It’s certainly a bold move, and you have to admire Emmerich’s loyalty to the subject. For as long as anyone can remember, Shakespeare has been taught in schools around the globe and examined by some of the best academics in the world.  Name any recent film, TV or book storyline, and more times than not it can be traced back to a plot from one of Shakespeare’s works.

In the film (which came out this month), the true author is said to be Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, a claim that is seconded by many ‘anti-Stratfordians’ (people who believe that Shakespeare was a fraud). But what do we know about this new mystery man? Well, we know that de Vere was an aristocrat, meaning he would have had a good education and probably came from a wealthy background. He was also a poet, and many of his supporters claim that the language and style of his writing is similar to Shakespeare’s. Therefore, he may have had some influence over the plays, or, as the film suggests, written them himself. 

As well as concentrating on de Vere though, the film also raises questions about Shakespeare himself. What we know is that he was born in 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon. His father was a tradesman, and his mother, the daughter of a rich farmer. On his birth certificate and other documents that followed, neither of his parents ever signed their own signature. There is also no evidence of his two daughters' writing. Instead, they all used a wax seal to print their names, and so it is thought by many academics that they were illiterate, meaning they couldn’t read or write. As for Shakespeare himself, it is thought that he probably attended a free school in his town, although there is no proof of this. If he were educated, this would have stopped in his teens, as he didn’t attend university. Anti-Stratfordians argue that only someone with a university level education could have known information in his plays, such as details about the courts. Edward de Vere would have definitely known such details.

There are currently six known examples of Shakespeare’s signature proving that unlike his family he wasn’t illiterate. However, many people have analysed his handwriting over the years. Some say that the letters are written so strangely and childishly that he can’t have had the ability to write the plays, sonnets and poetry.  

All of this evidence shows enough to begin to doubt Shakespeare, or at least be slightly confused about the truth! However, in the film and in the conspiracy theories, there are many flaws hidden beneath. 

As said, in ‘Anonymous’, de Vere is shown to be the real author of Shakespeare’s work. There is however a large problem with this theory; Edward de Vere died in 1604, before ten of Shakespeare’s plays were even published! So how could he have written the plays after he had died? In addition to this, conspiracy theories about Shakespeare have only been thought up in the last century. So does that mean that a large amount of people kept Shakespeare’s real identity a secret between the 1500s and the 20th century? This seems unlikely. Plus, why would the Earl of Oxford want to pass his work off as someone else? Especially when Shakespeare’s plays were becoming so successful. This seems even more unlikely!

In order to make the film believable, and stick to the idea that Shakespeare is a fraud, the filmmakers seem to have had to totally rewrite history, as well as suggesting that the truth has been hidden under 500 years of conspiracy. There’s no doubt that ‘Anonymous' is a well-made, interesting and thoughtful film that’s definitely worth seeing. However, viewers should be wary of the facts they see on screen, and maybe keep it in the ‘fantasy’ genre along with ‘Shakespeare in Love’.

Language level

Do you like historical films? Do you think it's important that they're historically accurate? 

English courses near you