Friday, 28 October 2011

Shakespeare vs Emmerich

Renowned film director Roland Emmerich has produced a film called Anonymous with a glittering British cast that purports to show that William Shakespeare was not the author of the 37 plays attributed to him.
I disagree, I believe the evidence is strong enough to say that Will of Stratford was The Man. I want to explain why.

First up, I saw an interview with of the film's cast members in which is was claimed that the authorship debate was hundreds of years old. This is something of an exaggeration. The first questions about it were only raised in the mid-Victorian period -  around about 150 years ago. Shakespeare was writing about 400 years ago. The Victorians had strong ideas about how status and ability were linked and believed that a poor glove maker's son could not have had the education and skill to write some of the most sublime works of the English language.
Shakespeare was student of a grammar school in Stratford upon Avon. They were called grammar schools for a reason. Students were required to learn Latin by rote and to translate from Latin and Greek to English. In fact the grammar schools taught little else than language (grammar) skills, including drama, rhetoric and debate and the classics such as Homer and Cicero. Will would therefore have been well equipped with the skills and knowledge required.
Emmerich has recently also produced a YouTube clip elucidating ten points that he thinks prove that William was a fraud. Please watch this clip and then read my thoughts about why he may be wrong.

First up I would like to question his calling Shakespeare a fraud. That would imply that Shakespeare himself deliberately set himself up as something he was not. If he had not written the plays, he would say that he had in order to defraud.... well who? The public, the audience, the players, the Master of Revels who was in charge of licensing plays? The Queen? Many of these people knew Will and is hard to credit all of them with the credulity to accept such self aggrandising.
If, as Emmerich's film suggests, some one else had paid Will to take credit for the plays, again it is difficult to believe that his fellow actors, and rival actors, would blindly accept the claim and keep quiet about it.

Emmerich's first point is that there is no existing piece of writing of any sort by William Shakespeare. I would like to know whether he has investigated how much paperwork anyone else of the period left behind. There are few records from the lives of his fellow actors, Henry Condell and John Heminges. I don't know if there is any paperwork from the lives of other contemporaries such as Kit Marlowe and Ben Jonson. It has to be remembered that in the late 1500s paper of good quality was a fairly rare commodity. The First Folio published in 1616 was printed on imported French paper, Paper also is well known for not lasting unless it is well looked after. It is also a fact that 50 years after Shakespeare died huge tracts of London were destroyed by the Great Fire, prior to that the country was ravaged by the Great Plague. Many of the buildings that Shakespeare's papers may have been in are no longer standing. Even the theatre he was so much a part of was destroyed. Absence of proof is not proof of absence. Paper may have existed. It would be quite remarkable if any had survived

The second point is that Shakespeare's daughters were unable to read or write. Shakespeare did have a son but he died at the age of eleven so we don't know whether he read or wrote at all. The boy and his twin sister were four years old when their father moved to London. Their older sister was six. They were therefore brought up by their mother, Anne, who was eight years older than William. In fact the years after the birth of the twins, up until 1592, are considered to be 'lost years' by most scholars, there are no records of Shakespeare's movements. If Anne was bringing the children up with little support she would not have been able to afford the time or money to have all the children learn literacy. (Although there is no information about how much contact Shakespeare had with his family in this period, even so, William was at the beginning of his career, he married at Anne when he was eighteen, he may not have had a lot of money to send home before buying New Place in 1597.) Also, in the late 1500s it was still a fact that women were not considered the equal of men. Women were often considerably less literate than men in spite of Elizabeth I being on the throne and there were not schools for girls. Educated girls would have been quite a rarity in that period.

Thirdly, Emmerich claims Shakespeare wrote above his station and belittled his own working class. Shakespeare was a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men actors group (later the King's Men when James I came to the throne). We don't know what he did prior to 1592 but he was probably an actor and may have been in other groups that had noble patrons. These groups often toured the fine houses of the country to play. He and his colleagues had access to the Royal Court and to the houses of noble patrons. They would also have had access to servants who would have seen things no one else saw. Hence it is likely they had a fairly good understanding of how the nobility behaved and worked. A lot of his plays would have been written to flatter his patrons and the Queen so inclusion of details about certain Lords and Ladies would have delighted them. Emmerich compares Shakespeare to Ben Jonson. Jonson though was not an actor, though he had tried acting he was the writer for the Admiral's Men. That group suffered a number of setbacks, including being censored by the Master of the Revels. It is possible that it was safer for Jonson to avoid writing about nobility. Emmerich also says Shakespeare betrayed his class by making fun of them. Emmerich must be a very dull man if he and his friends don't have nicknames for each other. I have friends called Hopper, Big Bird, Blondie and Dibber. The names Shakespeare uses are affectionate and are to an extent caricatures of people that his audience would have known well and may have identified with.

The fourth point Emmerich makes is that Shakespeare's signatures are so different and shaky. I wonder if perhaps there was some reason Shakespeare had trouble writing. Maybe arthritis or an injury. Maybe he had to sign with assistance from someone guiding his hand. This would also explain why there is no existing correspondence of his. Perhaps he just physically could not write. There is no reason why he could not have dictated his plays and sonnets to someone else in the troupe or to a hired secretary. This certainly does not prove he was not an author.

Shakespeare did not write about his family, specifically Emmerich mentions there is no scene or poem about the death of Hamnet in 1596. As mentioned before, Shakespeare did not live with his family for several years after the children were born so perhaps he was not that close to them, even when he bought property in Stratford he travelled to London frequently. Perhaps his older wife had a friend that the children were closer to, we will never know, perhaps she forbade him from writing about their family. Perhaps he was just a private person, after all his plays are frequently about larger issues than personal problems. That is not to say he didn't draw on his life as inspiration, simply that he made those inspirations into something that everyone could connect with. Also one in three children of that period died before the age of ten so to have three children reach eleven was quite good going for the Shakespeares. Again Emmerich mentions Jonson. He had already lost a daughter at six months when his son died of the plague at the age of seven, he had more time with his family and possibly felt the losses more keenly.

In point 6 Emmerich says there are no records of Shakespeare's attendance at Stratford Grammar School. However in the book 1599, James Shapiro states "(Richard) Field and Shakespeare had been schoolmates in Stratford's grammar school". There may be no records but it is an academically accepted truth that he did go to King's New School. It is highly improbable that William did not get an education in Stratford, particularly as he was entitled to a free place since his father was the town bailiff. Emmerich goes on to say that Shakespeare would not have known about the varied subjects his plays include. At Grammar school he would have learned about music and astronomy as well as languages and the classics. I have already described how he would have had some access to higher circles than that of a glovemaker's son from Stratford. I have also mentioned that there are seven or eight lost years, during which time we have no idea what Shakespeare was doing. We therefore can not say he was not educating himself in some way. Perhaps through liaisons with wealthy women, perhaps by travelling, almost certainly he would have eavesdropped a little in taverns and picked up some information. He was also part of a group of actors. We know a little of some of them. Richard Burbage, and his brother James, were co owners of the theatres that the actors worked in. That would have made them part of a business elite and given them access to people in a variety of trades. John Heminges was a member of the Grocer's Guild and apprenticed ten young men to the guild. He would have met with people of the other Guilds and learned more about the world. Henry Condell was an church warden. The troupe had numerous members and each would have had a little knowledge that added to sum of the things the actors could draw on in their work. I believe that while William Shakespeare was the genius that created the plays, his fellow actors would have had input, perhaps suggesting a phrase heard in a pub, the inclusion of a dog among the players in Midsomer Night's Dream, a description of a burial or a little knowledge about a particular subject. Maybe they even brainstormed with him if he ever got stuck. Shakespeare may have had a vocabulary of 60, 000 words but I would be willing to be that at least a few thousand of them were learned from his fellow actors. At the end of this point Emmerich almost contradicts himself by suggesting that such a vocabulary is "not quite grammar school level". I don't quite know what he means by that.

Point seven is about the lack of work produced by Shakespeare after he retired to Stratford in his forties (He died aged 52). We know that Shakespeare was a witness in a London court case in 1612, bought property in 1613 and was in London in 1614, two years before his death. I suggested earlier that he might have had a condition that prevented him from writing.  Perhaps there was something else that forced him to stop creating works, maybe something political happened to make it more difficult for him to work. Perhaps he was simply enjoying the big house he lived in with his family. Perhaps he had writers' block. Perhaps there are lost works from that period. I don't think it in anyway proves William Shakespeare was not author of his plays.

In point eight Emmerich says there are no records that Shakespeare ever left England. This was the late 1500s-early 1600s. If you weren't nobility, having a brush with the law or in the forces records of your activities were limited. During his lost years there are no tax records for him either. We would be very lucky to find the passenger manifests of all the ships that left British ports in those years. When the Mary Rose sank in 1545 no one knew how many men were on board, between 400 and 700, and they were all naval and military men. To say Shakespeare never went abroad is akin to saying he never ate peas. It is not something we can know. Again I remind you of the lost years. It is perfectly possible he travelled through Europe, which would explain why there is no record of him being in England. Again I suggest he may well also have had contact with people who had visited foreign shores, whether they were fellow actors or noble patrons or people he simply spoke with. He was also able to read. Many of his works are drawn from older work. Plutarch's Lives is known to be one source of inspiration, AmLeth was the inspiration for Hamlet and of course the lives of previous Kings of England inspired his Histories. Which ever, it is not impossible for him to have known about foreign places. Some people point to inaccuracies in his geography. Well Shakespeare is also renowned for tweaking history. It is called artistic licence, something Emmerich surely knows plenty about

The monument in Stratford is the subject of point 9. Apparently it now looks somewhat different from its original design. An early image of the monument shows Shakespeare holding a sack of grain, not the quill and paper we see today. The monument was erected in Stratford after Shakespeare's death. In Stratford he was known as a wealthy local man who invested heavily in malt grain and was able to make loans to other residents. The fact that the monument originally showed him with a sack of grain should not be such a surprise.  His grave mentions that he is a poet, but does not mention playwriting. Emmerich himself makes the point that playwriting was not a gentleman's profession in his film.The restoration of the monument was in the 1700s, by which time Shakespeare as a playwright was much revered. David Garrick was the most famous actor of Shakespeare's work in the mid 1700s and was well respected, being a friend of Joshua Reynolds and painted by Hogarth. It would be natural for the citizens of Stratford to want to reflect their town's fame as his home in the monument.

Point 10, the famous will! His last will and testament mentions no plays, just goods and chattels. Famously Shakespeare left his 'second best bed' to his wife. Some people think it may have been the marital bed, some that it was a snub to Anne (perhaps she had found herself a friend while Shakespeare was away). Perhaps his best bed was the one in the house he shared with his family and so part of the chattels he left to Susanna. He also left money to some of his friends from the King's Men (formerly the Lord Chamberlain's Men) for them to have rings made to remember him by. Two of these friends were Henry Condell and John Heminges. These two men are the ones who finally published the complete plays of William Shakespeare as the First Folio in 1623. Emmerich asks why there are no manuscripts or other versions of the plays in the will. Copyright was a concept in its infancy in the 1600s. Copyright is the legal ownership of intellectual property; such as plays, novels, songs, films. In the 1600s only the Stationers' Company was allowed to register publications, usually books. Anything published outside of their register was effectively unprotected, and the Stationers were allowed to seize works that offended their sensibilities. As none of his plays were formally published in his lifetime, Shakespeare may have believed that he was not legally the owner of the works. He may have given the original manuscripts to the actors of his troupe, or indeed may never have truly been the owner of papers that were used regularly and exclusively by the Lord Chamberlain's/King's Men. Parliament did not exist until more than 50 years after his death, and copyright as a legal concept was not fully recognised until then. Omitting his works from his will does not mean he did not make them, only that he felt he did not own them or have the right to pass them on. Even the folio published by Condell and Heminges would not have had full copyright protection and they would not have been able to pass it on to their heirs.

Of course Emmerich wants to invoke controversy and outrage, he has a film to promote. However it is of some concern that he has not fully developed his arguments and I believe the film does not present any alternative to his version. It is rumoured that some American schools plan to use the film in teaching Shakespeare, I can only hope that they teach the full story.

Please take the time to investigate for yourself, read 1599 (see Favourite Books on the left), read other texts on the subject, read or watch the plays. Go to Stratford-Upon-Avon and visit his houses. Read what the Shakespeare's Birthplace Trust have to say on the matter. Who ever wrote the plays it is the work that is a cornerstone of British literature and language. I believe it could well have been the man from Stratford. I believe they matter more than their author now.

(PS William Shakespeare is buried in Stratford under a gravestone that says:

"Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear,"
"To dig the dust enclosed here."
"Blessed be the man that spares these stones,"
"And cursed be he who moves my bones.

So far Shakespeare's wish has been honoured, even during restoration of the church in 2008, and until one day someone breaks his wish and accepts the curse, we may never know all there is to know about him. Perhaps he is buried with his manuscripts, perhaps there is evidence that he was unable to hold a quill pen. Perhaps he is not even there. We will never know.)




  3. This seems to crop up every now and then - usually when someone wants to say something controversial and gain attention. It's just daft. Of course he wrote them. As you say, it wasn't until Victorian times that it was at all questioned and then only because of their own views on who could do what. Which rather goes to show how much the director and cast may or may not know.
    As for using it to teach in schools, all I can say is 'I hope not'. Great post!


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