At present, there are no plans to run a review of Roland Emmerich's new film Anonymous in the TLS. Careful analysis of its constituent parts – chiefly, the premiss that Shakespeare didn't write his own plays, but farmed them out to a conveniently ingenious yet secretive aristocrat (Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, played in the film by Rhys Ifans) – suggests that there might be better things to do with the paper's arts pages than reviewing Anonymous.
Sorry about that. But . . .
if the idea underlying the film really interests you, and you're a TLS subscriber, you could do worse than searching the online archives for, say, Alan H. Nelson's entertaining review of a book by trained astronomer about Oxford ("a poet of no more than modest talent") being the real Shakespeare. Published a few years ago, the book happens to being with a foreword by one of the actors in Anonymous, Sir Derek Jacobi:
"Jacobi, biting the hand that feeds him, recommends [this book] on the grounds that the Shakespeare plays were written by an actor, and that Oxford was an actor. Perhaps he had in mind a different book, for Anderson makes neither claim. . . ."
Or you could try Charles Nicholl's more recent piece on Contested Will by James Shapiro, a scholar who is interested not so much in "what people think – which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms – so much as why they think it”. This would seem to be the interesting part of the anti-Shakespearean delusion, if indeed there is one: it's a direct consequence of the deification of Shakespeare.
Anti-Shakespeareans tend to believe, in Nelson's words, that "an author’s life is reflected in his works" absolutely. Shakespeare wrote a play about a prince; he must therefore have been a prince. He wrote a play about a Scottish murderer. He must therefore have been a Scottish murderer. He knew a bit about life at the Elizabethan court and history and – stuff. Well, he must therefore . . . etc.
They are not alone in taking things literally, of course, as Shapiro argues; but they have proved to be curiously imaginative over the years in attempting to deny that the author of A Midsummer Night's Dream had, of all things, an imagination. And as Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells point out in Shakespeare Bites Back, a polemical essay published online for free (you can also hear more about the subject over here) to coincide with the general relase of Anonymous, literalism leads its adherents into a predicament: they can't all be right.
There is the Earl of Oxford (who died in 1604, most inconveniently for the plays he then continued to write, well into the following decade). But then there are therefore a further seventy-six individuals who, over the past century-and-a-half, have suffered nomination as the "real" author of Shakespeare's plays. Are they all Shakespeares now?
Seldom did these candidates have anything to do with the theatre (except for Christopher Marlowe, but then he went to university, which makes him fair game). But they do tend to be awfully well connected. It's the literary-biographical equivalent of the syndrome whereby a child becomes convinced that her real parents are royalty or millionaires.
Understandably, many Shakespeare scholars seem to prefer to stay as far away from this non-debate as possible. Edmondson and Wells argue, however, that because Anonymous "humourlessly" presents itself as history, as a dramatization of the truth, something needs to be said against it. Others will see in it "an amusing and mischieveous Blackadder-style romp". But Rhys Ifans can be awfully convincing, you know. Stephen Marche, writing in the New York Times, predicts that, after Anonymous, "undergraduates will be confidently asserting that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare for the next 10 years at least, and profs will have to waste countless hours explaining the obvious". Let's hope that he underestimates undergraduates' capacity for scepticism.
Not coincidentally, Shakespeare Bites Back names and shames the world's most notorious piece of anti-Shakespearean punctuation: the question mark after "1593" in the window that commemorates Marlowe in Westminster Abbey: this is as much to suggest that he didn't die in that year, as the coroner seemed to think, but survived being stabbed in the eye in order to write, well, such un-Marlovian works as The Merry Wives of Windsor and All's Well That Ends Well. Edmondson and Wells call on the Dean to get rid of the question mark (somehow).
Roland Emmerich, meanwhile, ought to be thinking of a sequel. Anyone for Anonymous 2: The mighty line? One "Shakespeare" film down, seventy-six more to go . . . .