People who adhere to conspiracy theories are not all deeply disturbed individuals or weird shut-ins. The vast majority are probably people with a simple resentment towards authority. They don’t like being told that something is a certain way and that there is no argument about it. Granted, opposing authority has led to some of the most groundbreaking events in human history, from Galileo to Gandhi, but often it just results in a whole lot of nothing.
Take the new movie Anonymous (now out in limited release) directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day). It puts forth the argument that William Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who was forbidden from writing due to his high social status.
There is not a shred of reason to believe anyone but William Shakespeare wrote the plays under his name. Yet because Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer in the English language, perhaps in the whole body of world literature, he is looked upon with suspicion and doubt. If Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Johnson was hailed as the greatest, you can bet your life people would doubt his authorship instead.
Anonymous makes a number of arguments against Shakespeare as the author of the 38 plays and 154 sonnets written under his name that are worth exploring and debunking.
William Shakespeare was illiterate
Anonymous makes the argument that William Shakespeare was nothing more than a barely literate actor whom Edward de Vere used as a pawn to keep people from knowing that he was the actual author of the plays.
People who adhere to this theory hold that there was no evidence that Shakespeare was a literate man — aside from the fact that he wrote over thirty plays and must have been literate to do so. Grammar school education was common in Shakespeare’s time. Since his father was known to have been a successful glove maker and minor politician in Stratford-upon-Avon, there is little reason to doubt that young Will would have been taught to read and write.
The rest of his talents came from his gifted mind. Is that so hard to believe? Not at all! Gifted writers come from all walks of life.
Lords were not allowed to write
This argument is the basis of the whole film. It is also complete bullshit. In fact, Edward de Vere wrote many poems under his own name, as did several other lords and ladies. Even Queen Elizabeth wrote poetry. These poems can be found all over the Internet and in countless collections of Elizabethan poetry.
Adherents to the theory that De Vere wrote Shakespeare’s plays actually use examples of De Vere’s poetry to highlight similarities with Shakespeare’s work. I’ll let that contradiction sink in for a second.
Edward de Vere wrote all of the plays
Edward de Vere died in 1604. Macbeth, King Lear, Corionalus, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest were all produced after 1604. Unless the dead can write, De Vere could not possibly have written all the plays.
There are no historical references to William Shakespeare
Except Ben Johnson gave a noted eulogy to him in one of his poems: “To the memory of my beloved, Mr. William Shakespeare, and what he hath left us.” There is the inscription on Shakespeare’s monument, which was put in place no later than 1623.
Adherents to the De Vere theory find these eulogies suspicious since they came so late after his death. But this is not surprising in the least. Shakespeare was not a socially relevant person in his day. He was a writer, not a lord or a general or a nobleman. Eulogies printed right after a person’s death were only for the upper class, of which Shakespeare certainly was not a part.
Shakespeare’s plays require knowledge of foreign cultures and languages
Only a lord, not a commoner could have said knowledge.
Not true! First of all, it’s not hard for a playwright to ask a friend who speaks French, or to inquire about a book on different languages, to provide a translation if his writing required it. And if Shakespeare could write, he could certainly read as well. Back in the 1600s it was standard for playwrights to open a history book or use an older story to create their plays. So he needed only to adapt an older story into his play.
For example, Hamlet draws upon a number of elements from Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. As for knowledge about world events, it’s worth pointing out that Shakespeare’s plays are not known for their historical accuracy. In fact, they could not be less accurate most of the time. This argument is moot.
Both Christopher Marlowe and Ben Johnson were Shakespeare’s fellow writers and lived at the same time as him, both coming from the same social background as William Shakespeare. Why are they not doubted? Because Shakespeare is considered the greatest, so to conspirators this is considered an authority and must be quashed at all costs.
Which is easier to believe? That a grammar school educated actor travelled to London and started writing plays that later were put together in a folio that slowly but surely found success? Or that a nobleman who wrote poems was (for some reason) forbidden to write plays so he chose a scapegoat (for some reason) to hide his identity while he wrote plays and was careful not to let anyone know that he was the author and yet (for some reason) left a series of clues that pointed to him as the true author?
Occam’s razor says the simplest answer is probably the correct one.
Adherents to the Oxfordian theory (as Anonymous’s theory is called) are quick to state that Stratfordians are snobbish, orthodox stuffed shirts who can’t open their minds to other possibilities. Who are the real snobs? The ones who believe an adequately educated, brilliant man who came from a middle class standing wrote the greatest works of the English language? Or the ones who believe that only someone of noble birth could possibly write such great art?
For more information about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, please check out