To believe or not to believe? - Interview with Dr Neema Parvini
To believe or not to believe?
That’s the question at the heart of Roland Emmerich’s new film, Anonymous, that claims William Shakespeare, history’s most famous author, was a big, fat, fraud!
Never the most subtle of filmmakers, having saved the Earth from aliens, mutant lizards and global warming, Emmerich has decided to do for Shakespeare’s reputation what he’s been doing for some of the world’s most iconic landmarks (the White House in Independence Day, New York in Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow, the entire world in 2012): trash it big-style.
Emmerich isn’t the first crackpot to say Shakespeare didn’t write the plays that bear his name however; he’s just the first one to have a $30million budget.
As early as the 19th century, scholars and conspiracy theorists were arguing over Shakespeare’s authorship with figures like Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and a gaggle of Shakespearean actors (among them Derek Jacobi whose appearance bookends the film) all contesting accepted fact.
Some claim the true author of Shakespeare’s plays was poet, playwright and spy Christopher Marlowe, who somehow faked his death in 1593 only to re-emerge under the guise of Shakespeare.
Some claim the author was philosopher, scientist, author, statesman, jurist and all round Renaissance man Francis Bacon who used the Shakespeare name as an alias in order to protect his government ambitions, littering the plays with coded messages revealing his identity.
Anonymous however claims the true author was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a theory first posited by the aptly named J. Thomas Looney. A courtier with Catholic leanings and Lancastrian sympathies who published one slim volume of poetry in his lifetime, Oxford was a patron of the Arts and, according to Emmerich, he was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I (the Virgin Queen), had an incestuous affair with her that produced a son and employed first playwright Ben Johnson, then Shakespeare himself, as front men to allow him to disseminate seditious plays aimed at toppling the Government.
Moreover, Anonymous portrays Shakespeare as a drunken, illiterate braggart, unable to even write his own name, who murders Christopher Marlowe to prevent himself being revealed as a fraud. Given that the film takes place five years after Marlowe’s death, that’s a pretty neat trick.
While the film is really more fun than it should be and makes not a lick of sense, could Emmerich be right? Could the Bard be a fraud? Not according to Shakespearean scholar and author Dr Neema Parvini.
“One of the big misnomers is that Shakespeare was uneducated. We know he attended grammar school in Stratford where he would have been educated in Latin and the classics. While he didn’t go to university, there’s nothing unusual about that. Ben Johnson didn’t go to university either and he was much more popular, more successful, at the time than Shakespeare.”
But why have no examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting survived to the present day, the conspiracy theorists cry?
“Paper was scarce and expensive. A commoner like Shakespeare would have recycled it. It’s not at all uncommon for no traces of a person’s handwriting to exist.
“And we do have plenty of documentary evidence from official records of his time in London and Stratford. We know he was a shareholder of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later, after the coronation of James I, the King’s Men), the leading company of players of the time, and co-owner of the Globe theatre.
“He’s attacked in print as early as 1592 when Robert Greene refers to him as Johannes Factotum – a Jack of all Trades. Furthermore, the plays were advertised under his name in his own time. His name was above the title. In addition, he’s cited more than 20 times as an author, in his lifetime, by his contemporaries. He was a celebrity. People knew who he was.”
Shakespeare’s own will never mentions his plays or his writing. It mentions his second best bed, but nothing about any manuscripts or books.
“This is not especially remarkable as these would have passed automatically to his children. The will was only concerned with specific holdings and property.”
Shakespeare rarely wrote about the lower classes. His characters were always noblemen or historical. Surely, a commoner couldn’t write about the upper classes in such detail. Shakespeare must have been a member of the aristocracy!
“Is J.K. Rowling a wizard? Is Tom Clancy a spy? Was Tolkein a hobbit? Shakespeare was a writer; he used his imagination.
“The royals and nobility were the celebrities of their day, they were exotic, it was natural to have an interest in them. Shakespeares’s historical plays show exceptional insight, delving into important political questions as well as those of historical causation. But by putting kings and queens on the contemporary stage he was humanising them. He brings history down to a human level.
“Also, it could be argued that a member of the nobility may be less inclined to be so interested in the upper classes. There’s something a bit snobbish about this theory, that a common man couldn’t possibly be such a good writer.”
Many of his plays were drawn from classical mythology. There’s an obvious influence in some of his work of Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte. And how could Shakespeare acquire such detailed knowledge of countries like France and Italy when he never left England?
“He read. Books were freely available to buy and trade in Elizabethan England. Plato, Virgil, Homer and Ovid had all been translated and the plays of the Commedia dell’Arte had all been published. Plus, Shakespeare would have had access to the libraries and books of wealthy patrons, people like John Stow who was a renowned collector.
“Besides, Shakespeare’s geographical errors are legendary. Ben Johnson famously criticised him for giving Bohemia a coast in The Winter’s Tale.”
There’s little of him in the plays, nothing autobiographical…
“Every writer’s different. You could say that someone like Bob Dylan wears their heart on their sleeve while David Bowie plays lots of different roles. The idea that one reveals oneself in one’s writing is something of a cultural anachronism. It just wasn’t the fashion at the time.”
But will Dr Parvini be seeing Anonymous?
“I might have to take a look…”
Maybe the final word on Anonymous should come from the quill of the man under dispute himself:
“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Anonymous was released on 28 October.
Dr Neema Parvini is a visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Richmond American International University in London. He is the author of Shakespeare’s History Plays: Rethinking Historicism, published by Edinburgh University Press, and Shakespeare And Contemporary Theory: New Historicism And Cultural Materialism, published by Continuum.