From ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia. <ericshackleATbigpond.com>
Was Edward de Vere or Christopher Marlowe the real author of the plays and poems that most of us attribute to William Shakespeare? Two films, one American. the other Australian, suggest that the answer may be "Yes."
Hollywood Dishonors the Bard was the headline the New York Times gave to James Shapiro's review of Roland Emmerich's latest film, Anonymous.
The film's distributors claimed it “presents a compelling portrait of Edward de Vere as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays."
Shapro commented, "That’s according to the lesson plans that Sony Pictures has been distributing to literature and history teachers in the hope of convincing students that Shakespeare was a fraud. A documentary by First Folio Pictures (of which Mr. Emmerich is president) will also be part of this campaign."
The case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, Shapiro wrote, dates from 1920, when J. Thomas Looney, an English writer who loathed democracy and modernity, argued that only a worldly nobleman could have created such works of genius.
Shakespeare, a glover’s son and money-lender, could never have done so. Looney also showed that episodes in de Vere’s life closely matched events in the plays.
His theory has since attracted impressive supporters, including Sigmund Freud, the Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia and his former colleague John Paul Stevens, and now Mr. Emmerich.
"Promoters of de Vere’s cause have a lot of evidence to explain away," said Shapiro, "including testimony of contemporary writers, court records and much else that confirms that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him.
"Meanwhile, not a shred of documentary evidence has ever been found that connects de Vere to any of the plays or poems.....
"Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing de Vere’s supporters is that he died in 1604, before 10 or so of Shakespeare’s plays were written...
"The most troubling thing about Anonymous is not that it turns Shakespeare into an illiterate money-grubber. It’s not even that England’s virgin Queen Elizabeth is turned into a wantonly promiscuous woman who is revealed to be both the lover and mother of de Vere.
"Rather, it’s that in making the case for de Vere, the film turns great plays into propaganda.
"In the film de Vere is presented as a child prodigy, writing and starring in 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream' in 1559 at the age of 9...
“Anonymous weds Looney’s class-obsessed arguments to the political motives supplied by later de Vere advocates, who claimed that de Vere was Elizabeth’s illegitimate son and therefore the rightful heir to the English throne.
"By bringing this unsubstantiated version of history to the screen, a lot of facts — theatrical and political — are trampled.
"Supporters of de Vere’s candidacy who have awaited this film with excitement may come to regret it, for Anonymous shows, quite devastatingly, how high a price they must pay to unseat Shakespeare.
"Why anyone is drawn to de Vere’s cause is the real mystery, one not so easily solved as who was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays."
So much for de Vere.. But another band of scholars and researchers are convinced that the real author of the most famous plays and poems in the English language faked his own dramatic death, after conspiring with a village actor for his plays to be published as the work of that actor, one William Shakespeare.
They claim that Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, officially reported to have been killed in a knife fight at the age of 29, had in fact faked his death and fled to Italy.
There, they believe, he continued to write, his work being published in England in Shakespeare's name.
Many others have doubts about the bard, and have suggested a wide range of other men who could have written Shakespeare's works.
If the Marlowe conspiracy theory is ever proved, millions of the world's text books will have to be rewritten, and the British tourism industry will have to shift its focus from Stratford-on-Avon to Canterbury, where Marlowe, "duelist, scapegrace, genius, and poet" (and probably homosexual atheist) was born in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare.
For centuries, doubts have been expressed about Shakespeare's ability to write the works attributed to him.
Another film has a different explanation and presents a different contender.
To quote Australian film-maker Michael Rubbo:
"The doubts centre mainly around Shakespeare's education, or lack thereof. The plays and poems are very learned, the vocabulary gigantic, and yet there is no evidence he went to school, and he certainly did not go to university, the training ground for many of the best playwrights of the day.
"Shakespeare was so uninterested in culture that he appears to have owned no books, to have not educated his own daughters, and made no cultural contribution to the town in which he lived and died."
Back in 1955, Calvin Hoffman, a Broadway (New York) press agent and writer, published The Murder of the Man Who Was 'Shakespeare. In his book, long out of print, Hoffman claimed that Marlowe did not die young, that his "death" was a ruse to escape the 'English Inquisition', and that he fled to live in Italy.
There, he continued writing plays, to be published at home under the name of a front man in the London theatre world - William Shakespeare.
Michael Rubbo became so engrossed in the theory that he explored it for five years. Wondering whether Hoffman had exposed what might be "the biggest cover-up in literary history," he made a film called Much Ado About Something.
His documentary has been shown several times in the US by the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), twice in the UK by the BBC, in other European countries, and at least three times in Australia.
In New York, where the film had a two-week season at Film Forum, a West Village art house, it received mixed but generally favorable reviews.
Here in Australia, Mike bought a projector and toured New South Wales and Victoria with Much Ado as well as presenting one-night screenings in the State capitals.
After the film was shown in London, Britain's best-selling history monthly, BBC History Magazine, said: "Michael Rubbo takes a rather weary topic... and gives it a hugely entertaining new lease of life."
And in Melbourne, Melanie Sheridan wrote in Beat Magazine: "The story contains espionage, conspiracy theories, faked deaths, cover-ups, identity theft, homosexuality and sex... it's so outrageous Hollywood would love it. It could be re-written as the next Bond flick: Murder, He Wrote."
The film plays as a road movie as Rubbo goes to England into the very heart of what he calls bardolatry to debate the academics in their dens. He uses actors and recreations to test his version of the Hoffman Theory. He gives screen time to the Marlovians, some persuasive, others somewhat eccentric.
"I began to shoot my documentary, working solo with a small digital camera, making a vow that I would stop at any point," says Rubbo. "I was quite ready to cut my losses if anyone could convince me that Hoffman's thesis was silly.
"I took several years, on and off, shooting the film. I slept at a friend's house in south London, and made frequent visits to Italy, where Marlowe might have gone in exile.
"Then, I spent a very long period editing, coupled with approaches to broadcasters who were hostile at first but gradually came around.
"As the editing progressed, I circulated many copies, asking for feedback from scholars and lay viewers alike. I was obsessed with eliminating all errors.
"I continue to read on the subject and wake in the middle of the night with a new angle on the mystery, or a new reason to doubt the bard.
"Just as some people become obsessed with this authorship question, others find it profoundly upsetting. As Sue Hunt says in the film, the English, and not just the English, take in Shakespeare with their mother's milk.
"All over the world, he is loved beyond all questioning, beyond all doubts. And yet once you know a bit of the story, the doubts may begin. Also, the more one is told that one must blindly believe in Shakespeare, the more the doubts multiply.
"It is human nature I suppose for the forbidden to fascinate, and to doubt Shakespeare is virtually forbidden, certainly in academic circles. Not only forbidden, but very upsetting.
"One famous scholar, Tucker Brooke, said in a candid moment, 'Even if Shakespeare stood up in his grave and said he was not the author, we would not believe him.'
"In unguarded moments some fierce defenders of Shakespeare do show some puzzlement. Harold Bloom, author of the magnificent book Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human, wonders why the man is so colorless. It does not seem to fit with the huge power and personality of the Bard.
"And Sam Schoenbaum, the great American scholar, author of Shakespeare's Lives, wonders why Shakespeare cut such a low profile in his time. One would think that such a towering talent would have attracted much interest from his contemporaries, and yet he did not.
"Mark Rylance, director of Shakespeare's Globe theatre, says William could not have done it alone. He joins a long line of intellectuals and theatre people, including Henry James, Mark Twain, Charles Chaplin, Sigmund Freud, and Derek Jacobi, who have doubts. The list grows by the day."
Distinguished English historical researcher and writer Katherine Duncan-Jones in her book, Ungentle Shakespeare, said Shakespeare was not the divine William of legend, but a rather unlikable man, a money-minded fellow who dealt eagerly and profitably in real-estate, and lent money to people at high rates of interest.
At a screening of his film in Australia, Rubbo was asked if he believed Marlowe was the real Shakespeare. "I'm not sure," he said. "But if Shakespeare didn't write his own works, Marlowe seems to be the most likely alternative."