Sony has been promoting Roland Emmerich's upcoming literary thriller 'Anonymous' with the Joker-esque tag line "Was Shakesperare a Fraud?" Which sounds like yet another insulting Hollywood dumb-down of history -- until you realize that Emmerich, 'Anonymous' screenwriter John Orloff, and his on-screen narrator, the esteemed Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi, all believe that the answer is yes.
Turns out the debate between Stratfordians, who believe Shakespeare's works were indeed written by William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon, and anti-Stratfordians, who don't, has been raging for quite some time. As any anti-Stratfordian will tell you, Mark Twain was one of the first writers to point out just how difficult it is to believe that the mind that produced 'Hamlet,' 'MacBeth,' 'The Merchant of Venice,' and so many other immortal works could have belonged to some knucklehead commoner from Nowheresville, England. But so far, within the Ivory Tower at least, the anti-Stratfordians have been treated like TMZ photographers at a George Clooney cocktail party. (You can find an impassioned defense of the Stratfordian view here.)
The release of 'Anonymous' could change that. The movie advances an intriguing, if far-fetched, scenario involving a nobleman who has been an anti-Stratfordian favorite since the 1920s: Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. I'll let John Orloff, whom I interviewed at length on the subject, take it from here.
I know that this is a screenplay that you've been living with for a long time.
Fifteen, 20 years.
What was the original impetus?
I was in my early 20s when I became interested in the Shakespeare authorship question. I thought, "Wow, that would be a really fantastic film." The problem was, I was young, not British, and had only written a couple of scripts at UCLA film school. It just seemed a little too intimidating.
Then I met my now-wife, and she worked in the movie division of HBO at the time and would bring home these long-form, non-fiction scripts. And I would read them and say, "Fuck, these suck! This person has an agent? You're thinking of hiring this person -- you're crazy!" So I pitched her this as a movie. She said, "Yeah. If it's no good, nobody has to read it." I spent about two years, from the age of 30 to 32, researching -- also known as procrastination.
The long walk to the typewriter.
But it was fun. I just read everything I could about Elizabethan England, because it's such an amazingly rich culture. It's so complicated, and way darker than people think. People just go, "Oh, look, Queen Elizabeth, Golden Age." She killed anybody who was a problem. She was ruthless. And so were the people around her. So I did tons of research and finally wrote it.
And did you become persuaded of any particular view?
I'll be honest with you: I am a firm anti-Stratfordian. I don't think Shakespeare wrote the plays. I am a likely Oxfordian. I'm also thinking -- I'm evolving, I've spent 20 years on this and I'm wondering more about the group theory. I definitely am Oxfordian, but I think there's room for Oxford to have been part of a larger group.
Let me ask you this: What's the single most compelling reason to think Shakespeare didn't write the plays?
What's the single, compelling reason that he did? I'm gonna ask you, because there's not a single piece of paper that has ever been discovered that's written by William Shakespeare.
But I'm asking the questions here.
[Laughs] To me, there are two issues that are the nagging issues. First, there's no documentary evidence. That's a big one. We have no letters to or from William Shakespeare at all. There's not a single piece of paper that's ever been discovered, ever written by him. So, we have to assume, if Shakespeare wrote the plays, that history has done this terrible thing to us -- taken every single piece of paper he's ever written, and made them burn, or get in floods, or who the fuck knows?
And we have those kinds of records for other playwrights of the time?
Oh, absolutely. There are letters to and from people you've never heard of. Dante, Cervantes, these people wrote letters and said, "Wow, I'm writing this thing called 'The Inferno' and it's really hard." We have these letters. We have letters from Ben Johnson, who's a contemporary of Shakespeare. We have original poems written by John Dunn, by John Milton, by Johnson. Nothing by Shakespeare.
Right, so that's one thing.
That's one. Number two is education. The other problem has always been, How did the kid from Warwickshire gain the knowledge to write these plays? Because whoever wrote the plays had to speak Greek, Latin, Italian, and French. That's just a fact, because Shakespeare had a tremendous amount of source material that was not yet translated into English.
As an actor, wouldn't he have been exposed to a lot of oral traditions, so he could've heard these stories from other cultures without necessarily reading Greek?
No, no, because you can get into very specific minutiae of Greek poetry that are used in Shakespeare's plays. That aren't just sort of, "Oh, let's talk about making a play, and oh, yeah, I remember this great Greek poet that nobody's heard of that said blah blah blah -- why don't we use that? Why don't we steal that?" I don't particularly think that works.
OK, let's hear another reason.
All of Shakespeare's characters, all of his heroes, are noblemen. They are not servants -- as opposed to Ben Johnson, for example, who's the exact opposite. Johnson was a commoner and wrote about common men. Shakespeare's characters are nobles, and they know things about falconry, a nobleman's sport. When you get into the totality of that, you start to say, Where did this person, from Warwickshire, get this education?
But Shakespeare's plays have people from every caste.
Name some of the names of the lower caste. Falstaff. Impotent. Bottom? I mean, he makes fun of these characters. Those aren't the heroes. Those are the people that are made fun of in his plays. And it's a classist piece of work, Shakespeare's work. It is pro-nobility. It also happens to be pro-Tudor. They're very political pieces of work.
OK, so the evidence gives you reason to doubt that Shakespeare wrote the plays. Now let's talk about Oxford.
That gets interesting. In 1920, I think it was, a guy [J. Thomas Looney, author of 'Shakespeare Identified'] said, "I don't buy this Shakespeare." Now you have to remember, Mark Twain wrote a whole book on why he didn't think Shakespeare was the author of those plays. The last book he ever wrote was called 'Shakespeare's Debt.' His basic thesis was, "I could not have written about the Mississippi had I not been a Mississippi River boat pilot. My life experiences are what made those books work. And there is no way you're going to tell me that the kid from Stratford had the life experiences to write 'Hamlet,' or whatever play you want to insert here."
So in the early 20s, this guy said let me just do some research.' He discovered this man named Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who was claimed by several contemporaries to be the greatest playwright of his time but who had to use a pseudonym. We have a document that says that.
There's a document that says that?
Oh, yeah. That doesn't mean he wrote the Shakespeare plays. All of the evidence is circumstantial. There is no smoking gun. The closest to the smoking gun is the Geneva Bible. We have De Vere's Bible where he underlines things, and those things that are underlined happened to end up in the plays. Is it a smoking gun? No, it's just one more little tiny piece.
Anyway, so this guy Thomas Looney said, "Let's think of it like a murder mystery. What are the things that the guy who wrote the plays would've had to have been?" Well, the languages I told you about. He was probably a lawyer, because the law in Shakespeare is incredibly accurate. He probably went to Italy, because there are a dozen plays set in Italy, and they're pretty fucking accurate about what the place and time was like. He probably knew the ocean, because there's so much sea-craft metaphors in the plays. He probably was a nobleman, for reasons you can argue with.
So he finally came across this guy Edward De Vere, and he starts reading this guy's biographies and learning about him, and he goes, "Holy fuck! It's Hamlet!" Everything that happens to Hamlet happened to Edward de Vere. Everything that happens to Prince Hal and Falstaff happens to De Vere. You can go on and on and on, and suddenly you're not talking about these plays as though they've come out of the ether, like they're imagined out of nowhere, which you have to say if Shakespeare wrote them. You kind of say, It was like God touched him and he made this shit up out of nowhere, right?
I noticed in the film that there are a couple of parallels -- there's a Hamlet-killing-Polonius moment in De Vere's life, for instance.
You picked up on that! Polonius in 'Hamlet' is Burghley, the David Thewlis character -- everybody agrees. Whether you are a Stratfordian or an Oxfordian, Polonius is a caricature of Lord Burghley. Lord Burghley's daughter is this woman named Anne. Polonius' daughter is this woman named Ophelia. Oxford marries Anne; Hamlet is in love with Ophelia. The whole speech that Polonius gives, "Neither a lender or a borrower be," is an actual caricature of a letter that Lord Burghley wrote to his son. We have that piece of paper, and it's almost the same thing. Like Hamlet, De Vere's father died when he was 12, 13. His mother married six months later in an over-hasty marriage. He was captured by pirates when he was 20 years old -- no, he really was! I think his cousin is named Rosencrantz, I can't remember, first cousin, second cousin. I mean, there's all this shit where you just sort of go, 'Oh, wow!' And what happens is, suddenly you see reason for things in the plays.
So you resisted the urge to embellish -- the screenplay is as factually accurate as you could make it, is that a fair assumption?
You could have gone in and said, "OK, I'm going to make a dramatic case and pull the five most famous things from Shakespeare's plays and make them happen in De Vere's life," and you decided not to do that.
No, my thing was, this movie is not going to -- it's not built to prove the case. This is not a documentary, it is not a book. It is a piece of drama, and it should first and foremost tell a really, really cool fucking story. It should be thematically driven, because all the best movies are thematically driven. They're not plot-driven, they're not trying to prove anything. They're just trying to get you emotionally engaged and maybe speak to a wider truth.
I mean, I happen to be an Oxfordian, I happen to be an anti-Stratfordian, but as I worked on it and as I got older and as Roland and I worked on it, it becomes about something else. The movie's really about, Is the pen mightier than the sword? Is might more powerful than intellect? I mean, it's kind of trite to say the pen is mightier than the sword, but it's not trite. Right now, we're in a struggle about intellect versus might, you know? Are ideas more important than power?
As Johnson says in the film: "If anyone ever remembers any of us, it's because of these plays."
And he's not wrong.
In the film, Shakespeare is portrayed not just as not the author of the plays but as a complete buffoon and horrible person. Tell me about that choice and are you concerned about that?
No, I love that. What's interesting is that I wrote the movie before 'Shakespeare In Love' came out. So my initial idea was: I'm going to make him like a movie star. He's going to be like Brad Pitt. And then, of course, Joseph Fiennes made 'Shakespeare in Love' and we all thought, "Oh my God, Shakespeare is a sexy, young, hot guy." So that idea was kind of gone.
That was taken.
But I had already written Shakespeare as ambitious and aggressive. So then I just sort of made the choice: well, what are actors like? Well, you know, they're ambitious, they're self-obsessed. I just made him an actor.
You know you're going to piss off a bunch of people, but beyond that, do you have a goal of gaining acceptance for the anti-Stratfordian view within the academy?
Absolutely. Listen, I have no issue with somebody who's a firm Stratfordian. The evidence does point that way. I just happen to think it's not beyond a reasonable doubt. There is a conversation to be had, and hopefully the movie will open up the conversation. Even if at the end of the day, you say, "That's all hogwash. Shakespeare wrote the plays. Orloff and Emmerich are all fucking crazy" -- well, at least we had the conversation. At least we've talked about Shakespeare's plays in a meaningful interesting way.
But it does tip the scales of the conversation a bit, to have a however-many-million-dollar popular film on your side.
But there's already been a however-many-million-dollar fictional film with Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth. Nothing's true in that film. That's their version of what happened, and here's our version of what happened. And yes, you're right: cinema gives the patina of legitimacy to everything. And you're right: that's one of the goals I wanted to have with this movie. Let's say, "Hey! You know what? There's another story here that may be true and maybe we should talk about this."
I remember being in seventh grade reading 'Romeo and Juliet' for the first time and reading that seven-page biography about the author, William Shakespeare, not realizing that those seven pages are all guesses. We know nothing about Shakespeare, really. Not even seven pages' worth. What we do know has been stretched into thousand-page biographies of guesses and assumptions and must-haves. That was the biggest thing for me, like, Wait a minute, you're presenting facts to me that aren't facts. They're guesses. At least say they're guesses and go from there.
And so you can do the same thing with the facts available to you.
'Anonymous' is in theaters on Oct. 28
[Photo: Sony Pictures/Columbia Tri-Star]
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