The Movie “Anonymous” is Worse Than a Farce – It’s a Travesty

A new movie, “Anonymous”, contends that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550 – 1604), is the true author of the poems and plays of William Shakespeare. It also makes some ridiculous contentions about the relationship between de Vere and Queen Elizabeth, but that’s for someone else to debunk. The authorship question is an old argument that is still promulgated by the Shakespeare Oxford Society. Their website claims: “Nothing about the Stratford man rings true: his character, his background, his education, his family, his friends, his behavior towards his debtors and his neighbors, his recorded conversation and his attitude to money and property. It would have been very surprising if someone like that had become the world’s greatest author.”

I didn’t know that a man’s character or attitude towards money determined his ability, as many geniuses have been known to be … well, quite eccentric, if not necessarily as cantankerous as Beethoven, but let that pass. Actually, most reports of Shakespeare’s character were pretty positive. As to his friends-I’ll address that topic to some extent.

If this movie had simply been another piece of “literary license”, I would probably have found it quite amusing and then ignored it. However, it seems that director Roland Emmerich was not content with this; he sent out promo material to teachers disguised as educational information to reveal “the truth” to them. The “truth” is a very subjective and dangerous concept, and when the story contradicts what many true professionals have labored for many years to discover–and still admit it’s mostly conjecture–it’s really a disgusting way to try to make a few extra bucks. At least “Shakespeare in Love” purported to be a fantasy comedy, as did “Amadeus” (which was actually fairly factual, according to my research).

Of much more interest to me than the general commentary by the Oxford Society is this assertion: “There should be masses of contemporary documents about the life of the world’s greatest writer. His manuscripts, his letters, the letters sent to him, the letters about him between others, and printed stories and pamphlets about him. But there are none of these things. There are reviews and comments on the plays and poems. There are a few legal documents concerning the man who usually lived in the village of Stratford-upon-Avon.” As the movie supports a nearly untenable theory, I intend to make one of my own. I will get to that at the end of this essay. But let’s deal with the Oxfordian question first.

According to the movie, due to social and political constraints, the nobleman is forced to use a front for his politically-minded works because he wants Queen Elizabeth to alter her plan for succession against the advice of her Privy Council. Then de Vere finds a drunken, illiterate, fame-hungry actor named William Shakespeare who will pass the plays off as his own for compensation. There are so many facets to this argument, and so much has been written on the subject, that I will here restrain myself to only a few pieces of evidence. Rather, at the end of this essay, I intend to offer some alternative arguments that could answer some of the questions raised by the Oxfordians. (For the heavy refutations, refer to James Shapiro’s “Contested Will”.)

For one thing, as did many noblemen of the day, de Vere actually wrote poetry under his own name-even Queen Elizabeth and King James did so. But “Venus and Adonis” (1593) and “The Rape of Lucrece” (1594) are both attributed to William Shakespeare. Why would de Vere adopt a nom-de-plume for these masterpieces when he was accepting recognition for the works published under his own name? Possibly because, as Helen Gibson describes it, de Vere’s poetry is “competent yet uninspired,” and resembles “juvenelia”. Further, why would these poems have been dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton instead of de Vere, or even de Vere’s patroness, Queen Elizabeth? Perhaps because Wriothesley was known to have been Shakespeare’s patron (as many “poor poets” had wealthy and powerful patrons), and was reported to have loaned Shakespeare a thousand pounds at one time (undocumented).

Edward de Vere indubitably died in 1604, and the Oxfordians concede that a number of plays did not appear until after that, most notably “Winter’s Tale” (1610-11), “The Tempest” (1611), “Henry VIII” (1612-13) and “Two Noble Kinsmen” (1613). So, is it possible these plays were held in abeyance to perpetuate the myth of Shakespeare versus Oxford? Sure. But records of living quarters and finances clearly show that William Shakespeare lived in London until 1613, and then returned to Stratford until he died in 1616. What a coincidence that the plays actually ended when Shakespeare retired from the theater and left London!

There are several documented payments for performances in front of the queen to Burbage and the other sharers (main partners) of the troupe, as well as deeds of ownership to the Globe and other properties related to the various troupes, which bear the name William Shakespeare. His name also appears in a few lists of actors surviving from those companies. The documented website, “Shakespeare’s Life and Times” (, not only lists each known document, but cites academic authentication and explains them. Therefore, I will not make specific reference to any of them.

Never mind the dedications to Wriothesley, and all the other writings that bear Shakespeare’s name. Those could indeed have been faked. But why would any sane person put a fictitious name on a payment document or a deed in order to perpetuate such a fraud? They could have easily paid a ghostwriter to pen the plays, but would not have gone to the trouble of portioning out part of the revenues to a minor, drunken actor.

Part of the Oxfordian theory is based on Shakespeare’s alleged lack of education. Hundreds of documents from the borough of Stratford-on-Avon show that John Shakespeare was a man of great wealth until he fell from grace as a devout Catholic in an increasingly Protestant country. Further, he served in many official capacities, including that of bailiff, or mayor of the town. As such, he would have been entitled to enroll his children (not just boys) in the King’s New School, which had both a petty school and a first-rate grammar school with masters educated at Oxford and, later, Cambridge. Until John was stripped of his alderman duties, which would have been around the time William was fourteen, William would have attended this excellent school from about the age of four (petty school). The children started at six o’clock in the morning, six days a week. After a break for breakfast, there was no stop until lunch, and students were not dismissed until half past five or six o’clock in the evening. The break during the summer was somewhere around six weeks. Compared with today, the lessons were intense, discipline was rigid, and the children learned a lot, although in what we would consider a limited number of subjects.

There are some theories that William later attended university. If he did study for the seminary during those “lost years”, it would most probably have been at the University of Douai in Flanders (later in Rheims), started by William Allen because it had become illegal to study to be a Catholic priest in England. It is well known that a number of school children from Stratford-on-Avon during that period attended Douai, and a couple of the schoolmasters of the grammar school William attended went to Douai after they were essentially “run out of town” for their Papist beliefs and teachings.

However, I personally do not believe he attended any university for several reasons, especially not to be a priest. First, William was married to Anne Hathaway at the age of eighteen, and no married man could study to be a priest. Second, there probably would be records at Douai if Shakespeare had attended, as the Catholic Encyclopedia lists virtually all such students. If he had been incognito, he would have learned a great deal of Latin, and a lot more Greek than he possessed, as those were the languages of the scholars and masters (Geoffrey Chaucer was the only really prominent English author up to that time who wrote in English).

Ben Jonson is known to have said about Shakespeare that “he has small Latin and less Greek”. While we may think that means he was virtually ignorant, in that day the students of grammar schools actually learned a hell of a lot of Latin and Greek, but much less than a university student would. Shakespeare uses some Latin and a little Greek in his plays, but not what he would have learned at university. In addition, at a Catholic university he would have studied the bible in Latin; most of his Catholic references in his plays use the English Bible versions, which had become mandatory in public schools and churches during that era, so it is probable that his religious references come from his early studies, not from a university background.

Emmerich said of his movie: “I’m no professor, but I cannot believe that somebody who had nearly no education could write like this.” Did Shakespeare need a university education to write his works? It was rumored that Ben Jonson attended Cambridge, but Jonson himself refuted that, claiming that after leaving grammar school he was apprenticed into his father’s trade, that of a bricklayer. Wanting to write, Jonson left for London-much in the same way as Shakespeare. There are many more modern examples of “uneducated” people who were essentially self-taught, such as Abraham Lincoln. Others include German native William Herschel, Englishman Michael Faraday, Srinivasa Ramanujann of India, and others of more modern vintage, not to mention the ancient scholars who had to invent all of the knowledge we now have. Does Emmerich also wish to make movies claiming all of these people were drunken frauds?

As to friends, it is especially worthy of note that shortly before Shakespeare’s arrival, three young men had gone to London as apprentices to printers. One of those men, Richard Field, was a grammar school companion and friend of Shakespeare. Field was apprenticed to John Bishop and Thomas Vautrollier, who owned “one of the best (shops) in London”. Vautrollier died in 1587, and Field went on to marry Vautrollier’s widow and succeeded to his former master’s business. Field’s shop was in the Blackfriars area of London, near Ludgate, where the Blackfriars theatre was later located. He regularly printed works for the most highly-regarded publishers in London, Documents show Shakespeare had a lifelong relationship with Field, and received aid and encouragement while in London. It is not a stretch to think that William borrowed copies of Holinshed’s “Chronicles” and Thomas North’s English translation of Plutarch’s Lives for his research; both of them were printed by Field and would certainly have been in his library (Shakespeare’s patroness, the Countess of Derby, gave an inscribed copy to a “William”). He would also have access to Henri Estienne’s Katherine de Medici, Timothy Bright’s Treatise of Melancholy, and The Mansion of Magnanimity by Richard Crompton, among other works. Shakespeare apparently signed his name in a copy of William Lambarde’s Archaionomia.

Another friend, and something of a protégé, was Ben Jonson. It is fairly agreed upon by academics that Jonson was first rejected by Philip Henslowe (we won’t get into the long connections of many of the troupes at that time, including that of James Burbage–who, incidentally, much evidence indicates was born in Stratford), but Shakespeare read the script “Volpone” and convinced Henslowe to give it a chance. A drunken thespian would not have been in any position to advise Henslowe on the merits of dramatic material. Later, “Every Man in His Humour” was performed in 1598 by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe, and William Shakespeare is clearly listed on the billing as being in the cast. Several years after Shakespeare’s death, Jonson still talked about Shakespeare as a writer and a friend. In his personal writings, he gives several anecdotes about Shakespeare the man, not just Shakespeare the writer. Although Jonson was known as a conceited bombast, jealous of his friends and rivals, most of his comments about Shakespeare are very positive. He originally sneered at Francis Bacon, but later praised Bacon’s writings highly. Ben Jonson’s poem, ‘To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author,’ clearly identifies him as the man from Stratford-although some contend Jonson was still being mocking.

According to Fuller in his ‘Worthies’ (1662): “Many were the wit-combats betwixt him and Ben Jonson, which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon, and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson, (like the former) was built far higher in learning; solid, but slow in his performances. Shakspeare, with an English man-of-war, lesser in bulk but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention.”

It is pretty well believed that Shakespeare died after a night of drinking with Jonson and Michael Drayton, a poet from Stratford who was popular at court during Elizabeth’s reign. Drayton devoted much time to drama and was a leading shareholder in the Whitefriars theatre, and in that capacity was involved in much litigation, which is one of the criticisms of Shakespeare of the Oxford Society. In his personal papers, Drayton notes that Shakespeare is also a writer from Warwickshire, the “heart of England”.

While Jonson may have written his many tributes to Shakespeare as a friend and mentor as a “joke” (as some people contend), it is patently obvious that Robert Greene, a perfectly competent dramatist in his own right, would not have. Greene was the first really strong critic of Shakespeare, and most historians agree that in 1592 he wrote “A Groats-worth of Witte”, a severe attack on Shakespeare, out of jealousy that an “uneducated” country bumpkin could have bested all of the “University Wits” (a group of writers who graduated from Oxford and Cambridge, which included Greene, Marlowe, and Kyd) in gaining the favor of the public and the queen with his writings. Greene would NOT have been jealous of nor attacked a ghost writer, especially not that of a favorite of the queen (de Vere became the ward of Queen Elizabeth after the death of his parents). Being in the inner circle of the theatre crowd, Greene would have known if Shakespeare were indeed a front for de Vere.

On the other hand, there is the testimony of Francis Meres. Meres, a graduate of Cambridge University, was a noted divine and schoolmaster. In 1598 he published a collection of “apophthegms” on morals, religion, and literature entitled ‘Palladis Tamia’, in which he made “A comparative discourse of our English poets with the Greek, Latin, and Italian poets”. Mere exhaustively surveyed the contemporary literary effort in England. The most prominent among them, according to Mere? “The Muses would speak Shakespeare’s fine filed phrase, if they could speak English.” Specifically, Meres mentions Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis”, his “Lucrece,” and his “sugred sonnets among his private friends.” These were cited as proof “that the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare.”

In the same year a rival poet, Richard Barnfield, in “Poems in divers Humors,” wrote of the bard:

“And Shakespeare, thou whose honey-flowing vein

(Pleasing the world) thy Praises doth obtain,

Whose Venus and whose Lucrece (sweet and chaste)

Thy name in Fame’s immortal Book have placed,

Live ever you, at least in fame live ever:

Well may the Body die, but Fame dies never.”

Why would Meres and Barnfield write such things of a drunken actor? For that matter, why would they have mentioned Shakespeare by name if he was just a pseudonym of de Vere, or some other contemporary? As a scholar, that would have been disingenuous of Meres, although not totally out of the question.

As a member of the “King’s Men”, Shakespeare is known to have walked in the funeral cortege of Queen Elizabeth in March of 1603, and participated in the coronation parade of King James I. It is strongly suspected that Shakespeare wrote “MacBeth”, written sometime between 1603 and 1607, for the political purpose of catering to the beliefs of the new king. Even if he had been alive, why would de Vere need to suck up to James? On the other hand, the principal dramatist for the King’s Men-as William was at this time-would have been required to cater to the tastes of the new monarch.

So, when we have so much documentation about John Shakespeare, why do so few documents remain about such a supposedly great man? I have a theory that is no more substantiated than the Oxfordian’s, but I think fits in much better with what actual evidence we do have.

Perhaps because William’s eldest daughter, Susanna, was thoroughly sick of her family’s reputation as recusant Catholics (meaning they refused to obey the law requiring them to attend Protestant services, and were often fined and once jailed–that is very well documented in borough records), she decided to marry Dr. John Hall in June of 1607. Hall, a successful and prosperous physician, was a leading local Puritan in Stratford. He supported the Puritan vicar, Thomas Wilson, against whom there was much local opposition because of the ongoing backlash against Puritan domination (which would eventually lead to Oliver Cromwell…). The Puritans were the people who strove to get the theatres closed because of the “sin and iniquity” not only surrounding the theatres, but the fact that they were putting on secular plays as opposed to strictly religious plays–ironically, as in the days of Catholic domination. Although no worse than most, Shakespeare was known as being quite bawdy.

Due to family circumstances, Shakespeare made Susanna and Dr. Hall the executors of his will in 1616. While all evidence indicates that William got on with his son-in-law, Hall was nevertheless in absolute charge of all of William’s personal papers and original manuscripts after his death, according to the patriarchal laws of that time. As a devout Puritan, a hater of Catholicism and the theatre, is it unreasonable to suspect that Hall may have destroyed all of those “filthy Catholic and licentious secular” documents? Frankly, I think that may well have been what happened.

So why would the Shakespeare Oxford Society continue to insist Shakespeare was a fraud, and why would someone make a movie insisting that Oxford was the real writer? Could it be because the current Earl of Oxford is a fervent supporter of the movement, and has supplied funding to scholars who can provide evidence it was his ancestor who wrote the plays rather than Shakespeare? Would alleged “scholars” stoop to falsifying evidence in order to claim such a reward?

I did a lot of research on this topic in order to write my novel “The Shakespeares and the Crown”. While many people have been proposed with some evidence as to why they may have written those works, most of them have been debunked because they lived at the wrong time, wrote so much of their own they would not have had time to write all of Shakespeare’s work, had totally the wrong writing style, or other reasons. The main argument against William is that he was “an uneducated country boy” who could not possibly have the background or inside knowledge of the monarchy to write those works. Even if he had not been a genius, this argument is clearly false. A large part of my novel is devoted to reconstructing what we do know about his father, John (quite a bit, actually), as well as what little we know about William, and extrapolating that information into a “plausible” life that would have led a young man of genius, as we perceive him, to be able to do exactly what most people believe: William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him.

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