Anonymous 01

By David Ryan.

Rewriting history is a common academic enterprise, and crafting Elizabethan history – particularly Shakespearean biography – is composed recursively. Though Anonymous (2011) is neither a serious effort at literary biography nor historical drama, Roland Emmerich and John Orloff’s speculative work about Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is full of aesthetic attitude, and attitude is what is needed for anyone advancing the Oxfordian counter-thesis. This attitude is also carried into Last Will. & Testament (2012), Emmerich’s more recent follow-up documentary.

Anonymous theorizes that de Vere is the bona fide author of Shakespeare’s works, and the filmmakers take many of the existing arguments related to de Vere and create an insular world in which de Vere, Jonson and Shakespeare (among others) are given roles not historically assigned to them. In a quasi-Kantian aesthetic stance, Emmerich and Orloff detach themselves from the accepted Elizabethan-era biographies and create a radicalized story largely suspended from the normative work of historical narratives.

Though the thesis Emmerich and Orloff carry persists in popular culture, academic culture remains unpersuaded for a few key reasons. Overall, Shakespeare’s work enjoys historical relevance and canonical status, and because of the apotheosis of Shakespeare’s standing, academics tend to remain unmoved by the authorship question. Why? Simple. Academic research methods claim validity, and the conclusions derived from such methods (qualitative, quantitative, and such) are more trustworthy than deductions drawn from outside of the norms of peer review. Interestingly, however, academic conclusions about the “oneness” or singularity of Shakespearean authorship have been shifting for a while. Scholars have embraced the more cooperative and collaborative models of authorship (with Shakespeare working with Middleton, Peele, Wilkins, among others) for a handful of Shakespeare’s plays while the authorship regarding other Elizabethan playwrights have been recursively revised as well. In this sense, authorship studies are open to scholarly revision as long as such matters are closed to de Vere.

In my first year seminar class at the University of San Francisco, my students absorb Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics as a basis for studying a select number of Shakespeare’s political plays. As a rhetorician, I ask my students to study how Shakespeare demonstrates his understanding of classical rhetoric in his dramatic language. With this charge in mind, students wade into Julius Caesar, for example, examining Shakespeare’s use of claims and proofs while also working to understand how he employs reasons-in-the-rhyme (or enthymemes in the verse) to compose his character-orators. There are, of course, other heuristics, but students find the study of the relationship between logic and poetics the most interesting if not the most challenging to understand and debate.

In this respect, the authorship debate presents another context for understanding why debates arise. Debates often spring from either a crisis or perceived crisis. For instance, we understand why Brutus and Antony argue in the forum, for the crisis created by Caesar’s assassination means their lives and the future of Rome are in great peril. But what is the crisis for the Oxfordians? Well, it’s a matter of advancing an unacknowledged truth, they argue, for the historical record should expunge invalid claims to account for more valid ones.

For the Stratfordians, it’s a similar matter, and their arguments go something like this: “If what we know of Renaissance biography is largely true, how can we justify an alternative claim, especially one that leads to an invalid or unwarranted position?”  In short, they cannot. And from their perspective, there is no crisis. Though dismissing the authorship debate has been the academic norm, this discourse has grown in the last few decades. In this period, skilled literary polemicists (Joe Sobran, William Niederkorn) have compelled Shakespearean scholars (David Kathman, James Shapiro) to work even harder at presenting and justifying their evidence as well as demonstrate their reasoning. However, each side doesn’t seem quite interested in changing the other, for they seem more interested in using each other to speak to their own respective audiences. In this context, each side stands firmly on its pitch, accusing the other of bias, of employing double-standards, using flawed methodology, applying fallacy, and suppressing evidence. Their parry and thrust creates a mildly interesting forensic debate with each side offering few concessions.

Anonymous 03Emmerich has gone on record stating that he finds the Oxford thesis compelling, and this attitude is clear in his choices; Anonymous is a self-conscious, speculative biography that tries to alter our perspective of Elizabethan history. But one work alone will not change much, particularly this film, and the Emmerich produced Last Will. & Testament (which debuted at the Globe Theatre in November 2011) on the authorship question frames its argument not so much as an honest examination of the facts but as advocacy-based research.

Anonymous uses the risky conceit of a play within a play (and a flashback within a flashback) to tell its story. In the framing, the Prologue (Derek Jacobi) asks the audience to consider an ahistorical argument, one in which the aristocrat de Vere authored the Bard’s work. After the Prologue completes the frame, the play begins on stage; then, the film’s narrative takes over, dramatizing the story. The film’s premise creates a radical dramatic context that employs the use of many traditional dramatic and literary conceits, most of which, unfortunately, distance us from the very characters we are supposed to embrace.

In Anonymous, the 17th Earl of Oxford must conceal his authorship because of his service to (and relations with) Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave, quirky yet obsidian) and forced servitude to William Cecil (David Thewlis), his father-in-law. There is, of course, the palace intrigue that goes with creating subversive roles for familiar historical figures, but the film does offer an internal (yet imperfectly realized) consistency with its creative narrative to explain how de Vere authored plays after his death. At the same time, the film works to sympathize with de Vere, but, unfortunately, we get little insight into his work ethic or a much-needed empathy regarding his creative imagination. Rather, Emmerich and Orloff serve up de Vere’s personal pain and political entanglements. Though there is one scene where he explains his torment, the lack of psychological insight regarding de Vere’s creative pathology makes him less compelling – even uninteresting – as a literary or historical character.

In its insular world, the film doesn’t pretend to be more than a fantasist narrative, but the film confuses as much as it intrigues when the narrative moves between multiple time lines. To its credit, however, the film does smartly avoid the faulty metaphor of comparing an ill-structured set of problems such as politics to the well-structured task environment of theater. But beyond some mildly interesting yet underdeveloped motifs about artistic improvisation, references to the cultural transition from orality to literacy, and commentary on how soul craft stands-in for statecraft, there is no serious argument here. Just caricature and intentional and unintentional parody and satire – all presented without much irony.

With some exceptions, the critics did not warm to Anonymous. But in a predictable yet interesting turn, Professor James Shapiro, in a sincere reaction for the New York Times, interprets this potboiler as a work of unwarranted fiction that “trample[s]” on “theatrical and historical facts.” Shapiro spends much of his piece analyzing external material as a context for developing his film criticism, most of which suggests that Anonymous is more a work of propaganda than dramatic fantasy. But Shapiro’s textual criticism is less than compelling. In his Times review, he fails to mention the film’s explicit framing that signifies the speculative nature of the narrative – where the Prologue frames the story as a tempestuous one, a destabilizing, torrential narrative that draws a line between reality and the artistic subjectivity of the stage. Then, not surprisingly, the narrative works to blur that line. The film purposely uses recognizable dramatic forms to cast the story outside of the norms associated with Elizabethan history, denying the audience the comforts and pleasures gained from the normative beliefs and ordinary expectations we associate with the politics and theater of the era.

In short, this fantasist narrative-within-a-narrative asks the audience to imagine a distant world far removed from the biographical forms and historical narratives that the Shapiros of the world provide. The imagined quest for the audience is to understand and consider the filmmakers’ radical aesthetic statements in which the man from Stratford-upon-Avon is not the author of Shakespeare’s works. Truly, the poetics of the Oxfordians are at odds with the rhetoric of the Stratfordians. But my own demarcation is still too simple, by far. In this context, I respect the filmmakers’ efforts, for they are choosing to work in an ill-defined area between speculative literary biography and revisionist historical narrative. To Shapiro’s point, rarely does propaganda overtly inform its audience to use its imagination to suspend its disbelief as Anonymous does. But beyond the explicit directions from the Prologue, the filmmakers overtly point to their own satirical rendering of history. Emmerich and Orloff intentionally force offence on the audience (yes, it’s hard to watch “Shakespeare” behave in undignified ways) to unsettle us, but there’s also the unintentional satire where Emmerich’s ineptness of execution undermines Orloff’s dramatic structure (de Vere’s killing of a servant vis-a-vis Hamlet killing Polonius is staged and shot poorly).

Unfortunately, radical aesthetic statements and revisionist historical stands seem too much for such a conventionally futuristic director like Emmerich, for the director does his best to shoot every single performer unsympathetically. The result is a retail kind of postmodern bricolage of good and bad rhetoric, old and new historicism, firm dissent and joyless spoof, and low and high art. Not an insightful rendering of a hypothetical historical narrative. Shapiro could have attacked the narrative on these grounds, acknowledging Emmerich and Orloff’s artistic stance as a work of dramatic fantasy (as the Prologue tells us), but he treats this satirical venture as a serious (but failed) work of politics and history. So Shapiro marches on in the pages of the Times, advocating much and conceding little. Orloff, not to let matters rest, penned his own defense, rebutting Shapiro’s Times piece by focusing on the veracity of texts and dates to support his argument.

When Anonymous opened in England, Shapiro reworked his Times piece in a lengthier effort for The Guardian, mostly ignoring the fantasist framing and attacking the film for not quite sticking to the facts. In his revised review, Shapiro does suggest that the film leans more toward being a fantasist narrative than a historical one, for he states that the filmmakers had to choose from one of two paths:

“They had to [either] . . . scale back claims for De Vere and admit that the film is a fantasy along the lines of Shakespeare in Love (1998), or defy received history and assert that the truth – literary as well as political – has been suppressed through an elaborate conspiracy. The German director and his American scriptwriter, John Orloff, both on-the-record believers in the De Vere story, went with the latter, flippantly rewriting the English past.”

Oddly, Shapiro either ignores or misreads the framing, and I think his either/or choice is too fallaciously conceived to allow his reading audience to understand that the film openly asserts that it is a speculative work set in an imaginary world. The film purposely creates this boundary between dramatics and historicism because the filmmakers are more involved with dramatic thinking than history writing. And, to their credit, they are very clear about this distinction.

Anonymous 02Quarrelsome as such debates are, such conflicts are good for Shakespearean scholarship, for such circumstances force Stratfordian academics to strengthen the rhetorical conjecture they make about the past when they confront their disputants in a quasi-kind of public discourse (Orloff writes that Shapiro refuses to appear on stage to debate him). Certainly, having at least one side presented in the Times does broaden the sphere in which narrowly focused debates occur. To his credit, it is far better for Shapiro to engage the Oxfordian counter-thesis than simply ignore it like many of his colleagues.

One other exception is Stanley Wells, a Shakespearean biographer, who appears in the documentary Last Will. & Testament, defending the Stratfordian position. In the documentary, Wells makes this telling statement: “I feel passionately that Shakespeare of Stratford is the Shakespeare of the plays and the poems. I feel that this is knowledge and not belief. I feel a need to combat the anti-Stratfordians.” Rhetorically-speaking, a lot could be read into Wells’ language, for he frames his statement not based on what he thinks but how he feels. With some irony, his emotionally-informed position privileges knowledge over belief. Here, Wells seems to be suggesting that consensual-knowledge is more valid than personal beliefs. And perhaps he’s right. However, his position could be better served if he were to make more philosophical distinctions between “knowledge” and “truth” to demarcate the differences between epistemology and ontology. For example, what we know and what the truth is, is often comparably different, particularly when it comes to the existential questions related to Renaissance biographical identities. Certainly, human knowledge is often revised based on the work of researchers who discover truths about history, about science, about knowledge.

Things are not helped when Wells’ testimony is paired with the comments of Jonathan Bate from Oxford, who makes this statement: “Conspiracy theories and arguments based on the absence of evidence don’t really have anything to teach us. Historical facts happen. People deny[ing] them are dangerous.” Epistemologically, there is a lot to learn by studying how people argue and why they argue – even when they have no clearly defined “evidence.” I’m not sure what Bate means by “evidence,” but given the nature of evaluative interpretation of texts in relation to the nebulousness of Renaissance biography could mean an argument often has to stand on the reasoning it provides and the assumptions that precede its premises. Studying these variables can be quite telling.

I read and enjoyed Shapiro’s Contested Will (2010), and I admire his boundless energy, but I understand why his opponents find his arguments unsatisfying. In a key part of his argument in his book, Shapiro makes this interpretive statement about a specific kind of pisteis related to the authorship question:

Even if we lacked all other textual evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship, there is one incident that ought to persuade even the most hardened skeptic [italics mine]: the special epilogue written for a court performance of The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, where Shakespeare speaks for himself as the author of the play. Before it was performed at court, The Second Part of Henry the Fourth had been staged for popular audiences at the Curtain Theater in Shoreditch. There, the play had ended with an epilogue spoken by Will Kemp. Moments before that, Falstaff, played by Kemp, is hauled off to the Fleet Prison and it looks for once as if Falstaff, that great escape artist, will not be able to wriggle out of trouble. But Kemp suddenly dashes back on stage, and a few moments pass before playgoers realize that the play really is over and that Kemp is delivering an epilogue not as Falstaff but more or less as himself (231).

Then, Shapiro quotes the Dancer’s speech, and, then, re-visions the speech as Shakespeare (the author) himself taking Kemp’s place on stage to address a courtly audience. No doubt, benefactors did address their patrons, and Shapiro asks us to believe that only Shakespeare could have stood onstage at Whitehall (“where the queen herself was in attendance”) to replace Kemp, for no one other than the playwright could have presented a revised (and more dignified) ending for a courtly audience (232).

Contested WillCertainly, Shapiro’s rhetorical conjecture fits within the boundaries of reasonable interpretive claims, I suppose, but those of us who are interested in rhetoric, literature, and history could find simple reasons to find his argument less than compelling, for we’re more invested in the subject of argument, the art of argumentation, moral reasoning, and understanding the rhetorical distance between ontology and epistemology than just looking for evidence to uphold the historical record involving Shakespeare.

So we’re compelled to examine Shapiro’s evidence. And what is his evidence to support his claim? Well, among other kinds of research, he points to court payments to the play’s performers – and Shakespeare was one of them (317), a circumstance that helps to prove (by extension) Shakespeare’s appearance, revision and performance at Whitehall. If you assume Shakespeare wrote the plays, then such conjectural reasoning makes good enough inductive reasoning. If Shakespeare is, indeed, reading the Dancer’s epilogue and revising the lowly speech to make it more suitable for a courtly audience, then the play is not “really over” as Shapiro asserts.  In a twist, Shakespeare is performing another performer’s part as himself-as-the-dancer-as-himself. To Shapiro’s point, such dramatic mirroring often confuses more than it enlightens. Indeed, the inartistic proof of a payment record is interesting as material evidence, but Shapiro’s artistically inspired reasoning of this material simply falls within the realm of measured yet conjectural reasoning.

Contested Will is not just about Shakespeare; it is about Shapiro, about his interpretive and evaluative acts, his intertextual and interstitial choices, his reading of literary biographies and historical records, and his assessment of primary and secondary sources. One can understand the many challenges involved in synthesizing and analyzing the evidence that fit into the broad shape and scope of this kind of project. To transcend the inherited difficulties of historiography and create a narrative that a modern audience can comprehend, Shapiro synthesizes interpretive truths and facts with measured conjecture to create his rhetorical acts. After all, he does so because he’s walking in that rhetorical space between the ontology of what we can know and the epistemology of what we know is valid. And to synthesize these spheres requires a certain kind of imagination. To wit: “What I find disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination (277).”

Shapiro’s brief ode to Shakespeare’s imagination seems like an act of self-disclosure (yes, my interpretive acts of Shapiro’s work are Shapiroesque in one sense), where Shapiro argues about the importance of using his imagination to compose his Shakespearean biography. Shapiro’s argument reveals that, in this respect, composing a historical biography requires a rhetorical and poetic synthesis of the known and unknown to create a fluent, cogent argument. Truly, imagination is required to navigate and even transcend the dark and narrow corridors of historical research.

To an ambivalent or neutral reader, the lack of firm proofs that Shapiro promises begets more ambivalence or neutrality; and Emmerich and Orloff’s aesthetic position is unconvincing even as argument and as art, so the debate will grow before it withers, for there is more to the authorship debate than Anonymous and Shapiro. For the moment, the literary culture is beginning to embrace the debate and extend it in energetic, potentially interesting ways.

As for our younger generation, there’s usually at least one student in my class who asks if the authorship question is important. My answer is “yes,” given that the subjects of identity and authorship (and authority) are worth studying, and, more specifically, it is important (to me) who writes what paper in our class. But when a student asks who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, I turn the extra-textual question around to the interlocutor and provide an area for the student to ask the class. But when students press for my position, the New Critical stance suffices in my rhetoric class, where I state that the play is the thing, but I also have stated that “Shakespeare” much like “Homer” was (is) inscribed by the values of his culture and society, so our readings could be better informed if we knew more about the author’s personal life, for if a work of art resonates with us, then our natural response is to strive to understand more about the artist. This humanistic assumptive perspective is presented by the Oxfordians to argue for the authorship of de Vere, and this assumption is being embraced by the Stratfordians with more verve as they mine secondary and tertiary sources more diligently to connect Shakespeare’s personal record to his public work.

David Ryan is Academic Director and Faculty Chair of the Master of Arts of Professional Communication program at the University of San Francisco where he teaches courses in film criticism, strategic communication, and rhetoric studies. His essays have appeared in Rhetoric Review and many journals and books, including his latest, “Antilochus’s Burden: the Crisis-Catharsis Rhetoric of Bereavement Messages” in Wiley Blackwell’s A Companion to the War Film (June 2016).


Shapiro, J. Contested Will. Who Wrote Shakespeare? Simon & Schuster, New York: 2010.

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