The new movie Anonymous is based on a theory that William Shakespeare’s works were not actually authored by Shakespeare. Many such theories exist, but where do they come from, and why are they popular? Peter Goldstein, professor of English, answers some of these questions.
Q: Why do such theories questioning Shakespeare’s legitimacy exist? What makes people question whether Shakespeare wrote the works he is known for?
A: The original reason that these theories came about was that people couldn’t believe that a regular guy from Stratford could have written these tremendous plays. He wasn’t uneducated; he had gone to a good grammar school, but it was felt that this breadth of knowledge and expressive ability could not have been obtained by someone who just wasn’t very dramatically educated.
These theories started with cryptography; the idea that there were hidden messages in the plays that suggested that, for example, that Francis Bacon wrote them. People would search for things that would back up these theories. Once you question the fact that Shakespeare wrote the plays it’s open for whoever you want to put in as a candidate.
I think to some extent the “who-wrote-Shakespeare” argument is an anti-academic argument. People who have really studied Shakespeare—who are professionals—almost unanimously reject the theory. It’s a way of saying “look these people are in an ivory tower, they’re not willing to look at the evidence, its not in their interest.” Anti-academic movies are not necessarily a bad thing. I think we all need to have our assumptions questioned from time to time.
Q: The film focuses on the particular theory known as the “Prince Tudor” theory, which holds that Shakespeare’s works were actually written by the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. Where does this theory come from and why is it popular?
A: It’s an old theory, but it’s the one that has gotten the most attention lately. Charlton Ogburn Jr. wrote a book about it and has really been pushing it, and a lot of people have lined up behind him. At various times in the past there have been other theories in the spotlight. This one’s not the oldest one—the oldest one is about Francis Bacon—but it’s the one that has received the most attention lately. It’s also a very dramatic story, and people like dramatic stories.
Q: Do you buy into any of these theories? Why or why not?
A: I’ve done a little bit of a reading on the theories. I’m not an expert, but I’ve done as much reading as the average person who’s interested in Shakespeare, and I just don’t see it. I think the many arguments they make can be easily countered with opposing arguments. There are lots of things they use to support their cause, but there are lots of counter arguments as well.
My own view is that there have been many outstanding playwrights who did not have any education, who are just as significant as Shakespeare. It is possible to learn a lot on your own. The amount of education you have doesn’t limit your creative talent.
Q: Why is modern culture still interested in these theories?
A: Shakespeare was a great writer, but over the years he has been elevated to a secular deity—this iconic figure in western culture—as if he’s some sort of god, and anything that has to do with your god, you’re interested in. The story that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare is a good story, and people like good stories.
He was not a god, and perhaps he could do with a little bit of knocking off his perch. He was a great writer, but he was a human being. His part in our culture is a very important one, and perhaps greater than it should be. And I say that as someone who loves Shakespeare.
Kelsey Molseed ’14, Juniata Online Journalist