Early rumblings about a movie called “Anonymous” seemed to liken its central premise, that Shakespeare was a fraud, to blasphemy. Plenty of folks refuse to even see the movie, convinced there’s nothing to the authorship question it raises. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, period. Or so we’ve all been taught.
Except those who study and perform the plays attributed to Shakespeare, who’ve long known that there’s some compelling evidence against his authorship — and less than you might imagine for it. I got my first taste of the authorship debate when I attended a Friday night screening of “Anonymous” held as a fundraiser for the Southwest Shakespeare Company, which performs at the Mesa Arts Center.
The movie itself makes for a good romp, a lively bit of storytelling. The characters, all full of a multitude of foibles, are entertaining enough. Sets and costumes are lovely and grand, transporting viewers to the visceral realm of Elizabethan England. Think rain, fire, filth and royal splendor.
Folks who insist their movies be thoroughly fact-checked won’t have much fun with this one, since it takes all sorts of liberties with the truth. When asked whether anything in the film follows the actual historical record, Jared Sakren (producing artistic director for Southwest Shakespeare Company) answered with a brief “Essex was beheaded.”
Most of those gathered for the “Anonymous” screening stayed afterward for a panel discussion including Sakren and three others — Michael Egan, Ph.D. (of the Shakespeare Oxford Society), Kevin Dressler (co-founder of the Southwest Shakespeare Company) and Dawn Rochelle Tucker Hillis (SSC director of education). To my surprise, they offered different takes on the authorship debate.
Egan notes that it’s not enough to simply ask whether Shakespeare wrote the works he’s credited with writing. One must also ask, “If not Shakespeare, then who?” Egan says that more than 50 alternatives have been offered, adding that the most likely by far is the man at the center of “Anonymous” — Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. When asked his own opinion, Egan replies with “I’m an agnostic.”
“For me,” says Kessler, “there are some questions out there.” Tucker Hillis has an entirely different take, feeling the evidence for actual Shakespeare authorship is overwhelming.
Some question whether confirming the real authorship even matters. The words are beautiful, no matter their source. The mind, whatever man it may have belonged to, was brilliant. But Egan offers a terse response: “It’s a matter simply of truth.” Folks eager to explore the arguments on each side should consult materials from both the Shakespeare Oxford Society and the The De Vere Society.
Sakren seems happy enough with the fact that people are raising the question, recognizing the positive impact it’s likely to have on ticket sales for the Southwest Shakespeare Company. Perhaps the folks covering up all those Shakespeare-related signs in England have something similar in mind. “Like everyone else,” says Sakren, “they have a right to their own opinion.”
Note: Click here to learn more about the Southwest Shakespeare Company, and here to read an article titled “Who Really Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays?” from the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s education department.
Coming up: Art meets poetry in “Amexica”