If William Shakespeare didn’t write the plays and sonnets that have entranced and beguiled generations, then who did? That’s the controversial question at the heart of a new thriller, Anonymous, by acclaimed director Roland Emmerich.
Emmerich (Independence Day, The Patriot, 2012) and writer John Orloff have woven the ultimate literary conspiracy theory into a brilliant historical drama set at the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
The theory that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare – known as the ‘authorship debate’ - has been around for decades and has attracted an illustrious band of supporters down the years.
Academics, actors and writers – including Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud and Sir John Gielgud - have supported the claim that Shakespeare simply didn’t write Shakespeare. Collectively, the doubters are known as ‘anti-Stratfordians.’
They argue that there is no documented evidence that William Shakespeare, an actor and a shareholder at The Globe Theatre, was ever a writer – nothing in his own handwriting has ever been found except six signatures (all spelled differently).
He was one of eight children born to illiterate parents in Stratford and there’s nothing to suggest that he had anything but a rudimentary, rather than a classical education.
The doubters point out that the plays reveal an intimate knowledge of the law, medicine and navigation and indeed first hand knowledge of the Royal Court and Renaissance Italy, amongst many other things, and say that the author must have benefited from a first class education, a man well versed in numerous subjects studied to a high level.
Shakespeare, they say, almost certainly never travelled outside of England and there’s no evidence that he spent time as part of Queen Elizabeth’s inner circle.
There have been several contenders who have been touted as the True Bard – including Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, the Earl of Derby and indeed one theory that there was more than one hand at work.
For Emmerich and Orloff (who wrote part of the acclaimed war mini series Band of Brothers and A Mighty Heart, a drama about the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl) Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans in the film) is a strong candidate.
They put De Vere at the heart of their story as a nobleman forced to keep his identity a secret as he writes the plays that grip an Elizabethan society riven by political intrigue over who will succeed the Queen to the throne.
In their capable hands, Anonymous becomes a gripping thriller as De Vere uses William Shakespeare (played by Rafe Spall) as a shield to conceal his secret and ultimately take claim for a remarkable body of work that has endured for centuries.
“Through my research I became one of these people who believes that the Man from Stratford didn’t write that amazing body of work,” says Emmerich. “And there’s a very strong theory that Oxford did and we use that in our film.”
Ifans is convinced that the film will spark a huge debate when it’s released. Lobbing a literary bomb in amongst the dusty, book lined halls of academia, which Anonymous will undoubtedly do, clearly appeals to the rebel in him.
“Basically, the film is about who wrote Shakespeare,” says Ifans. “And there will be a right old kafuffle and a lot of sweaty old dons reaching for the Valium when this comes out. There’s going to be a lot of dust blown off parchment, I can tell you.
“I’ve researched this heavily, I’ve been reading these big books which are thicker than the Bible and there’s a whole body of evidence which goes a long way to proving that Shakespeare was not necessarily the author of his own works.
“There’s a very, very strong case which goes to prove that Edward de Vere was the author of those works. As an actor I’m very happy that the plays and Sonnets were written by whoever, but it wasn’t William Shakespeare. William Shakespeare is an international brand. I hope our film will entertain, inspire and enrage.”
In the story, de Vere, a nobleman banned from court because of a love affair with the young Queen, is desperate to get his plays staged but has to hide behind an impostor, William Shakespeare, who gladly takes the credit and pretends to be the true author.
“I play William Shakespeare, but a William Shakespeare who is the son of a glove maker, a normal guy, a lucky boy who kind of wins the lottery,” says Spall. “I see him as the kind of guy who you would have a beer with, who you would hang out with, and someone the audience will watch and say ‘maybe I would do the same in that position’ because he got lucky.
“But in a way the audience might see him as a baddie because we suggest he got up to no good. He bribes Oxford, who is the real writer of the plays and we suggest that maybe, for story’s sake, he killed (Christopher) Marlowe.
“But in a way, the way I see, our William Shakespeare as the hero of the piece, because he builds The Globe (theatre) and he keeps the secret and in our story if he hadn’t done that the world wouldn’t have the plays that we have now.”
Orloff fully expects that Anonymous will provoke a heated debate about the authorship question. For some, even suggesting that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare is sacrilege.
“Yes, I think there will be some people who will get upset by this,” he says. “And you know, I’m stunned about how people who don’t know that much about Shakespeare or care that much about Shakespeare in their regular life, who, as soon as we’re at dinner talking about the authorship debate they start frothing at the mouth at me, like ‘what are you talking about? How can you say this?’
“But you know, there is a valid debate to be had about who wrote this incredible material. There is an issue here and it shouldn’t be discounted out of hand. When you tell people that Mark Twain believed that William Shakespeare didn’t write it, and that three US Supreme Court justices felt the same way, they look at you and go ‘really? I had no idea..’
“I think it’s very telling that a lot of writers in particular believe this theory to be true – Twain, (Vladimir) Nabokov, Henry James and it was James who said ‘I’m
haunted by the conviction that it’s the most successful fraud ever perpetuated on an unsuspecting public…’
“I think writers understand the process of writing and when you think about the process of writing these plays they come to the conclusion that it’s kind of unbelievable that Shakespeare wrote them.”
And what does Orloff himself believe? “I’m a very firm anti-Stratfordian. I do not believe Shakespeare wrote the plays in any way, shape or form. I’m tending towards believing Oxford did but I think the group theory has a lot to offer as well. But I’m more of a person who doesn’t believe that Shakespeare wrote the plays more than anything else.”
The debate will, of course, continue and Anonymous will add fuel to the fire and introduce the controversy to a large audience. “And that’s great,” says Emmerich. “I think it’s a good thing when movies can make you think about an issue. Hopefully it’s going to entertain you too, because it’s a great story but if it makes you think as well, then all the better.”