Those of us who teach or have taught, whether at school, college or university, are familiar with the manner in which film informs students about literature. Mel Gibson and Glenn Close in Hamlet, Leo and Clare in Romeo and Juliet, even Larry in Henry V – students all too often mistake the film for the playtext. This is inevitable and often quite useful, as it allows entry into the debate about originality, sources and so forth.

Anonymous would be the same. As is being reported everywhere, renowned Shakespeare scholar Roland Emmerich has bought into one of the conspiracy theories which state that Shakespeare was a cipher, and the real, secret author was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. I won’t bore you with explanations of why this is nonsense, and of why the arguments being peddled are intellectually dishonest, specious and demonstrate a whole heap of ignorance about the period, the plays and the nature of authorship, because this has been done better by better minds than mine.

But I was alerted yesterday to a worrying phenomenon – the hollywood-sponsored study pack.

A group called ‘Young Minds Inspired’ of the UsofA have produced, for Sony Pictures, a work book which not only implies that anyone believing in Shakespeare is a fool, but is riddled with advertising. It keeps moving, but the New York Times has a link here.

This is a little like McDonald’s producing literature on nutrition.

‘Uncover the true genius of William Shakespeare’ it has as its strapline. On every fucking page.

There are a number of interesting suggestions here. To whit:

Fears about the power of performance actually came true in 1601, when the Earl of Essex used the Globe Theatre to help incite a public uprising against the Queen’s counselors.

‘Know ye not I am Richard’ – is what Elizabeth is meant to have said, on hearing of this specially commissioned performance. She did so a few months later, however, and the performance, if an incitement to rebellion it was, was something of a failure, as Essex and his men mostly lost their heads over the issue. But, apparently, ‘fears about the power of performance actually came true’ … apart from the coming true bit, then.

Another delightful bit of speciousness is this paragraph:

According to director Roland Emmerich, Anonymous has “all the elements of a Shakespeare play. It’s about Kings, Queens, and Princes. It’s about illegitimate children, it’s about incest, it’s about all of these elements which Shakespeare plays have. And it’s overall a tragedy.”

That’s right, Roland. All of Shakespeare is about this. All Shakespeare is riddled with incest. Well, actually, this is the same nonsense that gets education ministers excited about teaching children Shakespeare’s stories. Sorry, but they ain’t his. Like everyone, he used old stories, messed them up a bit for fun, and made them into plays.

Shakespeare is about language.

Then the worksheet asks this:

After you have seen the film, discuss these questions in class:

•How does the plot of the film compare to a Shakespearean tragedy?

•How does the filmmaker’s use of scenes performed by Elizabethan actors compare to Shakespeare’s use of actors to stage a play within the play?

•How did the film affect your opinion about the theory that de Vere was the true author of the Shakespeare plays?

Oh. My. God.

This is, as a friend of mine recently remarked, the humanist equivalent to evolution-doubters. The same arguments obtain here ‘we haven’t got x, therefore x didn’t exist, I can’t conceive of y without x, therefore god done it’. That is quite delightful reasoning, and no mistake. People who doubt that evolution through natural selection is by far the best explanation we have for life on earth don’t understand how it works.

But let’s start at the beginning. This is the big intro:

Dear Educator,

There’s little debate that William Shakespeare is one of the world’s greatest poets and playwrights. But who is William Shakespeare? The answer to that question is the starting point for Anonymous, Sony Pictures’ exciting new historical thriller directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) and starring Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave, which arrives in theaters on October 28,2011.

Anonymous takes us back to a time when plays and politics were intertwined,and when uncovered secrets reveal how the works we attribute to William Shakespeare may have actually been written by Queen Elizabeth I’s one-time favorite, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

Your students can explore this theory,and gain a fresh perspective on Shakespeare and his times,with this free educational program from Sony Pictures and the curriculum specialists at Young Minds Inspired (YMI). The program includes easy-to-implement activities for English literature, theater,and British history classes. Students will investigate the true identity of William Shakespeare,and discover how power struggles surrounding Queen Elizabeth and the political strife of 16th-century England impacted the players and playwrights of that Golden Age.

Oh. My. God.

‘The answer to that question is the starting point for the film Anonymous’

‘Students will investigate the true identity of William Shakespeare’

That’s right, children, the maker of Independence Day has single-handedly overturned several hundred years of academic orthodoxy (oh, and just because it’s the orthodoxy doesn’t make it automatically right, but it does make it more likely to be right than wrong. Until something serious in the form of evidence comes along. In his case, it hasn’t).

How about this for quite beautifully unbiased writing, designed to allow students to make up their own minds:

Set in the political snake-pit of Elizabethan England, Anonymous(Rated TK) speculates on an issue that has for centuries intrigued academics and brilliant minds ranging from Mark Twain and Charles Dickens to Henry James and Sigmund Freud, namely, was William Shakespeare the author of all the plays for which he is given credit? Experts have debated, books have been written,and scholars have devoted their lives to protecting or debunking theories surrounding the authorship of these most renowned works in English literature. Anonymous poses one possible answer, focusing on a time when cloak-and- dagger political intrigue, illicit romances in the Royal Court, and the schemes of greedy nobles hungry for the power of the throne were exposed in the most unlikely of places—the London stage.

‘scholars have devoted their lives to protecting or debunking theories …’

This is quite subtly unsubtle. The question really hasn’t engaged anything but a core cohort of romantic fantasists who wish Shakespeare had been more bloody interesting, or romantic. Sorry. Genius can be dull, too.

Check out this bit:



Young Minds Inspired—

Declaration of Reasonable Doubt—

For a complete list of references, go to,

Well, now there’s authority for you.

Well, I could take this piece of ‘educational literature’ apart piece by piece. It’s not hard, but I’m more worried about the rhetoric. For impressionable young minds, I’m afraid that this will be persuasive. Why? Because it’s specious. It looks good, but (insert the obvious Shakespeare quotation here). The worksheet admits some of what we know, followed by this:


Skeptics accept all these facts, but they find it impossible to believe that a mere grammar school graduate could have written the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare. Wouldn’t it make more sense, they ask, to suppose that William Shakespeare was only the stand-in for a better educated author?

Well, no, actually, it doesn’t. Fuck it. Look. Jonson was the son of a brickmaker. Bacon’s grandfather was a sheepreeve (look it up). This is pitiful snobbery. It doesn’t ‘make more sense’. Oh, and while we’re going down this route, it ‘made more sense’ that the earth was stationary. Hardly anyone believed that the earth went round the sun in the late sixteenth, early seventeenth centuries.

Without getting too snobbish, the rigours of academic proof revolve around evidence, not around ‘common sense’ – common sense is what the Daily Mail peddles – and the evidence overwhelmingly points to Shakespeare, not to De Vere, Bacon, Marlowe (and speaking of Marlowe – where is the proof that he existed? Letters? Examples of handwriting? MS copies of his plays? ‘Common sense’ dictates that he therefore didn’t exist, right?). What we do in academia is make observations, and come up with theories based on those observations. This is all backwards. This is coming up with a theory and trying to find stuff that fits.


Now. The real scandal is not that people believe this shit, nor even that they teach it (after all, Intelligent Design?), but that this misleading advertisement, which is happy to fuck up the intellectual development of students for the sake of bums on seats is trumpeted at the last because it ‘Meets Common Core and National Standards.’

Be afraid. Be very afraid. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

An upstart crow

Once upon a time, I was at a party. I began talking with a young lady, and the conversation turned to Shakespeare. ‘Oh’, she said. ‘Francis Bacon wrote that.’

The conversation continued thus:

Me – I don’t think he did.

Her – He did.

Me – I know a bit about Shakespeare, and I don’t think he did.

Her – No, he did.

Me – Hmm. I teach Shakespeare at university, and I’m pretty sure it was Shakespeare.

Her – No. You’re wrong. It was Bacon.

Me – Hmm. I know a little bit about Bacon, and I don’t reckon he wrote Shakespeare.

Her – He did.

Me – Ok. I know a lot about Bacon, and I’m sure he didn’t write Shakespeare.

Her – He did.

Me – Right then. I have a phd on Bacon, and I can categorically state there is no evidence whatsoever that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. For one thing, he wouldn’t have had time.

Her – You’re wrong.

Me – So … er, what do you do for a living?

Her – I’m a waitress.

Me – Well, it’s been lovely.

Now, I don’t mean to insult waitresses anywhere, but this is the single-minded idiocy that emanates from the so-called anti-stratfordians.

The release of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous has started this all over again. Now let’s get this straight. Shakespeare was not written by the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon, and Marlowe did not fake his death and then write under the pseudonym Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

I contributed a couple of things to the Guardian post on this today ( The first was this:

The problem here is simple, really. We suffer from a post-Romantic notion equating artistic genius with the tortured artist pose. Shakespeare seems to have died fat and happy. Which utterly denies the way we want to view artists.

That the greatest writer the world has produced wasn’t a Kit Marlowe (Spy, ‘homosexual’, ‘atheist’ etc), or a Ben Jonson (cantankerous git), or even a Francis Bacon (polymath, serial underachiever, genius, practically written out of the history he began) simply will not do.

Shakespeare was too great to have been a normal bloke.

Except that he quite plainly was. Get over it, people – the author of all those great plays was … William Shakespeare.

Are we done now?

It’s all getting rather dull, this. The argument turned to Shakespeare’s ‘illiteracy’ (yes, the ‘upstart crow’ was illiterate).

This was my reply to one commentator’s asserting of the following:

My evidence that Shaxspere was illiterate :

1) His letters – there aren’t any. Can you defenders of the status quo tell us why?

2) His library – he didn’t have one.

The quill on his monument – where he was inexplicably writing on a woolsack – was added later.

This is high-level intellectual stuff, as I’m sure you can see. I got a little sarky at this point:

Wow! I’m utterly convinced suddenly.

A lacuna proves nothing – even King Lear worked that out

No letters … hmm, let me have a think. Ok. No-one kept them. They all burnt with the Globe in 1614 or whenever it was. They were eaten by rats. They perished in the Great Fire. The paper was recycled – or ‘put to posterior usage’, as one wag had it.

HIs library – how do you know he didn’t have one? Have you evidence of people writing to each other saying ‘cor, that Will, he doesn’t have any books, you know …’?

Sorry, but this is non-evidence of the highest calibre.

One anti-stratfordian told me that the Merchant of Venice contained specific legal stuff Shakespeare could never have known. But Shakespeare knew Ben Jonson, who knew Francis Bacon, who was Lord chancellor and knew a bit about the law. But not Venetian law! he crowed … well, yes, but if you think that Bacon only knew English law, and knew nothing of any other country, you’d be a bit daft – he had clients all over the place, Henry Wotton in Vienna, for example.

Just get over it. So far as we know, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. With a little help from his friends, yes … but nothing wrong with that.

Jeepers. Can we all get on with something sensible now, please?

Thanks …

The fact is that some people are desperate to believe that Shakespeare wasn’t just an actor manager who wrote the plays because he did it best. It was Jonson who started this ‘I’m an author’ nonsense …

Now, I once taught a class full of anti-Stratfordians, and jeepers were they a pain. Clever. Very clever. Well-informed. Totally single-minded.

I was teaching palaeography, or reading old handwriting. As the final test I gave them a really tough letter from 1611. After a few minutes I went to see how they were doing.

‘Stuck on the first word.’

‘I’ll get you started, then …

[blank] whereunto J referr you, sence [blank] J have [blank] of the

12 August, the which was most welcome unto me; and by the contents

thereof do rest fully satisfyed of all former doughts, wherewith

J was (before the receipt therof) much intangled, for [blank] …

They looked at me askance. But what about that word?

Can’t read it – we’ll work it out later …

but, what about that word …

And I realised the problem. They spot one tiny thing, and that’s it. The pivot point around which everything revolves.

Sorry, but like life, literature and bibliography simply don’t work like that.

The one thing may look momentous, but is the result of tons of other stuff – at least, if it’s truly significant it is.

Bacon wrote that the human mind is predisposed to find order where there isn’t any. He was a clever bloke. And a great writer. But he didn’t write Shakespeare.

The rest is silence. Isn’t it?