The 'Anonymous' Question: Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare?

Shakespeare may not have been a noble, but that doesn't mean he couldn't write about nobility

Anonymous Movie Rhys Ifans-body.jpg

Sony Pictures

In the New York Times, the Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, author of a standard book on the authorship controversy, deplores the attempts of Sony Pictures to seek legitimacy for the new film Anonymous's more bizarre leaps of imagination, rightly noting "So much for, 'Hey, it's just a movie.'"

I don't blame the partisans of the Earl of Oxford for their skepticism that a poet and playwright so revered would have left so few documents and only a single surviving letter. Even Sigmund Freud and the Supreme Court have shown sympathy. In fact I think that skepticism has done Shakespeare scholarship a favor by forcing it to confront loose ends and open questions. And I must agree with critics of Stephen Greenblatt's otherwise marvelous Will in the World that there is slim evidence for imaginative attempts to fill in the biographical gaps. (Of course this is true of Oxfordian speculation as well.) The biggest open question, and opportunity for revisionists, is why somebody who was concerned enough about reputation and social status to sponsor his father's application for a coat of arms would have chosen the still-disreputable career of acting in the first place. Perhaps he recognized it as a rising occupation, or he may just have had supreme confidence in his own ability to elevate it.

While I'm not a Shakespeare scholar, I'm starting to wonder whether our own times might have some answers to the advocates of Oxford and other "real" Shakespeares. In the 20th and 21st centuries, a number of men and women have been remarkably successful in impersonating Romanoffs, Rockefellers, and Poitiers, surgeons and priests, with little education or social exposure to the high society or the professions. In his absorbing book, The Big Con, the sociolinguist David W. Maurer describes the elaborate preparation behind great frauds, and likens them to theatrical pieces written to trick a single victim—plays that the con artists must constantly revise so as to adapt to the mark's responses. "Duke" Wolff, the con-man father of the distinguished writers Geoffrey and Tobias, and a school dropout, was even able to work as an aeronautical engineer.

People like these can be dismissed as con artists, but John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation (at least the film version I've seen) suggests that their imposture was based on real insight and that they could have been more successful in some legitimate career. Marginal people are often sensitive to nuances taken for granted by those who have grown up with them, just as the first-generation Americans (Samuel Goldwyn was a glove man like Shakespeare's father) who founded Hollywood understood how to appeal to the American heartland. The uncertain position of Shakespeare's family, rooted in gentility and prosperity but also downwardly mobile, would have attuned a young person to the details of rank, and residence in London would have brought him into contact with people of all classes and trades. Freud was willing to believe that surgery could be a benign outlet for sadists; why couldn't he accept that theatre could be sublimated imposture?

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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