Synesis 4

The Dispute about Shakespeare

Wilfried Augustin

(Introductory ‘preface’ in SYNESIS-Magazin, 2/2012, March/April to the main article by Helen Moorwood. Translation from the original German.)

William Shakespeare is England’s greatest and best known writer. It is all the more surprising that it is not absolutely clear who he was and who wrote his Works. A bitter war of words is going on between the group of “Stratfordians” and the group of “Oxfordians”. Whilst the Stratfordians say that Shakespeare was indeed Shakespeare and the texts were written exclusively by him, the Oxfordians insist that Shakespeare only gave his name to them. His plays and poems were actually written by the aristocrat Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. No one seems to be neutral. For us normal German citizens the dispute is largely unknown and seems to us to be rather obscure, even typically British.

But how would it be if our own “Native Genius” Goethe and his works had an unsolved identity? Would that leave us cold? Hardly! Armies of German academics and teachers would fight literary battles. If in addition Goethe or a potential alternative authorship candidate were to be involved in politics, then feelings would run high here on the continent.

Well aware of this English controversy we published in SYNESIS Nr. 2/2005 as an entry into this topic a contribution by Georges Bourbaki, who claimed that Shakespeare could not possibly have written the works attributed to him.

In reply to this we published in SYNESIS-Magazin Nr. 2/2011 an article by Helen Moorwood, a Shakespeare researcher and avowed Stratfordian. Title: “Shakespeare’s Stanley Epitaphs in Tong, Shropshire”. In this Helen Moorwood describes in great detail Shakespeare’s environment, his contacts and relations with aristocratic circles and through this his social position. Accordingly he would certainly have been in a position to write the well-known literary works. There was no need to speculate on other incognito authors.

Then recently the film Anonymous by Roland Emmerich came to the cinema. This deals precisely with this mystery about Shakespeare's identity. Emmerich is a specialist in action films. Despite this he calls his film historical. What did he make out of this story, and what does the Shakespeare researcher Helen Moorwood have to say about this? We were very curious and asked her for her point of view.

Read her response below. We are very proud that SYNESIS-Magazin can present this contribution by a British researcher in this area.  

I wrote this article more or less simultaneously in English and German at the end of 2011. Wilfried Augustin then ‘Germanified’ a few of my ‘very English’ references which he thought would not be readily understood by German readers. Rather than translate these minor changes in German back into English, below is my original version. This is on the assumption that most readers of this website will be speakers of English rather than German. Any bilingual reader might prefer one or the other. The message remains the same. Also, for better or worse, I left in the occasional clause or sentence in the English version that Wilfried decided to omit in the German version.  



The film Anonymous, producer/director Roland Emmerich


Once more unto the breach, dear friends (Henry V): Who was Shakespeare?


Helen Moorwood

I found myself writing recently to Professor Stanley Wells, Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, about my/this review of Anonymous as an Englishwoman in Germany, a Shakespeare genealogical researcher, writing for the readers of Synesis in German:

“My review, in brief, says “Wonderful cinematography and acting, often confusing sub-plots and flashbacks, no way that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare, read Contested Will, follow the Shakespeare Authorship Campaign and hope that the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft pulls its socks up and follows suit.””

To explain this conclusion it is necessary to give several pieces of background. It is a genuine attempt to provide a summary of thousands of books and articles (and more recently websites) that preceded Roland Emmerich’s latest offering, the historical thriller Anonymous, which presents the Oxford-Shakespeare theory with its Prince Tudor II variant.  


An introduction to the Shakespeare authorship controversy

Anonymous, the latest Roland Emmerich film, has revived the controversy about “Who was Shakespeare?” and “Who wrote Shakespeare?”. The film claims that all the works attributed to Shakespeare were by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who used Shakespeare as his nom de plume. This is the latest echo of “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” (Rudyard Kipling, 1889). In this case, those on opposing sides are the Stratfordians and the Oxfordians (almost including Kipling’s contemporary Mark Twain, a Baconian who might well have become an Oxfordian, who also used a nom de plume).

Anyone watching Anonymous with only a vague knowledge of the background to the controversy might imagine that Emmerich is offering the outcome of a “battle lost and won, when the hurly-burly’s done” (the witches in Macbeth). In this case one might imagine that the battle has been lost by the Stratfordians, the supporters of the drunken buffoon actor from Stratford, as Shakespeare is depicted in the film, and won by the Oxfordians, with Oxford as the perfect handsome, aristocratic and artistic solution.

Far from it: the battle lines were drawn up long ago and the ‘war’ is still being waged. The Stratfordians dismiss any proposals of ‘Shakespeare Alternative Authorship Candidates’ as misguided and flying in the face of so many historical facts, or as ‘conspiracy theories’. The Oxfordians oppose not only the Stratfordians, whom they consider to be totally bigoted and arch-conservative, but also all the other alternative candidates supported by the Baconians, the Marlovians, the Derbyites, etc. and the Group Theorists.

I confess in advance that I have always been a Stratfordian and during all my Shakespeare genealogical research have never found any reason to change my mind. Watching Anonymous and reading all the hullabaloo surrounding it has made me even more firmly Stratfordian. I happen to be English, studied German and have been living in Germany for over thirty years. All my archival research on Shakespeare’s ancestry and biography has been in record offices and libraries in England, but for the last ten years I have also been a regular visitor at the Shakespeare-Forschungsbibliothek in Munich. I consider that I have a fairly good overview of the history of most areas of the Authorship Controversy in English and German speaking countries and it is in this light that I offer my view to readers of Synesis of the most important issues raised by Anonymous.

First, it seems to me, a summary of the history of this ‘war’ might be in order, with a few glimpses of the current various ‘campaigns’, particularly by German authors. Note is also made of which Alternative Candidates appear in Anonymous.


The Stratfordians

The Stratfordians (who include the vast majority in the Shakespeare academic and scholarly community throughout the world) have no doubt that William Shakespeare, playwright and poet, ‘The Bard’, was one and the same as William Shakespeare, actor, eldest son of John Shakespeare, Glover, Bailiff (= Mayor) of Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwickshire and Mary Arden of nearby Wilmcote, Warwickshire. All who knew him and wrote about him or published his works during his lifetime and shortly after his death had no doubts about his true identity. Indeed, for over two centuries there was no doubt at all.

There was increasing frustration that, despite an enormous amount of research in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were still so many gaps in his biography and ancestry, but there was never any questioning of the authenticity of the early accounts. For Stratfordians, this conviction has survived intact, despite the onslaughts from all sides.

 Several websites are devoted to this, one of the most popular and comprehensive being ‘The Shakespeare Authorship Page: Dedicated to the Proposition that Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare’ by David Kathman and Terry Ross. It provides links to several early reviews of and reactions to Anonymous. Perhaps one of the best results of Anonymous is that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has revamped its various web pages, including an Ebook with the apposite title ‘Shakespeare Bites Back: Not So Anonymous’. No longer can they be accused of a fuddy-duddy and isolationist approach. (The Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft might learn a few lessons from this.) In the summer of 2011 they launched a ‘Shakespeare Authorship Campaign’ to debunk the various controversial authorship theories and to “democratise” the Stratfordian position. This had already been made very clear in June 2011 in the run up to the opening of the film, in a debate televised by the BBC with the Stratfordian side led by Emeritus Professor Stanley Wells, general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare series since 1978, Chairman of the Birthplace Trust. (The video is online.) His arguments represent the views of virtually the whole world-wide Shakespeare scholarly community, which claims that there is more than enough evidence that Shakespeare the playwright and poet was William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford. None of those who knew him doubted this and it was accepted completely by everyone for more than two centuries.


Alternative Authorship Candidates galore

Only as late as the middle of the 19th century were the first serious suspicions raised that Shakespeare from Stratford, with his lowly background and minimal education, could not possibly have written the works of genius attributed to him.

The first Alternative Candidate proposed was Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1620), whose political career took him to the position of Lord Chancellor. He was known at the time and has been recognised ever since as a leading Renaissance philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, author and pioneer of ‘the scientific empiricist method’. The proposal that he was also the author of Shakespeare’s works was by American Delia Bacon - no relative - whose The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded  (1857) was the first serious anti-Stratfordian publication. Supporters of this theory became known as Baconians. The first eminent supporters were American authors Mark Twain and Henry James. There have been many adherents to this theory ever since, the current ones having numerous web pages, although their predominance was on the wane throughout the whole of the 20th century. They were treated at length and extremely sympathetically, although as mistaken, by Stratfordian American Professor James Shapiro in his book Contested Will (2010), which is likely to remain as the best treatment of the subject for quite some time. Despite his presence as a towering figure of the period, Sir Francis Bacon receives no role in Anonymous. He is completely overshadowed politically by William and Robert Cecil, father and son, Emmerich’s villains of the piece.

At the end of the 19th century came the proposal of dramatist and spy Christopher (Kit) Marlowe (1564-93) by American Wilbur Gleason Zeigler, It was Marlowe: a story of the secret of three centuries (1895); supporters were called Marlovians. They have been joined in recent years by two German authors, both coincidentally from Munich: Georges Bourbaki, who wrote an article on the subject in Synesis Nr. 2/2005, with passages quoted in Synesis Nr. 2/2011 by Wilfried Augustin (co-editor of Synesis) in “Wer war Shakespeare?”. Also Bastian Conrad, a neurologist, recently published his book, Christopher Marlowe: der wahre Shakespeare (Buch&media, 2011). The main problem to be contended with is that Marlowe published his own plays in his own name before he was killed in a pub brawl at Deptford in 1593, when Shakespeare’s greatest plays still lay in the future. For this, the ‘theory’ had to be invented that the man who died in Deptford wasn’t Marlowe, but somebody else – Marlowe lived on for many years on the Continent under a pseudonym, but still supplying the London theatre regularly with masterpieces. Marlowe receives a minor role, including his murder, in Anonymous, where he is always addressed as Kit.

Then came all the earls. The first earl proposed in the early 20th century was Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624) by Londoner J. C. Nicol, The Real Shakespeare (1905). He never acquired many followers, and so they were never given a name. Southampton’s main claim to fame for Shakespeareans was as the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s two long narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Southampton receives a rather prominent role in Anonymous as the half-brother and at the same time the son of Edward de Vere, the result of an incestuous liaison with Queen Elizabeth - the so-called Prince Tudor II theory.

He was followed by Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland (1576-1612), whose main qualifications as the author of Hamlet are that when in Padua two of his fellow students were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and that in 1602 he was ambassador to the royal court in Denmark. The first proposal of him as a solo candidate was by German Carl Bleibtreu in Der wahre Shakespeare [The true Shakespeare] (1907) and Die Lösung der Shakespearefrage [The Solution to the Shakespeare Question] (1909), but his main advocate was French/Belgian Professor Célestin Demblon, “Lord Rutland est Shakespeare”, le plus grand mystère dévoilé: Shaxper de Stratford [Lord Rutland is Shakespeare, the greatest mystery revealed: Shaxper of Stratford] (1912). His followers are called Rutlanders, and the most prolific authors supporting his case in recent years have been Russian. When I asked a Russian professor (albeit of Astrophysics, not English Literature) a few years ago whether Rutland as Shakespeare was well known in Russia he replied, with a twinkle in his eye, “No. But Russians only ever believe in conspiracy theories!” Rutland, although a close friend of the Earl of Southampton, makes no appearance in Anonymous.

Next was William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby (1561-1642). The suggestion had first been made by archivist James Greenstreet in 1891, who discovered two letters in 1599 by the Jesuit spy George Fenner stating that Stanley was “busy writing plays for the common players”. But it was American Robert Frazer who first argued the case in a book, The Silent Shakespeare (1915). The cause was taken up mainly by the French, the first being Professor Abel Lefranc, Sous le Masque de William Shakespeare: William Stanley, VIe comte de Derby [Behind the Mask of William Shakespeare: William Stanley, VIth Earl of Derby] (1919). His followers are called the Derbyites and have received their latest champion in American John Raithel on his website ‘The URL of Derby’. American Emeritus Professor Leo Daugherty has also joined in the Shakespeare-Derby connection with William Shakespeare, Richard Barnfield, and the Sixth Earl of Derby (Cambria, 2010). Is his case, however, it is with the suggestion that William Stanley is a strong contender as “W.S.” and the “Fair Youth” in Shakespeare’s Sonnets as well as the dedicatee of Barnfield’s sonnets. Professor Daugherty is probably the leading expert on William Stanley, having written his first ever biography for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). I was slightly surprised that Stanley did not receive a role in Anonymous, not least because he married in 1595 Elizabeth de Vere, eldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the hero of the film. Also, some Oxfordians are happy to concede that Derby might have collaborated with Oxford in writing Shakespeare. Not even that produced a role for him in Anonymous.

Finally, as the fourth and last of the earls, along came Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), proposed by Northern English teacher Thomas J. Looney, ‘Shakespeare’ Identified: in Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford (London, 1920), with the followers called Oxfordians. Their greatest later champions were Americans Charlton and Dorothy Ogburn and their son Charlton Ogburn, Jr, the last book in a series (1952, 1962) being The Mysterious William Shakespeare (New York, 1984). They were proud to name Sigmund Freud as Oxford’s most devoted supporter. A sympathetic account of Freud’s involvement and reasoning is given by James Shapiro in Contested Will (2010). Along the way the Oxfordian theory adopted the ‘Prince Tudor theory, Parts I & II’, which saw Queen Elizabeth having any number of children, including Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford; Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton; and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. In 1957 The Shakespeare-Oxford Society was formed and is still going strong, with a very active website and a few hundred members with rather loud voices. One of these is Charles (Francis Topham de Vere) Beauclerk, Earl of Burford, 1st Duke of St Albans, a descendant of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. His latest book is Shakespeare's Lost Kingdom (2010), which completely supports the ‘Prince Tudor theory, Part II’. Another is Sir Derek Jacobi, a renowned Shakespearean actor, who delivers the Prologue in Anonymous.

Coincidentally, two of the most recent converts to the Oxfordian cause are Germans. One of these is Roland Emmerich, of course, who has been reading around the subject for several years, culminating in collaboration with American screenwriter John Orloff, a fellow-Oxfordian, to produce Anonymous. And Kurt Kreiler, Der Mann, der Shakespeare erfand (Insel Verlag, 2009). An English translation has just appeared, Anonymous Shake-speare: the Man Behind (Doeling und Galitz Verlag, 2011). Emmerich and Kreiler appeared together in a podium discussion at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair to promote their film and book. On the Stratfordian side were Shakespeare translator Frank Günther and Professor Tobias Döring, Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich, President of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft [German Shakespeare Society]. Christopher Schmidt reported in his conclusion:

“Hier tobt ein Religionskrieg, und Roland Emmerich hat sich mit seinem Film auf ein Schlachtfeld begeben. Nirgendwo in Frankfurt wurde so leidenschaftlich und erbittert gestritten wie in dieser Runde - der beste Beweis dafür, wie lebendig William Shakespeare ist.” (Süddeutsche Zeitung Nr. 238/S.17 Sa./So. 15/16 Oktober 2011, Feuilleton S. 17.)

[“Here a religious war is being waged, and Roland Emmerich has entered a battle-field. Nowhere in Frankfurt was anything fought over so passionately and bitterly as in this round - the best proof of how alive/lively William Shakespeare is.” Süddeutsche Zeitung, a Munich-based newspaper.]

Most of those books mentioned above which launched the various candidates are meanwhile online as Ebooks (with the exception of J. C. Nicol, The Real Shakespeare, 1905).


A Comedy of Errors?

During the course of the 20th century about sixty others were proposed as principal or group authors. A useful listing of these appeared in John Michell, Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Thames and Hudson, 1996, paperback 1999), pp. 37, 38. (Michell’s biography on Wikipedia will endear him to readers of Synesis, interested as he was in all puzzles and mysteries.)

* indicates characters who appear named and with speaking roles in Anonymous. Some/all of the others might be glimpsed anonymously in the court and theatre scenes.


Sole or prinzipal authors


William Shakspere* 

Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam  

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford*                               

William Stanley, Earl of Derby  

Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland 

Sir Walter Ralegh      

Christopher Marlowe* 

Anthony Bacon   

Michael Angelo Florio  

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex*    

William Butts 

Sir Anthony Shirley 

Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton*

Cardinal Wolsey 

Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury*

Robert Burton

Sir John Barnard

Sir Edward Dyer

Charles Blunt, Lord Mountjoy, Earl of Devon

Queen Elizabeth*

Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling

John Richardson of Temple Grafton

Anne Whateley

John Williams, Archbishop of York


Contributions to a group authorship


Barnabe Barnes  

Richard Barnfield 

Richard Burbage*  

Henry Chettle  

Samuel Daniel 

Thomas Dekker*  

John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s  

Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst,

Earl of Dorset         

Sir Francis Drake  

Michael Drayton   

Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex   

Henry Ferrers 

John Fletcher       

John Florio

Robert Greene

Bartholomew Griffin

Thomas Heywood

King James I*   

Ben Jonson* 

Thomas Kyd    

Thomas Logde

John lyly

Thomas Middleton       

Anthony Munday 

Thomas Nashe*    

Henry, Lord Paget     

George Peele    

Mary Sidney, Countess of  Pembroke

William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke

Henry Porter

Elizabeth Sidney, Countess of Rutland

Sir Philip Sidney

Wentworth Smythe

Edmund Spenser*

Richard Vaughan, Bishop of London

William Warner

Thomas Watson

John Webster

Robert Wilson


Since 1999 several more Alternative Authorship Candidates have appeared, bringing the current total to 77.


The story presented in the film

Anonymous opened in Germany on 8 November 2011. This portrays Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) as the true author of all the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The latter was, according to the film, merely a ‘front man’ who allowed his name to appear in all the publications of de Vere’s plays and poems, and is depicted as a drunken illiterate minor actor, with his playwright and poet ‘friend’ Ben Jonson (1572-1537) a party to the deception. The real villains of the piece were the two Cecils, William Cecil the father (1520-98, also known as Lord Burghley) and Robert Cecil the son (1563-1612, also known as the 1st Earl of Salisbury), Lord Chancellor one after the other, who were experts at orchestrating events and suppressing information from becoming public - for their own political reasons, not least in choosing the successor to the throne of the Virgin Queen, who was far from being a virgin. William Cecil had played an important previous role in Edward de Vere’s life. (Because Cecil Sr died in 1598, he appears mainly in flashbacks.) When his father died when he was eight, he was placed in the custody of Cecil, who provided him with his excellent education and later Oxford’s wife in the person of his daughter Anne Cecil. (A warning: historical dates and facts are manipulated in the film. This might be excused as ‘dramatic licence’ to reinforce the main message but, knowing the accepted history, I often found this rather confusing.)

The film supports the Oxfordian theory in a rather spectacular way, incorporating the ‘Prince Tudor Part II’ theory. Not only was Edward de Vere the ‘real author’ of all Shakespeare’s plays and poems, but he was also Queen Elizabeth’s son (which he only discovered at the very end of the film from Robert Cecil) and later her lover, the son of this incestuous affair being Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1626), to whom Shakespeare dedicated his two long narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). In turn, another illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603) and de Vere was Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601), who staged a rebellion against the Queen in 1601, for which he lost his head for treason. This rebellion was one of the last events as a result of the long enduring despair at Elizabeth never naming her desired successor until she was on her deathbed in 1603. According to the film, Oxford was one of the main ‘legitimate’ contenders for succession to the throne (as the eldest son of Elizabeth) and another one was Southampton, his half-brother and son at the same time, with Essex as an ‘also ran’, having more or less the same qualifications as Southampton. In fact, her successor was James VI of Scotland (1566-1625), who became James I of England. He was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), who had, as we all know, been beheaded in 1587 by Elizabeth (and William Cecil). The fact that James I succeeded to the throne mainly as a result of the machinations of Robert Cecil is fictitiously and cunningly underlined by Emmerich changing the play chosen for performance on the evening before the ‘Essex rebellion’ in 1601. History tells us that it was Richard II; Emmerich tells us it was Richard III. He permitted himself this ‘dramatic licence’ to allow the juxtaposition of Richard III (a hunchback) with Robert Cecil (also a hunchback).

The problem of Oxford having died in 1604, before the first performances of several of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, is ingeniously solved by giving Ben Jonson an additional role. In one of the first scenes he is seen running through the streets of London escaping from a troupe of soldiers, clutching several scripts, which he buried beneath the stage floor-boards of the Globe theatre, which was promptly set on fire by his pursuers. One of the last scenes sees Jonson returning to find that the scripts survived the fire and thus also beyond Oxford’s death in 1604. The Globe did indeed burn down, but in 1613. Another bit of ‘dramatic licence’ on Emmerich’s part.

The biographies of all those in bold above have, of course, been thoroughly researched and their accepted latest short but trustworthy biographies are on Wikipedia. Reading some of these might be of interest for any reader who wishes to know how far other ‘facts’ presented in the film deviate from accepted history.

The film is thus basically the biography of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, reflecting and incorporating all the usual arguments by Oxfordians, which depend mainly on the belief that the son of a glove-maker from a provincial town, with little education, could never have written the immortal works of The Bard. The ‘true author’ must have had a good school and university education, travelled extensively in the countries that appear in Shakespeare’s plays, spoken other languages and had close connections at court. Ideally, he would be an aristocrat. Edward de Vere is thus the perfect candidate for the Oxfordians. The reason for his concealing his name as the true author was that it was unthinkable, would indeed be scandalous, that an aristocrat should write for the theatre. In the film he is frequently to be seen watching ‘his own’ plays, half-hidden in a box high above the audience and smiling as the ‘apparent author’, the buffoon William Shakespeare, is adulated by the crowds.


Early reactions to the film

Many interviews and debates had already taken place prior to the premiere, which have since gone online. Reviews of Anonymous appeared in the press of the English-speaking world immediately after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) at the end of September and its opening soon afterwards in the USA, Britain and elsewhere. Web pages on the subject proliferated overnight. (Typing in “Anonymous, Emmerich, reviews” on Google in mid-November produced over two million entries!) Immediately after the first screening in Germany virtually all major newspapers in the German-speaking world and many minor ones published reviews of the film.

On the whole, reviews in the press were enthusiastic, with the main praise going to the spectacularly authentic bird’s eye views of London around 1600, zooming in on its half-timbered houses, the Globe theatre in full swing and the Tower of London receiving its prisoners destined for torture and/or execution. One reviewer describes these as “fabulous state-of-the-art computer-animation scenes”. All reviewers (read by me so far) give a brief account of the content (as given above), with more or fewer details about Emmerich’s own explanation for his interest in making this film and his expected negative reaction by the Shakespeare academic community. The acceptance or rejection of the main Oxfordian claims depends, of course, on the background knowledge of Shakespeare studies by the relevant reviewer, but many generally agree that this film presentation is rather persuasive for anyone hovering on the authorship issue. All comment on it being “typically Emmerich”, except that in this case he has turned his attention away from fictitious disasters to supporting his solution to a dubious historical mystery, in which he passionately believes. Most reviewers comment on the use of flashbacks and complicated sub-plots, some finding them predictable in an Emmerich film, and others finding them confusing on occasion. On the whole the film is highly recommended for its entertainment value and visual effects and also its parade of excellent actors, some of them very well known, e.g. Vanessa Redgrave as the aged Elizabeth with her daughter Joely Richardson as her younger version.

Comments on the content, i.e. Shakespeare vs Oxford-Shakespeare, ranged from highly approving to extremely hostile, depending on who was writing. Most journalists veered towards being Stratfordians and ranged therefore from highly dubious to hostile; many bloggers were Oxfordians and therefore predictably positive about the content and hostile to Stratfordian reactions.


The German Connection

What makes it special for the German-speaking world is that producer Emmerich is German (although producing disaster films in the US for twenty-five years) and all the studio scenes were shot at Studio Babelsberg in Berlin, with a supporting German team. Emmerich revealed in an interview in 2010, when shooting many of the scenes for the film in Berlin, that it would have been impossible to shoot it in America, where the vast majority of the Shakespeare academic community was Stratfordian, and rejected any notion of a ‘conspiracy theory’. By implication, Germans were more willing to open their doors and minds to this Shakespeare-Oxford theory. He was keen to point out that Sigmund Freud was also an early supporter of the Shakespeare-Oxford theory. Also (as mentioned above), concurrent with the research and preparation for the film over many years by Emmerich and John Orloff (American), the screenwriter of Anonymous, there had been the research for and appearance of a book on the same theme by German Kurt Kreiler, Der Mann, der Shakespeare erfand. (Insel Verlag, 2009), with an English translation, Anonymous Shake-speare: the Man Behind (Doeling und Galitz Verlag, 2011). Putting this information together, some readers might imagine that the resurgence of the ‘Shakespeare-Oxford theory’ is a German phenomenon. This is only partly true.

At the beginning of the 19th century Germany almost adopted Shakespeare as a ‘native son’, when the two Schlegel brothers (August Wilhelm and Friedrich) hailed him as one of the greatest inspirations of the Romantic movement and the Schlegel-Tieck translations made him wildly popular in Germany, not least with Heinrich Heine (his reputation, popularity and influence in Germany comparable to Wordsworth in Britain). This translation has remained popular ever since, and German scholars followed the Authorship Controversy with close attention. However, as was shown above, most Alternative Candidates were originally proposed in America and Britain, with a German only appearing in favour of the Earl of Rutland, but with France and later Russia taking over the leading role in this case.

The German Shakespeare Society [Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft] was founded in 1864 in Weimar, dedicated to studying the life and works. It has a well-stocked Shakespeare library and alongside many other Shakespeare centres in Germany the Shakespeare Research Library (Shakespeare-Forschungsbibliothek), attached to Munich University (LMU), with over 22,000 books and articles, has become one of the largest in the world devoted to the Bard and his works.

The reader of this article in Synesis might imagine from the paragraphs immediately above that the film Anonymous is a German film, presenting a German candidate in the mystery of ‘Who was Shakespeare?’, supported by German academic research. FAR FROM IT! Most German journalist reviewers (that I have read) place it in the same category as Emmerich’s previous disaster/conspiracy films and more as a follow-up to the fictitious film Shakespeare in Love (1998): an excellent presentation of London in c. 1600, with all its court intrigues, but the plot as fictitious. Some leave the identity conclusion open, implying that the Authorship Controversy is ‘Much Ado about Nothing’, e.g.

“So hat Roland Emmerich einen Film über die Macht, die Strahlkraft des Wortes uvnd die Faszination des Theaters gedreht. All das feiert auch William Shakespeare in seinen Stücken. Wer immer er war.”

                             (Michael Schleicher, Münchner Merkur Nr. 259, 10 November 2011.)

“So Roland Emmerich has produced a film about power, the enlightening force of words and the fascination of the theatre. All these are also celebrated by William Shakespeare in his plays. Whoever he was.”)

The German Shakespeare academic community in the form of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft has yet (end of November 2011) to produce online articles of protest at the claims in Anonymous along the lines of The Shakespeare Authorship Campaign by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The main contribution so far is a scanned-in copy in tiny print of a large whole page by the Shakespeare translator “Frank Günthers Antworten auf Emmerichs Fragen im Feuilleton der WELT”. [“Frank Günther’s answers to Emmerich’s questions in the Feuilleton, Die Welt newspaper.”) It will be interesting to read the results of the “Preisausschreiben: Wer entdeckt die meisten Sachfehler in "Anonymus"?” [“Competition: Who will discover the most historical mistakes in Anonymous?”] at their Congress in April 2012 in Bochum.


Helen Moorwood’s review of Anonymous

It was, of course, with knowledge of most of the above that I watched the film (English version) on 12 November at Cinema, Munich. I knew in advance that I would be prejudiced against this Oxfordian + Prince Tudor version of the Shakespeare-Oxford story. I was also saddled with the problem of knowing so much about the history of the period. I had read countless reviews in advance and knew that my account would reflect my own knowledge, just as all the other reviewers reflected their own. Nevertheless I was looking forward to seeing a dramatic visual presentation of the life of one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who undoubtedly moved in the same circles.

Like all others, I fully appreciated and enjoyed the wonderful scenes of London and the superb acting and felt it was worth seeing for these alone. I had problems with Emmerich’s ‘action’ approach. I have never seen any of the string of his previous action/disaster Hollywood blockbusting films, Godzilla, Independence Day, 2012, etc., but was interested to see how well this approach suited the content. In some ways it did, but I found myself rather mind-blown by the speed of events. One can admire or not the way in which dramatic events occur non-stop, with constant flashbacks to five or forty years previously. Every five minutes, it seemed, there was a murder, or a torture scene, an incestuous affair, a sword fight, another murder, another plot, another intrigue, a rebellion, an execution, another flash-back, etc.. Most of these events did indeed happen, but to see so many crammed into just over two hours was overwhelming! I also found some of the many sub-plots rather confusing, not always being sure whether we were still five years earlier or had already jumped back to the present, which in any case moved about somewhat indiscriminately between c.1598 and 1604.

When writing this article/review I found myself so confused on some points that I went back for a second viewing, note-book in hand, at Museum Lichtspiele in Munich on 29 November. In the meantime I had re-read James Shapiro, Contested Will (2010). I picked up some of the points missed the first time round, but was still bemused by some of the fictitious events presented as fact. To give but one example: in one of the flashbacks Edward de Vere, a precocious 9-year-old, is shown not only acting as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but also as the author of the play! If you can believe that, you can believe anything. One of the members of the audience clapped at the end of the film. Maybe (s)he was one who could believe anything?

Emmerich made no bones about his aims: to present as dramatically as possible a story in which he believed, thus hoping to convert any ditherers to the Oxfordian cause. In his historical thriller he therefore incorporated all the elements that supported his theory, happily re-writing known history when it suited his purpose. I have no great criticism of this - after all, Shakespeare also adapted history to suit his purposes. But then Shakespeare was writing for dramatic purposes, whereas Emmerich seemed to have a mission. My major concerns were the gross manipulation of some historical dates, the inclusion of so many fictitious events as historical fact and all the (to my mind vital) historical characters and events that he left out. But then again, including more would have produced more sub-plots and more confusion.

German viewers should beware of thinking that a German film-maker has now produced the answer to all Shakespeare puzzles. He has not - but at least he has brought one of these to popular attention and kept it alive for another generation of lovers of Shakespeare’s works. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s words in the mouth of Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”: Emmerich set out in his film to bury the Stratfordian Shakespeare, and certainly not to praise the actor from Stratford. In private (and public) he hoped that it would serve mainly to keep the debate open. I have few hopes that the ‘Shakespeare-Oxford theory’ will be buried in the near future, and have no doubts that its adherents will continue to praise the film in the short term. My expectation for the long term is that the film will continue to be praised for its visual effects, but that in the minds of the general public the content will ultimately be buried as fictitious fantasy. This will depend at least partly on how many viewers access the website of the Shakespeare Authorship Campaign.


Recommended Reading

Meanwhile, I cannot praise highly enough one book, published shortly before the hullabaloo raised by Anonymous. This is one mentioned several times above, by James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Contested Will: Who wrote Shakespeare? (Simon and Schuster, hardback 2010; Faber and Faber, paperback 2011). This examines rather sympathetically WHY there have been so many Shakespeare Alternative Authorship Candidates, concentrating mainly on the claims by Baconians and Oxfordians and repeating, in a cohesive and highly readable way, the Shakespearean/Stratfordian counter-arguments and documentary evidence. As yet there is no German translation, but he will no doubt be quoted by some writing for the website of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft. If he isn’t, he should be. Shapiro’s reaction to Anonymous appeared in the New York Times on 20 October 2011 entitled ‘Hollywood Dishonors the Bard’ (online), in which he is far more critical than in his book.

As a reflection of my own views I quote from two reviews of the book, with which I concur. Boyd Tonkin, writing a review of Shapiro’s Contested Will in The Independent on Friday 26 March 2010 (online).

The "authorship question" joins 9/ll and Diana's death as fodder for suspicious minds keen to unmask a four-century old "governmental cover-up". "Oh, that way madness lies," as King Lear fears. Shapiro shows us how, and why, to shun it.

Another review of the book was in The Guardian, Saturday 20 March 2010 (online), with which I also totally concur. This was by Hilary Mantel, British author of many highly acclaimed historical novels, the most recent being Wolf Hall (2009), set in the Tudor period (albeit during Henry VIII’s rather than Elizabeth I’s reign), which won the Man Booker Prize. In her review of Contested Will she wrote a summary of Shapiro’s position and that of the Shakespeare academic community in general. She begins by quoting from and summarising Shapiro’s previous best-selling book, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (London, Faber and Faber, 2005).

In his brilliantly readable 1599, a study of a decisive year in the playwright’s life, Shapiro put it like this: “Shakespeare held the keys that opened the hearts and minds of others, even as he kept a lock on what he revealed about himself.”

In that book Shapiro showed that, though we may have no access to the poet’s inner workings, we do know quite a lot about the public career of the man who made a living in London as actor and playwright. We know enough to persuade a reasonable sceptic that there is only one, economical explanation for the plays: Shakespeare wrote them, mostly by himself, sometimes in collaboration. But why do so many people insist that the man from Stratford is an imposter, a fraud, a cover for some more illustrious name? Where did the controversy arise? What are its roots, and how did it grow and sustain itself?

It’s a tale of snobbery and ignorance, of unhistorical assumptions, of myths about the writing life sometimes fuelled by bestselling authors who ought to know better. The trail is strewn, Shapiro says, with “fabricated documents, embellished lives, concealed identity, calls for trial, pseudonymous authorship, contested evidence, bald-faced deception, and a failure to grasp what could not be imagined.”. . . . .




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