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‘Anonymous’ and Shakespeare: Who really wrote the plays?

Minnesota native Mark Anderson wrote the definitive biography of Edward de Vere, “Shakespeare by Another Name.” In this Q&A he talks about de Vere and the new film “Anonymous.”

MinnPost Asks: Mark Anderson

William Shakespeare (left) and Edward de Vere
William Shakespeare (left, although images of him are also hotly debated), and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Was Shakespeare — the guy from Stratford, that is — a fraud?

That’s the question asked by the controversial new feature film “Anonymous,” which opens in Minnesota movie theaters on Friday. And the way in which the film answers that question — with a resounding “Yes” — has many traditional Shakespearean scholars fuming.

The movie claims that the real author of the plays and sonnets — the man who adopted the pseudonym “Shakespeare” (possibly from his family’s crest, which shows a lion shaking a spear) — is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), a troubled, tormented and often thoroughly unpleasant nobleman who played an active and central role in the court of Queen Elizabeth I.

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He’s also the man whose temperament and life’s details can be heard echoing throughout Shakespeare’s plays (and poems) — if you’re willing to listen with an agnostic mind.

“Oxfordian” Mark Anderson, a Minnesota-born and educated (Minneapolis’ Washburn High School and Northfield’s Carleton College) freelance writer, has written the definitive biography of Edward de Vere, “Shakespeare by Another Name.” The book lays out in highly readable detail the life of this complex and contradictory Elizabethan figure — and the arguments in favor of his having been Shakespeare.

I recently spoke with Anderson from his current home in Massachusetts about the life of de Vere, the “authorship question,” and the impact that “Anonymous” will have on the public’s understanding of this greatest of literary mysteries. Below is an edited version of that interview.

MinnPost: What is your short-form summation of the argument that Shakespeare wasn’t the man from Stratford?

Mark Anderson: I would start out by noting that this isn’t a question of abilities. I’m not questioning that a man of his station couldn’t do it. It’s just that the evidence points to him probably not doing it. There was in fact a rumor mill at the time that Shakespeare/Stratford was some kind of imposter or front. To that I point to Robert Greene, who wrote a book called “Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit.” Greene said that Shakespeare pretends to be a writer.

Mark Anderson
Mark Anderson

We also don’t have any records of him being paid as an author. We know he was an actor and a businessman, but the documentary trail does not point to an author. The most substantive thing we do have from his life is his will, and his will is entirely consistent with him as a businessman and as an actor. It’s a very detailed three-page will that has essentially a full household listed. But there are no books, no manuscripts, no plays, no diaries, and, importantly, not even the slightest hint of any kind of artistic, creative or literary life. No bookshelves. No writing desk. Nothing — not even a quill pen or a quire of paper that would suggest that the man had any kind of literary life at all.

And then he has a son-in-law, John Hall, who writes about the noteworthy people of his time, but never bothers to mention his father-in-law as an author, even though Hall writes about all kinds of famous authors. What, did it completely escape his notice that his father-in-law was the greatest author who ever lived?

MP: And what is the most compelling argument in favor of de Vere as Shakespeare?

MA: One is Italy. Outside of Britain, Italy is the favorite setting for Shakespeare’s plays. Approximately half of the non-history plays are set there. … There’s a great book coming out next month, “The Shakespeare Guide to Italy.” It shows [Shakespeare’s intimate knowledge of Italy] in more than 100 specific instances, such as a grove of sycamore trees that are mentioned outside of the western wall in Verona in “Romeo and Juliet” — a grove that stands there to this day.

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MP: Your argument is that in the 16th century, a writer couldn’t have picked up such details without actually traveling there and that William Shakespeare of Stratford never left England but Edward de Vere traveled extensively in Italy, correct?

MA: Yes. But it’s not just one or two things [that indicate the author of the plays traveled to Italy]. It’s hundreds of things. There’s been a lot of misinformation out there, unfortunately, about Shakespeare being ignorant about Italy [a claim that is then used as evidence he never went there]. But time and again, when people claim Shakespeare was ignorant about Italy, it’s only the critic’s ignorance that eventually is demonstrated.

For example, some people look at “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and say, “Well, Shakespeare doesn’t know what he’s doing because he has these two people traveling by water between two inland cities, from Verona to Milan.” But it’s actually the critics who don’t know what they’re talking about. In the 16th century, if you’re traveling between those two cities, the easiest way to travel — and the way Edward de Vere likely did it — is by boat across the rivers and canals. In fact, some of the rivers were so strong they had these kind of mock tides that people at the time talked about. Even though they weren’t strictly lunar tides, the water would be up and down at different times of the day. There’s a reference to tides in “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” [Such details are] so pitch perfect and precise that you really have to dig into the history of the region to pick this stuff up.

When you read the plays, it becomes so stunningly apparent that the author has been to Italy, but not just anywhere in Italy. The ports of call on Edward de Vere’s Italian grand tour are essentially Shakespeare’s Italy.

MP: What’s another argument in favor of de Vere?

MA: The plays are just phenomenally autobiographical.

MP: I saw a production of “Hamlet” here in Minnesota recently and was struck again by the details that seem to be taken out of de Vere’s life.

MA: Yes. The place I would start with in “Hamlet” is the character of Polonius, the chief court counselor in Elsinore, the Danish court. The chief court counselor in Queen Elizabeth’s court — and there is nobody else who even comes close to this portrait — is Sir William Cecil, or Lord Burghley. There are some very, very specific references to Cecil, and only Cecil, in the character of Polonius. For example, Cecil wrote little precepts, a little advice book for his sons, that was printed in 1620 or so—in any event, after “Hamlet” was in print — and it is the basis for [Polonius’] “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” speech.

MP: And Cecil had a direct relationship with de Vere.

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MA: He was de Vere’s guardian and later his father-in-law. So de Vere grew up in this guy’s house. His skewering Cecil in this caricature of a ponderous, prolix spymaster — and that would be kind of an extreme version of how one might portray William Cecil — is coming right out of his life experience because he was married to the guy’s daughter. So in “Hamlet” you have the central relationship of Ophelia, Polonius and Hamlet just as you have de Vere’s wife, her father and Edward de Vere. It’s that precise same relationship.

But I would go beyond that. The play is redolent of de Vere’s life. A lot of these plays are roughly based on some old chronicles, legends or other sources. But it’s precisely the way that Shakespeare departs from the sources that are so autobiographical, with Edward De Vere behind the pen.

To pick one example: When De Vere was coming back from Italy he ran across an invading general and nobleman who was at the time preparing to launch an invasion. The [general] actually had the gall to stage a kind of May Day parade before [de Vere’s] eyes. It’s kind of incredible. He then makes his way across the English Channel, but his ship is overtaken by pirates, and he is left naked, stripped to his skivvies, on the shore.

Now, that exact same sequence of events happens in “Hamlet” in a sequence for which there is in no known source text. It’s so precise and specific to de Vere that it’s far beyond coincidence. And the point is, you can’t just say, “Oh, well, Shakespeare/Stratford must have heard about that and put it in the play.” No. You can do this in every one of the non-history plays. The history plays have their own agenda; they’re telling the story of the different English kings. But all of the other plays, the tragedies and comedies, they are all telling these very autobiographical stories that are coming from de Vere’s life in ways that are not dissimilar to the ways that [Eugene O’Neill’s] “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” or [Charles Dickens’] “Great Expectations” are autobiographical. It’s not that they are slavishly copying everything out of the author’s life, but they are using these real-life experiences as the launching point for great art.

MP:  Do you think “Anonymous” is going to change the public’s perception of the authorship question?

MA: Did you see [Shakespearean scholar and professor of English at Columbia University] James Shapiro’s op-ed in the New York Times? It lambasted the movie and the filmmakers and anybody associated with it. So clearly Shapiro thinks it’s going to be having an impact. Why would he bother otherwise?

Here’s what I would say about the movie: Enjoy it like you enjoyed “Amadeus.” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart barely knew Antonio Salieri. The relationship portrayed in the movie “Amadeus” is highly fictionalized. But it captures a lot of dramatic truths about Mozart, as I understand it.

I would just request that people see “Anonymous” in the same way. It’s a very fun, exciting, ripping yarn. An excellent thriller. A great popcorn movie. Yes, there’s a lot of fictional elaboration, a lot of dramatic license, taken in the movie. But at its core, it’s the story of somebody inside the court writing about the lives of kings and dukes and princes and queens. Not of someone who is far removed from that world, but of someone for whom that world is the only world they know.

It’s what the cobblestone streets of Victorian London were for Charles Dickens. Dickens wrote so convincingly and beautifully about his milieu. He made it immortal. That’s why people will be reading Dickens for as long as they are reading books. In the same sense, it is precisely because Shakespeare — that is to say, de Vere — is so specific about the world in which he lived and the people who surrounded him and the situations in his life that his works are so universal. That’s the paradox of great art. Great art is often so self-revelatory because it’s really the only way the artist can get to the universal truth, through the stunningly specific. That’s the case with Shakespeare.

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MP: In your review of “Anonymous,” you note that it opens with a riot that actually happened after a performance of “Richard II,” not “Richard III,” as shown in the film, and that Ben Jonson didn’t take part in it, although he’s shown doing so in the film. Are these the kinds of historical liberties that the critics of the de Vere-as-Shakespeare argument will jump on?

MA: They already have, and they will continue to. To that I would say, there is also a movie called “Shakespeare in Love” that took a lot of liberties. And I say this as someone who enjoyed “Shakespeare in Love.” I thought it was a fun time. I enjoyed its witty depiction of the Shakespearean age. But the problem with “Shakespeare in Love” was that, ultimately, it was just some guy who was a writing machine, a robot with a pen. What “Anonymous” provides — and I think this is what has [“Stratfordians”] like Professor Shapiro so up in arms — is the fact that we have the story, and they don’t.

MP: But it’s not always a pleasant story. De Vere wasn’t that nice a guy. He treated his first wife quite badly, for example. And there were scandals.

MA: Yes. He was a tempestuous and mercurial figure. He was a jerk, to put it plainly. He made life really difficult for a lot of people around him. As his biographer, I don’t intend to apologize for his behavior. But look at Caravaggio or Picasso or Dickens or Hemingway. There are so many great artists whose lives are not exactly the story you’d like to put on the cover of “Boy’s Life” magazine and say, “Here, kids, follow this example.”

MP: One of the things that’s hard for us to understand today is just how dangerous the Elizabethan court was.

MA: John Orloff, the movie’s screenwriter, uses an interesting analogy, one that I would echo. If you want to imagine the world of Elizabethan court, you shouldn’t look to the United States, but more to somewhere like North Korea, a totalitarian state. If you happen to be within the politburo, your  life can be very comfortable, but if you live outside of it, your life can get very dangerous very fast. … It’s not to say it was that extreme [in Elizabethan England] all the time. But the world of North Korea is closer, I think, to the world of Elizabethan England than to that of the U.S. with its First Amendment and its free press.

MP: It was also very difficult for an Elizabethan nobleman to be fooling around in the theater.

MA: I wouldn’t say it never happened, but it was very rare. It was definitely déclassé. It was just not something one did outside of the context of the court. But to me, that’s not the most important reason why [de Vere] covered up [his playwriting]. To me, it was about sex and politics. He was portraying so many people within the politburo, as it were — so many powerful figures in so many unflattering ways, to put it mildly — that at some point they reached a threshold. They said, OK, this guy is brilliant (and all credit goes to Elizabeth for recognizing this) and his works will live for all time, but they just can’t be known to the world as actually portraying Queen Elizabeth and the great Lord Burghley and the Earl of Leicester and Philip Sidney and all these people who the official propaganda had as heroic figures. And I don’t mean to suggest that they weren’t, but with Shakespeare we get a more fully fleshed-out version. But we’re now 400 years after the fact and I think we can safely talk about some of these figures without compromising their political pull at court.

MP: Coming back to “Anonymous.” I take it you’re recommending the movie.

MA: Yes, although keep in mind that just like “Amadeus” and “Shakespeare in Love,” it’s a Hollywood movie. Don’t expect it to present documentary facts. Ultimately, what “Anonymous” does is ask a question: Who is this Edward de Vere guy, and what does he have to do with Shakespeare?

And thereby hangs a tale.