Roland Emmerich, as you may know, is coming out with an interpretation of a screenplay that many in academia say was written by John Orloff (but we’re not sure). It will be called Anonymous. And other things. We have already linked to Roland Emmerich’s promotional video “10 reasons why (Roland Emmerich believes) Shakespeare is a fraud.” Here it is again. Sorry. In previous posts on the subject of Shakespeare denialism, we have answered most of his ten reasons; however, it seems pertinent to go through the arguments point by point.
We should first address the elephant in the room: Shakespeare denialists sometimes claim that Shakespeare scholars have an invested interest in the Official Story. We want to be clear that we receive no monetary benefit from Big Shakespeare: Bob is an Americanist who becomes queasy when he sees the word “color” spelled with a “u;” Eve is a medievalist who considers Shakespeare to be dangerously modern. We do our shilling for free in our spare time.
Emmerich’s ten reasons are punctuated by animation. A memorial statue of Shakespeare is being tended to by a love-struck duck (or possibly a pigeon) in an academic cap and bow tie. After Emmerich makes each specious point, he throws a black quill. The real quill becomes animated and does surprising damage to the monument, causing the increasingly hysterical duck to apply emergency medical assistance. By the end of the video, the duck walks off in high dudgeon, giving the Bronx cheer to a now-animated Emmerich. Emmerich is twirling a quill and looking as smug as he does in real life. He blows on the monument, and it collapses, revealing the poster for Anonymous. This seems to be Emmerich’s opinion of scholars: hysterical ducks in bow ties.
So, let’s look at his devastating arguments against Shakespeare:
1. No manuscript or poem exists in Shakespeare’s own handwriting, not even a letter.
Very few Elizabethan/Jacobean plays exist in authorial manuscripts. As we have mentioned repeatedly, one of the few exceptions is the play-by-committee, Sir Thomas More. Hand D is an authorial hand; it is very possible that that hand is Shakespeare’s.
Emmerich suggests that because Shakespeare lived in London while his wife and children lived in Stratford, he would have produced “a vast amount of correspondence.” Of course, as Emmerich will later point out, Shakespeare’s wife, daughters and parents were all illiterate, and his son died at the age of eleven. The fact that his family members were illiterate doesn’t mean that Shakespeare couldn’t have written letters to them. A literate person could have read the letters to Shakespeare’s wife and family. Similarly, a literate person could have written messages to Shakespeare from his wife. We know, for instance, that actor Edward Alleyn wrote to his illiterate wife. These were included in letters to her father, theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe. But why would we necessarily expect Shakespeare’s letters to survive? Shakespeare’s direct line died out with his granddaughter Elizabeth. His house was sold and eventually demolished.
Emmerich says, “the largest literary hand in history produced not a single handwritten note of William Shakespeare.” Ignoring for the moment the awkwardness of this sentence, the statement is not true, or is, at least, an argument from ignorance. The fact that we haven’t found any letters does not mean that there were no letters. It simply means that we have found no letters.
2. Shakespeare’s daughters Susanna and Judith were illiterate.
Emmerich muses that it seems incredible that Shakespeare wouldn’t want his children to read his works. “Doesn’t work for me,” he says. Whether it works for Emmerich or not is really irrelevant. The illiteracy of Shakespeare’s family has no bearing on the question of Shakespeare’s authorship. Is it disappointing that the creator of some great (literate) female characters didn’t teach his daughters to read? Perhaps, but it was pretty typical. Women of Shakespeare’s class were not routinely given extensive formal education. The school Shakespeare presumably attended would not have been open to his daughters. I assume that a tutor would have been necessary had Shakespeare decided to educate his daughters. I suppose Shakespeare could have afforded a tutor, but he seems not to have employed one–again, this is fairly typical for his class. And again, it has absolutely no bearing on the authorship of the works attributed to Shakespeare.
3. Shakespeare wrote “obsessively” and knowledgeably about the aristocracy.
First of all, not all of Shakespeare’s plays center on royalty and nobility: Merry Wives of Windsor focuses on middle-class characters. The main characters of The Comedy of Errors and The Merchant of Venice are also non-noble. It is true, however, that a majority of Shakespeare’s plays feature royal and aristocratic characters. It is also true that some of his contemporaries (particularly later contemporaries) did focus more on the middle classes in, for instance, city comedies and satires.
So what does this prove? Exactly nothing. Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd also seem to have focused primarily on the upper classes (although Kyd is usually named as the author of the domestic tragedy, Arden of Faversham. According to some scholars, particularly Arthur Kinney, Shakespeare is responsible for portions of this play).
If Emmerich is suggesting that Shakespeare didn’t have sufficient knowledge to write about the aristocracy and court life, then he is wrong. Shakespeare could have gained the knowledge he needed by study, observation and rumor. But privileged knowledge isn’t what Emmerich is primarily concerned about. Instead, he wants to start some kind of Renaissance class war. He contrasts Shakespeare to Ben Jonson whose works “pretty much reflect the perspective of the working man.” I guess Emmerich forgot all those Jonson masques that were written for and performed by members of the royal court. Shakespeare, says Emmerich, “apparently mocks his peers by giving them silly names, like Bottom, Dull, Mistress Overdone. Was Shakespeare a traitor to his own class? No way.”
I agree: Shakespeare was not a class-traitor. The tradition of giving silly and descriptive names to comic characters, usually (though not always) of lower social rank is a very old one. But surely Ben Jonson, Mr. Middle Class, wouldn’t do something like that. Let’s see, what are some of the character names in Bartholomew Fair? Well, there’s Littlewit, Quarlous, Winwife, Grace Wellborn, Adam Overdo and Dame Purecraft. Oh dear. Well, how about The Alchemist? There’s Lovewit, Subtle, Face, Dapper, Drugger, Sir Epicure Mammon (a nobleman), Surly, Dame Pliant and Dol Common. Feel free to peruse the name in Every Man in His Humour and Volpone for yourselves.
4. “Check this one out:” Shakespeare had bad handwriting and couldn’t spell his name.
We’ve been over this one several times, so briefly: 1. secretary hand 2. non-standardized spellings. Here is a signature of Sir Walter Raleigh:
The spelling is “W. Ralegh.” Here he signed his name “W. Rawley.” Illiterate yobbo swine. Also notice the handwriting of the document: it’s quite neat, but very hard to read. It may also be useful to compare the one letter addressed to William Shakespeare (original here; facsimile here): more hard-to-read secretary hand. And just one more–the handwriting of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder.
5. “I believe writing comes from the heart,” and Shakespeare’s writing doesn’t reflect that.
“Call me a romantic, but I believe great artists are inspired by their life” Emmerich says. Well, okay, I can think of other words, but for now I’ll just say, yes, your notions of authorship reflect concepts that arose in the Romantic Era.
Emmerich complains that Shakespeare didn’t write a poem on the death of his son. Jonson wrote about his dead kid, after all. Well, if Ben Jonson jumped off London Bridge….never mind. Of course, it’s possible that Shakespeare did write about his son’s death but that the poem was never published and did not survive. Maybe he decided to keep his personal poems personal. Or maybe he didn’t write about his son at all. We don’t know. And guess what? It has nothing to do with the authorship question.
But, just for the moment, let’s follow Emmerich’s thought-process: the fact that the plays and poems don’t reveal Shakespeare’s innermost feelings proves that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. Okay. So, what about the guy who did write the works? If the works don’t reveal Shakespeare’s inner life, how is it that they do reveal the inner man if that inner man is someone else? I guess the works do reveal the inner life of the “real” author if we just read them the correct way, which, I presume, is cross-eyed and and hanging upside down.
Here endeth Part the First.