Anonymous–Shakespeare and Conspiracy Theories

Reluctant as I was to watch this movie, I have done it.  And because I have, I can firmly tell you that you don’t have to.

Let me start by saying that I love Shakespeare. I have read all of his Sonnets and poems, and I think I’m up to about 20 of the 37 plays. I have taken 3 college Shakespeare courses, and done a two-week program at the Globe in London that taught everything from acting and makeup to set design and costumes.  I enjoy Shakespeare. I am not a Shakespeare scholar, but I am an educated English major who has read a lot of his work.  As such, I find the ‘Oxfordian theory’ completely and utterly ridiculous, as well as being infuriatingly pompous and pretentious.  But I’ll get to that later.  I’m going to discuss two aspects of my dislike for this film: the film itself, and the conspiracy theory that makes up its premise.

First, the film.  The basic plot revolves around the life of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.  (In the film) he was a gifted writer and actor whose passions were squashed by his Puritanical guardian/advisor to Queen Elizabeth, William Cecil.  Puritans certainly hated the theatre, closing most of them down during the reign of Cromwell, but this was a good 40 years before the English Civil War and I’m not certain they held that much sway in England at the time.  But I digress! Young Edward can’t write publicly, but he does so privately.  The film shows him first performing what appears to be a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he is only a tween, and then later reveals him to have stacks and stacks of completed plays in his manor house.  As an adult, when he sees the influence that theatres are beginning to have on the English public, he convinces Ben Jonson to help him get his plays performed under a pseudonym.  Ben Jonson, being one of the protagonists of the movie, and a good man, refuses to attach his own name to the play that he did not write.  Will Shakespeare, an actor who can read but not write (in this fetid nonsensical ridiculous film) scoops up the acclaim when he sees that the play is a hit.

The rest of the film is two stories, one of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson dealing with the glory and success the plays receive.  The larger and more difficult to follow plotline involves Edward and the Queen.  It is revealed that Edward de Vere had an affair with Queen Elizabeth and fathered a secret son, the Earl of Southampton, who gets mixed up in a rebellion with the Earl of Essex (also a secret son of Elizabeth who seems to have been quite up for it, considering she was known as the virgin queen), and they are both sentenced to death.  Confused yet? Because it gets even more ludicrous.  Edward finds out that not only does he have a son with Elizabeth, but he himself is a son of Elizabeth.  Yep, he had a child with his own mother.  Originally, William Cecil wanted him to become king (there’s a ludicrous side-plot about the ascension of James I upon Elizabeth’s death), but that’s gone out the window now.  In the end, Edward begs Elizabeth to spare their son (never telling her that the kid is also her grandson and that she is really gross). She agrees to spare him, but as punishment, Edward’s name will never be attached to any of his plays.

As if this isn’t bad enough, it all takes place through continuously shifting timelines and flashes forward and back! Edward de Vere is played by 3 different actors, Queen Elizabeth by 2 different actresses.  If you can manage to keep track of what’s going on and who’s who, you’re a better viewer than me.  But even if you do, the movie just isn’t that good.  The acting is competent, the costumes and the recreation of Tudor London is great to see, but that’s the most praise I can heap on this film.

I feel I’m being a bit unfair.  It’s not the worst film ever–Michael Bay didn’t make it, after all.  My hatred of it is mostly due to my hatred of the theory behind it. But even if I subscribed to the theory, the film does a terrible job supporting it! So allow me a small paragraph to dispute some of the inaccuracies and nonsense that the film employs to make this theory more believable.

First of all, the idea of a young de Vere performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream some 40 years before it was first showed on stage is akin to (as the NYT puts it) Jay Z putting out The Blueprint in 1961.  Or (to use a reference I feel I understand better) the Beatles releasing Sgt. Pepper’s in the 1920s.  The genre did not exist yet, is the material point.  But beyond that stupidity.  The timeline of plays being released does not even remotely match the accounts we have from diarists of the time or from the playhouses themselves.  Henry V is the first play that is attributed to Shakespeare, in this film.  According to most chronologies, Henry V wasn’t performed until 1598ish, whereas over 15 other plays are believed to have been performed earlier than that (as early as 1590). There doesn’t seem to be a lot of thought put into which plays they chose to include in the film in terms of chronology, these plays are just chosen to advance the plot.  They use Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard III. All of these were performed before 1599, but they are used in this film to incite a rebellion which actually took place in 1601.

At one point, in order to gain an audience with Elizabeth, Edward de Vere publishes the poem Venus and Adonis to get her attention.  The poem, based on the Greek myth, features the god Venus essentially attempting to rape a young and disinterested boy who only wants to go hunting.  Later, he dies after being impaled by a tusk.  I suppose you could make some allegory of Elizabeth the Queen embodying Venus the goddess, and young Edward making a good Adonis.  But…in the film this is seen as a love poem intended to make Elizabeth remember the love she shared with Edward de Vere.  The poem is pretty graphically sexual for the time period, something of the 50 Shades of Gray of that era, but let’s rewind.  Remember 2 seconds ago when I said the plot was that she wants Adonis but he couldn’t care less?  He tells her to go away, despite her throwing herself at him, and then he goes off hunting and dies.  If the Queen is Venus, how is this meant to woo her?  It doesn’t even make sense.

Also, even if I believed this theory, the film portrays Edward de Vere as a writer and a nobleman.  When he goes to the theatre to see his own plays performed, he is more or less uninterested and detached. He is pleased to see the influence his plays can have, but has no attachment to the actor’s performances or the reception his work gets.

One more note about the film before I get to why the whole Oxfordian theory makes my blood boil.  The film depicts a righteous but incompetent Ben Jonson and a Christopher Marlowe who is conniving and a backstabber. I could perhaps forgive that, but their depiction of Will Shakespeare is so pathetic and moronic that I cannot believe it.  It is as if they think we will only believe their theory if we also see a Shakespeare who is a glory-hound, money-hound, cannot even write his own name, borderline-illiterate moron.  The film portrays him with less sympathy and less depth than the puritans or the palace guards.  And they propose that he murdered Christopher Marlowe.  It’s the equivalent of those swiftboat captain ads in the John Kerry campaign.  You can’t believe it’s happening, and even more so you cannot possibly believe other people accept it as true.

Okay, so the movie sucks.  What about the theory? Why do I hate it so much?

The big point of the Oxfordian theory, their bread and butter, is that Shakespeare was uneducated and not a nobleman.  How could a common man from a small town, whose father made gloves, write so well? How could he know Greek and Latin myths without going to Cambridge or Oxford? How could he know about the politics at court without living in that environment his whole life?

Let’s just take a moment and think about what that means.  They are basically saying that only a person of noble blood could write these plays, because…because they’re better than commoners. That’s their main argument. The presumptuousness makes me crazy.  I know I sound pedantic and ridiculous, but I don’t care! In fact, it makes my point for me! I am someone who was born in the Midwest, to parents who didn’t graduate from college (they later went back and got their B.S.s).  I was educated at public school.  When I was 19 I had to leave my (state) university and try to get my life together, because I was a mess.  Anyone might have looked at me at that point, or in the ensuing years, and seen someone completely average or possibly less successful or intelligent than average. I had no experience of high society, of elite education, of culture or financial success. I had never been out of the country or even to NYC.

But those things did not define who I am or my potential or my passion.  I read constantly, I taught myself about history, about literature. I went back to an Ivy League university and got my degree, with honors. I spent 6 months living in Europe and saw 10 countries. I continue to learn and to grow. I write, I read, I embrace all the knowledge I can get my hands on.  And I’m just an average person with a lot of curiosity! Shakespeare was a bona fide, once a century sort of genius.  When has genius ever needed anything other than itself to succeed? Leonardo Da Vinci was the bastard son of a wealthy man and a peasant girl, born in a small town in Tuscany. He received only an informal education. Michael Faraday was a bookseller with no formal education, but he read a lot, and he ended up making incredible scientific discoveries (mostly related to electricity) and making much of our modern life possible. I think the bottom line is that if you are one of those people, a genius, someone destined to forever change the world and how we understand it, the only thing that can stop you is death.  The idea that Shakespeare couldn’t have learned Greek or Latin on his own, or couldn’t have learned of court politics from his patrons and friends in the upper classes, is ridiculous.  Not to mention that the incredible understanding of humanity, of personalities and emotions, that Shakespeare displays is not something that could ever be learned.

That’s my main problem with the theory, the utterly insulting idea that anyone from humble means could not have achieved so much or written so well.  But there are other problems.  Like, for example, Edward de Vere died in 1604 but Shakespeare continued to debut new material much later.  Unless he’s Tupac Shakur, I don’t see how that works.

And what about the performances?  If you’ve ever taken a Shakespeare class (or 10th grade language arts) you’ve gotten the speech about how these were never meant to be read, they were meant to be performed.  And if you’ve ever gone to the Globe or seen a real Shakespeare company (I highly recommend it), you will undoubtedly ‘get’ things that you didn’t understand before (mostly bawdy puns, but still).  We are meant to believe that:

1-de Vere was such a genius at writing plays that he could simply hand them over and not have any part in the production of them. He would just have faith that all the actors would portray his parts as he envisioned them.

2-None of the actors ever had any questions about how things should sound or look.

3-If they did have questions, no one was confused by why Will Shakespeare couldn’t answer them.

And, one last hiccup.  Shakespeare collaborated on many of his later works, most usually with John Fletcher.  Fletcher (or his other collaborators) never noticed that Will didn’t do any of the writing?  Oh yeah, and they are believed to have written these plays together in the 1610s, despite Edward de Vere having been dead for nearly a decade.  Even if I believed the nonsense about a bunch of plays being left behind in Ben Jonson’s possession, that doesn’t really track with the collaboration with other playwriters.  And anyone who reads a lot of Shakespeare can clearly see the writing style differences in his solo plays and his collaborations.

I read one article about this theory that said it was given as much credit in the literary world as the theory that we didn’t actually land on the moon.  I think that’s giving it too much credit! It is absolutely insulting and stupid.  And so is this film!

15 responses to “Anonymous–Shakespeare and Conspiracy Theories

  1. As an educated English major and Student of Shakespeare, you owe it to yourself to look deeper into the subject beyond the lazily accepted status quo. No one has ever said that a commoner could not have written the works attributed to Shakespeare. The only point of contention is that in this case there is no evidence to support it.

    Another common misconception is that we know for certain when the plays were written. We do not since no manuscripts have ever been found. Dating of Shakespeare’s plays is pure conjecture. dates of performance or publication do not tell us the dates of composition.

    There are many other points to be raised. The traditional Stratfordian theory presents us with a major disconnect between the life of the presumed author and his creative output. It’s almost as if we have a disembodied body of works with little or no relationship to the author.

    1) In twenty years of supposedly living in London, not a single letter exists from or to William Shakespeare. Shakespeare (referring to the actor from Stratford) left no letters or other writing in his own name, except for six crude signatures that are barely legible. There is only one known letter addressed to him — it was about 30 pounds and it was never delivered.

    Yes, documents from 400 years ago could be lost, yet we have letters from Thomas Nashe, Philip Massinger, Gabriel Harvey, Samuel Daniel, George Peele, Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and William Drummond, Anthony Mundy, John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe and others, many of them lesser writers.

    2) There is no evidence that William of Stratford could have acquired the vast educational, linguistic or cultural background necessary to write the masterpieces of English literature ascribed to Shakespeare. His plays reveal knowledge of languages, the law, Latin and Greek classics, medicine, falconry, the sea, music, and nature that is so deep it could have only been learned through personal experience.

    3) He left no books or manuscripts in his will, though, at the time of his death, 20 of his famous plays remained unpublished. Indeed, his will gives no indication that the deceased was engaged in literary activities of any sort.

    4) He took no legal action against the pirating of the Shakespeare plays or the apparently unauthorized publication of Shake-speare’s Sonnets in 1609, even though he was known to frequently initiate lawsuits to recover petty sums of money owed to him

    5) His parents, siblings, and daughters were all illiterate except that one daughter could sign her own name. Would the greatest writer in English history have allowed this?

    6) He was so well known that at the height of Shakespeare’s alleged fame, tax collectors could not discover where he lived.

    7) Shake-speare’s Sonnets, published in 1609, paint a portrait of the artist as a much older man. The scholarly consensus today holds that most of the Sonnets were written in the 1590s, when Shakspere of Stratford was in his late 20s to late 30s, a relatively youthful age even in Elizabethan times. Yet, the author of the Sonnets at times is clearly much older and anticipating his own imminent death. Inexplicably, the publisher’s dedication in the 1609 volume of Sonnets refers to Shakespeare as our ever-living poet, a term that implies the poet is already dead, but Shakspere of Stratford was still very much alive until 1616.

    8) At his death, there were no eulogies, no testimonials, or tributes, not even from fellow actors, playwrights, or his esteemed friend, Ben Jonson. His only alleged connection to the plays came seven years after his death in the tribute by Ben Jonson in the First Folio. Why was no notice taken of Shakspere of Stratford’s death if he was such a literary luminary?

    9) The Sonnets also suggest strongly that Shakespeare was a pen name and that the author’s real identity was destined to remain unknown. In Sonnet 72 Shakespeare asks that “My name be buried where my body is”. Sonnet 81: “Though I, once gone, to all the world must die”. If Shakspere of Stratford truly was the famous author of the Sonnets, why would he think his name would be buried with his body? The name Shakespeare which appears on the title page of the Sonnets themselves — certainly wasn’t buried with the body of the poet, whoever he was.

    10) There is no evidence of a single payment to Shakspere of Stratford as an author. Nor is there any evidence of Shakspere of Stratford seeking out or establishing an ongoing literary patron as was a common practice for writers of the day.

    11. Shakespeare is not known to have traveled outside of England, yet the plays reveal an extensive knowledge of Italy and France that simply could not be picked up by conversations in the Mermaid Tavern as is also the case with the author’s intimate familiarity with court life..

    12. Shakespeare’s point of view in the plays and poems is always that of an aristocrat. He has created commoners, but they are mostly buffoons who mangle the language. He portrays the nobility as individuals, but the lower classes as types, even stereotypes.

    13) Many books that were used as source material for the plays were not translated into English in Shakespeare’s time. For example:
    Francois de Belleforest Histories tragiques
    Ser Giovanni Fioranetino’s Il Pecorone
    Epitia and Hecatommithi
    Luigi da Porto’s Romeus and Juliet (Italian)
    Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (Spanish)

    15) The evidence for Oxford is strong and I would even call it compelling but it requires looking under the surface of many common myths that are circulating and to read books beyond the Stratfordian biased accounts. There are many excellent books written about Edward de Vere and the case for his authorship including Mark Anderson’s “Shakespeare by Another Name.”

    One more point, the film “Anonymous” is a fiction film that is not designed to present any case for de Vere as the author. Historical events are changed for dramatic purposes only, yet the underlying point of the film remains valid.

  2. And I thought I was pedantic! Thanks for your incredibly long, detailed, and slightly condescending comment. I disagree with you about several of your points, but am not interested in a debate. Forgive me if I am inclined to believe exactly as I did before, as you are free to go on believing what you do.

  3. May the force be with you.

  4. Douglas Colling

    Mr Schumann is absolutely right. the whole “snobbery” argument is a tired and bogus fabrication of the orthodox camp, endlessly trotted out as their first line of defense.

    In actual fact, Oxfordians could care less whether the author was an aristocrat or a commoner and have no interest whatsoever in affirming or defending the good or ill of British class structure.

    They only say that internal evidence in the works of “Shakespeare” points to an author with a wide-ranging classical education of the highest order coupled with an innate worldview of privilege and power.

    not only does de vere’s education and upbringing match the tone and scope of the plays, they reflect his life uncannily and fit him like a biographical glove. there are literally hundreds of parallels and correlations between his life and the works…. far too many to be accidental.

    the Stratford man by comparison, is a logical and logistical stretch in every way. his so-called biography is 2% fact and 98% conjecture.

    Anonymous is fictional theory built around historical touchpoints and is undoubtedly NOT what actually happened, but something LIKE that definitely happened. That’s for sure. It’s not wacko conspiracy stuff.

    douglas colling

  5. That’s the second time it’s been pointed out to me that the movie is just a movie and not meant to be in defense of the theory. Perhaps my original blog post was unclear; I tried to divide my rant into three subcategories: why the movie sucked, why the movie did a bad job of supporting the theory, why the theory sucks. I am certainly aware that the movie and the theory are not one in the same–but I do share a certain derision for both of them.

    I don’t understand how both of you gentleman can say that it has nothing to do with snobbery or with the idea of Shakespeare being an unacceptable author because he is a commoner, and then point out that the author of these plays could only know what he knows and write as he writes if he received a world class education and experienced life from a privileged perspective. This in a time when wealth and station were the only ways to receive a world class education. If you can’t see the paradox in that, i think we have bigger problems.

    I agree that only a truly exceptional individual could write so convincingly about places and people and situations he had not experienced, or could write with knowledge of Greek and Latin myths and idioms without receiving an education where these were taught to him. But the only thing we know for absolute certain about the writer of Shakespeare’s plays is that he was a truly fucking exceptional person.

    In the end, the onus is on the conspiracy theorist to prove his theory. All of our accounts show Shakespeare as the author of these plays. Neither side can ‘prove’ the truth, because if there was any evidence that everyone could believe, we would have found it by now. There is footage of man on the moon, but people still argue it didn’t happen. And that was only 40 years ago, not 400. Since there is no way to prove one way or the other, I shall continue to believe the ‘orthodox’ view, because that is what seems much more likely to me than a vast conspiracy. Occam’s razor, and all that. You are free to believe whatever you like.

  6. Of the 37 plays, 36 are laid in royal courts and the world of the nobility. The principal characters are almost all aristocrats with the exception perhaps of Shylock. From all we can tell, Shakespeare fully shared the outlook of his characters, identifying fully with the courtesies, chivalries, and generosity of aristocratic life. Many lower class characters in Shakespeare are introduced for comic effect and given little development.

    Their names are indicative of their worth: Snug, Stout, Starveling, Dogberry, Simple, Mouldy, Wart, Feeble, etc. The history plays are concerned mostly with the consolidation and maintenance of royal power and are concerned with righting the wrongs that fall on people of high blood. His comedies are far removed from the practicalities of everyday life or the realistic need to make a living. Shakespeare’s vision is a deeply conservative, feudalistic and aristocratic one.

    Obviously, there is no smoking gun. It is a matter of deciding who you think has the most circumstantial evidence in his case. Take a look at the parallels between the biography of Oxford and events in the plays.

    For example, in ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

    Oxford became a ward of court in Lord Burghley’s household at the age of twelve. Oxford left his widowed mother to become a royal ward.

    Bertram left his widowed mother to become a royal ward.

    Oxford’s guardian’s daughter fell in love with him and wanted to be married.

    Bertram’s foster-sister fell in love with him and wanted to be married.

    Oxford was of more noble birth than Anne and did not favor marriage.

    Bertram argued he was of too high birth for marriage.

    Following an ailment, marriage was agreed and the Queen consented to Oxford’s marriage.

    Following an illness, the King consented to the marriage.

    The wedding was at first postponed, no reason was given.

    Bertram attempted to change the King’s mind regarding his marriage.

    After the wedding, Oxford suddenly left the country.

    After the wedding, Bertram suddenly left the country.

    A reconciliation between Oxford and Anne is contrived by switching his bed companion for his wife. As a result, a son is born. Confirmation of this reconciliation appears in The Histories of Essex by Morant and Wright: 1836.

    A reconciliation between Bertram and Helena is contrived by switching his bed companion for his wife. As a result, a son is born.

    With all due respect, until you can address the issues that have been raised in my original post and that of the last poster, your assertions that you will continue to believe the orthodox point of view has little substance.

  7. Please leave me alone. I did not post this on some Shakespeare authorship forum, I posted it, AS A MOVIE REVIEW, on my own personal blog. If you do not agree with me, fine, but don’t be rude because I do not agree with you. I have no need to justify my opinion to you, and never asked for proof or reason for you to believe what you believe. Further comments will be blocked.

  8. Pingback: Trip to England–what to see?! | britishaisles

  9. For those interested, more information is better than less, and each must make up his or her mind. For a view of Oxford and the Sonnets, try my website at
    and the blog at
    Thanks for opening up the subject to discussion.

  10. Steve Kinsella

    I too am a Stratfordian and believe that William Shakespeare could have received enough education in Stratford-Upon-Avon to enable him to write the plays attributed to him. First of all the education offered was not in any way remotely like the reading, writing and arithmetic model of today. It was Latin for 8 hours a day, 6 days a week for probably ten years. Latin Poets, Latin Plays and Latin Rhetoric, which would have given him access to all the Classical myths. I have recently been studying “Farnsworth Classical English Rhetoric” which is is replete with quotes from Shakespeare’s play that demonstrate just how grounded in classical rhetoric Shakespeare was.
    Secondly the assertion that Shakespeare had no books because none were mentioned in his will is, as Bill Bryson points out in his very readable biography, is like saying he had no pants because none are mentioned either. Plus the fact that the Globe Theatre burned to the ground in 1611 and we have no way of knowing what manuscripts went up in flames. I also think it is entirely possible that Shakespeare’s life in London and his life in Stratford were kept separate and distinct. He did buy a house in the Black Friars district just shortly before he retired to Stratford and it seems sensible that he would have left his library there. There was also the great London fire in 1647(?) and we have no way of knowing what was lost in it.
    And finally there is not a scintilla of physical evidence that connects deVere to Shakespeare’s plays. Oh, he was involved in the theatre and had his own
    company which failed and he wrote plays which are forgotten. So we are expected to believe that he put his name on bad plays but kept it off the ones that are considered the masterpieces. Plus he went through his inheritance and was selling off real estate at the end of his life. Why would he not have availed himself of the income from these successful plays that made Shakespeare a rich man.
    Oh by the way why would “Edward” de Vere write Sonnet CXXXV with its repeated puns on the name “Will”?

    • I’ve never actually read a Shakespeare biography, shockingly. I really don’t read much non-fiction, at all. Would you say the Byron is the best?

        • Steve Kinsella

          I found Bryson’s book very entertaining being both funny and accessible. One of the things I liked was Bryson takes such delight in debunking the anti-Stratfordians starting with that dingbat-in-chief, Delia Bacon, the 19th century .
          Bryson has two editions of the book. The first one is “Shakespeare, The World as Stage” published in the 1990’s and the second one in 2009 “Shakespeare, The Illustrated and Updated Edition” which has portraits, documents and drawings.
          If you’re up for it, James Shapiro’s “Will Contested” is a very thorough examination of the question and exposes the flimsiness of the evidence that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him.
          The day after I posted my original comments I read Sonnet 136, which begins:
          “If they soul check thee that I come so near,
          Swear to thy blind soul that I was thy Will”
          and ends with:
          “Make but my name thy love, and that love still,
          And thou lov’st me,–for my name is Will.”
          Just to belabor the point, it does seem an odd thing for Edward deVere to say.
          I recently watched the DVD of “Anonymous” and was struck again by how many thinks I like about the movie. The costumes, the sets, the cinematography and the actors but the absurdity of the plots make me want to scream.
          I listened to the director’s (Roland Emmerich) commentary and he does sound like a real ninny, mostly because he says “you know” every five words or so, as though he were doing a parody of a valley girl. Plus his grasp of the history of the period is so misguided and uninformed. It reminded me of a remark by the poet A.E. Housman who said of a certain teacher “When he has acquired a scrap of misinformation he cannot rest till he has imparted it.”

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