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Anonymous, the movie

Today’s Shakespeare News is that Roland Emmerich—yes, Roland Emmerich—is directing a movie about the man who wrote all those plays. No, not William Shakespeare. That would be too easy.

See, here’s the thing: it’s not like I care very much who wrote the plays. I tend to think it was William Shakespeare, because, you know, he said he did, and there is no evidence whatsoever that he didn’t in the contemporary record. But I don’t care very much, and if it turned out that it was someone else, well, it doesn’t change the text at all, so that’s OK. But really, the reason why I tend to think that William Shakespeare wrote the plays is because almost everybody who writes trying to persuade people that it was someone else is a dickish snob.

I don’t mean that it’s impossible to believe that W.S. was a front without being a dickish snob. It’s certainly possible. And I suppose it’s even possible to care about it enough to try to talk people out of their belief in the Stratford fellow without being a dickish snob. I haven’t seen it happen, though.

And I have to say that I don’t expect it to. Part of that is simply that I find it a bit dickish just to keep hocking about the whole thing, trying to persuade me that I am Wrong Wrong Wrong; I try to keep an open mind about things, but I do get defensive when attacked. And a lot of the writing on the topic that I have read (or skimmed, or began and given up on, more likely) seems like an attack on the deluded fools who are so simple to believe that William Shakespeare—a nothing from nowhere, practically a peasant—wrote those plays. And more than that, an attack on the poor deluded fools who believe that they enjoy the plays without grasping the True Key of Understanding. In all honesty, if it isn’t possible to enjoy them properly without knowing who wrote them, then the pseudonymity of authorship implies to me that they plays aren’t very good, and that we shouldn’t care about them at all. But of course lots of people have enjoyed the plays just fine whilst believing they were written by William Shakespeare, going back to their first productions when presumably the whole audiences were taken in (except the Queen, of course, and other select aristos).

That’s the snobbish part, of course. Not just that there’s the classic snobbery of locating all positive attributes in the hereditary aristocracy, although that is very prominent in Anti-Stratfordists. But there’s another kind of snobbishness, the inner-ring delight in having Special Knowledge, being among the elect who are In On It. They transfer that delight to an inner ring in Elizabeth’s court, duping the groundlings who didn’t get all the political undertones. That’s pretty dickish, too. I do get the inner-ring temptation, of course, and it’s a powerful one, but the right thing to do is resist it, not promote it.

Mr. Emmerich’s movie appears to be based on a recent book by Charles Beauclerk. Mr. Beauclerk is (unless there’s something that doesn’t show up in the family tree) a descendant of Edward DeVere, the current favorite in the Shakestakes; since he argues that his ancestor was not only the greatest playwright in the English language but an illegitimate son of Elizabeth I, which would make him an heir to the Tudor line, and quite possibly a Pretender to the Crown. When his father dies, of course; his father Duke of St. Albans and head of the Royal Stuart Society (which lists among its aims opposing republicanism). And, according to Wikipedia, Charles Beauclerk was banned for life from the Palace of Westminster for misbehaving in the House of Lords.

I should add—Mr. Beauclerk recently came to speak at an event held by my employer, and by all accounts didn’t, you know, do anything to get himself banned. I saw the man briefly as he walked through the library; he seemed a bit like a dickish snob, but then, so does YHB, probably. And while I am spending time mocking Mr. Beauclerk, he didn’t have anything to do with the 1998 Godzilla movie, so there’s that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Ironically, Mark Twain, who was definitely "a nothing from nowhere, practically a peasant" and hardly a "dickish snob" (though definitely a wanna-be in that category), once wrote an essay on why it was impossible that William Shakespeare could have written the plays attributed to him.

It was for much the same reasons that others have put forward. As a writer, Twain believed it was not possible to write convincingly about a subject of which you knew little or nothing, and he was persuaded that Shakespeare's education and experience was insufficient to write about all the topics his plays covered with such proficiency.

I love Mark Twain's work, but personally I think this essay of his says more about his own limitations as a writer than about Shakespeare's.

You might want to go to www.oxfordinstitutepress.com for more info on the Shakespeare debate.

You can find Oxford: Son of Queen Elizabeth I at

Or you can find Shakespeare's Lost Kingdom at

My book, the former, is a history of the period with solid evidence Elizabeth had a child in 1548. While Beauclerk's book is a literary analysis of Shakespeare's themes, kingship, heritage and incest.

Paul Streitz

Speaking of dickish snobs...


I was inspired by this series of posts to learn a little bit more about Elizabeth's early life, and I was interested to discover that the proponents of the "Edward de Vere was Elizabeth's illegitimate son" have at least a real scandal to riff off of--I had been unaware of the Thomas Seymour chapter in Elizabeth's early biography. I still find claims that Elizabeth bore an illegitimate child in 1548 extremely far-fetched, and the claim that said putative child could be positively identified as Edward de Vere (born 1550) even more far-fetched. Yet, these claims remain more plausible than the claim that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the actual author of the plays of Mr. William Shakespeare, which has not even a real scandal off of which to riff.

I should probably retract a bit; I don't know that Mr. Streitz is technically a snob. There's a certain kind of xenophobia that mirrors snobbery in some ways, but I don't want to dilute the accusation of snobbery by applying it to any sort of exclusionary and superior mindset. A snob, first and foremost, is a person who wants to associate with anyone in the nobility, entirely blind to the individual faults of the titled imbecile or scoundrel in question. By extension, it's wanting to associate (or more accurately be associated) with people of public note, again blind to the faults of the individual. And it includes, I think, the reverse, the revulsion from the rabble, the marked disinclination to be associated with anybody without the social imprimatur. For intellectual snobs, that's a degree from the Right Institutions, failing to keep in mind that some folk get doctorates from Yale or Bryn Mawr without being kind, pleasant or even interesting. For literary snobs, it's reading Booker Prize winners and not being seen with anything in mass-market paperback size. And so on and so forth. I'm in favor of a fairly wide use of the term, but there has to be something there about who one is seen to associate with.

Now, Mark Twain, despite his roots in the mud, became a snob of the first water here in the Nutmeg State. The Asylum Hill years appear to have been spent devoting himself to seeing and being seen with the cream of our literary, theatrical and even ecclesiastic world. It may have been a phase he was going through, but it doesn't surprise me at all that he would have joined in with the anti-Stratfordians at some point.

Going back to Mr. Streitz, however, I don't know anything about him that indicates snobbery as such. I wouldn't be surprised by it, mind you, but the man has come to my attention before more in the context of dickishness, and it was unfair, I think, to assume snobbery, even in the context of associating himself with the Heir of the De Veres.


The thing that always gets me about these debates is that there is no reason to believe that he wrote them in a whole cloth form. My suspicion is that Shakespeare was the author, but that he didn't write in a vacuum. His troupe almost certainly improvised, mugged, hammed, and otherwise contributed to the writing. Even if Shakespeare wrote The Words, he would have been writing for a specific audience. Just as, say, George Harrison might never have been famous on his own, his association with John, Paul, and most of all Ringo (of course) was crucial to the alchemical reaction of personality and musical ability that became The Beatles.

Shakespeare (or Walter Raleigh, DeVere, or whomever) was probably more in the Paul McCartney seat than in the George Harrison seat, but he worked with Burbage and that lot for a long time. I tend to suspect that if he had been working with different actors, he would have written lines for them to perform, and the plays would have been different.

So, while I have no reason to believe that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare (and neither does anyone else, save that dickish snobbery is a reason), I do tend to think that he was rather more than just Shakespeare.


Yes, Shakespeare was writing for the best actors of his day, and yet . . .

There are lots of great parts in every Shakespeare play. The texture of a Shakespeare play is richer in this respect than a Marlowe play, for example, where you find this great heroic part for Edward Alleyn (usually) and maybe a couple of other rich roles, but the rest of the characters are just not memorable. Shakespeare wrote great stuff for everybody, not just for Burbage. How much did Shakespeare's art suffer when Will Kemp was replaced by Robert Armin? He replaced self-assured, witty, misspeaking rustics with musical, lyrical, melancholy fools, and the series of great comic characters continued seamlessly. Quite obviously, he was writing for his actors, but just as obviously, his skill as a playwright was not dependent upon having a particular actor, nor is the success of his plays dependent upon a particular actor, either. Now, I will say that Shakespeare generally knew he was writing for good actors, and his plays benefit greatly from having good actors perform them, but in terms of Shakespeare's quality as a playwright being a result of his writing for the Lord Chamberlain's/King's Men, I don't see it.

How would the skills of the actors and their stage personalities have contributed to Shakespeare's skills in plot and structure? The excellences of, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream or King Lear arise in significant part from the architectonics of the double plot and the patterns of imagery woven through the verse, which seem unlikely to have developed out of the contributions or influence of individual actors. For these to be attributed to the art of the company rather than the playwright, one would have to envision a highly collaborative compositional process. Yet a) everything we know about English Renaissance theater suggests that rehearsal periods were very short and b) the textual history of many Shakespeare plays indicates that the texts we have were set from his "foul papers"--the manuscripts that he delivered to the scribe who would then make the fair copy that would be used for rehearsal and prompting. Unless we imagine that Shakespeare was workshopping scenes as he went along (and there's no evidence for this sort of thing in the theater of this period), there would be no way for the company to have exercised any direct influence over the design of these plays.

Shakespeare excelled in every genre in which he wrote. No other playwright was as successful as Shakespeare in a wide variety of dramatic genres, which again suggests that his genius was not an accident of circumstance.

If we are going with songwriter analogies, it would be much fairer to compare Shakespeare to Paul Simon than to any member of the Beatles. Yes, I think Simon did his best writing during his partnership with Art Garfunkel--it seems to me that composing for the duo gave a discipline to his versification beyond what his solo work often shows and his use of Art Garfunkel's soaring voice gives his melodies an integrity and range that his later songs seldom reach when he is composing for his own, less powerful voice. (Others may well disagree about the quality assessment, of course, but I think the fact that Simon's songwriting was influenced by his awareness of the partnership is evident enough.) And yet, Graceland is one of the great rock albums of all time, and Simon has many, many other great songs to his credit from his long career. The Chamberlain's Men/King's Men were a band that didn't break up, so we can't see what most of its members would have done as individuals, but I think there is a great deal of pretty good evidence that Shakespeare used the great performative resources of his company brilliantly in his plays but that the brilliance of his plays is not mainly a product of those resources.

And then there are the poems, of course. . .

I of course yield to Chris as the expert in these matters, and I think it's very persuasive that the bulk of any particular play is Shakespeare's. On the other hand, it's also perfectly plausible that he would have been willing to come up with or add bits that were come up with by an actor—or anyone, frankly. Our sense of individual authorship does not seem to have been applicable to the time; there might not have been anything remotely shameful or clandestine about taking someone else's musical expertise or comic bit. Certainly, there's no controversy that he took other people's plots or history texts and adapted them to his plays. None of which is to take anything away from his achievement. If anything, it's more remarkable that there is a (fairly) consistent Shakespearean voice despite his being more than just Shakespeare.

That is, however, different from saying that Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays because he wouldn't have known anything about falconry, and there are 50 references to falconry in the plays. As is one of the bits of evidence in yet another article on the topic that was delivered to my house, this one arguing that Shakespeare was Jewish. This candidate is Amelia Bassano Lanier, and as a daughter of a converso and a Protestant, it's not clear to me how Jewish she was, but the point is that she might have spent time in Italy, even though there isn't any direct evidence, and that therefore she is more likely to have written all those plays set in Italy than Oxford or Bacon or any of those other Shakespeares.

Can I go back to emphasizing that I don't really care? I don't, you know. I just don't.


I agree that snobbery is in part behind the Shakespeare Deniers, as I call them.

But it does matter who wrote the plays because if you decide that there was a vast cultural conspiracy to hide the true authorship of the plays, that changes how one viwws the history of English drama as well as what we know about Elizabethan/Jacobean history. It also means giving in to paranoid conspiracy theorizing, whose latest iteration is in the claim that Amelia Bassano Lanier actually wrote the plays:


Hope I make the cut as not-snobby. From what I have read and studied, the Shakspere from Stratford was just what his legal records said he was, a businessman and moneylender who made his pile and returned to Stratford in 1604. Part of how he made his fortune was producing plays and books that the Earl of Oxford wrote as an attempt to educate the viewing public that there was something called the English nation. Hence the histories before the expected invasion from Spain in the mid-1580's. And when the question of the succession was a worrying matter, he wrote heroic narratives to persuade Elizabeth that their (illegitimate) son would be the best successor. But England was run as an authoritarian state by professional policy-makers who specialized in assassination, and hence the string of plays about evil intrigue, tyrants, and Machiavellian advisors. He lived a tragic life, an artist way before his time, shunned by his peers in the aristocracy though beloved by the people.

Oxford was one of history's losers. Although he was the greatest writer of his era, he was written out of the official histories. But the literature survived under a pseudonym, his nickname from being the champion jouster of his day, Shake-Speare.

I read the plays now with far more appreciation and understanding, since learning that there really was an author who fit the majesty and tragedy of the Shakespeare canon. Shakspere's life and the Shakespearean works never did fit: the story we got in school about an uneducated guy who went to London and all of a sudden wrote Hamlet, so we were supposed to conclude, keep your nose clean and you can be a damn Shakespeare too. If the complete story ever emerges, Elizabethan history will have to be re-written as the ruthless barbaric time it was. Meanwhile, the upcoming movie has a zany angle on what might have happened. The Slate comments about the set and players are a riot. It's about time people can have fun thinking about the plays and who wrote them and not have to pretend they're going to church.

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