There’s this new movie coming out, Anonymous, which will give Shakespearean authorship hypothesists something to gad about for a few more years. You can watch the trailer here.
I respect that the story of Edward De Vere is extremely movie-worthy, and in retrospect it’s sort of surprising that it took this long for the Shakespeare authorship debate to make it to the screen. Personally, I can’t allow myself to believe that anyone other than William Shakespeare himself (and an occasional playwright collaborator) actually wrote the plays. Moreover, I’m actually sort of offended by the idea that others believe someone else wrote them — which probably says more about me than it does about the debate. Let me quickly summarize the history of the Shakespeare authorship debate:
After his death in 1616, Shakespeare’s works were collected and published all together as a single edition. This was something of an anomaly for the era, but it was undertaken by several members of the King’s Men who personally held the work in high regard (and if the introduction is any indication, also Shakespeare himself). These works were occasionally performed after his death, but had already ebbed out of popularity by the time the stages were shut down in 1640. After the restoration, Shakespeare’s works were occasionally performed – but they were hardly the preeminent gems of the English canon. It wasn’t until David Garrick staged a “Shakespeare Jubilee” in the mid-1700s that Shakespeare became the benchmark author for classical actors to strut their stuff. From then on Shakespeare rose steadily in the public esteem until the late 19th century when his works were considered the Greatest Plays in the English Language. The term Bardolatry was coined to describe this fervor. Shakespeare was regularly performed on stages across the English-speaking world. But notably, the obsession with Shakespeare was principally one of the middle classes, and used to some extent as a status symbol. Well-rounded families read Shakespeare together. Middle class families attended the theatre, and had debates about the different actors in the roles. The quality of a city was judged by whether it had a theatre suitable for touring players to perform in. Shakespeare nestled very nicely into the rise of the Victorian moral aesthetic and the growth of the middle class, and his influence can be found in many (or most) author’s works from that era.
It was in this fervent pro-Shakespeare environment that the authorship debate first emerged. In 1856 Putnam’s Monthly published the article by Delia Bacon called “William Shakspeare and His Plays; An Enquiry Concerning Them” which proposed Francis Bacon as the author of the work. Delia Bacon was not a trained scholar, and the academic community treated the work as something of a joke – but nevertheless the idea took hold. Francis Bacon was held in high esteem by the Victorian world, and other popular books at the time were attacking the authorship of the Bible and Homer’s The Odyssey. Delia Bacon’s article was followed by other works of pop-speculation. These works were repeatedly followed by criticism from the academic community for lazy scholarship, logical flaws, and false conclusions, but in the popular consciousness the genie was out of the bottle. Things probably reached their greatest head in 1893, when someone published a cipher-wheel claiming that he had decoded Francis Bacon’s autobiography WITHIN the complete works of William Shakespeare. (Turns out when you decode each letter separately you can get any result you want.) Trials were held to debate the authorship question, and all-in-all everything got a bit silly and out-of-control. Support for Bacon waned as the 19th century ended, and Edward De Vere was put forward as a golden calf to take his place.
In some ways, it was sort of inevitable. Shakespeare’s rise as English’ Greatest Author was a by-product of Victorian morality, so just as Darwin’s theories had assaulted the bible and Marx’ theories assaulted the imperialist class structure, it seems only natural that Shakespeare should also be put under attack. In many ways the debates are about social class. It is argued that a young traveling actor from the provinces could not have written the greatest works of the English language. It is unfathomable for some people to believe that a theatre manager without higher-university training, powerful connections, or a place in the court would have had the resources and ability to write such excellent plays through sheer practice and imagination.
But I have to believe that he could.