Roland Emmerich, aiming to promote his film Anonymous, has now come up with a video giving 10 reasons why he believes that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. I’ve been trying to ignore the hype over this film, but I couldn’t resist answering these. If however you’re bored by the whole thing, look away now.
1. Not a single manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand has ever been found. Why are none of his letters home still around?
You might just as well ask why there are no manuscripts of Marlowe’s plays, or why so few personal letters from 400 years ago have survived. The actor Edward Alleyn went on tour and wrote a lovely letter to his young wife that still exists, but any survival is a rarity.
2. Shakespeare’s parents were illiterate, and his daughters couldn’t read or write.
Unfortunately the ability to read doesn’t leave any mark on the historical record, so we don’t know if any of Shakespeare’s family could read. As for writing, John Shakespeare used a mark rather than a signature on documents, but there are records of people who could write putting the sign of the cross on documents. So we just don’t know, but for the record Emmerich is wrong about Susanna as one of her signatures has survived. What does this argument have to do with Shakespeare’s ability to write the plays?
3. Shakespeare writes obsessively about the aristocracy. Ben Jonson’s plays reflect the social class he came from, whereas Shakespeare mocks the lower classes by giving them names like Dull and Mistress Overdone. Would he be a traitor to his class?
Shakespeare wrote plays to be popular. Has Mr Emmerich never noticed the media’s interest in the current Royal Family? This only exists because the public are interested in those who rule them. For the class argument to work Jonson shouldn’t give any of his lower class characters funny names, yes? Pity then about Ferret, Nick Stuff, Trundle and Staggers in The New Inn for one. And Shakespeare often gives humble characters like the soldiers in Henry V’s army dignfied names, like Michael Williams, John Bates and Alexander Court. The names are for comic effect, Mr Emmerich. Marlowe, the son of a cobbler, wrote a play about the monarchy called Edward II, and there were several plays on the subject of Richard III, not just Shakespeare’s.
The few authenticated signatures are all on legal documents. Three on the will written a month before he died, the others on legal documents where space was cramped. Part of the manuscript of the play Sir Thomas More (see left) may well be in Shakespeare’s handwriting, but its authenticity is still in doubt: academics don’t agree. Incidentally Marlowe’s only signature is the sole surviving example of his handwriting, and it’s spelt Marley. So Marlowe couldn’t spell his name either!
5. Shakespeare’s plays and poems don’t reflect his own life, unlike Ben Jonson who wrote a poem on the death of his son and John Lennon who wrote a song about his mother.
This is the “writers write about their own lives” argument. Has Mr Emmerich never heard of imagination? Where does he think Mary Shelley got Frankenstein from, let alone the screenwriters for Godzilla and Independence Day, both films he directed.
6. There’s no record of Shakespeare going to school, but the writer knew subjects like medicine, law, astrology, and he had a huge vocabulary.
There’s no record of any boy attending the Grammar School in Stratford until 1740, although the names of the schoolmasters and their rate of pay are known. Several Stratford boys of Shakespeare’s age acquired a good education: Richard Field became a printer in London, and William Smith, the son of a mercer, went to Oxford. As for all that knowledge, why shouldn’t a young man with an enquiring mind learn an awful lot about these subjects between the ages of 18 and 25? On vocabulary, the English language was expanding all the time, and Shakespeare himself coined several thousand new words.
7. Shakespeare retired in his 40s and never wrote again.
It’s now thought that Shakespeare collaborated on his last play in 1613-14, only 2-3 years before he died. Emmerich says that he can’t compare himself with Shakespeare then cheerfully goes on to do so, saying he couldn’t imagine himself giving up film-making, so how could Shakespeare give up writing? What sort of evidence is this? Perhaps he should revisit this question in twenty years time.
8, Shakespeare set a third of his plays in Italy and refers to Italian cities in great detail.
I wondered when this would come up, and it’s just not true. That third has to include Cymbeline, where the only Italian thing in the two scenes set in Rome are some personal names, several plays set in Ancient Rome based heavily on historical resources, and Two Gentlemen of Verona in which Valentine travels from Verona to Milan by sea (both are inland). English servants seem to abound in these Italian cities and there’s even a horse called Dobbin in Venice. Italy was a fashionable location for plays, not just Shakespeare’s: Women beware Women, The Revenger’s Tragedy and Volpone were all set there, and John Florio could have supplied Shakespeare with details of Venice just as he did for Ben Jonson.
9. Shakespeare’s monument shows a grain dealer.
Another old chestnut. Emmerich shows the illustration of the bust in Holy Trinity Church from Dugdale’s 1656 Antiquities of Warwickshire, in which Shakespeare’s hands are on the cushion before him, and neither paper nor quill are present. It’s been pointed out many times that Dugdale’s engraving is inaccurate, and there’s another early illustration to prove it. Mr Emmerich, why didn’t you show us the rest of the entry in Dugdale? Then we would have seen the English and Latin inscriptions on the monument which refer to Shakespeare as a writer, celebrating “all that he has writ” and calling him “A Virgil in art”. Not how you would describe a tradesman.
10. The will doesn’t mention books or manuscripts, so he didn’t own any.
Shakespeare didn’t necessarily own his own manuscripts, as they would have been the property of the theatre for which they were written. But any books and papers which he did own would probably have been mentioned in the inventory taken to London by Shakespeare’s executor, John Hall, now lost. Historians who have studied wills of the period haven’t found anything suspicious in it, though the mention of the second best bed is eccentric – but presumably even Mr Emmerich wouldn’t try to suggest this had anything to do with the authorship.
I’d be prepared to accept Anonymous as “just a film” if it wasn’t for the fact that Education packs have been prepared to send out to schools, and if videos like the one I’ve linked to weren’t so snide and sneering. Everybody who worked with Shakespeare or knew him, and all their descendants, knew that Shakespeare was genuine. Nobody has ever uncovered any evidence at all that anyone else wrote the plays. Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues wrote that they put the First Folio together to honour him, and his family erected the church bust for him. There’s no reason to doubt the integrity of either. If you want to find out more, the SBT’s Sixty Minutes with Shakespeare is a good place to start, and the Shakespeare Authorship Page is full of tremendously detailed information.