The film “Anonymous” is the most recent installment of the ongoing argument about who wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. It restates the theory that the real author was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Although there is no concrete evidence for this claim, it persists, due to distaste for the notion that a bumpkin from Stratford could create some of the world’s greatest literature. Only someone with a privileged education could write such lofty works. Only an aristocrat could have written so knowingly about kings and queens.
Study of the grammar school curriculum of Shakespeare’s time — more challenging than most colleges offer today — refutes the idea that the bard would have lacked education. Elizabethan playwrights and actors performed before the court and had sufficient contact with aristocrats to know their traits. Many of Shakespeare’s immortal characters are members of the lower class, who would likely have been foreign to an aristocratic author.
But the most compelling argument against the Earl of Oxford is the obvious one: The author of the plays had to be a professional man of the theatre. Hamlet’s expert advice to the players could only have been articulated by a man who directed plays. Imagery comparing the world to a stage and human beings to actors permeates Shakespeare’s works. Even the Oxfordians admit that involvement in the theatre would have been beneath the station of an aristocrat. How then could an Oxford have gained such familiarity with the nuts, bolts, and lifeblood of the stage? By the way, Edward de Vere died before some of Shakespeare’s most important plays were written.
In a biting parody of this futile quest to unseat Shakespeare, drama critic Terry Teachout asked who wrote the music of Bach: “Not the man from Leipzig. It is self-evidently absurd to suppose that an overworked church organist with 20 children could possibly have had enough brain power (or spare time) to will into existence such supreme utterances of Western art.” Moreover, all Bach ever talked about “was money.”
In other words, there are many great artists about whom we know as little as we do about Shakespeare. More pertinent than phantom rivals is the fact that Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights. Some passages in his plays were undoubtedly written by others. Moreover, there are no absolutely reliable original manuscripts and in some cases serious discrepancies exist between Shakespearean manuscripts.
More worthy of study than any of these issues is the question, “What sort of man was Shakespeare?” Hints can be gleaned from the plays and the spotty historical records. He was somewhat litigious and preferred drinking to eating, according to Harold Bloom. His purchase of a coat of arms suggests that he was something of a social climber. More seriously, he was an instinctive adversary of orthodoxy and dogma. Shakespeare’s mind operated “always by antithesis,” wrote Helen Vendler. “As soon as he thinks of one thing, he thinks of something that is different from it.” His villains often have a certain appeal and his heroes their dark side. He abhorred mobs but also mistrusted authority. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Shakespeare is that he seems to have believed in nothing. In fact, “nothing” was one of his favorite words. “Nothing can come of nothing,” said King Lear. Life, said Macbeth, is “a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing.”
More than any other great writer, Shakespeare was the poet of love and its sexual associations. He had a weakness for bawdy puns but he also created sublime expressions of romantic love, such as “Romeo and Juliet.” His sonnets suggest that he was betrayed by his mistress and a friend, which may have darkened his feelings about love. In his later plays, he obsessed on jealousy and expressed misogyny and outright sexual revulsion. Hamlet, as Ernest Jones pointed out, is more tormented by his mother’s adultery than the murder of his father. He vents an almost ecstatic disgust at the “rank sweat” of her bed, “stewed in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty.” King Lear’s tirade against the female sex still shocks: “Though women all above ... Beneath is all the fiend’s: there’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulpherous pit.”
In a way, “Anonymous” is an apt title for a movie about Shakespeare. A writer so complex and protean can never be truly known. “The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare, the more one realizes that the accurate stance towards them is one of awe,” wrote Bloom. “The plays remain the outward limit of human achievement.” Bloom went so far as to credit Shakespeare with “inventing the human.” Jorge Borges virtually deified Shakespeare and imagined God addressing him as an equal: “I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.”