Guest post: Graham Holderness on Anonymous

By | December 2, 2011

Nine Lives of William Shakespeare makes its appearance in a storm of controversy surrounding the film Anonymous, which presents the case that the true author of Shakespeare’s works was in fact Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

As many people have already pointed out, the film departs from history, invents the unhistorical, and distorts the historical to fit its thesis. But is this really the right way to approach it? At the end you see the conventional disclaimer affirming that it’s fiction:

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Why not remove the film from the environment of scholarly argument and intellectual debate, and accept it as fiction? Roland Emmerich is not known as a factual filmmaker. Did anybody go to see Godzilla and think this was really going to happen? Did anybody ever go to see Independence Day and start looking nervously out of the window?   


Shakespeare scholarship is countering Anonymous with evidence and facts. In their e-book Not So Anonymous, Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson refute alternative authorship claims as ‘a web of fantasy’. ‘It may be enticing to believe in stolen documents, secret codes, buried treasure, and illegitimate children of Elizabeth I. But the belief itself doesn’t make the fantasy true’.


Nine Lives of William Shakespeare also speculates freely about Shakespeare’s life, but admits that the exercise is one of speculation. Half of the book deals in historical facts, showing how much and how little we know about Shakespeare; and showing how these facts have been interpreted and embroidered by biographers. The other half is fiction.  


In the end these diverse fictions must be judged in terms of what they suggest about Shakespeare as a writer, and about the value of his work.  In Anonymous, De Vere writes alone and in secret. Isolated from the theatre, from society, from other professional writers, he produces a series of neatly-written manuscripts of wholly completed plays, each one bound up in a leather folder. All Shakespeare’s masterpieces are there, each one finished to perfection before being handed over to the professionals for them to produce in the theatre.


And what are these plays like when actually performed in the theatre? The plays are presented, in exactly the way they are interpreted in Thomas Looney’s Shakespeare Identified, as political propaganda, agit-prop for the cause Oxford espouses, the reactionary idea of putting the feudal military aristocracy back in control of the state, and disempowering the new parvenu class of civil servants represented by the Cecils. We see Henry V offering a model of heroic and popular leadership. We see Hamlet as a wholly transparent roman-a-clef designed to satirise William Cecil. We see Richard III, performed on the eve of the Essex insurrection (in place of the play mentioned in the historical record, Richard II), and deployed merely to satirise Robert Cecil.  


So even if we just take the film as an imaginative exploration of a fictional subject, the plays emerge from this treatment flattened, attenuated, reduced in significance. They appear to encode only the political ambitions of one man, which is why they need to be so perfectly finished in the study; and they act out a journalistic commentary on the contemporary political scene.  As James Shapiro put it in Guardian, ‘the author of the great plays is reduced to a political propagandist, his plays to vehicles to advance his faction's cause’. 

Compare my chapter on ‘Shakespeare the Writer’, available from Continuum as a free preview, and the accompanying story ‘The Shakespeare Code’. The chapter presents Shakespeare, from the historical record, as very much as an engaged, collaborative, participatory writer for the stage. He belongs to the boards and the streets, not the study. The story, which is specifically about ‘stolen documents, secret codes, buried treasure’, is just as fantastic as Anonymous, with no resemblance to any persons living or dead. But it suggests a very different view of Shakespeare’s writing. It’s a fable that explores these issues not literally but symbolically, as do Shakespeare’s own plays.  It hooks onto real historical facts, but is also more concerned – as was Shakespeare himself – to think with and beyond them, than to regard them as restrictions on the liberty of the imagination.  


– Graham Holderness, author of Nine Lives of William Shakespeare


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