A Rose by Any Other Name

Shakespeare author controversy conspiracy AnonymousTo be, or not to be, the most celebrated figure in all of English Literature? That is the question. At least, it’s the question raised by several conspiracy theories which claim that William Shakespeare – the one with the ruff collar and the receding hairline so familiar to our GSCE English classes - was nothing but a fraud. These conspiracy theories are nothing new: doubts as to the authorship of his plays were raised and documented as early as 1848 when it was suggested that his works were not written by one man, but a group of men under Sir Francis Bacon’s leadership. The latest in the growing line to tar Shakespeare’s name, Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film Anonymous claims that Shakespeare’s works were written instead by the aristocrat Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The film was controversial (that is, controversial in a scholars-spluttering-on-their-Earl-Grey kind of way), not least because it portrays old Shakey as a bit of a chump: an illiterate, blithering, crowd-surfing one. Such is near to blasphemy in certain circles, as the man himself is now an institution, the backbone of English culture tracing Shakespeare’s Globe, The Royal Shakespeare Company and the Bardolatry that is probably the only real reason anybody visits Stratford-upon-Avon these days.

Anonymous begins in modern day America with, in true Shakespearean style, a Prologue. Renowned classical actor Derek Jacobi takes to the theatre’s stage and proposes to the audience that despite some 37 plays, 154 sonnets and several narrative poems accredited to Shakespeare’s name, not a single manuscript has ever been found written in his own hand. The truth, he suggests, is a darker tale of quills, swords, and the loss of England’s throne. And indeed, the film ticks these promised boxes, while the typical Hollywood sex, death, and period costume aren’t forgotten, either. The film’s story is questionable – you can’t help but think it a gripping fiction, a fantasy not quite worthy of Shakespeare himself, but still a purposely seditious version of reality. The Earl of Oxford is a little too much the tortured soul, a little too poetic for a character who claims that all art stems from politics. Ben Jonson’s portrayal is again quite a handsome, chiselled one (although I’d have preferred a little more Devil-may-care under that silly floppy haircut) – so is this proposed ‘truth’ merely dissatisfaction with a slightly less enigmatic reality? Isn’t this the result of our modern concept of genius – one that wants brilliance to stem from tragic souls with nice cheekbones?

Upon cautiously seeking the opinion of one of my English tutors at the time of Anonymous’ release, I was greeted with a less polite version of “pish posh”. I couldn’t be certain whether that opinion was the result of a lifetime’s study of the subject or the exasperation of that lifetime’s study being dismissed as the chase of an illusion; having recently submitted a dissertation proposal focusing mainly on Shakespeare’s works, should I be feeling an uncomfortable sense of having been led on? Should I really dedicate my impending 13, 000 words of pain to a possible fraud – a fake?

It seems that I would not be alone with these concerns, as researchers at Oxford University have recently shown how our brains react differently to works of art once told they are ‘fakes’, despite being otherwise unable to discern difference between them and the originals. In the 21st century, authorship is an important concept to us, undoubtedly more so than it was in Shakespearean England. Things are owned and labelled, valued more with a renowned name attached. Yet names are ultimately secondary, abstract qualities - an artist’s name can’t change the quality of the art. Aren’t we, then, asking entirely the wrong questions?

Why are we so concerned about authorship anyway? I don’t feel it would be too nihilistic of me to ask does it even matter? None of us alive today will ever go on to shake the hand that penned Othello’s jealousy, Caesar’s ambition, or Romeo’s grief; we can, however, continue to experience these works - known as the ultimate expressions of humanity in the English language - regardless. Worrying over the intangible, elusive nature of names, which Shakespeare himself questioned, seems ultimately trivial when considering works described as the Soul of the Age. All the attributions paid to Shakespeare’s works would not be any less true whether he was in fact the 17th Earl of Oxford or a motley band of men, the son of a lowly glove maker or of the Queen of England (don’t laugh – it’s a theory). A rose by any other name, so so the saying goes, would still smell as sweet.

Katie McManus

Image: b1gw1ght on Flickr

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